When I was 15 years old, I entered and won the Martin Luther King Jr speech contest in my county. There weren’t many contestants – maybe 6 in total – and I was the only white person who entered (I think). I don’t remember the exact content of my speech, but I started it off embarrassingly by singing the opening lines of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.” A cappella. I’m cringing for myself as I think about it. The speech was your basic naive, earnest entreaty to just get along and vanquish racism so that we can all achieve our dreams and that our country was founded on principles that could not possibly support barring another race from equality.
At that time, 1993, I was proud of myself for winning the contest. Some of the older African-American competitors weren’t thrilled with my win although one, a popular senior, later congratulated me when we passed in the halls one day. I thought my win showed that this very white girl cared about equality too. She supported Dr. King’s message and legacy and is prepared to fight for equal rights, abhorring racism.
Now, when I think back upon that contest, I am mortified. I’m mortified for that white girl who was so naive about race, race relations and equality. I’m sure the speech was reasonably intelligent; I was a precocious student. I can carry a tune, so although ridiculous, I’m sure the lyrics I sang weren’t excruciating. I’m comfortable in front of a crowd thanks to my theater experience, so I probably spoke well.
But I am mortified. First of all, I entered the contest for reasons that weren’t noble. In my speech class, I had a friend who planned to enter and practiced her speech in front of us. I loved this friend, but I was also envious because she was smart, talented and gregarious. She seemed to suck up all the attention in the room because of her personality. Everyone loved her. Our teacher loved her too, and I felt like the 1st runner up or maybe even the 2nd runner up in everything to this friend. I wanted to enter the contest and win because I wanted to be applauded, to show my teacher that I was talented and smart too.
This friend was also biracial. I feel like such an asshole looking back. This girl came from a stressful family environment, and I’m sure the teacher wanted to make sure she felt supported and encouraged to her reach whatever goals she set (as well as genuinely liking her I’m sure. I don’t mean to imply the teacher’s attention wasn’t genuine). My parents were divorced and remarried at this point, and we didn’t always have the best financial situation, but I never wanted for anything. Never had to deal with abusive situations. Never had to deal with being considered lesser just because of my skin color before I’d even opened my mouth.
And what the hell did I know about inequality at 15? Nothing except a vague sense of how all races are equal and that everyone deserves the same chance to succeed without imposed obstacles due to attitudes, laws or beliefs. This is the same girl who thought about living in the projects to counsel the residents that drive-by shootings are bad, mmmkay.
Hubris. Pure and simple.
I know. I’m probably being too hard on myself. After all, why should I expect 15-year-old KeAnne to have the wisdom and understanding that 35-year-old KeAnne does? I’m fortunate that I can say I was naive and innocent in a time when so many 15-year-old deal with truths and realities much grimmer.
It’s not that I don’t believe that Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is not my day to celebrate too. I like to think that if I had been living during the Civil Rights movement, I would have marched with Dr. King. I would have worked to help spread the message. Maybe it’s part of my ISTJ personality type, but I believe deeply in fairness. You use facts, reason and logic to make decisions, not rely on hazy, nebulous, arbitrary, and outright false information to legislate, especially when that legislation is propping up the white race and keeping others down.
I grew up in the South, and race can be tricky here. I have relatives who wouldn’t think twice about using the “N” word or falling back on stereotype. Although, now, with the influx of migrant workers, the target has shifted from African Americans to Hispanics. Progress? However, because we were forced to integrate, in many ways, the South is more tolerant of race. At least publicly. You may say things behind closed doors that you would never, ever utter in public, but you treat different races acceptably and appropriately in public. Again, progress? I don’t know. I just remember that my Ethnic American Studies professor in college pointed out that fact, and I felt a bit proud of the much-maligned South.
Growing up and living in the South, I feel the weight of history and prior generations. No, my family never owned slaves. If anything, we were probably closer to being “crackers.” However, my county also boasts a much-celebrated former plantation. It’s difficult to reconcile feeling proud of your state and ashamed for its past. To want to shout, “but I’m not like that! I don’t think that way!” and wonder what you would have done if you had lived in the 19th Century. To love Southern culture and cuisine and appreciate the African contributions to it. To wonder if your identity as a Southerner will always be tainted with racism, segregation and intolerance.
I wish I hadn’t won that speech contest. I had no fucking idea what I was talking about.
Despite being older, I’m not perfect. Far from it. I still struggle with race. 10 years ago we built a house in a new development in Southeast Raleigh. We picked out everything. Jimmy visited it every day to observe its progress. We were able to get 1800 square feet with a full basement for a great price. In many ways, we gestated and gave birth to that house with the care and attention we put into it.
Southeast Raleigh is a lower-income area of the county. It is filled with up -and-coming neighborhoods, but it is also heavily African American. As was our neighborhood. We weren’t the only white families, but we were the minority. We made friends. We planted grass and flowers. And 2 years later, we sold that house. It was an accumulation of things: the fact that there were no playgrounds, so groups of boys roamed the streets. The fact that graffiti was spray painted on our street. The fact that yards weren’t mowed or taken care of and cars were parked anywhere. The fact that we found out several houses were Section 8 and that many households were very behind on their HOA dues. The fact that I never felt comfortable there.
We are still sad when we think about that house. Sad we felt like we had to leave it because the neighborhood was going downhill. And sad and embarrassed because I felt like I had tried to live in a more diverse area and failed miserably. Utterly. Maybe we are racist at heart. When it came time to put my money where my mouth was, I failed.
Older KeAnne recognizes that real life is much more complicated than the idealism of her youth. And it’s a lot more painful.
On another Martin Luther King Day four years ago, we met our gestational surrogate at the obstetrician’s office for the big ultrasound and discovered that our much-wanted and longed-for baby was a boy (I started this blog on the day before MLK 2009, so happy blogiversary?). The next day, it snowed, and we joyfully watched the inauguration of Barack Obama, our first African American President.
We had so much hope and joy, both in anticipation for our baby boy and for what the Obama administration would achieve. And 4 years later, we’re a little more cynical and tired, but still positive and hopeful. I still believe that President Obama – if not obstructed by politicians who seek only to obstruct him – can and will achieve great things. And our sweet boy, now a sassy, sensitive, sweet, smart (look at the alliteration!) 3.5 year old will be better than the generation that came before. He will have grown up in a time when from before he was born, an African American was President and women served in high office.
My hope is that he will be free of a lot of the baggage we carry and that we are helping him to be that way.