Wednesday, November 30, 2005

a battle lost (why i major in pan-african studies)

it was my first day in the gifted program in high school. i was a black eight-grader attending a predominantly white high school as a part of the minority to majority program (send black kids living in inferior black neighborhoods to schools in superior white neighborhoods).

i was immediately uncomfortable. i wondered if i even belonged there. sure, i had participated in a similar program in elementary school, so it wasn't like i wasn't familiar with the system of it all. however, this was different. in elementary school i was among many other black kids who were deemed "gifted" as a result of test scores that for some reason determined the intelligence level of a child. funny, but despite my test scores, up until then i had never received better than average grades in school. that didn't matter, though. as long as the test scores remained high, i was "gifted". what utter bullshit, but that's a discussion for another day.

anyway, i'm sitting in the class and looking around, noticing real quick-like that i was the only black kid in the room. i slunk down in my chair, trying to make myself invisible to the blond-haired, blue-eyed teacher who from time to time would stare pointedly at me as if to say "what the fuck is this nigger doing in my program?"

i had never seen that look before. or maybe i had never recognized the look before that very moment. she wore her hatred like a technicolor coat, changing from the crimson passion of bitter animosity whenever i dared raise my hand to answer a question to the stinging green glaze of contempt when the answer proved to be correct to an icey azure of indifference when she attempted to ignore me the rest of the time. i sat at my desk and watched the coat evolve from one to color to another, not really sure why it only appeared when she was reminded of my presence in her room. i stiffened my spine and sat up straight in my chair, picking up the guantlet that had been silently tossed in my direction.

she made a point of calling on me to answer question after question during the first fifteen minutes of class, as if she was praying i'd answer wrong so she'd have justification for her belief i shouldn't be there. the topics ranged from science to calculus to the american government and to her disappointment, i answered none incorrectly. my face was all shiny and happy cuz i was so proud of myself.

then somewhere towards the end of the period, the discussion turned to the civil rights movement. was it for my benefit or detriment? if i had learned anything from the first fifty minutes of being in her presence it was that she wasn't to be trusted. at this point, i said little. frankly, despite all of the "education" i'd received up until that point, very little of it concerned the civil rights movement past martin luther king and rosa parks. i'm ashamed to say it now, but i have to tell it, because again, it speaks to just how fucked up the education system was (and still is) regarding the educating of black kids about the textured and multi-hued fabric that is the history of black folk in america and beyond. but i digress...

so i sat there as the white kids around me discussed the court case that forced white schools to enroll black kids like me into their ranks because separate didn't mean equal. they talked about how tired rosa parks must have been to refuse to give up her seat to that white guy and how martin luther king was a good preacher who fought non-violently for the rights of black folk.

and i remained silent through the whole thing, because i was unsure of what i could contribute to the conversation other than what was already being said.

my silence was being duly noted, as ms. hateanigger kept making furtive glances at me, a puzzled look on her face.

then with a dawning comprehension she realized why i wasn't saying anything. she interrupted the discussion right then and there and looked me straight in the eyes, pulling her shoulders back as if getting ready to put up her fists for a fight. she took a deep breath and spoke.

"nikki, dear..."

her condescending tone had turned my name into an insult.

everyone in the class turns to me, as if sensing the importance of this moment. looking back, i wonder if hatred against black folk was easier for them to detect than it had been for me up until then. it was like they were all waiting for the negro kid to speak knowledgeably about the civil rights movement cuz, you know, i was a negro. this would also prove to be my first foray as representative for the entire black race. i could feel the fear rising to settle like a brick in my throat.

"yes ma'am?" i answered.

she paused, as if building up for some kind of orgasm triggered by my next answer.

"what does 'n' double 'a' 'c' 'p' mean?"

i froze. i tried to draw my face into a picture of confidence, but i knew i had failed because fear is a pungent smell and a dog sniffing for it will find it and the nostrils on this bitch were flaring.

i didn't know what it meant.

i mean, i knew what the "n", one of the "a"s, the "c" and the "p" meant. it was the national association of colored people, right? no...that can't be right, cuz that leaves out one of the "a"s....

was this some kind of trick question??? oh boy...

i glanced around, a plea for help etched on my face. just remembering how i felt then makes me cringe right now out of both embarrassment and anger. embarrassment because i was actually looking for a white kid to save me from a moment when my inherent "negro-ness" should have prevented the moment from occurring in the first place. anger because i was looking for help from some of the same kids who had been smirking in disdain at me up until then.

i started to sweat a little.

every black person knows what naacp means, right? that question kept repeating itself in my mind as i started wringing my hands and biting the inside of my mouth.

yeah...every black person except me.

the black kid who had tested so high on her iowa tests, she had placed in the top 1% of her age group in the nation.

the black kid who had been in the gifted program in her elementary school since third grade.

the black kid who had been skipped a grade based solely on her test scores.

the black kid who, despite the high test scores that labeled her highly intelligent, didn't know shit about the history of black people.

the black kid who at that very moment was actually calculating the probability of a meteor falling from the sky to wipe out if not the planet, then at the very least the teacher now standing before her with the look of malicious triumph lighting her eyes like shattered glass reflecting flame from a soul already dwelling in hell with the devil.

mrs. hateanigger stood there, feet spread, hands braced on her hips, a grin on her face as she waited for my answer.

" stands for the national association of all colored people."

the kids around me started snickering, but the sound wasn't loud enough to drown out the sound of my heart as it thundered beneath my breasts.

mrs. hateanigger remained standing, her face red as she tried to hold onto the sound of her own snickering, before the force proved too strong and she quickly let out a guffaw before going silent.

"no, dear." she faked looking aghast. "it stands for the national association for the advancement of colored people."

she emphasized "for the advancement" as if to say "evidently not very far"...

thinking back on that moment, i'd have to agree with her, though the very action makes me want to peel back my skin with a really sharp cheese grater.

after i sat down, i could feel the eyes of everybody in the class still upon me, but i refused to look up from the desktop. i was extremely embarrassed and hurt and i felt let down, although i wasn't sure who or what had let me down.

later that day, as i sat on the school bus taking me from superior school to the inferior area known as my neighborhood, i thought long and hard about what labels like "highly intelligent" and "gifted" really meant.

and how absolutely worthless they are without "knowledge of self".