More than a Color
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
Editor's note: As I was thinking about what I would write in response to the Chauvin guilty verdict, I kept coming back to this thought playing in my head: “This is not your time. Lift up Black voices.” So, I’m putting down my pen and giving you a gift – the perspective of my dear friend, Jamease. This is the first post in a series of three.
I remember the first time I knew I was Black, and it meant something other than a color. I was in the fourth grade, and life was coming to a head. But it all began in kindergarten.
For me, kindergarten was all about recess. Recess was magical, and the playground was where it was at! In my time, the playground consisted mostly of the monkey bars where I could hang upside down to gain a new perspective of the world, the swing sets where I could push myself to swing high towards the sky and then take the daring leap to jump out when I had swung up to the highest point, the tree area where the teacher would sit quietly to watch us…and call the “bad kids” to join her in time out, the large grassy area which was both flat and home to the hill that led up to the best place of them all—the water tower.
The water tower is where I had the first glimpse at the fact that I was different from my classmates. A small group of us used to gather at the water tower during recess and took turns laying at its base sideways and then rolling ourselves down the hill to the bottom of the grassy area. We would do this by ourselves or in groups. One day Karl took turns rolling down the hill with different girls in the class. He was mostly interested in one girl, Sally. So, when it was my turn to roll down the hill with Karl, he would ask if he could roll with Sally instead. Actually, I didn’t care because Sally was my best friend, but I noticed the pattern: every other girl got a chance, but my turn was always given to Sally. After a few missed rounds, I went to the tree, instead, and watched a caterpillar develop into a butterfly. I figured Karl didn’t like me. It happens. When the caterpillar broke out of its cocoon and a butterfly emerged, I was fascinated. Who wants to roll down a stupid hill with a boy anyway? Not me.
Then there was the third grade and my favorite teacher—Mrs. Ryder. She was excited and always seemed happy. She was loving and funny. Actually, Mrs. Ryder was most every kids’ favorite teacher. I was no different. One day Mrs. Ryder took me into the hallway and began to explain to me that we were going to read a story in class. I thought I was in trouble. Who else gets called into the hallway, alone, by a teacher? I was so nervous that I couldn’t really understand what it was that she was explaining to me. All I remember is that she asked me if it would be ok. Well, if it was my approval that she wanted then, of course, I would give it to her. After all, she was my favorite teacher. So, I said, yes. She looked happy. Then, I felt relieved. We returned to the classroom, and I took my seat. She took her seat and began the story. After a few paragraphs, I started to feel the stares…and the heat rising in my face. The story was about a little girl…a little, Black girl. While I don’t remember the details of the story, I do remember feeling like I was somehow the center of attention…and I didn’t like it. I felt embarrassed. For the first time in my life, I represented all little Black girls. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good because it made me the center of attention, and I didn’t like that. For the first time I realized that being Black makes me stand out and apart from others. I wanted to blend in.
Next came the fourth grade. In the fourth grade I was on top of the world. I had my best friends Sally, from kindergarten, and Nina. We didn’t have all of our classes together, but we always managed to find each other on the playground. We were the Three Musketeers and nearly inseparable during recess. I don’t know why but we just clicked. It was like I’d found the sisters I never had. I was tired of my brother and being the youngest. When I was with them, I felt free to be me—playful, equal, a part of a group. Yes, fourth grade was the turning point. I could tell that Sally and Nina felt the same way. One day Nina told Sally and I that she wanted us to spend the night at her house Friday night. We could go home with her after school. Sally and I were so excited about the idea and because we were neighbors, we talked about it on the walk home from school. The next day, Nina said that she talked with her mom and her mom seemed happy that Nina wanted to bring friends home and wanted to meet us. How fun? We would meet Nina’s mom, and then on Friday we would go home to Nina’s house and spend the night. It would be our first foray into meeting up outside of school. We would be taking our friendship to a new level. We were excited about it.
At the end of the day, Sally and I walked Nina to her mom’s car so that we could meet her. Her mom seemed nice and after Nina got in the car and they drove off, Sally and I screamed in excitement. Again, the walk home was filled with giggles and anticipation. The next day on the playground, we started making plans for what we would do on Friday, but Nina was more quiet than usual. When Nina spoke up, she told us that her mom said that only Sally could come over on Friday. Only Sally…not me. I don’t remember asking her why I couldn’t come, but either Sally or I must have asked because the answer came out so matter-of-factly…it was because I’m Black. Bloop! I’m Black and she didn’t want me in her house. Done. No discussion.
Nina also needed to stop playing with me. Of course, she said that she wouldn’t stop, but the elephant in the room was introduced. I don’t think any of us knew what my being Black really meant, but it was clearly a bad thing to Nina’s mom. And just like that, the fracture began. Nina and Sally became best friends…and I became the third, unwanted wheel. Of course, they took some pity on me and continued to play with and talk to me for the rest of the year, but it was never the same, and their bond grew stronger while I slowly felt the bonds breaking. In the end though, Sally and I remained friends, after all we’d been neighbors. But Nina, well…I would see her only at Sally’s birthday parties. Our friendship was broken, and our relationship was forever changed because for the first time we were forced to realize that I was Black, and that Black was more than a color.