The first time I ventured onto the Civil Rights battlefield, I was eight years old.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, I was one of the four test children selected to break New York City’s de facto segregated “neighborhood school plan.” One morning, just outside my new school, a parent raged at my infiltrating her neighborhood; crossing the line at her child’s school. She spat at me and tore my dress. I spent the entire school day like that—ripped apart, outside and within.
“What happened to you was mean and wrong,” my parents consoled that night. Taking extra care to soothe the day’s wounds, my mother and father drew me close, lathered me in bubble bath, softy brushed my hair, smooth-ed my tiny furrowed brow, and laid me to sleep in their tourniquet of love. “We are a people of struggle,” said they, in the language of generations. The four of us—a battalion of eight- and nine-year-olds including my cousin, Ted, and me—were courageous children, they said. “We’re so proud of you. What you’re doing is good for our people, ‘good for the race.’”
“Just like Mrs. Tubman?” I asked. African American history and the Diaspora were mainstays of our home even then.
“Just like Frederick Douglass?”
“Yes, baby. Like Marcus Garvey. Like Granny Nanny of the Maroons. And, just like Rosa Parks, too.”
Mrs. Parks was our newest hero. Her refusal to give over her seat to racism launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott that brought a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. world acclaim. Transferring schools two months into the boycott, we didn’t yet know if it would succeed. But, we knew that Black folk united had dared say “no!” and that was a victory in itself. Sitting down like Mrs. Parks meant standing up to those who were “mean and wrong.” That was something I wanted to do. The next day I went back to school armored. I walked a gauntlet of White hate escorted by my honor guard of history-making heroes and sheroes; shielded by my bunker.
Painful as those Civil Rights Movement years were, it was a hopeful time. It filled us with possibility—a sense of power over our destiny. A new day was dawning, we dared believe, super-patriots that we were. Who else would risk their lives and the lives of their children for a promise and a Dream?
An undergraduate attending college in New Paltz, New York, as a top math student, I was a real blow to my calculus professor’s comfort-level. He publicly accused me of cheating off of my classmates, then posted himself at my elbow for the next few exams until my anxiety soared and my grades plummeted from a disturbing A+ to a satisfying C-.
Who could any of us turn to for redress back then? That’s what it meant to be a First, Second, Third, even Twenty-Third. It meant isolation and alienation. I changed my major from Math to Theatre and moved on. Years later, the revelation struck me: “He must have thought me pretty good to know which answer to cheat from which lesser student.” As grateful as I was to achieve that insight (although I didn’t realize I was still seeking it), it was like putting a bandaid on a sore left twenty years to fester. By then the infection has poisoned the bloodstream. The patient is dead or rotting inside.
It’s amazing how naïve I was; how I thought to brandish excellence as a shield, convinced that once others knew how good I was they’d accept me. I didn’t know the name of the game was power, by any means necessary.
My parents only wanted the best for me—a best that brought risk. But, considering the times, what other options did they have? They didn’t know how to tell me that the problem wasn’t being Black; it was racism and the Doctrine of White Supremacy. They didn’t know how to tell me that people don’t hate you because you’re Black or female or gay or whatever; they hate you because they’re hateful. And what my mother and father didn’t know, they weren’t able to apply to the wounds they and their child suffered. Along with the progress made over time, that legacy of the eternal sore, at times a boil, is one I, like most African Americans, struggle to heal.
Still in college, having changed my major, I was racing rain-slick streets from a late-night rehearsal to my off-campus housing when a state car pulled up next to me. The scene: freshman orientation. The message: when you need help, a state car is like a police car. Why was I out past curfew? Didn‘t I know the danger? Get in; he’d take me home. Professional. Professorial. Briefcase on the back seat. He headed across Main and down N. Front. He knows the shortcut, I exhaled. He’s from here. We were there in minutes. As I angled myself out the car door, thanking him, he reached under my raincoat, grabbed me between my legs, pulled me back into the car and sped off with the car door flapping. Cuffing my neck with one hand, he steered with the other. When he slowed for a turn, I stabbed him with my umbrella and escaped.
Running back to the house, I arrived hysterical. The house mother called the police.
The police asked for a description of my attacker.
Apple-picker was a derisive term used in a farm region wholly dependent on the labor of the Black and Brown migrant workers who came to town, seasonally, to pick fruit and suffer contempt.
“No, he wasn’t one of the migrants,” I said. “It was a state car.”
The two officers grew anxious.
Did I have the plate number? I didn’t.
Could I describe the driver? I could.
“He seemed like a professor, an official, somebody like that. He was wearing a dark grey suit, shirt and tie. He had dark wavy hair, brushed back. His briefcase was on the back seat.”
“Negro? Puerto Rican?”
“He was White.”
“Why you little whore!” one of the men hissed at me, slamming down his notebook. As he and his partner got up to leave, he turned back for the kill: “You think I’m going to ruin a good man’s life for a whore like you? Be glad I don’t arrest YOU!”
And, they were gone.
That weekend, my mother and my aunt drove up to school. My aunt’s first words: “what did you do to attract that man?” My mother sent her outside.
“What happened to you was terrible,” Mom began, in those tones cultivated over decades of striving. There was nothing we could do. If she challenged the police, she feared I’d be a target and would really get hurt. I could transfer out, but that would mean credits lost, an extra year of school—and an extra year’s tuition that we could ill-afford since my father’s untimely death.
I took to my bunker and survived.
Degree in hand, I entered the world of work As the first African American in Saks Fifth Avenue’s elite Executive Trainee Program, I later learned, there was in place a five-tier pay schedule for the same trainee position. In descending order of salary we were: male married, male single, female single, female married, and me—as the only Black person. Racism and sexism are profitable. But, I didn’t yet know that on April 4, 1968.
I was at Saks that night when Dr. King was assassinated. The next day I went to work dressed in mourning white—winter white wool dress, shoes, white rabbit fur coat. Naïve, I was a walking target. Steps from the employee entrance, two policemen dragged me into the gutter, accusing me of looting my own coat in the riots that had gripped the nation the night before.
One officer seized my purse.
“Match my license to the monogram in my coat,” I told him.
“Humph. Smart one.”
When he found a car registration with a different name, he had me. “The car is registered to my mother,” I struggled as his partner handcuffed me.
Totally unaware, a White colleague whisked by with a casual, “Hi, Janus!” and disappeared inside.
“You see, they know me here,” I pleaded. “I work here.”
I’d wanted to say “I belong here,” but I knew better. So did they. Arms pinned behind me, I was a criminal for all to see. They shoved me up to the personnel office for official ID where I was set loose, but hardly set free. In this New York, I was a Black girl in fashion, but not in vogue.
My family commiserated with the injustice. “You’ve had opportunities and used them well. Now, you get to show the world who we are as a people,” they said. It was the duty-honor-country speech given every warrior. “When you have the ability, you have the response-ability,” Mom prodded, quoting her Garveyite dad. “That’s why we’re put in these situations. A less fortunate Black person in the same predicament would be rotting in jail. But, a passerby waved, ‘Hi Janus!’ They’ll think twice the next time,” said Mom. “The police learned something today.”
So did I, I thought, freshening up my bunker.
That August, on vacation with Mom, visiting our cousin, we were strolling the eucalyptus walk at Mills College in Oakland, California when the Dean of Students rushed up behind us, asked who I was, asked if I’d like to be Mills’ first Black graduate student, and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I returned to New York, resigned from Saks, and enrolled two weeks later. I was awarded a graduate assistantship with tuition, room, and board fully paid; but my tenure was hardly without cost.
The phone would ring. It would be the Dean. “You know that lovely little green Donald Brooks you have (a couturier suit from my Saks wardrobe), wear that today, would you? Mrs. So-and-So is coming to tea.” With such command performances, so I later learned, I’d been made the whipping post to which the few Black undergrads were being tethered. “Why don’t you dress like, speak like, act like Janus?” No wonder none of the Black girls would speak to me. When I found out, I demanded the Dean tell me why she’d invited me to Mills if she was going to treat me so badly.
“I knew you were the one,” she said.
“The one what?”
“The one for Mills. You had on a pink leather suit and I’d never before seen a Black girl in white kid gloves.”
Lesson learned: One never knows what the qualifications are when being “qualified” is in the eye and purview of the beholder.
That year, across the bay at San Francisco State University, the cry went out: Black Studies! Relevance! The Dean who’d brought me to campus ran the walk hysterical, “The Panthers are on campus! The Panthers are on campus!”
Mills is in Oakland, I remember thinking. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale grew up in Oakland. With police brutality in Oakland as prod, they founded The Black Panther movement in Oakland. Why shouldn’t they, like other Oaklanders—from the Mormons to the Oakland A’s—be on campus?
By December, I exchanged my designer chic for dress-down slacks; my straightened hair for a natural. Encouraged by courageous faculty members, I changed my concentration from Music and Dance to Pan-African Culture, eventually earning what is considered the nation’s first graduate degree in Black Studies.
Flying home to New York for the Christmas vacation, just 21, I desperately needed my Mom’s laughing embrace. In the airport terminal, face-to-face, I watched, stunned, as she looked directly at me and moved away, searching for her daughter. So dramatically had my look and outlook changed that year that my own mother didn’t recognize me.
A Spiritual, message from the ancestors, recounts the price paid by those who escape from slavery to freedom:
I told Jesus, be all right
If He changed my name. . .
He said your mother won’t know you child
If I change your name. . .
But, I told Jesus, be all right
If He changed my name.
In 1968, my name got changed, and my mother didn’t know her only child.
Graduated from Mills and back home in New York, I found my way into radio and soon got my first full-time job with a TV first—a weekly magazine-format show focused on African American issues, “Black News.” When the station, Metromedia Channel 5 (now FoxNews 5), was hit with a twenty-week technician’s strike, production teams were re-assigned, filling in for missing crews. I went from production assistant to writer. When the show won an Emmy Award, the show’s producer, Charles Thomas, and co-host, Marian Etoile Watson, cited me as the primary writer and I was awarded special Emmy honors.
The station’s pioneering general manager, Bob Bennett, took notice; promoting me to management as Assistant Program Director with a serious bump in salary. Thrilled, I set my sights on living in “the city”; finding an apartment in Manhattan near the station. Our executive producer came up with a perfect one-bedroom just off Central Park, but there was a hitch: he’d keep a key so he and his friends could “drop by from time to time.” I declined. The next day, I met with my new boss: the station’s program director. Shortly into our meeting, he explained that my job included him chasing me around the desk and me being caught. No apartment. No job. I lost the opportunity for which I’d worked so hard. I lost and never regained my place up the rungs of television management.
Considering these incidents, these race and gender “firsts,” I now realize how formative they were.
By 1975, I was hosting my own radio show heard daily across eight states in the Northeast. From there, I joined National Public Radio (NPR) as its first National Arts Correspondent; opening the New York News Bureau. My time at NPR was not without its racial landmines. But, unknown to my colleagues, the real battle I faced was at home.
Married, I was the mother of twin daughters and a stepson. My husband was a celebrated musician; we were guests of the White House, feted in foreign capitals. Our marriage seemed the all-American Dream. It was not. I was pregnant with the twins the first time he punched me. Over the next 12 years, his battering only worsened until the day he tried to kill me.
With all I appeared to have going for me, professionally, why did I stay in that abusive marriage so long? Because I didn’t know how to leave. Because, somewhere along the way, I began to confuse acknowledging abuse as the price paid by generations in the struggle with accepting abuse as the price paid for life’s basics: education, work, a place to live, a private life, maintaining a home for my children. Because—crazy as it sounds—I still felt bound by the mission. “If a ‘successful’ Black family can’t make it…” I heard myself stumble at a particularly vulnerable spot, “what will White folks think?” This from a woman who certainly knew better than to fall for that—and truly did not care.
Forged in childhood, borne out in adulthood, this was my history; the values staked in youth that trailed me into womanhood.
A turning point came in that stifling summer of 1994 when however hot the day, the last thing you wanted was more OJ. The O. J. Simpson case was in-your-face, in-your-head terror, violence, threat, 24/7. Significantly, the coverage wasn’t about saving women from battering or deterring men, it was about race and interracial sex in America. And because it was more titillation than salvation, quiet as it’s kept, many women experienced severe trauma that summer: sleeplessness and other more revealing symptoms. I know. I was one of them.
A routine visit to my doctor one July day erupted into the molten lava of long-suppressed memories. A nurse had made flippant mention of my being “silly” about my privacy. I was sensitive; she was rude. Within moments, a cauldron of images, more throwback than flashback, sent me reeling. The terror was so palpable I felt my inner self sliding away. Day’s end found me crouched into a fetal ball inside my bedroom closet.
How had I come to this emotional state? A historian, ironically, my history was dragging me under. I would soon proudly write the Glory Days of our African Diaspora; the herstory of our Sister Days. Yet, my own little link on that eternal chain was weighing me down.
For years I’d been able to resist being sucked under by the quicksand of painful memories that seized me from time to time. I had children to raise, work to do, places to go, worlds to conquer. Now, in this OJ Summer, my daughters were grown, conquering worlds of their own; my defenses were gone. Hours passed before I found my way out of that closet. Days passed before I could leave the house. For months I walked in a haze.
“When you lose your way,” a friend once told me, “sometimes it’s best to go back to the beginning.” We were talking music, writing, creativity. It seemed good counsel for life. It was a concept to which the historian in me—the African in us both—could relate. Sankofa: an Akan word meaning “to go forward, one must go back.”
When, at last, I ventured out, I went back—mentally, emotionally—retracing the years that had brought me to that day I’d sunk so low that I crawled into a closet and almost died inside. With time, I understood that my closet—my bunker—had been planned and secured long before that summer.
The first time I crawled in I was eight years old entering elementary school—Mrs. Parks in the lead, Marcus Garvey and Granny Nanny alongside, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman watching my back. I crawled in again each school morning for the next 18 months until our family moved to the Bronx. During that time, I became the little girl who nearly blinded herself with scissors and then, in a crude surgery, sliced off a chunk of skin from the folds of my left thumb.
One night, scissors in hand—rounded “child safety” craft scissors—I set to the task of doing battle with a tiny pink sac lodged in the corner of my left eye from birth. That day, a teacher had called it out for ridicule, banished me to sit alone in an empty lunch room for two hours, and given my sac two words: contagious and dangerous.
Contagious was what everyone feared in that frightful time before the polio vaccine was developed. Dangerous was what Whites called Black people; what they said our very existence was; what their children would learn by having us in “their” schools. It was the things White people did to Black people they saw as a “threat.” My sac had to go. As I took aim, poking at it with the scissors, my mother’s hand grabbed mine. Weeks later, when my left thumb was called out for a wart, I went for the sharper sewing shears. That time my mother found me too late. Blood spurted out, spattering the walls, flooding the sink.
Even as I did these things, I wasn’t a child who “cut herself.” I was a child with a problem that needed solving; a child trying to protect herself as any cancer surgeon would. I was removing the stigmata of race before it consumed me.
That’s the thing about teaching children to not fight back. It’s disarming, unnatural, and unfair. We discipline children by threatening punishment for disobedience. We tell them that fighting is wrong. We say this with a wagging finger and a disapproving face. We tell them how angry we will be if they disobey the rules. What the punishment is, we leave to the imagination and to fear. A child under attack needs ways to fight, if not with fists then with words, with tools, with strategies, with something. To tell her not to fight back, no matter what, is to take away her right to self-defense. And, the self that is not worth the defense soon loses its self-respect. To teach a child to not fight is to train that child to fight within herself; to fight her own good sense and survival instincts. I wasn’t a self-destructive nine-year-old; I was fighting myself because a world had made my self a problem—something bad. I was fighting myself when I should have been fighting for myself.
In the larger ideological battle for school desegregation it can, of course, be said that we children were fighting for ourselves by fighting for a better education. Better than what? Better for whom? What does better mean? Such distinctions are subtle and unintelligible to a nine-year-old. Such distinctions are even unintelligible to the 21-year-old in the airport; the 23-year-old forced to give up a prized promotion; the 24-year-old denied a job even her would-be employer knows she should have. If you were 5’9” and blond, I would have hired you in a minute, said the network news director. It is unintelligible to the 40-year-old getting death threats for being uppity enough to launch a children’s publishing company, BackPax, and the first national book club for African American literature and culture, Harambee.
In the haze of that life-changing summer, mi Sankofa, I went back in mind to my beginnings; to the mission my parents had nurtured in me. I had been a member of that Integration Generation, a “first,” a foot soldier enlisted to break barriers that should never have been erected in the first place. Now, I would need to develop new survival skills that would get me past the minefields of race and gender firsts leading from Brown to that OJ Summer’s day.
The older I get, the more I realize just how ludicrous the whole concept really is. Mrs. Parks becomes an international icon for keeping her seat on a bus. Why did White America want her seat in the first place? That’s the question never asked; the story never told; the insanity never diagnosed. Why, in the twenty-first century, should I or anyone else be a first? We certainly aren’t the first people capable of being firsts, seconds, thirds.
Why so many firsts across so many fields—and all for the same reason? It is as though we have all been transported to the mythic isle of Lilliput. There, boulders of bigotry—of racism, sexism, every other -ism and -phobia—have been crushed into thousands of puny pebbles. But, because we have been made Lilliputian, made small by the journey, each pebble looms large; each pebble becomes an insurmountable climb. So it goes on… and on… and on…
But, you don’t know these things at age eight, at 18, 28; or even, for some, 88. By the time you do, the damage to you has been done. Yet, I still felt bound by the struggle, the vision, and the Dream; however diminished. Without that where would we, as a people, be? What would become of us? Of our children?
All this was the history I brought with me to the doctor that OJ Summer’s day. And, although I did not know it then, the time had come to turn from history to healing.
Call it my personal epiphany.
While writing my book Freedom Days, I discovered “Separation and Self Respect,” an essay by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois—Father of Pan-Africanism and two children. In 1934, twenty years before the Brown school desegregation decision that forged my life, Du Bois wrote:
A Black man born in Boston has a right to oppose any separation of schools by color, race or class. But this Black man in Boston has no right…to send his own helpless immature children into school where White children kick, cuff or abuse him, or where teachers openly and persistently neglect or hurt or dwarf his soul.
Oh, the circles we make—the moving forward and sliding back.
Wounded by the struggle, a beneficiary of the struggle, I do not regret my life of firsts or the price paid. I am grateful for the opportunity centuries of struggle gave me; for the opportunity and the sense of empowerment; for the gifts of purpose and possibility. Yet, as important as it is to make history is as vital as it is to honor the personal.
The breakdown I suffered that summer may have been my healthiest moment. It was the moment my “me” rebelled against its continued suppression. For the first time since I was eight, I said NO to abuse, NO to violence, NO to intimidation and humiliation. And, I would not be talked out of it.
In that recovery of self I learned that healing, too, is “good for the race.” Every race.