When I realized I was black
By Ciona D. Rouse
Editor’s note: The following is the 12th narrative accepted for publication in the Advocate’s new South Carolina Stories of Racial Awakening Project. Submit your own narrative and receive $50. See guidelines, here.
I’ve had a lot of conversation and contemplation about race these last few days. How it defines us while not really defining us at all. How it’s both real and fallacy. How it contributes to our stories.
How we say it comes up all the time these days in this, our “post-racial America,” but we actually don’t really talk about it much. We talk around it, at it, but conversations of race are often accusatory or defensive or, my least favorite, dismissive. We cling to words like “colorblind” and “tolerance” or say that people are too sensitive about race. We start sentences with “I’m not trying to be racist, but …” as if this qualifier is anything more than weak potpourri in a very, very pungent bathroom.
When I visited South Africa, my dear and sweet "coloured" friend kept referring to the black people as “darkies” in negative ways. How I shuddered. How I asked about it after he made several references to it since, obviously, I look more like the "black" South Africans than the "coloured" South Africans. How he replied, “But you’re American,” and I laughed at race because in America, he would be considered black. Racial identity demands context, construct.
And in that moment I was reminded about race, how it defines us while not really defining us at all. How it’s both real and fallacy. How it contributes to our stories.
Story? I’m reminded of how someone once invited a group of people to tell the story of the first time we realized what race we are—the first time I realized I was black. I know there are marches and conversations and speeches tucked in the corners of my childhood memory in small-town Dillon, SC, as my parents were very involved in conversations and movements in regard to race, rights and reconciliation.
But the story I call my own first story was in first grade. In January, I believe. I was starting a new school mid-year, and just a month or so before that day my dad, a pastor, announced that we were moving to a church with a library, a nursery, a gym and 2,500 members, that we’d be the only black people there and how did we feel about it.
I remember my sister and I saying, “A real gym inside the church? Cool!” I was just 6, and I had nothing to assign to race at the time.
On the playground though, that first day at the new school, I remember running to the magic metal half moon-shaped wonder in the middle of the playground, and just before I attempted to climb, a girl said, “Nuh-uh! You can’t get on here!” I stared, or maybe I asked the stringy blonde-haired jungle-gym-guard why. I don’t really remember all, but I do remember her saying, “The last black girl who got on here did yada, yada, yada, and so you’re not allowed on here ... yada, yada, yada.”
I ran to the teacher (who was actually a substitute that day). I remember knowing this wasn’t right, and I remember the teacher confirming this for me. She happened to also be one of the 2,500 members of our new church, so she marched over to the girl and said, “You can’t keep anyone off of the jungle gym. That’s not right and you need to get to know Ciona,” she said. “She’s going to be in your Sunday school class, too. You remember the new pastor we’ve all been talking about? This is his daughter.”
I remember how easy it was for the jungle gym guard to, well, let down her guard when she was told it wasn’t right and was educated on what we had in common. How easy it was for me to shake hands and laugh and play with her, her white friends and my new black friends whom I invited to join us. (How long had they been rejected by the guard and why didn’t they tell on her?) I remember how I went to her home for sleepovers, and how I still have photographs with her at my sixth grade birthday party. How I would later find out that her grandfather was one of the 2,500 members who left the church because we were there. How easy it is for children to learn—both the wrong and the right.
I have many race stories. Most of them are more subtle than my parents’ or my parents’ parents’ stories. Some of them are a lot more messy than this one that ended so cleanly wrapped in a pretty United Colors of Benetton bow. Some of them are beautiful and inspiring, but this is the one that launched me into identifying by race and assigning various meanings to being black. This is the one that made me realize that others assign meanings to my being black and made me realize that justice depends upon the intelligence and compassion of those in power.
That’s the conversation around race I want to invite people into having in my life, and ones I want to have about our personal origins around race: when we realized we were red, yellow, black, white or brown.
When did we assign meaning to what our race is? When did we stop?
Thanks for hearing my story. I’d love to hear yours. However, if you have a beef to pick, a cause to defend, a slur to utter, I don’t want to hear it. Not because I don’t value and honor free speech or because I am imposing my personal beliefs on you. It’s just that the best conversations usually start with stories—sometimes messy, complicated and hard-to-hear stories even, but stories, nonetheless.
May we always tell our stories. It’s all we truly own. May we own our stories, even if they change from day to day. On this day, though, may you be filled with grace as you remember your stories, good, bad or indifferent, about race.
Rouse, 36, is an African-American female who grew up as a “preacher’s kid” in the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the former director of The Shared Mission Focus on Youth and Young Adults.