Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Change we can believe in

I went to school in the ghetto. I'm not exaggerating. My elementary school was surrounded by shotgun shacks and my middle school sat in the middle of public housing. I saw very few white faces in my classrooms and all of my closest friends were black.

At home, across town, it was like a photo negative. We had no black families in our neighborhood and neighbors with no interest in changing that.

I grew up in Baton Rouge, and I was bused across town because of desegregation laws, which is how I ended up in the ghetto every day. Rather than attending the school just down the street, I was sent on a forty-five minute bus ride one way to a school that needed it's chocolate mixed with a little cream. It was a fantastic experience. I hung out with my girls Shemika, Yolanda, Neddra, LaTina, Andrella and Donyelle at recess. I learned the newest dances and discovered Kool and the Gang and New Edition. I was blessed that my parents looked at it as a culturally enriching experience. Not all of my family did.

Unfortunately, I've got some not-so-closeted bigots in my family tree. I heard all manner of racist jokes and epithets while growing up. I was blessed with parents who were careful never to perpetrate that kind of garbage in our home, and we were free to enjoy colorful friendships and school experiences.

That didn't make me blind to the fact that outside of the chain link fence around our school, things were not the same for my friends and I. I could see and know for myself that being white made me different and gave me advantages that they didn't have and I felt, even at an early age, that white guilt some of us have. Even more, I felt an overwhelming sense of injustice at our different treatment.

My high school, by law, was required to maintain no more than a 60% white majority, and the remaining forty percent was fleshed out by Asians, Indians, and blacks. I knew almost no Latinos. In fact, I can name only one from my acquaintance. Our public high school, an academic magnet, attracted the best and the brightest minds in our district and we worked in a wonderful melting pot of high achievement and cultural diversity. But again, when we left the grounds of the school, most of my black friends returned to the poverty-stricken rundown neighborhood that surrounded the campus and the rest of us took buses back to our tree-lined suburban streets.

I kept my son home from school this morning to watch the inauguration of a man who proves that even when the scars of segragation are fresh just in my short lifetime, that we are a nation of people who can change. Yes, we can. We can deliver on the promise of hope to the generation my sons represent, and we can work toward a time when neither race nor money defines us. We aren't there yet, but we are so much closer than we were yesterday.

I have tried to walk my talk. I took a teaching post at a middle school challenged by the integration of Hispanic students into a previously "white" campus so I could be one of the teachers that wanted "them" there, instead of demanding transfers off-campus. I chose to enroll my son in the track at school that had the highest proportion of English language learners so he could enjoy the exposure to the rich language and cultural differences, and embrace them.

I hope, as Rick Warren prayed, that President Obama has the wisdom to govern in humility and the courage to govern with integrity. I hope the we regain our credibility with the international community and set the standard for liberty and civility.

But mainly I hope that my children will judge others only on the content of their character and never the color of their skin and never dream that there was a time when it was different.

16 comments:

CaJoh said...

Very well put. So glad you can walk the walk and talk the talk. Those HS days show nicely on you.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Beautiful, Melanie! My kids go to a school that is 99% white. My whole town is nearly 100%. I worried a little, but thankfully our ward is probably 25-30% black and I hope that exposure will make up for the lack of it at school.

Before I sent my kids off to school today, I said a prayer with them for Obama and told them how special today was.

The Crash Test Dummy said...

One of my favorite movies is Freedom Writers. I just an image of you as a Freedom Writer.

You go, girlfriend!

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

As a southern girl myself, I feel what you are saying. Well said and well thought. I'd go on and on about it, but I think I'm really just composing a post in my head, so I'll deal with that later. Thanks.

Stephanie and Co. said...

Wow, thanks for that post. I too, have hope for Obama, but I couldn't put it so well.

Kristina P. said...

Great post, Melanie. Regardless of your politics, it is a moving day.

LisAway said...

This is really interesting and inspiring. We had FHE tonight instead of last night so we could include the inauguration in it. First we talked about Martin Luther King and his "I have a dream" speech. Greg mentioned that at that point it really was just a dream and many people who listened couldn't even DREAM of it then.

This made me love your closing line even more ". . .and never dream that there was a time when it was different." Love that. It's my hope, too.

Chris said...

This was a beautiful post, Melanie! It really says it all.

One of my biggest goals is to raise my kids to not see color. I think it is working. It was Christmas last year before we even realized my daughter's teacher was black. We just thought she was awesome since Sarah did. That's just how it should be.

Off the subject, but I posted about Tim Tams on my blog again... and THANK YOU AGAIN! :) My kids are practically COLLAPSING in AMAZEMENT!!! :)

Luisa Perkins said...

It is a glorious, glorious day! Thanks for sharing your reminiscences.

Annette Lyon said...

What an amazing experience you had as a kid--priceless.

I know the country isn't perfect regarding race relations (not by a long shot) but I'm still amazed and heartened by how far it's come in one generation.

Mina said...

In the right circumstances, one CAN grow up color-blind. My #2 was in the first grade and shocked to learn that her uncle and therefore 3 of her cousins were black. Skin was no different than hair or eye color to her. We have since acquired an uncle from Guatamala and so a hispanic cousin, and another hispanic cousin that was adopted by the black/white uncle and aunt. (These are my husbands sisters, I'm writing from my kids' viewpoint.) I think when it's your family it changes everything. Because there is no difference. We love them all, and they all love us.

I wish everyone could have mixed family, because it would break those barriers down even faster, and more genuinely.

Sandi said...

This was a great post for such an important day!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Lovely post!
My son (a third grader) came home from school today to tell me that they'd gotten to watch the entire inauguration ceremony. I was impressed.

Alison Wonderland said...

I don't always love my neighborhood, I don't always love my neighbors but I do love that my kids, with their blond hair and blue eyes are super easy to pick out among their classmates. I love that their best friends at school are named Angel and Kasem. I really love that.

Debbie said...

Wonderful post. I bet your experiences as a child were fantastic. And I loved the fact that my kids were out of school yesterday and we could watch the inauguration.

Kimberly said...

I don't know what to say otehr than amen!