In honor of Black History Month in the UK, I want to share my a life-changing experience.When I was 18 years old, I moved from my small hometown in Northern Wisconsin to the New Jersey to become a nanny. The town I grew up in was completely white, mainly of German descent, and Catholic.
When I moved to the East Coast, I met Marjorie. She worked as a nanny for one my child’s friends. She was black.I had many firsts when I moved to Jersey: visiting New York City, driving a stick shift, navigating highways with more than two lanes on each side, seeing a Broadway musical, and, after meeting Marjorie, first time having a black friend.
The first time I met Marjorie, she was taking out hair extensions. I tried not to gape. “I’m getting a perm after work today so I gotta take these out,” she explained. The following week we got together again so the kids could play. Noticing her straight hair, I asked about the perm. She laughed, an infectious, big boisterous sound. “White people get a perm to curl their hair, black people get one to straighten theirs.” Her eyes glittered and her laugh was amused but not cruel. And so began my friendship with a black woman who took it upon herself to educate me.
A Higher Education
As the scales of ignorance began to fall from my eyes, I noticed things I hadn’t considered growing up in my monotone hometown. Makeup in darker shades, especially foundation, it never occurred to me before meeting Majorie that shades darker than a peanut shell exist. Little girls playing with black dolls and watching television shows with black main characters.Different hair care products and services – extensions, braids and beads, dreadlock maintenance, and lace closures.
“Black people only wash their hair maybe once a week,” Marjorie told me once.
I went to a soul food restaurant with Marjorie and ate collard greens for the first time. I was the only white person. Marjorie was a regular so I met some of the workers and other patrons. They shook my hand, the unstated question in their eyes: What is Marjorie doing with a white woman? I felt a little uncomfortable, like I’d gotten off on the wrong subway stop and everyone knew it. I embraced that discomfort. I wanted to understand it more, experience it more. Marjorie took me to a dance. “You know how they say all black people got rhythm? That’s a lie.”(I didn’t have the heart to tell her I already knew this; she was so proud of herself for educating me.) She didn’t dance. I, on the other hand, went onto the dance floor and danced my solitary white butt off.
On weekends during the warmer months, she took me to large outdoor BBQs with her family, friends and neighbors. But, really, there was no difference between these three categories. The parents didn’t hover and the kids ran free; however, if a child needed to be corrected or disciplined, the closest adult did it, even if not the parent.
I loved being friends with Marjorie and learning about the differences between her black upbringing and my white one. Many of our differences were superficial, but they got me thinking deeply.
I cringe when I think of my ignorance about black people: their culture, their values, their differences and similarities to us. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s I have a dream speech hit home in a way it never had before, it became the face of a friend. I realized how separated blacks and the whites were from each other, even in New Jersey and New York with all the different cultures and ethnicities. I don’t think it was a conscious choice but because it had always been that way and no one felt the need to change it.
I was sad when I noticed this disconnect. I was the only white girl hanging around, but Marjorie’s friends and family loved me. They’d introduce themselves, shake my hand or give me a hug, and ask how I was doing. Perhaps I was as novel to them as they were to me. Perhaps they wanted to make a favorable first impression because so few white people entered their circle.
I began to question my upbringing. I wasn’t raised in a close-minded household, my parents aren’t at all racist. No, what I questioned was why I didn’t know more about the rich culture of African-Americans before I met Marjorie.
An Alternate History
In college five years later, I enrolled in an African-American history class instead of rehashing the boring white history I was force-fed through childhood.
I wasn’t the only white person in the class but I was definitely in the minority. I saw a different side of the story. It wasn’t just about the content of what the professor was teaching, but the context. The students were free to voice thoughts and feelings about their history in a safe environment.
I got a glimpse of what it was like to be a minority. It was difficult to speak up in class because I had no point of reference for the topics we discussed, most of which boiled down to prejudice. I’d never experienced it so how could I make comments about it? Would I offend someone? Would they be thinking of course that white girl doesn’t understand, why is she even here?
There was a passion in the classroom lacking in my high school history classes. Were these black students as new to this side of the history coin as I was? Were they fed the same white history with all our successes and good will, skimming over or ignoring the less savory aspects?
But we need to include all sides of history when we educate our youth, which means the shameful as well as the proud. We owe it to black people – all minorities – to be held responsible for our historical mistakes so we don’t repeat them.
My African-American history class influenced me more than all my other history classes combined. I learned a different point of view, a different history. It was one I knew existed but had never considered.
Black culture and white culture are different, and we should embrace these differences. But our two cultures have much in common as well. Ultimately, we need to break down the barriers that still exist between us, and that is what Black History Month is all about.
For more interesting reading on Black History Month and Black and Ethnic News see:
Black History Focus: The Black Panthers