My name was pretty clear in the jumble of words my classmates read off the lists in front of them. We were doing one of my kooky English teacher’s ridiculous assignments during our 8th grade class. The task in this assignment was for each of us to write the first thing that came into our mind when she gave a one-word prompt. We were then supposed to pass the paper to the next student and wait for the next prompt to be given.
I still have no idea what the goal of this exercise was supposed to be. It certainly wasn’t part of any English curriculum that I had ever known. And why we were going through a bizarre psych word-association test in class, I couldn’t figure. But hey, this was my weird French private school and I had already learned that they had their unique ways of doing things.
We had arrived at the dénouement of the exercise: the point where each of us was to read our list of words aloud. However the giant stupidity of the whole process was that we had no list, nor any memory, of what the prompts were for each of the list replies read. So the list ended up as a strange word salad with no real meaning…that is, until I heard my name being given as a reply around the same portion of my classmates’s list reading. I kept widening my eyes with a what-the-hell look whenever someone else said my name. I scoured my brain to think of what prompt could have caused my classmates to think of me. It wasn’t until late that night as I was lying in bed that it came to me. Black. The prompt was “black.”
A snippet of the prompts from that morning came back to me. The word “white” had been given, and I dutifully replied “snow” before passing my paper to the next student. And then the word after had been “black.”
Now as a dutiful child of the sixties, I wrote “beautiful,” completing the catchphrase that my Black Power aunt had drilled into my head. But the others, my mostly white classmates, had no such association for the word “black.” What they had was me. Black; Liana. It fit. No, I wasn’t the only black person in the class, but I’m the one they chose to associate with the word. Only me.
The realization hit me like the proverbial brick. Yet instead of feeling any type of pride or specialness, all I could think was, they KNOW!
You see, from the time I left my small childhood in the Bronx with Grammy & Papa (and the aforementioned aunt) to move to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California with my issue-having Mummy, I quickly learned that the best thing to do was to become an incognegro.
In “the Valley,” as it was called, school was an abrupt shift for me at 7. Sure, back in New York, I knew I was different from the other kids, but I had no idea that being different was bad. Yet that 3rd grade year was utter hell. My blackness singled me out for abuse by both the teachers and the students. It was my first time hearing the n-word, my first time being teased for my color, and my first experience with being told to “go back to Africa!” The other kids feared touching me because the black might rub off. Even the teacher took umbrage at being given the black kid for her class. She even told my mother at the parent-teacher conference, “You might have gotten to be a doctor, but your daughter is too stupid to amount to anything.” Of course, Mom took this out on me for making her look bad. It was not the time, you might surmise, that I took pride in being black.
Fast forward to my first junior high school years. Jimmie Walker and Redd Foxx were the representations of black America on television. I spent most of my time trying to blend into the woodwork. Please don’t notice me, my color, my hair, my difference…please! I was one of the few chocolate chips in a vast sea of vanilla. I dreaded anyone noticing my race, because that noticing was never good and generally involved an application of the n-word.
So you can see why I was fraught with fear when I realized that my classmates knew I was black.
Luckily people and societies evolve. The advent of The Cosby Show changed everything. Black professionals, married, functional with children? Did such people exist? Well, duh! I told you that we didn’t all live in junkyards or the projects! We moved beyond the depictions of black life created by Norman Lear onto the Cos and Phylicia showing us a side of black America that had rarely been seen. It was like a shift from records to CDs. And little by little, I found myself lifting the grey cloak to develop a more sane black identity.
When I left crazyland my mother’s house to venture across the country to college in Connecticut, I left sounding like the uptight Oreo cookie that I had been called for much of my academic life to that point. Yet by the time I returned for the holiday break, my script had flipped as I learned to embrace my inner sista-gurl. There’s something about being around a tiny number of scary-smart, overeducated black folk at an Ivy League university that can end up setting things right in a confused gurl’s head. Dear Mummy was none too pleased to hear me return to her with a vocabulary peppered with “Yo, yo, yo, Mom-slice!” and “where da party at?” “I’m not paying all this money to have you sound like you’re from down the block!” she grumped. I simply smirked and counted the days until I could return to my new home.
Later, upon attending an HBCU for medical school (and that’s an historically black college or university, for those not in the know), I got teased a lot by my black classmates with the, “it’s a good thing you chose to come here to an HBCU for med school so that you’ll finally learn what’s it’s like to be black” ridiculosity. I just smiled politely, thinking to myself, when are you more aware of being black, when you are 7% of the student body or 97% of the student body? You do the math. The net of it was that I found my place, my politics, and my sociocultural home.
Other than the time I thought I’d have to give up my black card for marrying a Jewish guy, I’ve remained stably entrenched in my racial identity, my egalitarian feminism, and my need to question everything to continue to grow intellectually. I’m a geriatric mom through open adoption to the best and most photogenic daughter in the entire world. My husband remains both my best friend and the cause of most of my grey hair. And as a trained teendoc, (specialized pediatrician for teenagers) I am a passionate adolescent health advocate, since teens are among the most marginalized groups in society. (People act as if they are two steps away from serial killers on the societal importance ladder.) My writing is my way of staying sane in this crazy world…and, oh yeah, I like to take pretty pictures.
I’m truly excited to be part of the Love is not Enough team.
Liana Clark, MD, MS is an adolescent medicine physician & medical director by day and a writer, photographer, public health advocate, geriatric mom and egalitarian wife in all her spare moments. She blogs at Welcome to the Dollhouse and displays photos at Eclectic Journey Photography.