I grew up in a low-income, single-parent family on the far south-side of Chicago. My sister and her family also lived with us. They needed a place to stay while they looked for a more affordable house. One thing my family doesn't do is turn our backs on each other. Sociologists who claim to be experts on non-white families have their own words for this type of situation. They derogatorily label this as a poverty-stricken, Black matriarchal extended family who lives in the ghetto. Yet all in all, we were happy because we helped each other. We were not the type of family who wondered what the next meal would be. We always knew we would have food on the table, but the type of food was a different story.
Plain and simple, our goal was to survive. Survival to us was to get a job and hopefully wake up the next morning. I didn't think about college. Why should I? I didn't even like high school. But, somehow, somewhere an idea was instilled in me. "To be 'somebody,' I must go to college; if I didn't go, I would be a nobody." Because I believed this, I became more distant from my family and friends. I felt ashamed of my family because no one went to college right out of high school except for me. I felt my friends were not worthy of my time because I was in college and they were not. My biggest mistake in life was when I tried to leave my past behind me. It took me nineteen long, painful years to believe and learn never to be ashamed of who I am or where I came from.
Since I lived in an area where there were only Blacks, I wanted to get away from them. I didn't want to witness another murder in front of my house. I couldn't tolerate another ten-to-twenty year old drug seller stopping me and asking, "Hey baby, wanna buy this 'caine." I could no longer look at pregnant teenagers with their kids walking around, looking for the mailman to get their welfare checks. I got tired of staying up past 2:00 a.m. waiting for the house parties to end. The polluted, chemical-like air was getting to me. I even got tired of my next door neighbor wanting to borrow sugar. She actually told me, "I borrow it because it cost too much to buy." This is why I came to St. Cloud, to get away from that environment and to be around the people who were achievers like myself.
Ahh! I was in a white, religious, middle-class area with people who understand the true meaning of education and who were going to get "true" success. These were my role models, people who lived in a nice, clean place. However, I soon found out they didn't feel as highly about me as I felt about them.
The second day I was in St. Cloud, a white man stared at me in disgust and very abruptly dug his finger in his nose. At first I looked him straight in his eyes; then feeling intimidated, I lowered my head and kept walking. I did the complete opposite of what my grandmother told me. She said, "Always walk up straight, and hold your head up high because you are a beautiful Black woman." That same week, I couldn't believe what I heard. Two older white men walked past me and one of them said, "Those fucking niggers shouldn't be here." As much as that hurt me, I smiled at both of them and kept walking.
My friends at St. Cloud State criticized the way I talked. They said, "you talk like a Southerner." However, my friends in Chicago said, "You sound white." I also couldn't understand why most of my instructors used me as an example. One instructor said, "BernaDette doesn't feel happy her ancestors were enslaved." And, another instructor would stare at me during his lecture as if I were stupid. He waited for me to nod my head to signal that I understood what he was saying. By that time, I felt out of place. I felt like a failure because no matter what I did, I didn't have what it took to be accepted. I didn't have white skin. But, what kept me in the race was my mind. I was smart and intelligent, and as my mother used to say, "Nobody can take away what you already know."
At St. Cloud, I used my mind to my advantage. I kept my grades up. I talked to people as if I was sure of myself. I tried to be extra nice so people would like me. But during all that "role-playing," I still wasn't happy because I couldn't be myself. The two most important things I realized were to love myself and to love my family. After I knew my family supported me in whatever I did or said, my life began. Mentally, I grew stronger. I no longer felt ashamed of my family or friends. Most of all, I no longer was ashamed of being Black. In fact, I love myself because I am Black.
I feel empowered because of what I have seen and experienced. I am proud because I am the first one in my family to attend college.
I am happy because the people I love have helped me the best way they knew how. The only thing I needed to do was to love myself for who I am and where I came from. In order to do that, as my favorite high school teacher said, "You have to know where you came from before you know where you're going. And, you can't do that by acting like someone else." After all these years, I am proud to announce that I am a Black woman who knows where she's going.
This magazine is produced by the Write Place and is funded through a St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, Minnesota) Cultural Diversity Committee allocation.
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