Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
---by Countee Cullen, 1925
In a land known to all of us but perhaps at a time too far in the past for many to relate to, there existed a resolute mindset to maintain a social hierarchy based on race and skin color that permitted egregious, unrelenting abuse of persons of African heritage who essentially had no recourse, no means to escape insults to their humanity, and who daily were reminded of their wretchedness by a majority population that seemed either to despise them or were blithely unconcerned about their condition. Regardless if the place was rural or urban, north or south, wherever a black person resided, early in life, usually in childhood or adolescence, there was the certainty of experiencing rude, frightening, embarrassing, humiliating, even terrifying racial incidents with which he or she would have to come to terms. Such events have demonstrably been part of a shared history that has long bonded blacks in their struggle to overcome racial discrimination. These experiences, felt most acutely and awkwardly dealt with in childhood and adolescence, though predominantly initiated by whites---complete strangers to close friends---were also perpetrated by fellow blacks disdainful of those of a different hue. As amply demonstrated here, these early encounters were deeply affecting and oftentimes life altering in spite of the fact that they happened to people who later as adults attained notoriety. Their reaction to being confronted with racism ranged from passivity and feelings of helplessness, to trying to make sense of what occurred, to swift and violent retaliation.
With the unexpected ascendance of President Barack H. Obama and talk of a post-racial America on the horizon, it is important to acknowledge the systematic marginalization of tens of millions of African Americans, the result of the continuing legacy of centuries of slavery, legally enforced segregation, disenfranchisement, organized intimidation and harassment, demeaning stereotypes, and racist ideologies. Such formidable barriers notwithstanding, some blacks---like the ones cited here who still made the most of their talent, opportunities, and luck---managed to survive and prospered. The same cannot be said of countless others whose names we will never know---individuals who were equally gifted but not as fortunate who wound up among the hapless, defenseless victims of customary, oppressive racism.
Thus, the intent here is to provide concrete, real-life examples that document the pervasiveness of racism that will enhance classroom instruction. Quoting from biographies, autobiographies, and interviews, these recounted true stories and first-person testimonies comprise a powerful body of evidence that makes real a history of racial inequality in this country.
Ossie Davis, actor, director, poet, and social activist. In Waycross, Georgia in the mid-1920s.
One day when I was at Northside, no more than six or seven years old, I was on my way home from school when two policemen called out to me from their car. "Come here, boy. Come over here." They told me to get in the car, I got in, and they carried me down to the precinct . . . . Later in their joshing around, one of them reached for a jar of cane syrup and poured it over my head. They laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world, and I laughed, too. The joke was over, the ritual (of emasculating a black male) was complete. They gave me several hunks of peanut brittle and let me go . . . . For whatever reason, I decided to keep the entire incident to myself. They were just having some innocent fun at the expense of a little nigger boy. And yet, I knew I had been violated. Something very wrong had been done to me, something I never forgot.
With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together (Morrow, 1998) by
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, p. 43.
Barack H. Obama, President of the United States. During his youth in Hawaii in the 1960s and 1970s.
And it was there (on the basketball court) that I would meet Ray and other blacks close to my age . . . . "That's just how white folks will do you," one of them might say when we were alone. Everybody would chuckle and shake their heads, and my mind would run down a ledger of slights: the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon; his tears of surprise---"Why'dya do that?"---when I gave him a bloody nose. The tennis pro who told me during a tournament that I shouldn't touch the schedule of matches pinned up to the bulletin board because my color might rub off; his thin-lipped, red-faced smile---"Can't you take a joke?"---when I threatened to report him. The older woman in my grandparents' apartment building who became agitated when I got on the elevator behind her and ran out to tell the manager that I was following her; her refusal to apologize when she was told that I lived in the building. Our assistant basketball coach, a young, wiry man from New York with a nice jumper, who, after a pick-up game with some talkative black men, had muttered within earshot of me and three of my teammates that we shouldn't have lost to a bunch of niggers; and who, when I told him---with a fury that surprised even me---to shut up, had calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that "there are black people, and there are niggers. Those guys were niggers."
Dreams From My Father (Times Books, 1995) by Barack
Obama, pp 74-75.
Tiger Woods, golf pro. Circa 1960 at age 6.
"I become aware of my racial identity on my first day of school, on my first day of kindergarten. A group of sixth grades tied me to a tree, spray painted the word 'nigger' on me, and threw rocks at me. That was my first day of school. And the teachers really didn't do much of anything. I used to live across the street from school and kind of down the way a little bit. The teachers said 'okay, just go home.' So I had to out run all these kids going home, which I was able to do. It was certainly an eye opening experience, you know, being five years old we were the only minority family in all of Cypress, California."
From an interview with Charles Barkley in 2005.
August Wilson, Pultizer Prize-winning playwright. In Pittsburgh in 1959.
"I suspect my first raw encounter with racism was when I was fourteen. Every day when I went to school (Central Catholic High School) there was a note on my desk saying, 'Go home, nigger.' That was my first encounter with both individual and institutional racism."
From a 1991 interview with Christopher Bigsby in The
Cambridge Companion to August Wilson (Cambridge
University Press, 2007), p. 16.
Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice. At a black Catholic high School in Savannah, Georgia in the 1960s.
I liked St. Pius, though I didn't have much use for "checking," the all-too-frequent ritual in which students made cruel fun of their classmates' families, clothes, and looks. Most of the insults aimed at me had to do with the darkness of my skin, the flatness of my nose, the kinkiness of my hair, and the way I talked . . . . It was only adolescent hazing, but it still hurt. In those days it was an insult to call a dark-skinned Negro black, and more than once when our teacher was out of the room, someone would call me "ABC---America's Blackest Child," and epithet that made many of my classmates roar with laughter. Such racial slurs stung all the more for having come from my own people.
My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir (Harper Perennial, 2008)
by Clarence Thomas, pp 29-30.
Sidney Poitier, Oscar-winning actor. At age 15, working as a delivery boy in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1942.
I walked up to the front door of a beautiful house and rang the bell. A lady came to the door and said, "What do you want?" I said, "I've brought a package from the drugstore." She said "Get around to the back door." Not knowing what the protocol was in such circumstances, I said "Why?" She said, "Would you just go around to the back door with the package?" I said, "But I'm here. Here is the package". . . . She slammed the door in my face and I put the package down on the doorstep and left. . . . Two evenings later, returning from the movies with one of my cousins, I noticed that my brother's house was completely dark . . . . "Did you see the white men?" (sister-in-law) inquired. I said, "No," and she said, "They had on robes and hoods. They said they were looking for you. We've got your clothes packed. We've got to get you out of here". . . . Under the cloak of darkness I was hurried out of my brother's house ten miles across town, to Uncle Joe's place on Third Street . . . .
This Life (Knopf, 1980) by Sidney Poitier, pp 42-43.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball star. In St. Jude School in New York City.
At that time my best friend was a white kid I'll just call John. He was a good baseball pitcher, and we were so close up to the sixth grade that we went everywhere arm in arm . . . . We were horseplaying (in seventh grade) in the lunchroom, pushing and shoving and goofing around, all in fun, and I pushed somebody who then bumped into John, and John got up and walked over and smacked me in the face. I hit him back, and I figured that was the end of that. I was wrong. That afternoon I was walking home toward the project when I heard this soft voice behind me saying "Nigger." I turned and it was John. He had a couple of his friends with him, and his nose was swollen and red, and they all began saying it, louder and louderÑall the way home. "Nigger! Blackie! Black boy!" All the words you could imagine. We had been best friends. O.K., best friends drift apart, that's life. But why do I suddenly have to become a nigger, a blackie? It took me years to understand that experience. Now I know what happened. John was getting pressure from his own group, his own family, and the fact that we had been best friends only intensified his need to become my enemy, to make a complete break from this indiscretion of his innocent childhood.
From his article "My Story" in Sports Illustrated, October
Randall Robinson, author-activist. 1947 in Richmond, Virginia.
. . . . I recall going with Mama to Montaldo's, a women's apparel store on Grace Street. There were at least a half-dozen white clerks behind their counters. Mama and I were the only customers. We stood there. No one would wait on us. I looked up at Mama. Mama of brilliance and academic achievement. Mama who lived an ethical and Christian life. Mama who loved her husband and children. Mama of grace and beauty. She who was everything to me had become invisible to every half-educated white clerk in Montaldo's. I was six. All the people I loved and trusted were black. The people I was learning to facelessly despise were white.
Defending the Spirit; A Black Life in America (Dutton,
1998) by Randall Robinson, pp18-19.
Carl B. Stokes, Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. East Tech High School, 1942 to 1944.
The racial attitudes of white administrators, teachers and students meant that black students were well aware of racial tensions. "Fights were frequent," Stokes recalled. "Racial epithets were common." There were few friendships and relationships between the races, and teachers often referred to Carl and other black students as "you people."
He retaliated by fighting. "If I caught one (white) standing around by himself waiting for a bus, I would just run up and start hitting him." By Stokes's own account, "it was in East Tech that I first learned not to like white people."
Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power
(University of Chicago Press, 2002) by Leonard N.
Moore, p. 13.
Gladys Knight, rhythm and blues singer. While touring with the Pips.
And we were on our way to Alabama and we stopped at this gas station to get some gas and I had to go to the bathroom. So, we filled up the tank and I said, "Oh, I go to find a bathroom." So, they (the Pips) look at me funny. And I just marched right into the thing and I said (to the attendant), "Could you tell me where is the bathroom, sir. He looked at me and he said, "We don't allow niggers to use our bathroom." I said, "What did you say ?". . . and was ready to get indignant. You have to understand I'm only 9 (or) 10. I said, "What did you say. And the Pips came and got me by both my arms.
From an interview with Tavis Smiley on September 15, 2006.
Ella Fitzgerald, jazz singer. Age 11 in Public School 10 in Yonkers, New York.
. . . . a boy at school directed a racial slur at her. Ella promptly pushed him down. "The other kids though I had hit him---so I became a heroine at school! She said. "They made him apologize, and after that everyone looked up to me."
Ella Fitzgerald (Chelsea House, 1988) by Bud Klimet. p. 34.
Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State. Following the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black girls.
The blast was felt throughout the city, including at Westminster Presbyterian two miles away, where the floor fluttered beneath Condi's feet . . . . Denise McNair, the youngest girl killed in the blast, was one of Condi's friends. They had attended kindergarten together. The Rices attended the funeral . . . . "I remember more than anything the coffins," she said. "The small coffins. And the sense that Birmingham wasn't a very safe place." Two months shy of her ninth birthday, Condi realized that hatred and bloodshed lie just outside the haven her parents and community had so carefully constructed. It was a brutal awakening.
Condi: The Condoleezza Rice Story (Newmarket Press,
2002) by Antonia Felix, p. 56.
Tony Brown, journalist and TV and radio host. At age 15, delivering his rousing speech largely protesting racial inequality to the all-white board of the Charleston, West Virginia YMCA.
I stood at the end of a long table with a confidence inspired by the fresh memory of my audience's reaction at the Black YMCA ceremony . . . . When I finished this time, there was no sustained standing ovation. Only silence and stares. I had expected at least a small, polite applause . . . . It was apparent from their response that the White board members wanted nothing to do with embracing me as part of their community, and nothing to do with me either as a partner in civic development. Clearly, these silent, unapproving men preferred that Blacks remain on the margins of their society.
White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown (Morrow,
1995) by Tony Brown, p. 7.
Paul Robeson, vocalist-actor and intellectual. As a high school athlete in Somerville, New Jersey.
. . . . (schoolmate Stanley Douglas) said that in some of the intercity baseball games Paul became a target for verbal racist abuse and threats of physical violence. In one game against High Bridge (which fortunate for Paul was played in Somerville), "When Paul hit a triple, the principal of High Bridge ran out onto the field hollering, 'That coon didn't touch second! Well, that caused quite a ruckus, but the Sommerville fans rushed out and helped his team protect Paul from being mobbed by the visiting players."
The Young Paul Robeson (Westview Press, 1997) by Lloyd L.
Brown, p. 46.
W. E. B. Du Bois, scholar and human rights activist. As a high school teenager in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
It was during his high school years that he later recalled his first experience with racial discrimination. In the nineteenth century, in polite society, it was the custom to exchange calling cards, cartes d'visite, among social equals, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Although summer residents were not fully welcomed by the Great Barrington natives, who maintained their New England restraint, fifteen-year-old William offered his card to a young white girl who was there for the season, and she refused it. The girl may or may not have made it clear that he was unacceptable because of his color; whatever the case, William understood that it was because he was black, and he never forgot the slight.
W. E. B. Du Bois (Melrose Square Pub. Co., 1992) by
James Neyland, pp 38-39.
Marcus Garvey, black nationalist leader. As a teenager in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica.
The Wesleyan minister, another white man, whose church my parents attended, also had property adjoining ours. He had three girls and one boy. All of us were playmates. We romped and were happy children, playmates together. The little white girl whom I liked the most knew no better than I did, myself. We were two innocent fools who never dreamed of a race feeling and problem. At fourteen my little white playmate and I parted. Her parents thought the time had come to separate us and draw the colour line. They sent her and another sister to Edinburgh, Scotland, and told her she was never to write or try to get in touch with me for I was a "nigger."
From Garvey: The Story of a Pioneer Black Nationalist
(Dodd, Mead & Co., 1972) by Elton C. Fax, p. 14.
Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther leader and author. About age 13 in East Los Angeles.
Soon after the Cleaver family's removal to Rose Hill, Eldridge developed a crush on Michele Ortega, a girl in his class. "Her skin was white as milk and she had long black hair. She was very delicate, very feminine---even at that titless shapeless age." The teacher that year was Miss Brick, a blond woman who resembled Betty Grable. "All the cats were in love with her . . . . We'd dream about her at night. One day, while the class was changing rooms for music period, he told Michele he loved her. But her response was vehement: "I hate you!" In the otherwise-unreported exchange of insults that followed, Cleaver says he told Michele her mother was an elephant. When she burst into tears, the beautiful Miss Brick turned on Eldridge: "'You black nigger!' she snarled, and slapped my face . . . ! Her words brought tears to my eyes."
Eldridge Cleaver (Twayne Publishers, 1991) by Kathleen
Rout, p. 2.
Coleman Young, Mayor of Detroit. A student in Detroit schools during the Great Depression.
Despite a scholarly record, he was refused scholarships (to three Catholic high schools) . . . . Young describes one incident in which a friar tore up his application right in front of him, and citing his first racial incident, Young describes how he was dismissed from a Boy Scout excursion to Belle Isle because he was black. As a way perhaps of humiliating the boy, the man took Coleman's scout cap off to expose his hair in front of all the white scouts . . . . "[A]fter that, I became more alert. That's probably part of my history in becoming a radical."
Coleman Young and Detroit Politics (Wayne State
University Press, 1989) by Wilbur C. Rich, pp 48-49.
Jackie Robinson, baseball pioneer. As an adolescent in Pasadena, California in the 1930s.
And then, during the heat waves, Robinson induced his friends to swim in the local reservoir. Ultimately, the police learned of this and surrounded the reservoir and flushed out Robinson and his companions . . . . a sheriff's deputy taunted him, "Look there, niggers swimming in my drinking water." And then, when the youths were arrested and taken to jail, one of the sixteen, crowded into a small cell, pleaded that he was hot and thirsty. The sheriff said, "The coon's hungry. Go buy a watermelon. According to the story, watermelon was then actually purchased and sliced and handed to Robinson and his friends, who were mockingly photographed by the police as they ate the fruit.
Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson, From
Baseball to Birmingham (Simon &Schuster, 1995) by David
Falkner, pp 32-33.
Bob Gibson, star baseball pitcher. As a high school student in 1948 in Omaha, Nebraska.
The worst fight I ever saw was a football game between Creighton Prep and Boys Town High . . . . When I was thirteen or so, I was watching the game from outside a fence on a hill beyond one of the end zones. A lot of people were milling around, including a couple of ex-marines who apparently were spoiling for a fight. Making sure they had an audience of black guys, one of the marines announced, "I can beat the shit out of any nigger I've ever saw". . . . Without saying a word (Raymond Manuel) stepped through the crowd, walked up to the marine, and with one punch knocked the guy out cold . . . . Before long the whole stadium was involved, inside and outside, the fence. It was black against white, and it was ugly. There were people hanging from the fence, hooked by their shirts to the wrought iron spikes at the top.
Stranger To The Game (Viking, 1994) by Bob Gibson and
Lonnie Wheeler, p. 28.
Martin Luther King Jr., minister and civil right leader. Circa 1935.
At about age six, King, Jr., had an experience that profoundly affected his attitudes toward white people. When a white playmate he had known for three years entered Atlanta's segregated school system, his friend's father told his son that he could no longer play with King. "I never will forget what a great shock this was to me," King Jr., later recalled. He remembered discussing the matter with his parents over dinner and realizing for the first time "the existence of a race problem." King's parents told him of the "tragedies" of racism and recounted "some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it. I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person." Although his parents told him he "should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him," he was not satisfied. "The question arose in my mind, how could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends?"
The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. I (University
of California Press, 1992), pp. 31-32.
I remember a trip to a downtown shoestore with Father when I was still small. We had sat down in the first empty seats at the front of the store. A young white clerk came up and murmured politely:
"I'll be happy to wait on you if you'll just move to those seats in the rear. My father answered, "There's nothing wrong with these seats. We're quite comfortable here.
"Sorry," said the clerk, "but you'll have to move." We'll either buy shoes sitting here," my father retorted, "or we won't buy shoes at all." Whereupon he took me by the hand and walked out of the store. It was the first time I had ever seen my father so angry. I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, "I don't care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it."
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper &
Row, 1958) by Martin Luther King Jr., pp 18-19.
Neil de Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist-author. At Bronx High School of Science in New York City.
. . . . leaning against their motorcycles, were several students who were never seen without their black leather jackets. They were the "greasers" and represented the toughest faction of the school . . . . one of my high-arching snowballs happened to veer off course, liked a sliced golf shot, and hit squarely on the chest of the most feared greaser . . . . this greaser yelled all manner of expletives and racial epithets across the yard to me, with fist clenched and waving in the air. . . . We stared at each other in silence for several seconds more before he folded up his knife, returned it to his pocket, and walked back to his motorcycle.
The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban
Astrophysicist (Doubleday) by Neil de Grasse Tyson, pp
Marian Wright Edelman, children right advocate-author. In Bennettsville, South Carolina.
I remember as if it were yesterday how I felt when I went with one of my teachers and a church member into Belk's Department Store on Main Street when I was six or seven years old. I was thirsty and went instinctively to drink from the nearby water fountain. I recall my teacher jerking me away in panic from the "White" water fountain, water trailing down my pinafore . . . . I took my tiny wounded soul home to recount my hurt to my parents and sought reassurance that I was indeed as good as White people and that it
was an inferior system and not an inferior me that denied me---a thirsty, small child---water.
Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors (Beacon Press, 1999) by
Marian Wright Edelman, p. 21-22.
Roger Wilkins, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and civil rights activist. With his grandmother in Kansas City, Missouri.
When I was about three, Gram had me downtown with her while she shopped in a big department store. We were on the top floor when I informed her that I had an urgent need to urinate . . . so Gram headed for the ladies room on that floor, but we were stopped by an officious white woman who worked in the store. She informed Gram that that rest room was for whites. We would have to go to the basement to use the bathroom for the colored. By this time, I was doing the little dance that children use to hold it in. Can't you see that his little boy can't wait that long?" Gram asked. The woman continued to refuse us admittance to that ladies room, so Gram bent down and began unbuttoning my fly. "Okay, Roger," she said. "You can do it right here." The horrified white woman stepped aside then, and that's how Gram and I integrated a ladies room in Kansas City in 1935.
A Man's Life: An Autobiography (Simon and Schuster,
1982) by Roger Wilkins, p. 18.
Willie Stargell, pro baseball star. Playing minor league baseball at age 19.
What hurt me most were the racial insults that the Negro fan shouted. I'd grown accustomed to such racist remarks from whites, but when Negroes shouted the same slurs, I was floored . . . . The majority of our daylight hours were spent searching for food or playing baseball. Such was the case one afternoon in Plainview (Texas), when I decided to walk to the ball park early. . . . A white man, hiding around the corner, jumped into my path. He had a shotgun in his hand. The next thing I felt was the cold metal barrels of the gun pressed tightly against my temple. Though I began to shake like a leaf, the gun-bearing bigot never flinched . . . . "Nigger," he told me, "if you play in that game tonight, I'll blow your brains out." Short and sweet, that's all he said but that was enough. He had made his point . . . . I still feel the touch of cold barrels today. It's a feeling that has never left me.
Willie Stargell: An Autobiography (Harper & Row, 1984)
by Willies Stargell and Tom Bird, pp 64-65.
Thomas Sowell, conservative economist-author. In North Carolina in the late 1930s.
A white fruit-and-vegetable peddler came by the neighborhood regularly in his horse-drawn wagon. One day he had his little girl---about my age---riding beside him. She decided to get down off the wagon and come join me where I was playing in the yard alone, while her father made his rounds on the street. We hit it off wonderfully, had a great time playing together, and waved happy good-byes when the time came for her to leave. But when I turned to Mama to enthuse about my new playmate, I found her unsmiling and even grim.
"You've just taken your first step toward the gallows," she said. From then on, whenever the girl and her father came around, there was always some excuse why I was not available to play with her.
A Personal Odyssey (The Free Press, 2000) by Thomas
Sowell, p. 10.
Richard Wright, novelist. Age 6 in Memphis, Tennessee.
I soon made a nuisance by asking far too many questions of everybody. Every happening in the neighborhood, no matter how trivial, became my business. It was in this manner that I first stumbled upon the relations between whites and blacks, and what I learned frightened me . . . . For the most part I never thought of them (white people); they simply existed somewhere in the background of the city as a whole. . . . And when word circulated among black people in the neighborhood that a "black" boy had been severely beaten by a "white" man . . . I naively assumed that the "white" man must have been the "black" boy's father . . . . But when my mother told me that the "white" man was not the father of the "black" boy, was no kin to him, I was puzzled.
"Then why did the "white" man whip the "black" boy?" I asked my mother.
"The 'white' man did not whip the 'black' boy," my mother told me.
"He beat the 'black' boy". . . .
I brooded for a long time about the seemingly causeless beating of the "black" boy by the "white" man and the more questions I asked the more bewildering it all became. Whenever I saw "white" people now I stared at them, wondering what they were really like.
Black Boy (Harper, 1945) by Richard Wright, pp 30-31.
Tom Bradley, Mayor of Los Angeles. In the year 1927.
. . . . in the West Temple area on the East Side (Los Angeles), ten-year-old Tom enjoyed playing ball and studying at school with a new friend named Billy. But one day Billy didn't meet Tom to play kick the can. After school, the young Bradley asked his friend what was wrong. Embarrassed, Billy stared at the ground. He told Tom that his parents had warned him "not to play with any of the colored children on the block."
"I was shocked and didn't understand why our friendship had to end," Bradley recalls.
Tom Bradley: The Impossible Dream (Roundtable Publishing,
1986) by J. Gregory Payne and Scott C. Ratzan, p. 11.
Price M. Cobbs, psychiatrist-author. The 1930s in Los Angeles, California.
I believe I was about nine years old when I was refused service in a small food market . . . . The clerk had thrown me out with no explanation, although I believed he had done so because I was black. So I went home and made a picket sign that said something like UNFAIR. DON'T SHOP HERE. I returned to the market and picketed it for several minutes. . . . it's ironic to consider that the first time I was actually the direct object of the term nigger, it came from my best friend . . . . One day Frankie and I were playing together on the grass in front of my house. We began scuffling over a toy shovel, arguing over whose turn it was to use it . . . .
"You nigger," he said . . . .
The words invaded me with their dark aggressiveness. Frankie suddenly was the enemy. The Other.
My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement (Atria Books,
2005) by Price M. Cobbs, pp 36-39.
William Warfield, concert bass-baritone singer and professor. In his early teens visiting southern Virginia.
In the car on the way, I noticed that he'd slow down to slightly below the speed limit as we passed out of Philadelphia. "We're in the South, son," my father would explain. As we went through certain small towns he knew, my father would remark, "This is one town you don't want to have your car break down in," or "You don't want to be caught out on the street after sundown in this place." We never had an incident, but these conversations with my father brought the threat to life. Of course, Virginia isn't the Deep South: I could only imagine the rest.
William Warfield: My Music & My Life (Sagamore
Publishing, 1991) by William Warfield with Alton Miller,
Ralph Bunche, diplomat, winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. Age 18 in Los Angeles.
At Ralph's graduation ceremony in 1922, Mr. Fulton, the Jefferson High School principal, a well-meaning but sensitive man, made the mistake of saying to Nana (his grandmother), "Mrs. Johnson, we are very sorry to see Ralph leave Jefferson. We like him here. He has been a good student and a good athlete. In fact, Mrs. Johnson, we have never thought of Ralph as a Negro." Nana retorted, "You are very wrong to say that. It is an insult to Ralph, to me, to his parents, and his whole race. Why haven't you thought of him as a Negro? He is a Negro and he is proud of it. So am I. What makes you think only white is good?" And with a few more well-chosen words, she said a tart "Good day" and left with Ralph.
Ralph Bunche: An American Life (W.W. Norton, 1993) by Brian Urquhart, p. 33.
Willie Brown, Mayor of San Francisco and Speaker of the California Assembly. As a youth in the 1940s in Mineola, Texas.
(Willie) was cocky and was prone to shooting off his mouth at whites . . . . His taunts brought him perilously close to crossing an invisible line, as when a white man once asked him, "Say, junior, what time is it?" using a pejorative term reserved for black males. Willie Brown Jr. did not immediately answer. The white man asked again, repeating "junior." Finally Brown snapped, "You guessed my name. Now you can guess what time is." His sisters are still amazed that he was not beaten. Somehow he kept out of harm. It may have helped that he was not physically much of a threat.
Willie Brown: A Biography (University of California
Press, 1996) by James Richardson, p. 39.
John Lewis, civil rights leader and Congressman. In 1951 in Troy, Alabama at age 11 upon returning from a visit to Niagara Falls.
Now, when I went into Troy on a Saturday afternoon, I was more acutely aware than ever of how black men and women---the grownups of my world---addressed all white people, even white children, as "Mr." of "Mrs." or "Miss," always adding "Sir" or "Ma'am" and never receiving any of those courtesies in return. The signs of segregation that had perplexed me up till then now outright angered me.
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Simon
& Schuster, 1998) by John Lewis with Michael D'Orso, p. 51.
Bill Russell, pro basketball star. As a boy in Monroe, Louisiana, early 1940s.
Once we went to the ice house and the attendant just let us sit in the car for fifteen or twenty minutes while he talked to another white man. The man drove off and another car came along and the attendant wet to wait on those people, so my father began driving off. The attendant ran over to my dad's window and said:
"Don't you ever try to do that, boy. Unless you want to get shot."
He had a big gun.
My dad picked up a tire iron and got out of the car and the red-neck just turned and ran for his life and my heart overflowed with wonder and pride for my father. It does to this moment when I look back to what he was facing . . . .
My mother, Katie, was a gentlewoman. In that time, women affected modified riding habits as stylish street clothes. Katie was awfully proud of her suit, but one day she was shopping in Monroe and a cop came up to her and said:
"Who do you think you are, nigger? Dressing like a white woman. Get out of town before sundown or I'll throw you in jail." My mother came home in a state of shock.
Go Up for Glory (Coward-McCann, 1966) by Bill
Russell, pp 11-12.
Roy Wilkins, NAACP leader. Reflecting on 1920 in Minnesota.
I was just short of nineteen the night that the bodies (of three black lynching victims) swung from a light pole in Duluth. I read the stories in the newspapers and put them down feeling sick, scared, and angry all at the same time. This was Minnesota, not Mississippi . . . . What bothered me most was the way those 5,000 white Northerners had gotten together on the lynching. The mob was in touch with something---an awful hatred I had never seen or felt before. For the first time in my life I understood what Du Bois had been writing about. I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us---and white people as the unpredictable, violent them.
Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins (Viking
Press, 1982) by Roy Wilkins, p. 44.
Spike Lee, movie director-producer. As a boy in Brooklyn, New York, late 1960s.
These dinner-table advice sessions hit home once Spike sampled racism for the first time: "I wanted to join the Boy Scouts in Cobble Hill and they told me I couldn't join because I wasn't Catholic. But really they just didn't want a black kid in the Scouts. My father sat me down and explained it plain and simple to me.
Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It (W.W.
Norton, 2005) as told to Kaleem Aftab, p. 6.
Roy Campanella, pro baseball star. Late 1920 to early 1930s.
The kids called me "halfbreed." At first I had no idea what "halfbreed" meant. Then I found out it was because of my Mom and Dad being of different color skin. Most of my fights came from that . . . . Doris and I would be coming home from Sunday School, and on the way the kid would sing out, teasing, "Roy, is your father really a white man?" This may seem stupid, but I honestly didn't know. It was never discussed around the house. All I knew was that my father was a wonderful man . . . . It wasn't only the white kids who called us "halfbreed." We caught it from both sides, white and colored.
It's Good to be Alive (University of Nebraska Press, 1995)
by Roy Campanella, pp 35-36.
Maya Angelou, poet-professor. Age 10 in Stamps, Arkansas in 1938. Recalling her reaction to three "powhitetrash" girls who mocked her mother in her family's store.
Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she stopped singing and said, "Bye, Miz Helen, 'by, Miz Ruth,'bye, Miz Eloise." I burst. A firecracker July-the Fourth burst. How could Momma call them Miz? The mean nasty things. Why couldn't she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them beasting the hill? What did she prove? And then if they were dirty, mean and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miz?
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ((Random House,
1969) by Maya Angelou, pp 31-32.
Althea Gibson, pro tennis champion (Wimbledon and U.S.). In South Carolina in 1946, age 19.
I'll never forget my first bus ride into the downtown shopping area. The first thing I saw when I got on the bus and paid my fare was the sign, "Whites in front, Colored in rear." I was burned up that I had to conform to such an ignorant law, and I picked out a seat as near to the front as I thought I could possibly get away with. It disgusted me, and it made me feel ashamed in a way I'd never been ashamed back in New York. It was even worse when I went to the movies. The ushers practically knocked us colored down making sure we got up to the back balcony . . . .
I Always Wanted to Be Somebody (Harper & Row,
1958) by Althea Gibson, p. 46.
Dick Gregory, comedian-activist. Age 10 in St. Louis in 1942 explaining how he lost a job as a shoeshine boy.
There were a lot of people in the tavern, drinking beer, and I was shining this white woman's shoes . . . .
"Hey Flo, gonna take the little monkey home with you, change your luck?" She started laughing.
"Maybe I will. Heard these little coons are hung like horses, I'm getting tired of you worms". . . .
White and brown shoes. I didn't want to get the brown polish on the white part so I put my other hand on the back of the white woman's leg to steady myself. . . .
One of the white men, a man who wasn't laughing jumped off his bar stool. "Get your dirty black hands off that white lady, you nigger bastard."
He kicked me right in the mouth. One of the men who had been laughing came off his stool and grabbed the man who kicked me . . . . The fight was on. The bartender jumped over the bar and grabbed me with one hand and my shoeshine box with the other. "Sorry, boy, it's not your fault, but I can't have you around" . . . . When I saw all the blood and pieces of tooth on my shirt, I got scared. Momma would be real angry.
Nigger: An Autobiography of Dick Gregory (E.P. Dutton,
1964) by Dick Gregory with Robert Lipsyte, pp 24-25.
Josephine Baker, dancer-entertainer. Around age 7 in St. Louis.
Sometimes, she did odd jobs in a house where there were other servants. In one place there, a black housekeeper scolded her for kissing a white baby. This was hard for a young child to comprehend . . . . Freckles, who had red hair, was Josephine's first crush, but when she told him, "I like you," he said, "You're a nigger!" and ran away. She didn't brood.
Josephine: The Hungry Heart (Random House, 1993) by
Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, p. 20.
Marian Anderson, concert vocalist. Circa 1914 in Philadelphia, at age 17 applying to take voice lessons in a prominent music school.
"That day there was a line of people in front of the window," Anderson recalled many years later, "where applications and information was given out. There was a young girl behind the window. She was blond, very pretty, and had a way of tossing her head that was pert but cute, I thought. I had time to notice all these things, because she didn't seem to notice me. She look over my head when it came to be my turn, and took care of one after the another of the ones behind me until I was the only one left. She spoke to me then, but in a different tone of voice from the one she'd used to the other people. 'What do you want?' was what she said. I told her an application blank. She tossed her head, and this was still pert but wasn't cute. Her face wasn't even pretty, because she raised her upper lip as if she smelled something bad and said to me, 'We don't take colored.' I promise you I was as sick as if she'd hit me with her fist right in the middle of my stomach, and I mean really, physically sick. I wonder I didn't throw up right there, but I didn't. I don't know how I got out of the place and home. All I could think of was how anybody who was as pretty as that, and had a chance to listen to music all day long, could act that way and say such a terrible thing. And then I'd think, 'Can't I sing, can't I be a singer because I'm colored?'"
Marian Anderson: A Singer's Journey (Scribner, 2000)
by Allan Keiler, p. 30.
Amiri Baraka (a.k.a., LeRoi Jones), poet-playwright. Age 12 in Newark, New Jersey in 1946.
Earlier in the seventh grade, we'd gone to the Bronx Zoo, and I'm lagging behind in the elephant house, holding my nose but wanting to check close up to the elephants. So I see this guy, he's cleaning up or something in there, and I ask him, "Wow, how do you stand it in there?" Meaning the terrible odor of the shit. So he says to me, "I don't mind it. I live in Harlem." Yeh, a white guy said this, and it went through me like a frozen knife. And I knew exactly what he meant . . . . in a candy store downtown---the lady wanted to sell her some "nigger toes" and my mother says, "Those are Brazil nuts, lady," grabs my hand, and stalks out.
The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (Lawrence Hill Books,
1984) by Amiri Baraka, pp 40-41.
Addison Gayle Jr., literary critic-professor. About age 11 in Newport News, Virginia, shopping at a downtown department store with his aunt.
. . . . I stood beside a counter with boy's pants for sale. A white boy, about my age and size, walked to the counter and picked up a pair of pants. Suddenly, a woman appeared, grabbed the boy roughly by the neck, gestured toward me, and began shouting almost uncontrollably. "Don't you see that little nigger next to them clothes? You want to catch something? You want to get sick causa that dirty little nigger?"
Dana dropped whatever she had in her hand, a slip, a dress, something, ran around the side of the counter where the white woman was, slapped her with the back of her hand. Screaming, the woman fell against the counter. Dana hit her again. Two white men came over, one grabbed Dana, the other pulled the woman out of Dana's way. Then a black man ran other and shouted to the white man, "You take your goddamn hands offa that woman.
More Black people came to surround the two men. The white man released Dana and retreated before the crowd.
"What happened?" the Black man who had come up first asked.
"That white peckerwood," said Dana, "called my nephew a dirty nigger, and I was gonna beat the white offa her."
Wayward Child: A Personal Odyssey (Anchor
Press/Doubleday, 1977) by Addison Gayle Jr., p. 10.
Jim Brown, pro football star. Age 18 at Syracuse University, 1954.
That was it. Vada (Stone) was black and flashy. He had messed around with the prettiest white girl in school, then left. Now, because I was black too, they were going to kick my ass, because they never got the chance to kick Vada's. I understood, now, why I was up on Skytop (distant logging for athletes) . . . . At eighteen, I wasn't prepared for their venom. I couldn't even fight back with my talent. I was the fastest back on the freshman team, probably the strongest, but if a coach addressed me at all, it was to needle me. One coach told me I had no future as a runner. He said I should think about playing line. One coach told me I should learn to punt. Punt? Punt? When I realized what was happening, I recall thinking: Okay, you racists. I know you're lying to me, because I know that I can play football. So fuck you.
Out of Bounds (Kensington Pub. Corp., 1989) by Jim
Brown with Steve Delsohn, p. 39-40.
Rev. Al Sharpton, civil rights leader. On a trip from New York to the South in the early 1960s.
We were driving down South one day on one our many trips to see (father's) mother in Florida, and we stopped somewhere in North Carolina to get hamburgers, and they told him they didn't serve niggers. He stood there and took that, I couldn't believe it. He went and got back into the car. And I said, "Why'd they do that?" He kind of tried to explain it to me, but didn't want to talk. More than the racism, what affected me was to see my father mistreated, because until then I'd thought that nobody could tell my father no. It was really traumatic for me. I now realize that there was more going on than I could recognize, that he was in a strange place in the South with his wife and children and he had to think about protecting them and getting out of there rather than starting something, but it was a signal event.
Go and Tell Pharoah: The Autobiography of Reverend Al
Sharpton (Doubleday, 1996) by Al Sharpton and
Anthony Walton, p. 17.
Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court Justice. While a high school student in Baltimore in the mid-1920s working for a hat company.
Thurgood had a "whole lot of hats in boxes to be delivered" and was getting on a trolley with them. A man grabbed the young Thurgood, pulled him back, and shouted at him, "Nigger, don't you push in front of white people!" Marshall proceeded to "tear into him" for calling him a "nigger," and was promptly arrested.
A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of
Racism in America (Crown Publishers, 1998) by Howard
Ball, p. 18.
Harry Belafonte, singer-actor. As a boy growing up in Jamaica.
Belafonte senior, being West Indian, had strong caste ideas. So-called "white" characteristics were regarded as superior to Negro. Blue eyes were preferred over brown or black. Soft hair was preferable to wiry, kinky hair. And, of course, the whiter the skin, the better. In all these respects, Harry's younger brother was "more white" than Harry, with the result that Belafonte senior showed an unmistakable preference for Dennis. That this worked havoc with Harry is hardly surprising. Harry has never been able to forget. Reminiscences of his boyhood seldom omit references to the painful and uneven competition he faced within his own family because of color.
Belafonte: An Unauthorized Biography (Chilton Company,
1960) by Arnold Shaw, p. 21.
Doug Williams, 1988 Super Bowl-winning quarterback. As a high school athlete in Zachary, Louisiana.
An incident that stands out in my mind occurred at one of our (baseball) practices. I was on third base at the time, and we had a player named Carey Carpenter. He was in the dugout, and I didn't know what was going on, but for some reason he said nigger . . . . We're playing together on the same team, and he's talking about niggers. Right then, I realized what I was up against. But that was just the beginning. The league was played in Denham Springs, and that's where the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan used to live. They called me every name you can imagine. I was called nigger, black lizard, and a bunch of other things . . . . (after being deliberately injured by a player) I made up my mind that I was going to get him back. Later, I was playing second base, and that same guy tried to steal second on us. Our catcher Leo McClure threw the ball to me, and I caught it and slapped that guy across the head with my glove as hard as I could. They had to come get him off the field.
Quarterback: Shattering the NFL Myth (Bonus Books,
1990) by Doug Williams with Bruce Hunter, pp 68-69.
Langston Hughes, poet-humorist. As a boy in Lawrence, Kansas.
At the white school, Langston sat at the end of the last row, even though the other students were seated in alphabetic order. His teacher didn't want him in the school, and she made hateful comments about his color. She stirred up the students with her remarks, such as warning them not to eat black licorice or they'd turn black like Langston. Some of them chased him home through alleys. He dodged the stones and tin cans they threw at him . . . . when he entered seventh grade in 1914, his teacher placed the few black students in a separate row . . . . He couldn't stand it. He printed "Jim Crow Row" on cards and placed them on each black student's desk. Then he ran onto the playground shouting that his teacher had a Jim Crow row. The principal grabbed him, and Langston punched him. He was expelled for his behavior. A group of black parents demanded he be allowed back to school. When Langston returned, the Jim Crow row was gone. His protest had been successful.
Jazz Age Poet: A Story About Langston Hughes
(Millbrook Press, 2006) by Veda B. Jones, pp 10 and 14.
George Washington Carver, scientist. Witnessing a lynching of a black man at age 15 in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1879.
Late one afternoon, returning to the blacksmith shop, he saw a sullen crowd pressing on the wood jail and felt suddenly, hopelessly trapped by their shrill cries. He clung to the shadows on the far side of the street . . . .
"Drag him out!" They screamed. "Let's get him!" And they did . . . .
"Please! Please!" the prisoner begged.
"Nigger!" his executioners shouted back, as though that were the charge against him. Then they drenched him with oil and dragged him, bleeding and still begging, to the square and threw him into the leaping flames (of a bonfire). George saw him try once, twice, to pull himself erect. Then, blazing, a look of utter despair on his face, he fell back into the fire and was still. All through the night George saw that look and heard the piteous plea for mercy and tried to wipe the stench of burning flesh from his nostrils. And long before dawn, still trembling, he gathered his belongings and fled Fort Scott forever.
George Washington Carver: The Man Who Overcame
(Prentice-Hall, 1966) by Lawrence Elliott, pp 45-46.
James Baldwin, novelist-essayist. In Harlem in 1934.
When James was 10 years old, and encounter with two white policeman gave him his first bitter taste of racial violence. The officers spotted him playing by himself in an empty lot and decided to harass him. They taunted him with racial slurs, then beat him and left him on his back, "I can conceive of no Negro native to this country," he wrote in "The Harlem Ghetto," "who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the condition of his life."
James Baldwin (Chelsea House, 1989) by Lisa Rosset, pp
Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women. 1920 in Rankin, Pennsylvania.
When I was eight years old, my best friend was Sarah Hay. She was Irish Catholic, blond and blue-eyed, and I thought she was very pretty. We lived next door to each other on a hill, and we walked back and forth to school together. In good weather we held hands and ran down the hill. In the wintertime snow and ice we would crawl up the hill together and slide down it, shrieking with laughter. One day as we were ready to run down the hill, Sarah turned away and said, "I can't go down the hill with you."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because you're a nigger," she said.
"What?" I asked, stunned.
"You're a nigger," she repeated, and ran down the hill by herself. I was crushed. I had heard the word before, and I knew it wasn't supposed to be used, at least not by anyone who had manners. I stumbled to our house, trying to hide my tears . . . . I told (mother) Sarah Hay wouldn't go down the hill with me because, she said, I was a "nigger." "Am I really a nigger?" I asked.
Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir (Public Affairs
Press, 2005) by Dorothy Height, pp 11-12.
Romare Bearden, artist. With his mother and father In Charlotte, North Carolina at age 3.
One specific incident, which (light-skinned) Bearden was told about much later, likely contributed to his parents' decision to leave Charlotte (for New York). On a shopping trip in a predominantly white section of Charlotte, Bessye left Howard to watch Romare, while she stepped into a store. Howard separated himself slightly from Romare, perhaps to look into a store window. When he walked toward his son, people became suspicious at the sight of a brown-skinned man approaching what could easily have been a white child.
Romare Bearden: His Life and Art (H.N. Abrams, 1990)
by Myron Schwartzman, p. 17.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, artist. In New York City in the 1980s
Like many middle-class blacks who came of age during the Civil Rights movement, Basquiat was stuck in the crack between two worlds. With the exception of being bused to one primarily white school, he never experienced racial segregation. The racism he constantly encountered was more subtle. He suffered the indignity of never being able to get a cab. He'd make a ritual of it, jumping up and down in the street, ensuring that the driver would stop only if the artist were accompanied, as he often was, by a well-dressed white.
Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (Viking, 1998) by Phoebe
Hoban, pp 12-13.
Ida B. Wells, anti-lynching crusader. As a teacher at age 22 on a train in Tennessee in 1884.
Ida decided to settle herself on the train in the first-class ladies' coach car---the whites only car---among the nonsmokers. When the conductor tried to force her out of her seat, she refused to move. And when the conductor yanked Ida by the arm, she bit his hand! Even when the conductor called over his friends, who all tried to move Ida, Ida resisted. Finally, the men dragged Ida---school books and all---toward the smoking car (to the delight of white passengers who cheered them). But Ida wasn't having it. As the train neared the first station stop, Ida gathered her belongings. When the train came to a halt, she quickly got off . . . . With the help of a lawyer, Ida launched a civil rights case against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. She won her case, and the court awarded her $500.
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters
(Harcourt, 2000) by Stephen Alcorn, pp31-32.
Reginald F. Lewis, multi-millionaire businessman, owner of TLC Beatrice. Working in a Baltimore Country Club in 1959.
One incident I remember in particular was when a quite nice lady had a special party and I busted my gut to make the service great---not only my own, but that of the other workers, too. I was 17 at the time. After the party, she pulled me aside when everyone had left. She did the talking and it went something like this: "Reggie, you know your skin is dark, so you have to work harder. One day, I am sure you'll make a good living." One part of her message was fine, but her style was patronizing. The other part of what she said implied inferiority. She then gave me $2. I thanked her with a nod and probably a quick look that unsettled her a little but was in no way threatening. Almost immediately, I felt sort of an athletic surge go through my body, but remained controlled and thought to myself, "You poor fool, you don't know who stands before you. A good living! I plan to, and I will have more money than you will ever have, and I'll have the good sense to recognize superior performance and not embarrass myself by giving only a $2 tip.
"Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?": How Reginald Lewis
Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire (John Wiley & Sons,
1995) b Reginald F. Lewis and Blair S. Walker, p. 22.
Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Age 10 in Lorain, Ohio in 1941.
Wherever (white immigrants) were from, they would stand together. They could all say, "I am not that." So in that sense, becoming an American is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me. It wasn't negative to them -- it was unifying. When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was "nigger." Ask them---I grew up with them. I remember in the fifth grade a smart little boy who had just arrived and didn't speak any English. He sat next to me. I read well, and I taught him to read just by doing it. I remember the moment he found out that I was black---a nigger. It took him six months; he was told. And that's the moment when he belonged, that was his entrance. Every immigrant knew he would not come as the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group---and that was us.
From an interview in Time magazine, May 22, 1989.
Vanessa Williams, singer-actress. Age 10 in Millwood, New York in 1973.
It was hard to be normal, however, when Vanessa sometimes felt different at school. She endured racial taunts but did not ask for help in confronting the problem. As her father said, "She had to live in school herself . . . we could not come there to resolve problems." While she usually felt comfortable with her classmates, Vanessa commented, "I knew I was different. I was called 'nigger.' But I never felt that an opportunity couldn't be mine because of my color . . . . The few African-American kids in Vanessa's neighborhood all knew one another and socialized on a regular basis.
Vanessa Williams (Chelsea House, 2001) by Suzanne
Freedman, pp 23-24.
John Hope Franklin, historian. In Oklahoma, age 7, in 1922.
Franklin's first day of reckoning with white racism came on a southbound train to Checotah. He, his mother, and his younger sister waved down the train, a common practice in those days. It was after they boarded and the train began to move that the trouble started. "The conductor came to take the tickets, and we happened to be in a white-only coach because of where the train stopped," Franklin says. "The train had started moving, and the conductor told us, 'You can't sit here. This is for white people only. You have to move.' My mother thought it was too dangerous to go to the black coach while the train was moving, the conductor stopped the train, and we were going to go to the black coach, whereupon he just put us off the train altogether. We were deep in the woods, and we had to trudge back to Rentiesvilte." During that unscheduled hike, his outlook on life changed radically. "I started crying, and my mother asked what I was crying about. I said, 'The man put as off the train,' and she said, "That's not worth crying about."
From an article in Oklahoma Today, March 2007.
LL Cool J, rap singer-actor. Circa 1969 at age 11 in a New York City suburb.
When we moved to North Babylon, I found myself in a predominantly white school. It was a different world (compared to Queens) . . . . The first time was in the sixth grade. I was walking down the hall behind some white kids, and one of them said something about "niggers." They all started laughing, and one of them turned around and saw me. They were like, "Sorry." I couldn't believe it. So that's what they really think of me. Of course, the word nigger was nothing new for me . . . . But hearing it at school made me realize how terrible it was to have to hear it at home.
I Make My Own Rules (St. Martin's Press, 1997) by LL
Cool J, pp 46-47.
Rosa Parks, civil rights pioneer. Circa 1920 at age 6 in Pine Level, Alabama.
There were no school buses for black children. I remember when we walked to school, sometimes the bus carrying the white children would come by and the white children would throw trash out the windows at us. After a while when we would see the white school bus coming, we would just get off the road and walk in the fields a little bit distant from the road. We didn't have any of what the call "civil rights" back then, so there was no way to protest and nobody to protest to. It was just a matter of survival---like getting off the road---so we could exist from day to day.
Rosa Parks: My Story (Dial Books, 1992) by Rosa Parks
with Jim Haskins, p. 29.
Mae Jemison, astronaut. Age 16 at Stanford University in1972.
I was looking forward to my chemistry class. I sat right up front of the lecture hall so I could hear everything. I was eager. . . . We were learning about the Schrodinger equation. I was "geeked." But when I would ask questions, Professor Weinhardt would either ignore me, or act as though I was impossibly dumb for not knowing the answer. When a white boy down the row asked the exact same questions, Weinhardt would say "Very good observation," and explain. I gradually stopped asking questions; in fact I became too timid to ask anything. I drifted to the back row of the lecture hall . . . . The bad part of going off to school at sixteen was that I did not know that professors' sexism and racism could be so great as to be threatened by the presence of someone, a teenager, unlike them . . . . It was a harsh blow.
Find Where the Wind Goes (Scholastic Press, 201) by
Mae Jemison, pp 118-125.
Wilt Chamberlain, pro basketball star. Age 18 traveling with a friend from Philadelphia to the University of Kansas in 1955.
They brought sandwiches for lunch, and after hours of driving through the flat prairie land they stopped for dinner somewhere in Kansas. What happened next, Leaman recalled . . . . "This big guy behind the counter said to us, 'We don't serve Negroes, but you can eat in the back room.' Wilt went nuts. He had a BB gun and started shooting it all over outside." Wilt's reaction was due to frustration and surprise as much as plain anger. It was the first time he had seen racism in Kansas, much less been its target. On his two recruiting trips there, he had been chaperoned and insulated like a Miss America contestant, apparently never realizing that Kansas was, in some respects, still a segregated state . . . . Leaman later remarked that Wilt intended to turn around and head back to Philly, but (Coach) Allen sat him down, sent out for hamburgers, and calmed his anger with sweet phrases.
Wilt: Larger Than Life (Triumph Books, 2004) by Robert
Allen Cherry, pp 43-44.
Magic Johnson, pro basketball star. At Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan in 1973.
Magic was truly miserable. Busing was still relatively new at Everett High, and African-American kids were not exactly welcome there . . . . In spite of his feelings, Magic tried out for the Everett basketball team. He made the team but on the first day of practice, it was painfully obvious to him that the white players didn't want a black on their team. "My teammates froze me out," he remembers. "Time after time I was wide open, but nobody threw me the ball." Magic got mad. The next time he got his hands on the ball, he drove down the court all by himself and jammed it through the hoop. He repeated the maneuver until one of the white players demanded that he pass the ball instead of taking all the shots himself. They almost came to blows. . . .
Earvin "Magic" Johnson: Champion and Crusader
(Franklin Watts, 2001) by Ted Gottfried, pp 26-26.
James Brown, R&B singer. As a youth in Augusta, Georgia.
One day young James was working in the fields and a couple of White guys thought it might be fun to try to electrocute him by forcing him to cut into a live wire while dousing him with water. He somehow managed to survive that . . . . Another time James had to deal with some crazy local White ex-GI who often liked to boast to his buddies over drinks about the steel plate in his head that he received thanks to combat, and about the civilian R & R he enjoyed: tying young Black kids to trees to watch them scream and beg in order to, as he put it, "break their spirit." When he grabbed young James and he began to lash him to a big oak, the boy did not resist or complain and stayed tied to the tree for hours until the man realized he wasn't going to get a fear show, and bored with waiting, finally let him go. The next day James looked for the man, found him in the street outside the bar, and without saying a word walked up to him, hit him over the head with an empty glass bottle, and left him stretched out cold on the pavement. The man never bothered him or any young Black boy from the terry again.
James Brown: I Feel Good (New American Library,
2005) by Marc Eliot, pp 12-13.
Angela Davis, socialist activist. Around age 16 in Birmingham, Alabama in 1960.
Most Southern Black children of my generation learned to read the words "Colored" and "White" long before they learned "Look, Dick, look". . . . one Sunday some friends and I were driving home from the movies. Among those in the car was Peggy, a girl who lived down the street. She was very light skinned, with blond hair and green eyes. Her presence usually provoked puzzled and hostile stares because white people were always misidentifying her as white. This time it was a policeman who mistook her for a white person surrounded by black people. And just as my friends were about to drop me off in front of the house, he forced us over to the side, demanding to know what we niggers were doing with a white girl. He ordered us out of the car and scratched all of us, except Peggy, whom he separated from the group . . . . The cop threatened to throw all of us in jail, including Peggy, whom he called a "nigger lover." When Peggy angrily explained that she was Black like all the rest of us, the cop was obviously embarrassed. He worked off his embarrassment by harassing us with foul language, hitting some of the boys and searching every inch of the car for some excuse to take us to jail.
Angela Davis: An Autobiography (International
Publishers, 1988) by Angela Davis, pp 83, 102-103.
Benjamin E. Mays, President of Morehouse College. Age 16 in Epworth, South Carolina in 1910.
A young white doctor, Wallace Payne, had the reputation of beating up Negroes for no reason. He was mean and deeply prejudiced against Negroes. . . . He opened the gate (to the postal store) and went in; but before going in he struck me a mighty blow in the face, saying, "Get out of my way, you black rascal. You're trying to look to good anyway." I was stunned, momentarily blinded by the blow . . . . a Negro was not supposed to look neat or intelligent, or stand erect around Dr. Payne. Maybe he had expected me to start to grin and cringe when I saw him or to jump when he spoke to me . . . . It was a Saturday afternoon; the store was filled with white men dressed in overalls, smoking with chewing tobacco, some drinking. There is no doubt in my mind that had I struck back I would have been shot dead on the spot, and I am also sure that nothing would have been done about it.
Born to Rebel (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), by Benjamin E.
Mays, pp 45-46.
Hank Aaron, pro baseball star. Age 18 in Eau Claire, Minnesota in 1952.
. . . for some reason, this (white) family just took to liking me. Especially the daughter. She was a teenager, like me, and we'd sit out on the porch holding hands. Nobody made a big deal about it, but we made sure we didn't go out in public together. Once she and I and Wes and Julie and a bunch of the girls went up to a big hangout called Elks Mound, out in the country, and somehow a bunch of local guys found out and came looking for us. I don't know what they would have done if they had found us, but I wasn't eager to find out. The girls hid us in the bushes until they were gone. But that sort of thing didn't worry me as much as the idea of playing ball against white boys. I never doubted my ability, but when you hear all your life (growing up in Mobile, Alabama) that you're inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you've never seen before.
I Had A Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (HarperCollins,
1991) by Henry Aaron with Lonnie Wheeler, pp 41-42.
Oprah Winfrey, television talk show host. As the only black student at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin.
In 1968 it was real hip to know a black person, so I was very popular. . . . The students at Nicolet had not known of many blacks---and it showed. The kids would all bring me back to their houses. . . bring out their maid from the back and say, "Oprah, do you know Mabel?"
Oprah Winfrey: Global Media Leader (Twenty-First Century
Books, 2009) by Katherine Krohn and Martha Cosgrove, p. 21.
Whitney Young, civil rights leader. In Kentucky at age 5 in 1926.
Nothing he had experienced had prepared him for the day his parents took him to the movies in Shelbyville. While his mother and father were buying tickets, the boy walked into the lobby of the theater, where he attracted the attention of an usher. "What are you doing here?" the usher asked angrily. Realizing what was happening, Whitney's mother and father hurried over, scolded the boy, and took him up to the "crow's nest," the segregated balcony reserved for blacks. The child was bewildered and close to tears. Why did he and his family have to climb several flights of stairs to the balcony? Why did they have to sit in the dirty section of the theater? Why, above all, were his parents angry at him instead of at the white man who had questioned him?
"I later understood that they were angry at me out of their concern for me," Young said. "Their anger had to do with the early training that all black youngsters received. How do you survive? How do you get along. You survive by not talking back. You get along by 'staying in your place.'"
Whitney M. Young Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights
(Princeton University Press, 1989) by Nancy J. Weiss, p. 6.
Walter White, NAACP leader. As a boy in Atlanta, Georgia around 1900.
One time a white child caught Walter as he dared drink from a whites-only water fountain. The boy pushed him from behind and then ran for the safety of his own block; Walter gave chase and threw a rock, hitting the child in the head. Walter ran home, arriving just before the white child's mother, who threatened to bring the full force of the law on him. Madeline defended her child's actions and forced the other woman to back down. But when they were along, she beat her son with a switch, teaching Walter the lesson that black mothers since emancipation taught their children: do not openly defy racial etiquette for personal convenience.
White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP (New
Press, 2003) by Kenneth R. Janken, pp 9-10.
Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. 1950 at age 17 on his way from Boston to attend Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.
During an eight-hour layover between southbound trains in Washington, D.C., while en route to college, he decided to see a film. As he approached the theater's ticket booth, employees and patrons standing outside looked at him strangely. He first checked his pants to make sure his fly was up. Then, asking for a ticket, he was told, "We don't sell to niggers."
Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation
(BasicBooks, 1996) by Arthur J. Magida, p. 24.
Ollie Harrington, cartoonist. Circa 1923 at age 11.
One bright morning our teacher, a Miss McCoy, ordered us (Harrington and the only other black student). . . to the front of the class. Pausing for several seconds, she pointed her cheaply jeweled finger, with what I considered a very dramatic gesture, at the trash basket and said, "never, never forget these two belong in that there trash basket." The white kids giggled, rather hesitantly at first, and then fell out in peels of laughter. For those kids, it must have been their first trip on the racist drug. It was several days before I managed to pull myself together. Gradually, I felt and urge to draw little caricatures of Miss McCoy in the margins of my notebooks. Miss McCoy being rammed into a local butcher shop meat-grinding apparatus. Miss McCoy being run over by the speeding engines on the nearby New York Central railroad tracks. I began to realize that each of my drawings lifted my spirits a little bit. And so I began to dream of becoming a cartoonist.
Dark Laughter: Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington (University
Press of Mississippi, 1993), p. xi.
C. DeLores Tucker, head of the National Congress of Black Women. Aboard a cruise ship in 1946.
Her parents imparted such a strong self-image to their daughter she said she was surprised when she first encountered racism and segregation. When she was 19, her father took her to the Bahamas. When she found out the black passengers had to ride in the bottom of the ship, she refused to go to go and slept all night on deck. As a result, she developed tuberculosis, she said. "I refused to yield to something that I felt was improper for me as a person."
From an article in the Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1996, p. 3.
Horace A. Porter, English professor. Circa 1950 in Midland, Georgia at age 7 after he and his sister opened their door of their home to a white man who asked if their father was present.
But overhearing Doris and peering warily out the door as the white man drove away, Mama slapped Doris with such force that Doris stumbled, fell, and started crying uncontrollably. Mama's anger frightened me too and snapped me to attention. As Doris lay weeping on the floor, Mama lectured us about talking to white strangers. "That man could have been a Ku Klux. He could come back in the middle of the night and kill us all," she said. Since I'd heard Daddy repeat the biblical passage about how "death comes as a thief in the night," I interpreted Mama's angry admonition as a prediction of what would happen that very night. As Mama went on to describe white men dressed in white sheets burning crosses and murdering Negroes, the words Ku Klux Klan took on a life of their own in my mind. Every time I heard the words, I prayed to see the light of the next day. The shotgun we owned didn't seem like sufficient protection.
The Making of a Black Scholar: From Georgia to the Ivy
League (University of Iowa Press, 2003) by Horace A. Porter, p. 5.
Ike and Tina Turner, R&B singers. Age 22 (Tina), Ike (age 30), driving through Kentucky in 1961, as told by singer-dancer Bonnie Bramlett.
We were driving along some turnpike and suddenly this old beat-up Plymouth full of white kids came up and started trying to run us off the road. They were calling me a nigger-lover, a lot of filthy names. Well, Ike says to Jimmy Thomas, who was driving, he says, "Why don't you just pull right off on this exit here." The exit was only wide enough for one car, and those white kids like idiots, followed us. Then Ike said, "Stop the car, Jimmy." And he got his gun out of the glove compartment and he got out of the car. These kids in back of us were tryin' to turn the car around, but they couldn't get out. So they were rollin' up their windows and lockin' their doors---they were terrified. And Ike put that gun up to the car-door window and he said, "I ain't gonna be another nigger for you boys this afternoon, so take your ass away from here or I'll blow your goddamn brains out." They were cryin', "Please, dear God, oh God, oh God. . . And then they were gone.
I, Tina (Morrow, 1986) by Kurt Loder, p. 95.
Wellington Webb, Mayor of Denver. Age 17, encounter with policemen after his girlfriend crash is car into a building in Denver in 1958.
"This nigger drove the car through the building, and we just need to take his black ass to jail," the bad cop said . . . . And then I made up the most outrageous lie . . . . At that point, the bad cop said, "Nigger, you are going to jail."
Wellington Webb: The Mayor, and the Making of Modern
Denver (Fulcrum Publishing, 2007) by Wellington Webb
with Cindy Brovsky, p. 48.
Roberto Clemente, pro baseball star. Age 21 in 1955 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He was not only black. He was Puerto Rican. Even on his own team, some of the players made fun of him and called him "nigger." Roberto grew furious at their insults. In Puerto Rico, he thought no one called a person "nigger." There were other insults as well. In the newspapers, the writers called him a "Puerto Rican hot dog." When they quoted the things he said, they exaggerated his accent. "I no play so gut yet," the would write. "Me like hot weather, veree hot. I no run fast cold weather. No get warm in cold. No get warm, no play gut. You see." Roberto still had trouble with English, but he did not speak as poorly as the writers made him sound.
Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente (Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1988) by Paul Robert Walker, p.55.
Rev. Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader. In Huntsville, Alabama, early 1930s.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was the victim of an incident in an Alabama store. A big white police officer pushed me in the stomach with a billy club. Although I was almost out of the store, he said "Get back nigger, don't you see a white man coming?" My father tried to protect me. He went to the chief of police who told him there was nothing we could do.
And Still We Rise: Interviews With 50 Black Role Models
(USA Today Books, 1988) by Barbara Reynolds, p. 146.
Oscar Peterson, Canadian-born jazz pianist. Age 26, while on tour in the South.
Oscar was driving Ray's car, a Cadillac. Ray was asleep. Needing cigarettes, Oscar stopped before a diner. A police car was parked in front of it. Oscar entered and requested his brand of cigarettes from the counterman, producing a twenty-dollar bill, the smallest he had, to pay for them.
"Where did you get twenty dollars, boy?" the counterman said. Realizing how dangerous the situation was, Oscar said it was legitimately earned. The counterman gave him his cigarettes---and threw the change on the floor.
"Pick it up boy," one of the cops said, his hand on his gun. In one of the few instances where Oscar Peterson ever backed down, he bent, gathered his change, and left . . . . he got into the car and sat silent, waiting for the police car to leave so that he could go back in the diner after the counterman. Ray woke up and asked what was going on. Oscar told him what had happened. Ray urged him to start the car and leave, and finally his counsel prevailed.
Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing (Cooper Square
Press, 1988) by Gene Lees, p. 103.
Faye Wattleton, President of Planned Parenthood. At age 10 in 1953 in Columbus, Nebraska.
I still remember the first time Mama and I went to shop for groceries. We were walking down the tree-lined street then suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a sea of white faces pointing, snickering, whispering, and staring at us. In every direction, people had stopped in their steps to gawk. Some were surely seeing black people for the first time . . . . People stepped to the side and peered out the windows to watch as we passed. My mother was incensed by the callous rudeness of the stares. As for me, while I had seen signs the read "Colored" and "White" in the South, this experience was altogether different. At ten years old, I felt humiliated and isolated. Nothing could have prepared me for this experience, and I cried all the way back to our small apartment. Once there, I ran into my room, closed the door, fell on the bed, buried my face in my pillow, and wept uncontrollably, distraught by the idea that we would be living in this town indefinitely.
Faye Wattleton: Life on the Line (Ballantine Books,
1996) by Faye Wattleton, p. 45.
Jimi Hendrix, rock guitarist. Age 25 on tour with band members in 1967.
Noel and Mitch, both thin, pale-complexioned, curly-headed English boys, were horrified to discover---is assorted towns in America's South and Midwest---that Jimi was not welcome to eat in the same restaurants with them or enter a bathroom meant for white males. Their mouth dropped open when their attention was called to the COLORED ONLY signs. Hendrix himself took it in stride; this treatment was nothing new to him . . . . Noel and Mitch sometimes viewed him as godlike. Encounters with racism threw them for a loop---how dare anyone treat their Jimi in such a demeaning way? "It made my blood run cold when some old scrubber of a waitress said once, 'The nigger can't be served here.' Ignorant cow!" Noel said.
Jimi Hendrix: The Man, The Magic, The Truth
(HarperCollins, 2005) by Sharon Lawrence, p. 102.
Nikki Giovanni, poet. As a child, circa 1950.
I remember going downtown in Knoxville, Tennessee, and not being able to get a glass of water, if you remember things like that, then you know we've come a long way. Then there was a big amusement park that we got to go to only once a year. To this day I hate amusement parks.
And Still We Rise: Interviews With 50 Black Role Models
(USA Today Books, 1988) by Barbara Reynolds, p. 94.
Donna Brazile, Democratic Party strategist. At age 12 on her first day at a previously all-white junior high school in Metairie, Louisiana, in the early1970s.
No sooner had we gotten off the busing than we were pelted with eggs. Groups of angry White parents had parked near the school to keep an eye on their children, and they started lobbing eggs and tomatoes across the fence. We were horrified. Pam started crying and Baby Jack came to her aid to shield her from the bombardment . . . . I was afraid one of the Lane sisters would pull out a knife, so I ran to (Principal) Causey and begged him to find us cover. The White parents started cussing us out in language we had never heard at home. They called us monkeys, baboons and niggers. They shouted at us to "leave their schools and do not come back to Metairie." This was integration.
Cooking With Grease (Simon & Schuster, 2004) by Donna
Brazile, pp 42-43.
Nat King Cole, singer. As a youth in the 1930s.
Black Chicagoans, especially the self-styled bourgeoisie, look down on poor black migrants from the South; and one of Nat's most vivid memories was of one encounter with this utter disdain. He recalled, "Once, in Chicago, I sat down on a bus next to this light-skinned black lady, and she turned to me and said, 'You are black and you stink and you can never wash it off.'" That experience had a profound effect on young Nathaniel Coles. . . . It explained his almost fanatical personal cleanliness. "He was the cleanest person," says (Geri) Branton, "took two or three baths a day." What else could a kid do after being the object of such a cruel remark? But he had taken that curse inside himself, and no amount of water could ever was it away.
Nat King Cole (Stein & Day, 1984) by James Haskins, p. 18.
Julian Bond, civil rights activist. As a boy in the mid-1940's in Tennessee.
"I remember walking through the white section of the segregated Nashville train station and a policeman said something to my mother like, 'This is not for niggers!' and mother said very angrily, 'Don't call me a nigger!' and just strode by him with me following along. I don't think I was old enough to remember what this was really all about, but I do remember being impressed that my mother stood up to this authority figure."
Julian Bond: Civil Right Activist and Chairman of the
NAACP (Enslow Publishers, 2001) by Denise M. Jordan, p. 16.
Diahnn Carroll, actress. On a trip from New York City to the South in 1943.
When I was about eight years old, we took a trip to North Carolina. My father was always a little apprehensive about driving that big, shiny Chrysler through the South . . . . He was very, very, careful about observing speed limits and traffic signals, but one night we were stopped. Suddenly, the flashing red lights of a police car came up behind us, and we were ordered to pull over . . . .
"Where you goin', boy?" he demanded. "Whose car are you drivin'?"
Dad answered his questions politely and directly, but that didn't satisfy the policeman. "Well, you just follow us," he ordered . . . . We were in the middle of nowhere. Even at that young age, I remember thinking that this was the end. We would die. And no one would be able to help us . . . . They took my father inside. I could see white men interrogating him through the basement window. Once again, I witnessed his terrible helplessness. The fear was so thick, I could barely breathe. I thought I would choke, and held on to my mother for dear life.
Diahnn (Little, Brown, 1986) by Diahnn Carrol with Ross
Firestone, pp 19-20.
Gwen Ifill, journalist and news show host. As a college intern at the Boston Herald American, circa 1976.
I came to work one day and found a note, apparently for me, on my work space that said "Nigger, go home." My first response, when I looked at it, was I wonder who this is for? Honestly, I was kind of innocent about it, because it wouldn't occur to me that someone would do something like that . . . . they didn't want to fire the guy they knew who had done it, because he was an older guy nearing retirement. So, instead, they offered me a job, which (at first) I had no intention of taking.
From a 2009 DailyMe.com interview with Cathy Areu.
Sam Cooke, pop singer. Age 18, confronted by white policeman in a park in Memphis, Tennessee. Told by singer Marvin Jones.
Anyway, after they got in the park and settled down, they discovered these lights on them---the police had driven up behind them and put the spotlights on them and told them to get out of the car. Well, everybody got out, and they lined them all up, but Sam was the only one who had his hands in his pockets. And as they went down the line to each person and asked them where they were from, when they got to Sam, the officer got angry because he had his hands in his pockets, and he slapped him and called him a nigger and said, 'You are not in Chicago. We will hang you down here, and they'll never find your body.'"
Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown,
2005) by Peter Guralnick, p. 52.
Miles Davis, jazz trumpeter. As a boy and a teenager in the early 1930s in East St. Louis, Illinois.
One of Miles's earliest memories is of being chased down a street by a white man shouting, 'Nigger! Nigger!' Miles, a sensitive boy, never forgot it.
The injustice (of Miles being denied first place prizes in competition with whites) made a deep impression on Miles. Years later, he recalled: "It made me so mad I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn. If I hadn't met that prejudice, I probably wouldn't have had as much drive in my work."
Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography (Thunder's Mouth
Press, 1998) by Ian Carr, pp 2 and 6.
Diana Ross, pop singer. About age 8 in Bessemer, Alabama in 1952.
. . . Diana came home from school with a large bruise on her cheek. "What in the world happened?" Ernestine asked, very concerned. . . . "A boy hit me hard, Mama," she cried, according to her later recollection. "He called me a name and hit me! And you told me not to fight, so I didn't." What name did he call you?' Ernestine asked as she went for the ice.
Ernestine stopped what she was doing and faced her daughter. In that moment, it was as if she realized that her children had seen too much, been exposed to too many examples of the recent violence against blacks for her not to awaken her child to some harsh realities . . . .
"Don't you ever let anyone hit you and call you a nigger, do you hear me?". . . ." You fight. And you'd better win, too. Because if you don't, when you come home, I'm the one who's gonna whip your butt."
Diana Ross: An Unauthorized Biography (Citadel Press,
2007) by J. Randy Taraborrelli, pp 20-21.
Florence Ballard, pop singer and one of original Supremes. At age 19 in 1962, on tour in the South with the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Miracles.
We all had to go bad, and so we stopped at a gas station . . . . (The Miracles) went in and asked if we could use the bathroom and the next thing I knew they were running back to the bus, followed by a white man with a shotgun. I grew up with white people living right next door, and I never saw anything like that before. "These white people were crazy,"
Diane (Diana Ross) said. Eventually we made a deal with the guy. He said we could use his bucket. We had no choice. Everyone cleared the bus, and whoever had to would go into the bus and do his business in the bucket, come back out, empty it behind the gas station in the wood and then clean out the bucket for the next person, using a water hose.
Diana Ross: An Unauthorized Biography (Citadel Press,
2007) by J. Randy Taraborrelli, p. 73.
Charles White, graphic artist. In the year 1934.
White's high school teachers, aware that his art demonstrated considerable promise, entered him into a statewide competition, in which he was awarded a scholarship to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. When the sixteen-year-old artist and his mother arrived at the academy to complete the required paperwork, they were informed that a terrible mistake had been made---he had not won the award after all. The following year he received notification that he had won a scholarship from the Frederic Mizen Academy of Art. Again, when he arrived to accept the award, he was informed that yet another mistake had been made. A white candidate had won the award instead. Living in the Midwest, distanced from the Jim Crow laws and racism that he had heard about in the South, White was confused to find that he was continually denied opportunities because he was black. The systematic rejections and the disadvantages they caused further prompted White and other black artists to articulate injustice and the value of black life in their work.
Charles White (Pomegranate, 2002) by Andrea D. Barnwell,
Shirley Caesar, gospel singer. Traveling with a small group, including a minister, at age 16 in 1954 upon stopping at a gas station near Tarboro, North Carolina.
The clerk behind the counter stared at the young man (in her group) for a second, then with a menacing smirk on his face said, "Did I hear you say you wanted some peppermint candy, boy?" Still half asleep he yawningly said, "Uh-huh." The clerk, who was leaning toward the candy, instantly stood upright and said, "Did you say uh-huh to me?" And then he used the n word and slapped the young man so hard that it turned his whole body around . . . . The clerk then went behind the counter and came up waving a steel hammer and simultaneously yelling to the other white men, "Let's kill them all". . . . (As members of the group were beaten) I turned around, and coming directly toward me were two white men, one with a pitchfork and the other with a garden hoe . . . . So I ran seemingly for hours all the way into Bennettsville, South Carolina (two miles away). I ended up sitting on a tree stump in a vacant lot, scared and worn out.
Shirley: The Lady, The Melody, & the Word (Thomas
Nelson, 1998) by Shirley Caesar, pp 4-9.
Drs. Charles Drew, blood bank pioneer, and W. Montagu Cobb, anthropologist and NAACP president. Circa age 20 in early 1925 playing football.
"Then the manager came over and said he was very sorry but that during the meet the Narragansett Hotel had heard there were colored boys on the Amherst (College) team and had sent word that they would not serve them with the team . . . . The four of us went to the Brown commons, but it was a silent, spare meal. The convoy picked us up and we each rode in different cars, but the night ride back to Amherst was painfully silent in those four cars. That was such a bad one that it was seldom mentioned afterward even among ourselves". . . . According to Cobb, "Princeton (University) had been famous for breaking up any colored player". . . . when Cobb's and Drew's classmate Ben Davis, a six-foot-two tackle who was darker skinned than Drew, appeared, Princeton fans began to yell, "Get that chocolate bar!" By the second half of the game, the Princeton audience had learned that Drew was black too. "When he was spilled upside down, a cheer went up on the Princeton side."
One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew
University of North Carolina Press, 1996) by Spencie Love, p. 110.
Lester Young, jazz musician. As a youth in Louisiana, presumably before 1930.
Lee (Lester's brother) recounted an incident in which one of the cousins had to flee a lynch mob . . . and Lester was sent to help. Late in life, Lester admitted to a psychiatrist that he had always believed that blacks could not attain salvation as a result of a church he and his father had attended where only whites could come up to the mourners' bench.
Lester Young (Twayne Publishers, 1985) by Lewis Porter, p. 6.
Gen. Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State. At age 20 at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
At the end of the (summer training) course he was awarded a set of pens, mounted on a marble base with a plaque designating him the best cadet in his company. He placed second best overall in the camp, an honor that left him bursting with pride until a white supply sergeant told him, as they were turning in their gear and preparing to leave for home, that his color was the only reason he hadn't won first place. Colin wasn't sure how to respond, so he said nothing.
Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell (Alfred A. Knopf,
2006) by Karen DeYoung, p. 31.
Robert Guillaume, actor. As a boy at St. Nicolas's Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri.
I experience two types of racism at St. Nick's. The first was the racism that any black born in the twenties encountered in any section of the country---whites claiming and legislating their perceived superiority. Such treatment would enrage anyone, but I found a way to deal with it. Even at an early age, I had the wisdom to detach. Color prejudice came from both camps---black and white---and, as (sister) Dolores said, even from my own mother. Because I felt it so strongly at a religious school, I grew angry. The terms were clear---the lighter your skin, the better your treatment. I felt in my gut how the teachers were repelled by dark skin. Light kids sat up front, darks in the back. Light kids were called on more readily, darks discouraged from saying a goddamn word. I internalized those attitudes. I silently concluded that dark skin was ugly, a hindrance to social acceptance, and a heavy burden to bear.
Guillaume: A Life (University of Missouri Press, 2002)
by Robert Guillaume with David Ritz, pp 10-11.
Wiley Branton, civil rights activist and law school dean. At age 11 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Around 1934, Wiley was given a twenty-dollar bill in exchange for some service at the cabstand. There was not enough money in the office to make change, and he went across the street to the railroad office for it. Suspicious of a colored child possessing that large a bill, the white stationmaster questioned him accusingly. When told that Wiley was Leo Branton's son, the man stated, "Oh. Yeah, you can get change. Leo's a good nigger."
There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil
Rights Warrior (University of Arkansas Press, 2007) by
Judith Kilpatrick, p. 10.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, novelist-editor. Circa 1895 at age 13 in Philadelphia.
"To this day, it hurts to think of my childhood . . . . I happened to be the only colored girl in my classes at high school, and I'll never forget the agony I endured on entrance day when the white girls with whom I had played and studied through the graded schools, refused to acknowledge my greeting." The racial snub felt on entrance day to high school was evidently long felt by Fauset, appearing in her rather frequent references to hating the uncertainty of dining out under ever-potential segregation, and in her use of similar experiences for characters in her books.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer (Whitston
Publishing Co., 1981) by Carolyn W. Sylvander, p. 27.
Rihanna, pop singer. As a child growing up in Barbados in the 1990s.
It made me angry; it made me want to fight in my younger years. Having lighter skin wasn't a problem in my household, but it was when I went to school---which really confused me at first. For the first six years of school, I would go home traumatized. The harassment continued to my very last day of elementary school. High school was better.
Interview in InStyle magazine, August 2008.
Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) in 1932.
As I approached the assembly where the meeting was in progress, I heard someone ask, "What are we going to do about the nigger?" I realized then that the meeting was about me, and I was not suppose to attend. I turned on my heel and double-timed back to my room. From that meeting on, the cadets who roomed across the hall, who had been friendly earlier, no longer spoke to me. In fact, no one spoke to me except in the line of duty. Apparently certain upperclass cadets had determined I was getting along too well at the Academy to suit them, and they were going to enforce an old West Point tradition---"silencing"---with the object of making my life so unhappy that I would resign . . . . What they did not realize was that I was stubborn enough to put up with their treatment to reach the goal I had come to attain.
Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: An Autobiography (Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1991) by Benjamin O. Davis Jr., p. 27.
Ethel Waters, singer-actress. Around age 8 in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1904.
(The rabbi) mistook my mimicry for genius and constantly was reproaching his student for not being as good a scholar as the little Negro girl who had never taken one lesson in Hebrew. When the Jewish boy and I quarreled he'd call me nigger and I'd say he was a kike. If I ran out of insults I'd jeeringly shout at him the Hebrew chants and prayers he had so much trouble with.
His Eye Is On The Sparrow (Doubleday, 1951) by Ethel
Waters with Charles Samuels, p. 28.
Gordy Berry, music record producer. In Detroit at age 5 in 1934.
. . . I discovered the world was not all black. Worse, it was all white except for a few "other" people. And we were considered the lowest class of those "other" people---"Niggers." I didn't know exactly what that word meant but I knew it was real bad. I remember rushing home from school one day and telling my mother a white boy had called me one. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me," is all she said. Though her words were strong and gave me comfort at the time, I still felt bad.
To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of
Motown: An Autobiography (Warner Books, 1994) by Berry
Gordy. p. 10.
Michael Eric Dyson, professor-author. Age 17 in 1975 at a boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
This was during the time that Roots was being televised. I came home to my dorm room one evening to find a newspaper cartoon of one of the Roots characters tacked to my door, with the words scribbled on it: "nigger, go home." Some students also students also anonymously circulated a cassette tape about the black students that we got hold of. On the tape, a voice says in exaggerated southern cadence, "We're going fishing today. No we're not, we're going 'nigar' fishing. What's the bait? Hominy grits!" On another occasion, a white student expressed the wish to place a bottle of sickle-cell anemia in the school's quadrangle to "kill off all the undesirables."
Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Religion, Sex, Culture
and Religion (Basic Civitas Books, 2003) by Michael Eric
Dyson, pp 8-9.
Byron Pitts, CBS newsman. At age 7 in 1967 upon wandering into a segregated store in Apex, North Carolina.
. . . it was (the white store clerk's) stare that locked on to me as I walked toward the front counter . . . . (grandmother) was afraid to walk in. But she had to get me out with her brand of quiet discipline . . . . Before I could reach her, the store clerk shouted, "Miss Roberta, what you doing here?" "Just tending my grandson," she said. "We'll be on our way." Her tone was gentle yet firm. Her voice did not betray her, and she never took her eyes off me . . . . "We'll talk in the car," she said under her breath . . . . "Don't you ever scare me like that again. There are people who will hurt you just because of the color of your skin. So always be careful. Never be afraid or at least never show it. God won't call you home till your time. But in case He's not watching, you guard yourself. Then she smiled. It was a crash course in how to maneuver in the midst of segregation.
Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me
ConquerLife's Challenges (Macmillan, 2009) by Byron
Pitts, pp 54-55.
Sugar Ray Robinson, champion boxer. Age 12 in New York City in 1933.
Sugar would learn quickly it was not safe to venture outside the enclave, unless you were ready to fight or fast enough to outrun the gangs of white toughs who preyed upon little "nigger" like Sugar. On several occasions, Sugar, seeking a free lunch at the nearby Salvation Army office, was cornered outside his zone and had to use his wits to avoid getting his "black ass kicked," as he recalled. But a good meal, he'd apparently decided, was worth the risk of getting his nose bloodied or his lip busted.
Pound For Pound: A Biographical of Sugar Ray Robinson
(Amistad, 2005) by Herb Boyd, p. 18.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Congressman. Age 10 in New York City in 1918.
The first night that my father sent me out to buy the evening paper in our new neighborhood, on 136th Street, a gang of Negro boys grabbed me and asked, "What are you, white or colored?" I had never thought of color. I looked at my skin and said, "White!" Whereupon I was promptly and thoroughly beaten. The very next night I had to go to Eighth Avenue to get something from the store for my mother, and a gang of white boys grabbed me and demanded, "What are you?" Remembering my answer, and my beating, of the preceding night, I answered, "Colored!" Whereupon I again was bloodied. On the third night, another group of colored boys grabbed me on Seventh Avenue and asked the same question, "What are you?" Remembering once more my previous experiences, I said, "Mixed!" One of the boys yelled out, "Oh, he's a Mick!" And I was sent home crying for a third time. That was my first real brush with racism. It sowed the seeds of my belief that it's not the color of your skin but the way you think that makes you what you are.
Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton
Powell, Jr. (Dial Press, 1971) by Adam Clayton Powell
Jr., p. 24.
Julius Lester, author. Around age 14 in 1953 in Nashville, Tennessee.
While part of me feared whites, I was also contemptuous of them and their silly segregation. When I rode the buses alone, I sat in the front seat and laughed when whites stood rather than sit beside me. Once the bus driver asked me to move to the rear where, legally, I was supposed to be. I refused, even when other blacks pleaded with me "not to make trouble". . . . I went to the segregated public library often. Whites would move to another shelf of books when I came near, and get up from the reading tables when I sat down. Fools, fools, fools, I laughed, but the laughter could not salve the hurt at being made to feel that I was an unclean thing.
All Is Well (Morrow, 1976) by Julius Lester, pp 19-20.
Lorraine Hansberry, playwright. Shortly after moving into a new home in a predominantly white and "very hostile neighborhood" in Chicago, circa 1938.
One day Mamie and Lorraine were sitting on the porch, swinging their legs, when a mob gathered. When the girls went inside to the living room, a brick came crashing through the window with such impact that it implanted itself in the wall. Narrowly missing eight-year-old Lorraine Hansberry, the brick could well have killed her.
Lorraine Hansberry (Twayne, 1984) by Anne Cheney, p. 4.
Gordon Parks, photographer-movie director. Circa 1920, as a boy in Ft. Scott, Kansas, after having been beaten by three white kids who saw him walking with his light-skinned cousin who they mistook to be a white girl.
The three cowards, outnumbered by the lesser count of two (Gordon and his white friend-to-the-rescue, Waldo), turned tail and ran . . . .
"They thought Princetta was white."
"Idiots," he answered. "Hell, I know'd she was a nigger all the time. Waldo and I had trapped and fished together all our lives, but only through the delicacy of the situation did I resist busting him in the jaw.
Because of similar incidents Princetta had to leave before her vacation was over. She never came back to visit us again. As her train pulled out, I asked y mother why whites hated us so much . . . . During those times, whites of Kansas acted as though they stood at the center of the universe; behaved as though we Negroes were just galaxies of negligible black flesh, swirling in and out of their orbit to serve them. I would have been impossible for them to understand what our lives were like; nor did they care.
Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography (Doubleday,
1990) by Gordon Parks, pp 4-5.
Bobby Short, cabaret singer-pianist. Circa 1940 in his hometown in Ohio.
. . . I remember only one moment of alarm, and that happened when I was I high school, coming home late one evening from my job at a local night club. A gang of white middle-aged drunks reeled out of a corner tavern on Washington Avenue, a predominantly Negro neighborhood, and headed toward me:
"There's a nigger. Let's get him!"
I knew that paralyzing split second of fear, when your blood does indeed run cold and your fingers and feet prickle.
Black And White Baby (Dodd, Mead, 1971) by Bobby
Short, p. 6.
Nina Simone, singer. In Tryon, North Carolina in 1944.
When I was eleven years old I was asked to give a recital in the town hall. I sat at the piano with my trained elegance while a white man introduced me, and when I looked up my parents, who were dressed in their best, were being thrown out of their front row seats in favour of a white family I had never seen before. And Daddy and Momma were allowing themselves to be moved. Nobody else said anything, but I wasn't going to see them treated like that and stood up in my starched dress and said if anyone expected to hear me play then they'd better make sure that my family was sitting right there in the front row where I could see them, and to hell with poise and elegance. So they moved them back. But my parents were embarrassed and I saw some of the white folks laughing at me. All of a sudden it seemed like a different world, and nothing was easy any more . . . . The day after the recital I walked around feeling as if I had been flayed and every
slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But the skin grew back again a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.
I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone
(Pantheon Books, 1991) by Nina Simone with Stephen
Cleary, pp 26-27.
Johnnie Cochran, defense attorney. Around age 13 on a drive from Los Angeles to Shreveport, Louisiana, circa 1950.
I remember how my mother would become visibly tense and watchful as we crossed into the state (of Texas). Over and over, she would caution us to behave ourselves, to speak to the people we met only when spoken to. "If anything happens," she would warn us, "keep quiet. Leave it to your daddy." At first I was puzzled by her apprehension. Then I learned. We had stopped, and I---ignoring Mother's repeated demands to "stay close"---went looking for a rest room. Outside the door of the first one I located, I found myself staring up into the chilly eyes of a large white man in a cowboy hat.
"Boy, can't you read?" he said in a voice dripping with unfamiliar contempt. Before I could reply my mother bustled into sight and hustled me away . . . . I did not understand why we sat in the back of the bus or in the balcony. Or searched with anxious eyes for signs that read FOR COLORED or FOR WHITES.
Journey to Justice (One World, 1996) by Johnnie L.
Cochran with Tim Rutten, p. 40.
Wynton Marsalis, jazz trumpeter. At De La Salle High School in New Orleans in the late 1970s.
"I was cheated out of a type of academic award that I was supposed to have. The teacher didn't want a black person to have the top honor. They lowered my grade by a few points, whatever it took for me not to be first." He discovered the situation one day when he was in school after hours and looked at the ledger sheet that contained everyone's marks. His mark was the first. "Oh, now I shouldn't have been doing that, but I did do it," he said. He didn't suspect what he was going to find. Then he got the hurtful, angering shock.
Wynton Marsalis: Skain's Domain: A Biography
(Schirmer Books, 1999) by Leslie Gourse, p. 36.
Chris Rock, comedian. At schools in Bensonhurst (New York City) in the 1980s.
When he got older, Chris was bused to Marine Park Junior High School and then James Madison High School. Both schools were mostly white . . . . Chris got more than strange looks. He was called names, spat upon, and beaten up. "I was so outnumbered, so I would just stand there and take it," he told Rolling Stone magazine. "The worst part is that, after a while your spirit is broken." Chris dropped out of school when he was 17.
Chris Rock (Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2008) by
Jacqueline L. Gorman, p.13.
Bayard Rustin, civil rights activist. In West Chester, Pennsylvania, circa 1922.
There was a temporary crisis in the relationship when Pascele (his white friend) accused Bayard of "acting like a nigger," but they soon made friends again . . . . Once, when he was in about the fifth grade, Bayard and a group of his white cronies went to a laundry owned by the one Chinese family in town. "Chink, chink, chinaman, eats dead rats, hit'em on the head with a baseball bat," they shouted at the door. Bayard, the only black boy in the group, was easily identified. The owner came to Janifer Rustin and complained. For the next two weeks, his grandparents decreed, Bayard had to work without pay at the laundry. So he learned about racism from the vantage point of the prejudiced.
Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement (Rutgers
University Press, 2000) by Daniel Levine, p. 11.
Vernon Jordan, civil rights leader-attorney. While on a trip from Atlanta, Georgia to Washington, D.C. to march in a parade, age 11 in 1946.
That was my first train ride . . . . All I remember about the train was that the white kids sat in the back and we black kids sat in front. This was the reverse of how it usually went on public transportation. Of course, the idea was to let the black kids sit right behind the engine and to keep the white kids safely and comfortable away from it. When we got to Washington, the white kids stayed in a hotel. We were put up in an old art studio in an apartment building in what is now Logan Circle. We slept on cots. By this time I was familiar with slights of this kind. I knew it was wrong and that none of it made any sense. I just could not let this destroy the excitement of seeing Washington for the first time. I owed it to myself (and to my parents) not to.
Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir (PublicAffairs, 2001) by
Vernon Jordan with Annette Gordon-Reed, p. 32.
Stokely Carmichael, black nationalist leader. From age 12 and 13 in the Bronx.
. . . if I happened to be walking next to, or in conversation with, a (white) girl, then heads and hackles would be raised, not just eyebrows. So, from a young age I clearly understood this aspect of American racism. Besides which my mother had, at about this time, begun to seriously caution me about white girls, and in particular that I should never even think about anything remotely resembling a white wife. If any such idea ever broached my consciousness, I should forget about it "like bullfrog forgot about tail" in the Caribbean proverb. The next year---after the revelation of the (Emmett) Till atrocity---a note of real anxiety and alarm crept into my mother's warnings on the subject.
Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely
Carmichael (Scribner, 2003) by Stokely Carmichael, p. 75.
Katherine Dunham, dancer-choreographer. As a child at locations in Illinois.
Although Dunham and her family did not live in segregated neighborhoods, they encountered and resisted racism. Her father fought to live in primarily white neighborhoods, where he thought his business would prosper. At school, the girl stubbornly refused to sing a song with the line, "I jumped on a nigger and thought he was a horse," and, with her family's support, she persuaded the teacher to eliminate the song from the chorus repertoire.
Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life (University of Illinois
Press, 2002) by Joyce Aschenbrenner, p. 15.
Ben Chavis, civil rights leader. As a 10th grade high school student in Oxford, North Carolina, circa 1964, after being bloodied by a group of marauding white men.
The assailants were described and identified, but the police would not let Mr. Chavis (his father) swear out an arrest warrant. "One thing I will never forget" says Ben, now grown, "What hurt me more than the beating was the expression on my father's face when he realized that the police weren't going to do anything. I think my father still believed that the system would bring about some justice". . . . When Mr. Chavis and Ben returned home, Mrs. Chavis was being treated for a mild heart attack, brought on by alarmist rumors about Ben being badly stabbed during the beating. From that time on, Ben started to notice things more. Little things, like driving into a gas station with his father, the teenage attendant calling Mr. Chavis "boy," the middle-aged attendant calling his father "uncle."
Nothing Could Be Finer (International Publishers, 1978)
by Michael Myerson, p. 21.
Shirley Graham Du Bois, author and wife of W.E.B. Du Bois. Age 13 in 1909 in Colorado Springs, Colorado with her white friend at the YWCA swimming class.
. . . registration cards were being doled out by an otherwise affable woman who greeted the growing crowd of girls with the words, "Welcome to a summer of fun in our new pool!" As the queue moved forward Graham soon found herself face to face with this seemingly pleasant woman. But her visage shifted from a smile to a frown when she glimpsed Graham's light brown face.
"What do you want?" she growled. Graham was jarred by her words. Groping for a response, she stuttered, "I came to sign up for swimming lessons". . . .
"We don't have classes for . . . colored girls as yet," she purred. Graham was mortified, though she drew herself up and replied forcefully, "the lady said that all students could join." Mabel comforted her friend, giving her a warm embrace, but this was insufficient to stem Graham's anger. Tears rolled from her eyes as she turned away. As she walked the six blocks to her home she felt simultaneously confusion, anger, and sadness. What about Mabel, she thought, and her other "friends"; "suddenly, I was thinking of them as my white friends! Or, were they really friends?"
Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (New
York University Press, 2000) by Gerald Horne, p. 45.
Ralph Abernathy, civil rights leader. Upon entering a store and being confronted with a drunken white man as a child in Linden, Alabama, circa early 1930s.
"Here, boy," he said. "You finish this (soda)." It was more a command than an invitation.
Now, my mother had taught us never to drink behind anybody. Not behind members of the family. Particularly not behind a stranger. And certainly not behind a white man. So I shook my head and told him, "No, thank you."
His eyes narrowed immediately and he shoved the bottle in my direction.
"Drink this, nigger!"
I shook my head and said firmly, "I'm sorry, but I don't care for it."
He couldn't believe his ears.
"What in hell do you mean? Are you saying you won't drink after me?"
I stared at him for a moment, then nodded my head.
With a cry of rage he drew back his hand to hit me. At that moment Mr. Jones, who had been watching to see how far things would go, came halfway across the counter.
"Don't you touch that boy!" he cried. Then he added, "That's the son of W. L. Abernathy."
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography
(Harper & Row, 1989) by Ralph D. Abernathy, p. 30.
Audre Lorde, poet. As a child in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s.
She was the chubbiest sister, and the darkest daughter of the white-looking black
woman who made it known that "you didn't trust anybody whose face is black because their heart is black." Recognizing herself as the darkest child, Audre interpreted her mother's constant denigration of dark black people and their implicit evil as a comment on her own propensity for evil. Not pretty, not light-skinned, she was the outsider in a family of outsiders.
Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (W.W.
Norton, 2004) by Alexis De Veaux, p.18.
Ray Charles, singer. Presumably as a child at a school for the blind in Florida, and later as a young adult, circa 1952 stopped by police riding in Houston, Texas.
My little town of Greenville was so quiet, so peaceful, so backward that I grew up without any idea that there was actual hatred between the races. . . . At school, I remember a white kid once called me a nigger and I knocked the shit out of him. But That wasn't because he was white. I would have done the same thing to a black kid if he had used that word. I had been raised to believe that nigger was obscene language, and that no one should use it---including me.
(on night in 1952 in Houston)
"You blind, boy?" one of the cops said.
"Yeah," I said.
"Well, you better find a way back, 'cause we're taking this other nigger and his fucked up hairdo down to the station . . . .
Back then they didn't need no charges. They'd bust you if they felt like it. They'd call you nigger, motherfucker or anything else which tickled their fancy. And the worst thing you could do was talk back. Try to explain, try to defend yourself, try to reason---that's all the excuse the cops needed to bust you upside the head.
Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story (Da Capo Press,
2003) by Ray Charles and David Ritz, pp 127 and 147.
Prince (a.k.a. the Artist Formerly Known as Prince). In Minneapolis at age 9.
Prince and Tyka (his 7-year-old sister) were bussed to school on a trial basis when Minneapolis schools were being de-segregated in 1967. The experience left a lasting impression on both of them as Tyka remembered, "When we had to run to get on the bus, we were chased by people. I thought it was because we were the new kids. I didn't know it was because we were black. All the boys would stand outside the bus and fight off people who wanted to get at us.
Dance Music Sex Romance: Prince: The First Decade
(Fire Fly Publishing, 1999) by Per Nilsen, p. 22.
Walter Dean Myers, novelist. As teenager in New York City in the 1950s.
Eric (Leonhardt) and I still got along well, but I became nervous about our friendship. We were at an age to explore dating, or at least parties. And I knew that I would not be welcome, as a black, at many of the parties to which Eric would be invited. Racism existed as a backdrop to our relationship, and I did not want to experience the humiliation of being rejected because I was black. For the first time in my life I was faces with the notion that I would have to deal with the idea of race as a central part of my life.
Bad Boy, A Memoir (HarperTempest, 2002) by Walter
Dean Myers, pp 111-112.
Tony Dungy, Super Bowl winning coach. In East Lansing, Michigan.
In 1971, Tony's junior year, he and receiver Bobby Burton led Parkside's football team to an 8-1 season . . . . After the season, the coaches held an annual banquet for the players. Part of the banquet was the announcement of the following year's captains. The coaches announced three captains, and tony was one of them. But Tony was furious. He'd been named, but Burton had not. Tony believed that the coaches had not wanted to name more than one black captain (the school was predominantly white). Angrily, Tony told the coach that he was quitting the team.
Tony Dungy (Twenty-First Century Books, 2009) by
Matt Doeden, p. 6.
Eddie Murphy, comedian-actor. In Florida at age 18 in 1979.
Enter a grocery store in Ft. Lauderdale, where he was performing at a club, a white man cut in front of him. Murphy didn't get angry. He laughed at the man's New York-style pushiness in the languid subtropics of Florida. The man wanted to know why he laughed. "Florida is funny," Murphy said, still in a good mood. The redneck said, "No, it isn't. Spades are funny," and jabbed his finger into his chest, adding, "Aren't they?" Murphy was stunned rather than furious. He had heard about such people, but never met one until then.
(Birch Land Press, 1997) by Frank Eddie Murphy: The Life
and Times of a Comic on the Edge Sanello, p. 96.
Will Smith, actor. As an elementary school student and as a young man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
I went to a Catholic school and one of the nuns called me a nigger. I couldn't believe it. I was like, Wow, how did God put her in charge? . . . At that point in my life, I had been called nigger enough times that the word didn't hurt. It was just the shock that it came from a nun. Ouch.
From a 2001 interview in Playboy magazine.
Take growing up in Philly, dealing with the police -- where, one time, a cop pulled me over and, when I asked him, "Officer, did I do something?" he said, "You're a fucking nigger in a nice car. Now shut the fuck up until I figure out why I'm giving you a ticket." That I could live with, because I knew exactly what I was dealing with. It was up to me to make a decision about how to react. I did. I reported him to Internal Affairs.
From a 1998 interview in Rolling Stone.
Lena Horne, singer-actress. As a child riding in a car in Jacksonville, Florida, during a lynching and, later, walking on a main street in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1920s.
With Lena (and her mother) in the car they drove off into the night, laughing and telling stories. Suddenly they saw a black man up ahead, waving his arms. He warned them frantically, "'The crackers are out killing tonight!'" The gay mood turned to terror; they swerved around and sped home.
Lena walked to grade school, encountering some southern-style friendliness on the way. Years later she told of passing white men on Peachtree Street: they patted her on the head and said, "What a cute little nigger you are!"
Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (Atria Books,
2009) by James Gavin, pp 18 and 23.
Curt Flood, pro baseball star. At age 18 playing minor league ball in North Carolina in 1956.
One of my first and most enduring memories is of a large, loud cracker who installed himself and his four little boys in a front-row box and started yelling "black bastard" at me. I noticed that he eyed the boys narrowly, as if to make sure that they were learning the correct intonation. Wherever we played in that league, at home or away, the stadiums resounded with "nigger," "eight-ball," "jigaboo" and other pleasantries.
At Fayetteville, North Carolina, I heard spluttering gasps: "There's a goddamned nigger son-of-a-bitch playing ball with them white boys! I'm leaving."
The Way It Is (Trident Press, 1971) by Curt Flood with
Richard Carter, pp 37-38.
James Weldon Johnson, author, poet, civil right activist. At age 17 riding a train from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida in 1888.
Soon a white man came to me and said in tones of one who had only a deep, friendly interest in us, "I advise you people to get into the next car; they have sent a telegram down to Baxley to have a mob come on and put you out when the train gets there". . . . I was frightened, but I did not suggest to my companions that we move. Soon I saw the colored porter of the car forward beckoning to me. I went out on the platform to see what he wanted. He begged me to come out of the first-class car; he knew that a mob was going to meet the train at Baxley (Georgia), and he was sure we should be hurt, perhaps killed. His warnings raised my fright to the point where it broke my determination to hold my ground; I went back to my friends and told them what the porter had said, and on my decision we gathered up our luggage and packages and went into the car ahead . . . . While we were getting out of our car many of the passengers expressed their satisfaction.
If their satisfaction rose from any idea that I was having a sense of my inferiority impressed on me, they were sadly in error . . . .
Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson
(The Viking Press, 1933) by James Weldon Johnson, pp 86-87.
Jamie Foxx, Oscar and Grammy Award-winning actor and singer. In Terrell, Texas, circa 1984.
"I was in slavery. I got called nigger every day," he says, emphasizing the hard er. "The minute I crossed those railroad tracks it was 'nigger this' and 'nigger that.'" He tells the story of riding his bike to high school for track practice as a senior, and a redneck pulling out a revolver and pointing it at him from his truck.
"Nigger die," he said as he pulled the trigger. Foxx raised his hands, and the man and his friends started laughing. The gun wasn't loaded. They pulled a U-turn and did it again and again.
From a profile in Vibe magazine, September 2005.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, poet. In 1890 at age 18 Dayton, Ohio.
By all indications, Paul's first realization of racism occurred when he went job hunting as a much-lauded graduate of Central High. Following commencement, he dressed again in his new graduation suit . . . . His first stop was the Dayton Herald newspaper offices. After all, he reasoned, the paper had published his poems for years; surely he could be hired as a journalist . . . . At the Herald, the newspaper editor was familiar with Paul's reputation and work. Still, he told the optimistic job seeker that "there was no place on the . . . staff for a Negro. Other reporters might not like it."
For months, Paul searched for work comparable to that accorded to his male Euro-American classmates. Eventually, he accepted a position that his colleagues would not have considered---nor been offered---as elevator boy at a downtown office building . . . .
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (New York University
Press, 2001) by Eleanor Alexander, pp 35-36.
Billie Holiday, jazz singer. Age 23.
In 1938 Billie joined Artie Shaw's all-white band and went on tour with them. It meant she was often refused entry to the hotels where the other musicians were staying, couldn't eat with them in restaurants or drink with them in bars; and in the South she was turned into a fugitive, not even able to use public toilets and always ready to hide from danger. It was during this tour she had one of many potentially dangerous confrontation when a man in the audience asked the "nigger wench" to sing another song . . . .
When the band came back to New York City . . . Billie was treated like a second class citizen. She said later, "I was never allowed to visit the bar, or the dinning room. I was made to enter and leave by the kitchen and I had to remain along in my little room all evening until I was called to do my numbers."
With Billie (Pantheon Books, 2005) by Julia
Blackburn, p. 109.
Quincy Troupe, author-poet. As a teenager in St. Louis in the 1950s, having moved into a predominantly white neighborhood.
After we arrived, the whites on the block began leaving faster than people in a movie house when someone's yelled "Fire." Our next-door neighbors never spoke to us, not once. In this hostile racist environment, I was fast learning to hate myself just for being black. Earlier in my life, living in a black neighborhood, I had never felt any self-hatred . . . . During my first two years in my new home, the white kids (mostly boys) called me every vile name they knew. They called me "nigger," "coon," "monkey," "gorilla," "jigaboo," "shinola," and "boy," to name a few. We fought on many occasions.
Miles and Me (University of California Press, 2000) by
Quincy Troupe, pp 115-116.
Floyd W. Hayes, political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. In a Los Angeles middle school in the mid-1950s.
"I had a white male teacher who looked at me and pointed at me and said, 'You're a Negro, you have no history,'" Hayes said. "That was humiliating. But over the years that was quite angering because his attempt was to humiliate me, to tell me that black people had no history."
From a 2008 profile in JKU's online News-Letter.
Percy Sutton, civil rights attorney. At age 13, confronted by a policeman while distributing NAACP pamphlets in all-white neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas in 1933.
"'Nigger,' he asked me," Sutton told an interviewer years ago, 'what are you doing out of your neighborhood?'" and then he proceeded to beat the hell out of me."
From an article in New York Magazine (May 27, 1974)
Bob Herbert, New York Times columnist. Age 20 in the military.
One of his least privileged periods began in 1965, when he was drafted into the Army and encountered racism of the rawest sort. In Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where he trained for several weeks, recruits from southern states would call him "nigger" or show him pictures of family members wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits. "That was completely new, completely traumatic," he said.
From a 2007 profile in the Washington Monthly.
Serena Williams, pro tennis champion. Age 19 in California.
The most blatant act of racism she had to face came at Indian Wells in 2000, leading Serena to assert: "I don't care if they pay me a million dollars, I won't play there again." When she stepped on court it was "like some kind of genteel lynch mobs." She adds: "Just before the start of play, my dad and Venus started walking down the aisle to the players box and everybody turned and started to point and boo at them . . . it was mostly a chorus of boos but I could still hear shouts of Nigger."
From a 2009 article in the Belfast Telegraph.
Halle Berry, Oscar-winning actress.
"I have been called that terrible N-word straight to my face and it really shocked me. Things have been difficult at times, and I have experienced racism for being black and having a white mother. We, [her and then fiance David Justice of the Atlanta Braves player] were having dinner and a woman came up and wanted his autograph. We had all these papers out, planning our wedding (in 1992), and he said: "Not now, I'm busy', and in that split second she said: "Well, I don't want your autograph anyways, you guys are nothing but two niggers!' Just like that!"
From a 2002 profile in The Voice.
Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion. As a child in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1940s.
One of my first encounters with prejudice happened when I was too young to remember, but I've heard my mother tell the story. She and I were standing at a bus stop. It was a hot day and I was thirsty, so we walked up the block to a small diner, where she asked if she could have a cup of water for her son. The man said he could not help us and closed the door in our faces. I can only imagine the pain my mother felt when she tried to find the words to explain why the man would not give me a glass of water. Even during these times my mother would say, "Hating is wrong, no matter who does the hating. It's just plain wrong."
The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections of Life's Journey (Simon
& Schuster, 2004) by Muhammad Ali and Hana Y. Ali, p. 10.