“bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet.”
–Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls
In April, fifty black women writers (myself included) wrote a one page monologue in response to the statement which partially reads, “As Black Women writers, we fulfill a unique and un-duplicated role in theater. We are telling the stories that represent us with balance and complexity and illuminate our side of the human experience.”
These stories were read by an ensemble of women performers in a 90-minute journey of truth, humor and strength at the new Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn on May 14th entitled 50/50 Writing Women into Existence.
Here is my story:
Crossing the Color Line
In my 2nd grade class picture, I was not smiling. My lips a thick line, my hair on top of my head in one big ponytail puff. I do not look happy to be there. I was not. All the other kids were smiling, those blonde and brown headed white children. My hair stood up and out, theirs hung long. I felt myself standing out in that school. I was the only black child in my class. One of few in my entire school. I was bused from mostly black South Jamaica, Queens to mostly white Woodhaven, Queens. It was the first time I truly realized I was black, I felt it, as close as my skin, as bold and present as my hair. I didn’t know that traveling across color lines would be such a formative part of my educational experience, both in the classroom and in the larger world.
In the 3rd grade, we had moved to the suburbs in Hempstead, Long Island. The houses were more spread out than in Queens and most people had lawns, but life was still fairly segregated. I enrolled in a struggling school system and lived in a community full of African Americans, West Indians and Latinos. I noticed the color line every time I crossed over into neighboring Rockville Center and Garden City; rich white communities to the north and the south of ours. When I saw signs that read “Garden City” or “Rockville Center”, things changed. There were no more corner stores, liquor stores, dilapidated apartment buildings or laundromats. There were bigger and nicer homes, well-manicured parks, better grocery stores, massive shopping centers and upscale malls. I learned that white and black were not merely races, but in some instances different realities with implications written into the landscape.
Years later, I went from Hempstead High School to Georgetown University. I had one foot in a world that was predominately black at home and another that was predominately white at school. This was true at work as well. In southeast DC, I tutored little black children that looked like me. Their skills behind, parent stretched, their school’s resources insufficient and neighborhood blighted. I returned to learn in a largely upper class white environment of abundance, taught by white professors from books written by white authors.
These experiences have made me adept at navigating realities that are proximate but worlds apart. At times I feel stuck in between, not a home anywhere and all the more frustrated by the complexities of race, class and gender, but I keep crossing lines. I must.
In 1903, W.E.B Dubois wrote the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line. One hundred and fourteen years later, whether I am in stores, schools, boardrooms or courtrooms, I am still aware of the color line, how it colors my experiences, it divides cities and severs opportunities for some and ensures prosperity for others. The same problem has unfortunately crossed into the 21st Century.