Most people of color, if they think hard enough, can tell you exact moment in their lives when being non-white was perceived as negative. Depending on your environment this may be something that is with you from as long as you can remember or it may be a recent occurrence. For me it was more the former than the latter.
My family moved to the house I spent most of my formative years in during the summer of 1990. My mother was pregnant with my youngest brother and my parents thought it would be best to move our soon to be family of 7 to a house instead of the two bedroom apartment that we were cramped into. We landed in Landover Hills, MD (a suburb right outside of Washington, DC) during the middle of white flight. When we moved in there were at least 6 white families on my street alone. By the time I graduated high school I couldn’t pick one out of my entire neighborhood.
One white family in particular lived directly across the street from us. A family of four which included a girl, Shelly, who was a year younger than me and a boy, Bobby, who was three years younger than me. Because my brothers who are twins are in between Shelly and Bobby in age we all used to play together with the other neighborhood kids. Typical childhood games such as freeze tag, kickball, football, hide and seek, etc. We also used to ride our bicycles around the neighborhood together. At this point in my life I was more concerned with playing with friends who liked the same games that I did rather than what skin color my friends were.
One day while we were all playing in, a white friend named, Ryan’s backyard he got mad at me for some obscure reason he turned to me and said, “That’s why you’re a nigger.” Now at the time I wasn’t even ten years old so I had little understanding of the ramification of the word. I just thought it was a bad word. Shelly and I simply told Ryan’s mother and she in turn dragged him into the house by his ear. She came back out and profusely apologized to me. I shrugged it off and went to my front yard to play with the rest of my friends. I didn’t think much about it after he said it to me.
The next school year I was placed in a 5th/4th grade combination class in my elementary school so I ended up in class with Shelly. I was happy about this because I was still kind of the new kid in school and I was happy to see a familiar face in class. I was pleased with how I was adjusting to my new school. I started making new friends while I getting good marks in all of my subjects. One particular subject, which I enjoyed, was gym because I was good at kickball getting lots of practice playing around the neighborhood.
One big event that we had to complete in gym class was to run a mile. In order to do this we had to run around the entire playground 6 times. To keep track of how many laps we completed our gym teacher put dots on the back of our hands with a permanent marker. The first lap was blue, the second lap was green, and the third lap was red and so forth. The anticipation leading up to “the big race” was high and there was no lack of trash talk.
The day of the big race I was ready to win first place. In my mind I was going to run a four-minute mile but in reality I would have been happy with a running the mile in 8 minutes. After my fourth lap I was in the leading pack and I noticed that Shelly was struggling, since she was a larger girl and out of shape, so I slowed up to give her a pep talk.
“What lap are you on?”
“I’m on my 2nd lap.”
“Ok, cool. You can do it. Just take your time and run at your own pace.”
“Thanks. What color is the third lap?”
“Oh ok. Let me see your hand. Your skin makes the red look stupid. Look at my hand. See how clear the blue and green shows up. That means my skin is better than yours.”
I wasn’t equipped to come back from that blatant attack on my darker skin color so I did what most ten year olds do when confronted with emotions they don’t know how to handle; I ran away. After that things were never the same between Shelly and I. An air of gelidity developed between us and I was fine letting things continue on that way. Before then I had always been aware of my blackness but never felt ashamed of it. After that day I would periodically look at the back of my hand and wonder what other people really thought when they saw me. I became self-conscious. I hated Shelly for making me feel that way and I hated myself for allowing her to make me feel that way.
Eventually as the years went by the majority of the white families moved away until there was only one family left. Home by home, I noticed the neighborhood get blacker and browner and I came to like the changes. Something inside me changed that day. I began to feel more comfortable around people who looked like me. I wasn’t apprehensive towards White people but I appreciated being around my own.
This attitude stayed with me in high school where my percentage of black students hovered above 95%. I exceled in high school where my exemplary grades and decent SAT scores afforded me the opportunity to be particular when it came to what colleges I wanted to apply to. My guidance counselor called me into her office one day during my senior year and urged me to reconsider applying to a wider range of schools. With my grades, extracurricular activities and standardized test scores she thought I would be better suited applying to Ivy League schools and more upper tier schools instead of the majority Historically Black Colleges that I applied to.
I balked at her suggestions. Although I was only seventeen, I knew what I wanted and what type of environment I wanted to be in. My AP US History teacher, Mr. Shabazz, was one of my favorite teachers in high school. He was a black nationalist who I believe took a serious pay cut to teach at the high school level. He used to make us stand in front on the class and recite poems like Invictus and Excuses word for word. He was a tough yet fair teacher. He also took note of my potential and invited me to his alma mater, Hampton University, on a recruitment visit. While there I was offered a full academic scholarship. On the way back home he asked me:
“Are you going to accept the offer from Hampton?”
“I don’t know yet. I still have another recruitment visit to Eastern Shore next week.”
“Tunde, I’m not knocking Eastern Shore but Hampton is a great school with a long line of leaders and history. Would you rather build upon that legacy or start your own?”
While I on my visit to Eastern Shore, Mr. Shabazz’s question continued to be replayed in my mind. Eventually the answer became clearer and clearer. I wanted to build something for myself. I wanted to be the backbone of an institution. I had three options. My guidance counselor who urged me to attend a school, which I was sure, was populated with plenty of Shellys, my history teacher who wanted me to follow in his footsteps and my conscious who was telling me to blaze my own path. The decision wasn’t a difficult one at all.