The Torn Heart

An African-American mom reflects on the difficulties of raising her son in a decidedly white culture

To the best of my recollection, her name was Linda. She had mysterious blue eyes, soft, blond hair that draped down to her shoulders, and a wardrobe that any five-year-old girl would give up two popsicles for. It was my kindergarten year at Pinkney Elementary School in Lawrence, Kansas, and Linda and I were inseparable. Although we shared smiles and secrets in Miss Ladezma's classroom, my parents never allowed me to accept any of her invitations to play at her home. I would reach my midtwenties before I learned the real reason behind my parents cautious restrictions. In 1965, the unspoken rule in ours and countless other homes was that friendships like mine and Linda's were to be strictly confined to the walls of the classroom. Linda was the icon of the all-American princess. I, being African-American, represented something very different from that.

Following the school year, we relocated to the beautiful Rocky Mountain state of Colorado and settled in a county that had so few African-Americans that the local press featured our family in a long-running series titled "The Negro in the Suburbs." For the next twenty years, my brother, my parents, and I would, because of our race, accumulate a long list of "firsts" and "onlys," a sign both of how far we had come and how much distance we had yet to travel.

Fast-forward to the present.

Despite my long-held belief that my own son would never grow up without seeing another person who looked like him, we find ourselves no less isolated from African-Americans in our immediate community than I was throughout my childhood, when I integrated every room I walked into. Now I face the shattering realization that, despite my own best intentions, I may have completed some bizarre circle of life, potentially setting the stage for another generation of confused racial identity and social isolation.

I selected our home, I thought, for all the right reasons. Quiet, tree-lined streets, well-regarded public elementary school, easy access to freeways, and, at first glance, a community that would enable my son to develop friendships with children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Upon closer inspection, ours appears to be the only African-American household in this decidedly middle-class neighborhood. I have seen woefully few children of color playing in the schoolyard where he will be spending his magical kindergarten year and am bracing myself for what will surely be a disappointment if the faculty and administration reflect the same appalling lack of diversity.

In 1965, when my parents made the decision to move us to Arvada, Colorado, they did so with a conviction shared by many of that era, that assimilation into white communities would open doors for black families, affording them access to education, professional and social opportunities historically reserved only for whites. In their own lives, they overcame the obstacles of single-parent households, working-class roots, and Jim Crow segregation to carve out successful careers with promising futures. Like the theme song of a popular 1970s sitcom, we were "movin' on up." In today's complicated sociopolitical minefield, some might suggest that families like ours have merely sold out.

It's an agonizing dilemma we share with many African-American families who have scraped and clawed their way up the rungs to the middle of the societal ladder. Do we settle in communities of color and fight to bring capital and resources to areas in which they may be lacking? Or do we break down the barriers in communities where resources are readily available at the risk of alienating ourselves from our own people? What will be the impact on our children, and why, today, is it necessary to continue struggling with these choices?

As a friend of mine, a successful African-American surgeon and entrepreneur, puts it: "we're damned if we do and damned if we don't." His decision to raise his family in the hills of upscale Orinda, California, has brought both scorn and admiration from black acquaintances. He and his wife have reconciled their circumstances by piecing together a social and familial network of African-Americans who maintain a constant presence in their lives. They make every effort to ensure that their teenage daughter is regularly exposed to African-American literature, history, music, and cultural events throughout the country. So far, he believes, the benefits of his choices have far outweighed the costs. He hopes, however, that he won't awaken one day to the nightmarish realization that he has paid too great a price for his all-American dream.

My husband and I are already debating the merits of mainstream versus traditionally black universities for our young son Kyle. My husband favors our collective alma maters of Princeton and the University of Colorado; I, lately, have been singing the praises of institutions such as Fisk, Howard, and the University of Atlanta, which boast a legacy of graduating some of our country's most prominent and successful African-Americans.

Only time will tell which side of the fence my son will light on. In the meantime, I hope to instill in him a fierce pride in his African-American heritage and an ability to recognize and speak out against the injustices of racism. I want him to assert his rightful place in the world and to always carry with him a reverence for the those who paved the way before him so that his life might be full of promise and hope and friendships that aren't forbidden because of skin color.

Of course, I want him to get along with little girls like Linda. I'd like him to form friendships across cultural and racial lines. But most of all, I'm hopeful that he'll be able to form lifelong bonds with boys and girls with caramel and café au lait and chocolate-colored skin---with hair that cascades into intricately beaded braids or that coils into taut, gravity-defying curls---girls and boys who look like Mommy and Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa and cousin Audrey and Uncle Duane.

Girls and boys who look like Kyle.

 

This is Sharon Smith-Mauney's first essay inMinnesota Parent.

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