I was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. My parents divorced when I turned five, and my mother, grandmother and I left Brooklyn and moved to the suburbs of Queens. We lived in a racially diverse neighborhood, it was about 1/3 Black, 1/3 Polish, and 1/3 Italian. My mom (a recently converted Catholic) tried to enroll me in the nearby St. Joseph Elementary School but she was turned away because I didn’t speak Polish. (Hmmmmm!?) So I was enrolled St. Pius V Catholic School (it was a bit further away, but it wasn’t the local public school where all the poor Black kids went) and thus I began my journey through private, Catholic education.
Like most African-Americans, I experienced racial prejudice from a very young age. But unlike most of my brothers and sisters, the prejudice I remember was not directed at me. You see, I was not viewed as an ordinary Negro. I was blessed with a fairly high I.Q. and something very close to a photographic memory. Elementary school was enormously easy for me and I breezed through with a grade point average of 99. I was “a different kind of Negro!” At least, that’s what the nuns at St. Pius told me countless times. I was one of five Black kids in my elementary school class and I was constantly told that I was “a credit to my race.” (Unlike the other Black kids in my class? My school? My neighborhood? The city? The world?)
I only learned about two Negroes in elementary school. These two men were also “credits to my race.”
Booker T. Washington was a former slave who wrote a book titled “Up From Slavery.” That he was an educator, that he was the founder and principal developer of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, that he was the most prominent and influential spokesman for Black Americans at the turn of the 19th century, these facts were left out of my “education.”
I also learned that George Washington Carver was a “credit” because he developed more than 100 uses for the peanut. That his work helped revolutionized the agricultural economy of the South, that he was elected to Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1916, that he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, that he turned down an invitation to work for Thomas A. Edison at a salary of more than $100,000 a year, that Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D. Roosevelt visited him, and that his friends included Henry Ford and Mohandas Gandhi, these facts were also left out of my “education.” But I was left with the knowledge that he invented 100 uses for the peanut.
Needless to say, based on the scant information I had on these two gentlemen, I was not impressed. The Negro race had clearly not accomplished much in the 100 years since emancipation.
There was one other reference to people of African descent in my elementary education. Miss Veniola, would come to our classroom at least once a month with her little chord organ, and teach us music, songs from various cultures. It was through Miss Veniola that I learned some of the songs the happy slaves sang on the plantations. I learned that they worked hard during the day, but at night, they laughed and danced and played, and sang songs. It was an idyllic picture of a joyous life. And it filled me with shame.
If only I had learned about Roy Wilkins, Charles Drew, Madame C.J. Walker, Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Elijah McCoy, W.E.B. DuBois, Scott Joplin, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Phlliis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Bessie Coleman, Satchel Paige, Jesse Owens, and the list goes on. Perhaps, had I known of just a few of these people, and their accomplishments, I might have grown up proud of my Blackness instead of ashamed of it.
I graduated from St. Pius V Elementary School and went on to St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic, Jesuit, military high school, where I was now one of five Black kids in the entire school. And still, a credit to my race. One day, during my Sophomore year, I was cutting a gym class with some of the other kids at Xavier, hanging out downstairs in the lockers smoking cigarettes. We heard a noise, and fearing discovery (which would probably have resulted in a paddling at the very least), one of the guys went to check it out. When he returned, we all asked what the noise was. He replied, “Nothing to worry about, just a couple of Ni---“ Cutting his sentence off abruptly, he then looked at me and said, “Sorry Dennis.”
It took me a while to realize the implications of that remark. I began to see my world through different lens, a new filter. Turns out, I wasn’t a “different kind of Negro” after all. I was just another Ni--.
But as the saying goes, better late than never.