I have used words in this essay that I would never use in normal conversation, but if we are going to HAVE this conversation, they need to be said.
I am three, and we have just moved into our first house in a new neighborhood. The doorbell rings, and a woman on the other side offers my mom a piece of paper. The next Monday, my mom drops me off at a church for Vacation Bible School, along with my two friends, Denny and Robyn. When she arrives to pick us up, my VBS teacher says in a booming voice through the car window, “YOU MUST BE LEIA’S MOM!” It’s obvious because we are the only white children at an all-black Baptist church.
I am five, and I am visiting my dad at the Safeway produce warehouse where he drives a forklift. We are in the lunchroom, and his friend, Marvin, is laughing and telling stories. He’s enormous and darker than any human I’ve ever seen with bright pink lips. His hands are like frisbees but so gentle when he touches my arm. I go home and draw a picture of his face and fill up the whole page with his football shaped head.
I am seven, and we are attending a new church in the suburbs. One of my first friends is Rachelle. She’s wears her hair in puffy braids. She comes over after church and plays in the sprinkler in my backyard with me.
I am eight, and I am playing tag. I’m running after my friend, Leslie, who is always so much faster than me. I reach out and grab her ponytail, and it comes off in my hand.
I am ten. I go to a prestigious private school in OKC. My friends, Teryl and Jasmine, decide we are just like TLC—Teryl is T-Boz, I am Left-Eye, and Jasmine is Chilli.
I am eleven, and it is Christmas Eve. My grandpa is telling a story about a man he worked with at the Pet Milk plant—one of the hardest working men he’s ever known, a Negro. My Grandma corrects him, “I don’t think it’s okay to say Negro, Leonard. It’s black or African-American.” She looks to my mom for assurance.
I am twelve, and my mom is telling me a story about when she was younger, about how there were only two black families in her town growing up, the Starks and the Clarks. She tells me about how angry she would get when her brother, a police officer, would talk about arresting dirty niggers or tell jokes about buying a nigger for a nickel.
I am fourteen, and I am reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time.
I am fifteen, and a boy from my church says he is going to “drop the Cosby kids off at the pool,” and I say nothing when I realize he means he’s going to the bathroom to poop.
I am sixteen, and a white boy at our predominantly white high school in a suburb of Oklahoma City known for white flight in the ‘70s, stands up in a school assembly and announces that he’s wearing his nigger-kicking boots.
I am nineteen, and I work at Red Lobster as a waitress. During a break, I sit in the smoking section with a girl named Carrie. She has blonde hair and tan skin, and she smokes Capris. She says flat out, “I won’t serve niggers.” When I ask her why, she says that she hates them. When I ask her why again, she says that her first job was at The Buckle in the mall, and one night, she left work, got in her car, and a huge ass nigger motherfucker had crawled in her backseat while she was at work. He told her to pull the car over and then raped her on the side of the road.
I am twenty-six, and we are living in Charleston, SC because my husband is stationed at the Air Force base. We need to buy a new car, so we head to the Toyota dealership. During the test drive, the dealer says to my husband, “You ever shop at that Kmart? You shouldn’t. Owned by a bunch of niggers.”
I am twenty-seven, and I am in a Sunday school class. The leader is a pillar of the community, a white man in his seventies, life-long southerner. He says of the upcoming election, “If Obama gets elected, we better be ready and loaded for when they riot.”
I am twenty-seven, and in another Sunday school class, a white woman in her sixties makes the point that the Bible doesn’t actually say slavery was wrong.
I am twenty-nine, and my white friend Natalie tells me a story. She was taking her daughter’s friend home from school, and a young black man in a t-shirt and running shorts was jogging in place at the intersection. When she waved at him to let him know it was okay to cross, the five-year-old girl said, “Miss Natalie, you shouldn’t wave at that man. Black people are scary.”
I am thirty-one, and I mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin as I watch the story unfold. My boys wear hoodies every day. I am living in Olympia, WA where there are distinctly so few black people that I can’t believe a place like this actually exists. The next day, I overhear a conversation at the public library between two women whose children are enjoying story time, and I hear the word “post-racial” for the first time coming from the mouths of women who never actually interact with anyone who is not like them.
I am thirty-four. I am weary. I can’t engage on social media because it leaves me in tears. Nine people were shot in a house of worship because of the color of their skin. It’s June 18, 2015, but it feels like September 15, 1963. And as much as I want to stand up, speak out, do something—I feel paralyzed by the repeating narrative that is playing out on news stations and social media—the same damn conversation we’ve been having my entire life. The same damn conversation we’ve been having my mother’s entire life. I’d love to end with some words of hope, but I don’t have any. Frankly, I am just so damn tired of having a conversation full of empty words.
So, instead, I offer my story in an effort to encourage others to tell theirs. Racism is real and alive and as deadly as ever. These more recent stories are not surprises—they are exactly what I expect from a nation of people in complete denial about our heritage and history. They are exactly what I expect from a people unwilling to lay down their boxing gloves for one minute to realize that we are not supposed to be fighting each other. More people are dead. More people are going to die tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. And it’s our fault—all of us. I am tired, friends, and I can’t stop crying, and I am so, so angry and sad—at the circumstances—and at the fact that I don’t have the answers.
My thoughts are with the people of Charleston, SC today, a place we called home for six years. May you find peace and solace in the arms of friends who are grieving with you.