My early childhood was spent on the segregated west side of Chicago—Jackson and Leavitt before gentrification. It is the near west side now because of its integrated population unburdened by its former ghetto association with the blighted areas of the real west side. It was a magical time in my life. Unencumbered by race because I interacted primarily with other Black people, I didn’t know racial prejudice. The only other race of people I came in contact with were White. They were the teachers and administrators at my school, and the old couple who lived next door, but their Whiteness was overshadowed by their age. I was more concerned with the fact that they seemed really old than I was that they were a different race.
I come from a proud family. And my mother was definitely a no-nonsense woman who commanded respect. We were taught to be respectful, but not to kow-tow to anyone. I was a sensitive child (which sometimes carries over into my adult life), so it was important for people to like me. I have painfully learned the hard way that it’s fine to be liked, but it’s better to be respected. I live the by the saying: You teach people how to treat you.
The summer I was nine and my niece Rhonda was seven, my oldest sister, Julia (Rhonda’s mother) wanted to broaden our horizon by enrolling us in a summer day camp program. Opposed to the idea from the beginning, I was content to run up and down the street playing Tag, It, Rock Teacher, Hide- and-Go Seek and other childhood games with my friends on the block. My sister had paid for us to go, so off we were shipped to Day Camp.
It was a life-changing experience that brought me face-to-face with the ugliness of racial prejudice. The first blow was that Rhonda and I were separated for most of the day because we were in two different age groups. Our groups were also gender-based. Did I mention that we were the only two specks of pepper in a sea of salt? Later in the summer two other Black kids—a brother and sister joined the camp. At least Rhonda had a Black counselor; her name was Phyllis. Me? I was doing the best I could to keep from drowning in cultural supremacy.
My counselor was a wimpy, White woman named Terry. The girls in my group were such mean brats that they made Terry cry every day. When she stopped crying long enough to lead us in some activities, it was disastrous for me. If it was Duck, Duck Goose, I waited patiently as the girls went around touching everyone’s head, duck, duck, duck. . . goose. I was never tapped. When it was Red Rover, I never heard, Red Rover, Red Rover send Stephanie on over. I managed to get through the mornings because I knew that after lunch all of the groups came together and I could escape the Mean Girls and find my way back to my niece and a sense of knowing.
I liked to braid hair, and Terry liked her hair braided. So, sometimes she’d let me braid her hair. The other girls liked to play in her hair because it was really long, but I was the only one who knew how to braid hair. I eventually adjusted to life at camp, and I actually thought things were getting better, but I was wrong. The Mean Girls had simply taken a couple of days off. One day, one of the girls in my group had some Skittles. I liked Starbursts; I had never seen Skittles and I wanted to taste the rainbow. “You want some?” she offered. But before she gave me the candy, she smashed it up first. She handed it to me, and I took it, tasted it and felt like someone punched me in my stomach. I chewed on the bitterness of the rainbow of racial prejudice.
It was a long time before I ate Skittles again, and a long time before I forgave myself. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t throw that candy back in her face or simply decline. That people-pleasing little girl is gone. She’s been replaced by a woman who loves rainbows because she knows that a rainbow is not a rainbow without its variety of hues. It is the colors of the rainbow that makes it beautiful. And the bitterness of the rainbow that I tasted as a child has shown me that life is so much sweeter now that I know my worth.