News of police stops of African Americans in their cars brought memories of incidents my father had experienced during the mid-1930s through the early 1960s. His band played a lot of gigs in Philadelphia. Every Saturday around 5 o’clock he would gather his sheet music and the case holding his saxophone, and drive into Philadelphia where they performed at different clubs. Coming home to Doylestown, at 3 or 4 in the morning, he would be pulled over on 611 just south of home. Always by the same cop.
And always with the same interrogation: The cop asked for his driver’s license and registration. Then he’d ask where was he coming from and where was he going. He responded politely with the same answers. After I and my five brothers and sisters reached our teens, my father would caution us about behaving properly out in public: “Be respectful and never draw attention to yourself”. We failed to understand why he told us to “behave”. We always behaved.
Years later when an adult, Daddy had shared with me the police interrogations. I tried to imagine what else, as a Black man driving those country roads and city streets at night had he been subjected to? No wonder he gave us “the talk”; he was probably terrified that something like that would happen to us.
We were raised in Doylestown which in the mid1950s was a sleepy community of just over 5,000 people. It was a time when my family was called “colored”. The term “Black” was still years away, as was the ethnic term “African American”. There were only eight “colored” families in the Borough. We jokingly described ourselves as Raisins in a Sea of Rice.
As siblings of color when we stepped out the door, we walked into a milieu where our lives interacted with a majority of white friends.
I’ve often wondered how my family’s life would have been different if we had grown up in either Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas or Virginia or elsewhere. But we grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where only on rare occasions the ugliness of racism reared its head. There’s only one time I can remember being called a “N****r”. As a 10-year old tomboy I picked a fight with a boy after he called me the “N Word”. I won the battle of our fisticuffs under the merry-go-round, surrounded by shouts of kids taking sides for me or him. I was banned from the playground for a week.
Since George Floyd’s murder the loudest voice for change is recognizing education’s failure to include 400 years of African American history and culture in our public schools.
The illustrations on my 1st Grade reading primer featured Dick and Jane, Spot the dog, Mother and Father, the mailman, the police officer and the fireman. I never gave much thought that this 1949 primer showed white faces on every page. Now the current introductory readers have progressed to reflect the faces of America’s diversity.
In my 5th Grade McGraw-Hill Geography text, the awareness of my skin color was reflected back at me from a page devoted to the African continent. The hand-drawn illustration remains embedded in my mind: An African child crouched in a hole with arms hugging his knees. Only the crown of his head is exposed. The African plain of tall grass in the distance is on fire and rages toward the boy in the hole.
The brief narrative accompanying the image explained that as the fire burned through the grass and reached the dugout protecting the boy, it singed his hair. The caption explained how Africans’ hair became “curly” as a result of the fire that raged across the African plain. My two sisters—one older and the other a year behind me, also remember that image.
During 1965 through 1975 I lived in California. Even at that time there was a diverse racial population. Often, I was asked, “What are you? Mexican? Philippine? Hawaiian? Native American? Who are you?”
This was the period of the Anti-War protests, Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement.
Not until 1999 after a journey to Ghana, a country on the West Coast of Africa, did I discover “Who” I was. When my feet touched this African country for the first time, the air embraced me with an aroma heavy with the psychic energies of Black and Brown civilizations. Three more times I would travel to Africa and each time the Motherland welcomed me with its pungent odor.
The frightened African boy hiding in a hole? Gone and replaced with my anxiety as I stepped carefully along a stone passage into the underbelly of a massive fortress built in 1653 by Swedish traders. Cape Coast Castle logged timber and mined gold before the lucrative trade of Africans, already a success in other fortresses constructed during the late 1500s.
Captured Africans were kept in a dungeon with stone walls that rose nearly 30 feet, with sunlight slipping in through one small window near the ceiling. The floor measured approximately half a basketball court. Standing near a wall, I listened as the guide described how hundreds of male Africans were crowded into this space before herded through a passageway onto the beach, then loaded on to a ship, bound for the New World.
I moved closer to the wall and ran the palm of my hand across the smooth blocks, wondering if the African DNA in me could’ve struggled for survival while cramped in this suffocating prison. I inched my fingers between two blocks and scraped granules of detritus into my hand, wrapped them in a tissue and brought them to America. They are more than what my ancestors carried when stolen from the Motherland.
It’s been 400 years since slave traders hauled human beings out of Africa. We survived the captors, the Middle Passage, bondage and the struggle for Freedom. Now is the time to sit across from one another and solve our differences.
There is a Ghanaian word spoken in the Twi dialect: Sankofa. It means “Go Back and Get It”. The hen reaches back for the egg symbolizing that before knowing Who you are, you must first learn Where you came from.
Black Lives Matter