When I was 10yo my dad took a new job in Wisconsin. A state I was aware was a part of the country but did not believe too many people lived in. We didn’t really have any reason in Georgia to talk much about them unless our professional sports teams were going to be fighting to win some sort of game against them.
My dad moved our family of four from our roots in Georgia – family, culture, church, people with skin, hair and experiences like ours – to southeastern Wisconsin to start a new job at a power company there.
It was a great opportunity for him and eventually my mom found a good paying job/career to move into as well.
But the culture shock – for all four of us – was at times overwhelming and honestly sometimes, I think we’re still living out some of the ripple effects of things that happened during our time living there.
For example, I think I’ve built a habit of eating with the television on because dinners during that time were so quiet. Or at least I recall them being quiet. Now, I look back on them and think – we were all exhausted.
We’d brought as much of what we felt made us us from Georgia to the frigidly cold (mostly weather wise, sometimes people wise) state and it was not welcome or understood by everyone we interacted with throughout the day. Each of us were leaving our haven home in an upper middle class, white suburb to go into our different environments as the only one that looked like us.
We weren’t prepared for how lonely it would be and I can speak for me and my experience, Wisconsin was not prepared for us either.
These things happened to me 35 years ago (and since) and some like to assure me it’s different or has progressed, but has it really?
- Black History Month with the dame lesson about the same person each year including very limiting, sometimes incorrect information
- Reading the same materials in literature courses with very little diversity in the characters and what they experience – the narrative stayed in the “safe history telling” space
- People touching my hair and telling my how soft it was
- My friends telling me that they didn’t “think of me as being black” or that they didn’t “see color” because I didn’t really “act black”
I’m not angry that these things happened, what I’m frustrated or finding anger in these days is that the only way I thought I could or ought to be in that environment was to assimilate.
To quiet my voice, make observations about the voices that were heard, and work to become like them. Which meant, be less of myself.
At 10yo and 12yo and 15yo and even into the young adult years, even with the knowledge of a loving and big God, you’re still trying to understand who you really are. At least I was. I did NOT have it all figured out. And so to fit in and not be completely in the corner alone, eating lunch by my black self in the cafeteria, I knew it was up to me to learn to walk a new walk, speak a new language, try foods I’d never heard of. It was even something to get used to that it was YOUR responsibility to treat your class on your birthday if you wanted to be celebrated in your community.
A major rip-off if you ask me; that is not how us Georgians/my people rolled. (I haven’t asked, but I hope it hasn’t changed.)
I am a learner. I loved school. Which is just a direct way of admitting to having been a teacher’s pet.
I wanted to read and learn and ask questions and get everything right. I was a quick study. So much so that I skipped kindergarten and bounced right on into first grade. The schooling in Wisconsin was a bit more rigorous than I’d been used to, but I don’t necessarily think it was the content or even the teaching method, but that I was trying to flip the content to remember how some of these things were taught or approached where I was a part of the majority and those controlling the narrative.
Some things were the same – but entering middle school a year younger than everyone else, in a new state, as the only one like you was very challenging to me. It was exhausting.
And what I didn’t know about myself then that I wholeheartedly scream to the top of my lungs now is that I am truly an introverted soul.
I enjoy being around people, but lots of people for long periods of time where I especially do not feel I can be my authentic self (dress yourself up, give us your best, you’re represented all of the people with your skin color though you’ve not met them all) is incredibly draining. Sometimes it’s even maddening, frustrating and depressing.
But this is where this space comes into play for me.
35 years later and I realize that I participated in muting my own voice. And that responding the way that I did to that new environment set me on a path to believing that my voice would always only be suited for one or two people at-a-time who really wanted to know the woman beneath the skin tone.
I take full responsibility for that.
I’m actually grateful to my parents for their courage in being the pioneers that they were. If it was difficult for my brother and I to be uprooted as children (my brother was 2yo at that time) how much more difficult was it for them. Both of them having very deep, winding roots in Georgia, the Deep South.
I stayed the longest in Wisconsin.
My parents moved back to Georgia with my brother my senior year of college. I chose to stay fearful of moving back to a place where I was not sure I’d be well received outside of my family.
I’d spent 10 years assimilating myself to this new culture, learning to talk a new way, finding myself out of my comfort zone where growth was happening…
Would I have been able to re-assimilate myself as a 20yo back home?
I was too afraid to try.
We’ve lived in Texas for 3 years this month and after 33 years in Wisconsin, I realize I’ve brought a lot of stuff with me. A lot that has very little to do with people in one place, it’s the stuff that affects so many of us. And I get to share. I need to.
It’s not as much about solving the world’s problems or even telling people how to talk to black children (or people) in their lives as much as it is about being obedient to God with the hope of my being vulnerable and real here about my life, that you can see how prevalent Jesus was in and throughout to help me get to where I am now.
My parents did not scope out new (to us) territory in the North to be a part of a social movement, or to integrate areas that were predominantly white or to really prove anything to anyone. I believe they did it because it was what God called my dad to pursue to provide a different life for his family.
I am proud of them.
They grew too.
I don’t want it wasted – that experience and others that came from that bold move – so I am going to share and hopefully it will help others as its helped me; to pursue God’s perfect love through so much misunderstanding and prejudice, but also for me to find and speak with a clear voice.