I seemed to have misplaced my father toward the end of my 15th year. I had done the unthinkable: I called my parents on their silence game. “How can you work on your marriage when you don’t speak to each other?” My mother was thoughtful. My father was indignant. Who was I to pipe up? I was the lowest-ranking member of the family, and my opinion counted the least. I was temporarily laid off from my summer job at my father’s real-estate office — because I was tired, obviously — and decades passed in which he didn’t wish me a happy birthday.

It broke my heart a little. We never recovered the relationship that we’d had.

Norfolk State University, a predominantly black school in Virginia, redefined for me what it meant to be black. There were “yellow” (light-skinned) blacks, “high-yellow” (really-light-skinned) blacks, and “red-bone” (damn-near-white) blacks. But we was all “niggas,” no matter what the shade. And no one, except me, seemed to have a problem with the classifications. The word “nigga” was used between blacks as a fond description, as in, “Ooh, that’s one fine nigga over there.”

At NSU, the girls, whether they were fat or not, dressed up, and wore make-up. They rocked their straightened hair (God forbid if it rained — the campus would be deserted). Even the fat girls had boyfriends. But all the campus queens were really light or damn-near white.

I could have tried to be cute — do my hair, wear make-up, and dress up — there were people who wanted to help transform me. And, even without trying, I did get approached by an African student. He said he liked fat women and offered to help me with my math. I refused. He was in trigonometry. I was in calculus. It never would have worked.

Besides, I had no time for boys. I had to prove that I was smart. My major was physics.

Being a physics major intimidated people, especially white people. In fact, it shut them up.

Imagine the conversation between me and an older white woman sitting next to me on a plane. The subtext would go something like this: “Yes, I am safe to talk to. No, you don’t have to use small words. Amazingly enough, I don’t have any children. Yes, I am a college student. Physics…noo, not Phys-ED, Phys-ICS.” End of conversation.

And the beginning of my accumulation of power.

Throughout four years of college at NSU, I belonged mostly to the walking invisible.

But there were times when, passing by a group of boys, I would receive their attention. This was the kind of attention that I prayed not to receive. I’d look at my watch or the ground or at anything to keep me from having to make eye contact with them. But sometimes my prayers bounced back. “Woof, woof, woof.” That was a request for my special attention — I’d have to stop and look at them. “That’s the best you can do? Maybe you should go inside of the library, instead of hanging out in front.” Usually, something like that would put an end to it. They all had black mamas and sisters, and they knew when to shut up and stay down.

Not so the white boys at the University of California, Davis, where I transferred and attended my second four years of undergraduate school.

Same situation — just trying to walk somewhere and not be noticed (or, at least, not be commented on). “You fat bitch.” Okay, so I knew I was fat, but…bitch? Now, that was just uncivil. It was a fervent request for my special attention. I had to stop and look at them. “Who you calling a bitch? I don’t see your mama here. And if she was, I’d slap her for raising a DUMB FUCK like you.” His friends held him back while he strained to come after me. I laughed over my shoulder. A calculated risk, to be sure, but I’d won. At least some of them had common sense.

UCD, after NSU, was quite a change. It was like starting middle school all over again. I went from a predominantly black environment to a predominantly white environment. Davis, the city itself, was full of super-educated, self-congratulatory people who claimed to love diversity, and me, too. But, in reality, I was one of the scariest things in Davis — a large militant black woman.

What I experienced at Davis was a repeat of the feelings I’d experienced at Pershing Junior High School, only worse, because of its subtlety. (When it’s obvious, you know your enemy and can fight back. When it’s subtle, you’re never quite sure, and if you give people the benefit of the doubt, the bad ones can do deeper damage.)

I got angry, and I stayed angry for two years.

I could tell you why a streetlight was a racist representation. What held up the white bulb? A black post. But what got credit for providing the light? Right. The white bulb. But where would that white bulb be without the black lamppost to hold it up? Exactly. Racist.

I wanted to join the Black Panthers. I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun, how to throw a knife, and how to drive a big rig. All of those skills might come in handy when racial animus raised its ugly head to the point of physical violence. I almost joined a black revolutionary communist group (scared the crap out of my parents). I took fighting classes — street-fighting, self-defense, and jiu-jitsu. Mess with me and I’ll kick your ass. I then decided to go to law school. My people would need me to be a lawyer when the hostilities broke out again. And that meant: mess with me and I’ll kick your ass, and sue it, too.

Eventually, I chose Jesus over rage.

I had been an agnostic most of my life. As a child, I refused to accept that two of every living land and sky creature could fit into a boat. And since I couldn’t buy the package deal, I left it all alone. But near the end of my undergraduate stint, I knew that if I didn’t do something to get relief from my anger, I would burn up and self-destruct.

More from SDReader


lulutxu Dec. 6, 2012 @ 9:36 a.m.

Such a well written and at times heart breaking story. Thank you for sharing your experiences and providing inspiration.


qpodad Dec. 6, 2012 @ 11:31 a.m.

Ms. Jackson, you write eloquently and with great passion. One of the best articles I have read in a while. Thank you for your candor and strong spirit, and best of luck with your new endeavor.


cqc3 April 16, 2013 @ 2:59 p.m.

The interesting thing about this story is that as much as it is about discrimination, it's also about how one chooses to perceive oneself. I didn't know Joan, but I was two years ahead of her at PJHS and PHHS, and I was also bussed from Southeast. Funny thing: I experienced more racism from other black students than I ever did from whites. Maybe I just didn't notice because I expected it from white students, but to many of the black students I wasn't black enough. I earned the nickname "the professor" from a kid at my bus stop in 7th grade because I dared to speak proper English (i.e., even then, I "sounded white.") Although I assumed everyone at school knew I was bussed, I don't remember it being nearly as big a deal to my fellow students as it was to me; although internally I felt the sting of being an outsider, to this day, many still express surprise that I didn't live in San Carlos, Del Cerro, or Allied Gardens. But my drive to succeed in life was fueled as much by the enormous homes and exotic cars I saw from the window of the school bus as it snaked up Madra drive as it was a feeling that I could be just as successful as any other kid at PHHS . I made many lifelong friends there who ultimately didn't care what color I was. I went on to study at USC and attended law school at UC Berkeley, and am now a Superior Court Judge (with dreadlocks) for LA County, all because I knew that nothing could limit my dreams except me. My senior quote was "If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it." I wish I could have shared that wisdom with Joan; maybe it could have helped her to avoid some of the pain she allowed others' perceptions to inflict on her. Because it's less about your appearance than your attitude. Much less.


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