• Jamease Kowalczyk

As Seen by Others

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

(Editor's note: This is the second piece in a series by my dear childhood friend, Jamease. I am honored that she has chosen this forum to share her perspective.)

Since kindergarten there were signs that Black is more than a color to most people. It means something. It means something to others and it means something to me. Oftentimes, those meanings are different. I spent much of my youth trying to figure out exactly why those meanings are different. It was a confusing puzzle to resolve, in part, because being Black doesn’t always mean the same thing even to White people, the community in which I grew up. High school was the first time I realized this strange assortment.

I attended a high school that proudly wore the rebel title as its mascot and waved the rebel flag at almost every school event. The cheerleaders even wore rebel flags across their rear-ends as part of their uniforms. I rarely, if ever, attended pep rallies, unless they were mandatory. I rarely, if ever, sang the alma mater (because of the line “…we’re proud of everything you stand for…”) even though I knew all of the words by heart. I declined to purchase a class ring or a letter jacket because I couldn’t see spending money on things associated with a high school name that angered me even to speak it and of which I was ashamed to be associated. As a newly-minted teenager and a Freshman in high school, I wasn’t so jaded, though. So, I decided to join the track team.

As a member of the track team, I was a fast sprinter, exactly what most would expect from a Black athlete. But for me, joining the team was more about fitting in and getting out from behind the shadow of an older brother who was a known and talented football player and a lesser-known honor-roll student. I felt that by competing with the track team I’d become part of a revered group of students at my school and could finally feel like I belong. That year became one of the most impactful in my life and not just because I joined the track team but also because it is where I met deaf students for the first time. As far as I knew, there were no deaf students who attended any of my schools from elementary through high school. I discovered that most attended Tennessee School for the Deaf, in a neighboring city, and our schools competed with each other in sports like, Track and Field. At a track meet, I connected with a deaf student who was Black—Natalie. In my want to connect with another Black student and in the few times that we were able to meet, I tried to learn and understand sign language, and also learned that staring at a signed conversation is much like eavesdropping in the listening world and is quite rude. I didn’t always bridge the communication differences well, but hoped my small efforts would be appreciated. They were. In just a few interactions, I came to understand that people can be different in many ways. For me, Natalie and her friends, who so readily embraced their otherness (being Black and/or being deaf) and seemed at ease with each other, were a refreshing and uplifting change from my life of feeling like a square peg forcing itself into a round hole. Natalie and her friends gave me a newfound comfort and the strength to simply recognize that I didn’t even like running and didn’t need to run track to feel accepted. In fact, the sport I really loved was swimming. I’d been a competition swimmer since I was eight years old. I could be on the high school swim team without the need to add track to the mix just because I thought it would be an easy way to fit in. As an anxious teenager concerned about “fitting in”, meeting Natalie—who appeared to be an open, inviting, self-affirming, Black, deaf student—gave me the strength to look inside myself and make a course-altering decision to finish out the year and to never run track again.

Women running on a track

When the track coach congratulated me on a good year and said “See ya next year,” I let him know of my decision not to run track my sophomore year, or ever again. In response, this grown White man who towered over me (because I didn’t reach my full height of five feet four inches tall until I was an adult), stared me down and asked me if I was a quitter. As I struggled to explain that I wasn’t a quitter because I completed the year, he proceeded to tell me that I would never be anything without a sport. I was jolted. I felt small and I felt angry. All I could think was that there was a reason why this man was nicknamed “meathead.” To him, the only successful Black people were athletes. As a high school coach, this was his view of Black success. As a freshman in high school, I started the process of choosing not to be the Black person that others wanted me to be. To this day my motto in life is: I only run when chased.

During my senior year of high school, I decided to take a Family Living class. We didn’t go so far as to carry an egg around school and pretend it was a baby, but we were paired-up and mock-married to a classmate. I was absent the day the pairings were made. However, the next day when I returned to class, I was informed by the teacher, Mrs. Wilson, that perhaps I could cook for the class along with the girls who chose not to be married for the exercise. When I asked if I had a choice, the teacher made it clear that there was no one for me to marry…meaning that there was no other Black kid in the classroom. Needless to say, a small sh**storm ensued. She ended up poking her finger into my shoulder several times and I warned her not to touch me all the while holding back my anger until I couldn’t take her being in my face any longer. All eyes were on me as I ended our conversation by telling her off in two not-so-kind words. I then stormed out of the classroom and briskly walked myself to the vice-principal’s office (the school disciplinarian) in a huff. I was greeted by his long Southern drawl with, “What’re you doin’ here?” He wasn’t mean about it. He was genuinely curious because I was not one to be in trouble. Still enraged, I hurriedly told him what happened. I don’t even remember breathing as the words poured out, almost without pause. To his credit, he immediately realized the depth of the issue. The entire incident ended up in a meeting with the Superintendent of Schools. For the first time in my life, I internalized the connection between how I was treated and how it was really the White adults around us who were pushing these terrible views on kids. The children were trying to mind (as we say in the South) and please their parents and role models…as most children do.

This incident happened 22 years after the Loving v. Virginia decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that laws banning interracial marriage violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For Mrs. Wilson, and most of the adults who were like her, Black and White people didn’t inter-marry. I’m sure she thought she was being practical and realistic by making this clear to our class. However, by my senior year of high school, already I had friends who were considered mixed-race (Asian and White) and I knew her viewpoint was outdated.

Again during my senior year of high school--it was a tough year!—I was elected by my peers to be the President of our local Junior Civitan club. It didn’t dawn on me that as a Black student my being President of a civic organization could be controversial, but apparently it was. For Halloween, our chapter was invited to attend a Halloween party hosted by a sister chapter in middle Tennessee (about an hour away). So, with our chaperones driving, we loaded ourselves into a cargo van and attended the party. Shortly after we arrived and entered the hall where the party was thrown, I noticed a person in white garb. Then there were two more. Altogether, there were three boys who decided that they would dress up as members of the KKK. Apparently, they knew that I, the president of their sister organization, was Black. Again, I felt angry. I was so sick of this crap, already! How many times will my Blackness be under assault? I insisted on leaving, but our chaperones felt that leaving would be rude. I was the only Black person in the room and, again, all eyes were on me. I left the party, went to the van and cried. One boy I barely knew—Tony—came out to join me in the van. He stayed with me to comfort and talk with me until the party was over. Later, I learned that another boy—Vince, the son of a Methodist minister—beat up at least one of the “KKK boys” in the bathroom. For those “KKK boys,” Black people must know their place and that place is as their subject. We should not have the audacity to aspire to be leaders and that was a lesson they wanted to make clear to me and all who attended the party. This was the first time I felt that my Blackness was feared and feared so much so that others felt a need to intimidate me because of it. I’d read about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), but this was my first encounter. I later learned that the party took place in a county with known KKK activity. Of course, I wasn’t aware of that at the time. Now, I drive through the area once a year but never stop. I have no desire to return.

These memories are stained on my consciousness and have shaped who I am today. Now, when I encounter others who, intentionally or unintentionally, create impediments to the success of minorities, I recognize that it comes from a place of fear, feelings of White superiority, or both. I understand the many ways in which I am viewed and in which adults play a key role effecting change. Today, I choose to be Black in my own way. I prefer to embrace my otherness and welcome connections with others who might feel the same way. I especially do my best to uplift any child around me and hope that more adults will recognize the profound impacts they could make on any child in their presence.

396 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All