Racism. We’ve all experienced it in one way or another. That is to say, we’ve witnessed it, participated in it (either consciously or subconsciously), or we’ve been on the receiving end of it.
I’m bringing this up, because I want to share the story of my first kiss with anyone who may read this.
First, a little background, for those who may not know: I was born in Asheville, North Carolina, but most of my life was intermittently spent 75 miles south of my hometown, in the Greenville/Spartanburg area of South Carolina. I began school in SC, but moved back to Asheville for a period of time after my parents’ divorce. There was a short period of time that Granny, Aunt Tudi, and I returned to SC, meaning I spent my entire 1st Grade in SC, prior to the break-up, as well as a portion of my 2nd Grade, which was split between Black Mountain Elementary in NC and Reidville Elementary in SC. We returned to Asheville shortly after the events I’m writing about here occurred. But, much to my dismay and displeasure at the age of 13, Granny and Aunt Tudi took me back to SC, where I finished school and worked for over 30 years. I objected to relocating back to SC then, and I’m still pissed about it to this very day. My first kiss is one of the primary reasons why.
I got my first kiss in the second grade. It wasn’t on my lips or my cheek. I was kissed on the hand. I was so excited something like this had happened, because I was always picked on about everything, from my weight to my clothes, and everything in between. I was mocked for not knowing the correct bible verses to recite, and denied that wondrous, magical silver star sticker by my name because of my affront to god. I assumed no one liked me and I would never fit in.
The little boy who kissed me like a knight would a princess was named Sam, and he was Black. But that didn’t matter to me at the age of 7. What mattered to me was I had been shown affection by someone outside my family. Out of glee, I told our teacher, clutching my right hand to my heart with my left. I wanted to shout it to the world! For once, something good happened to me when I was around other kids. For once, I felt like a part of the outside world.
I should never have said a thing to anyone.
My joy turned into regret, humiliation, guilt, and rage when the teacher ordered Sam to the front of the class. She told him he wasn’t allowed to kiss white girls, and he was made to apologise to me. He was in tears, I was in tears, and the kids in the class pointed and laughed at both of us. The teacher then made Sam go stand in the corner for thirty minutes.
When I got home, I told Aunt Tudi what had happened. I didn’t understand. That’s when she told me about Blacks in the South, how they had been slaves and, when they were freed, some of the whites had formed groups to make sure these ex-slaves didn’t get “uppity.” This was the first time I heard about the Ku Klux Klan, and how they would not only threaten and kill Blacks, but they would also do the same to their supporters. She told me how she had seen a cross burning in a neighbour’s yard back in 1966, in South Carolina. They were Civil Rights supporters. I was advised to be quiet about any interaction with the Black kids in my class, for their protection.
I was horrified.
What’s worse is Sam avoided me after that day. I’ve always wondered if he did so because he was afraid, or if it was because he thought I had told on him because he was Black. I may never know. All I knew is that I lost a friend because of an expression of fondness. By the teacher’s example, an act of bigotry and cruelty was taught as appropriate behaviour on that day. Looking back on this, and so many other moments like it throughout my school days, I perceive it as affirmation that, although physical segregation was no longer practiced, mental segregation was very much in full effect, and has only flourished over the decades.
While we were being “encouraged” to memorise bible verses, we were also silently being indoctrinated into the categories we never chose for ourselves. Children are tabula rasa. Anything can be etched into their psyche to become a testimony to their environment and their generation. Instead of praising kids for public displays of affection, the status quo prefers to instill fear and hatred of differences. This is why our culture celebrates violence and curls its lip at love. This is why you can watch a person get shot on TV, but sex is reprehensible.
This is why racism still exists, and I doubt it will ever go extinct.
I’d like to think that Sam might somehow come across this journal entry, so the record can be set straight for him. I’d like to think that day in the classroom was his last experience with racism. But I’m a realist.
Just in case, though…
Sam, thank you for being my knight in shining armour that day, and I am so sorry for getting you in trouble. I hope you’re happy and healthy, and that you never stopped being such a sweet little dude. I hope you never shied away from your nature because our society’s priorities are so fucked up, and getting worse.