Commentary: Are we there yet?

  • Published
  • By Laura McGowan
  • 88 Air Base Wing Public Affairs
During Black History Month, we celebrate the contributions Blacks have made to our country, our education and our military. On our journey through the ups and downs of life, we ask the question parents hear long road trips, "Are we there yet?"

The beginning of my Black journey was in the middle 1950's. I was born in 1954. While I was learning to walk, talk, share, count and say my ABCs, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Segregation was the norm and integration was the goal. By the time I started kindergarten at five, we were some of the first Black families to move to Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. It kind of reminded me of Norman Rockwell's, painting, "Moving Day."

One of our White neighbors, the Dinino family, had a granddaughter, Sherry Baker, who would come to visit them often. After our initial stare down, my younger sister, Paula, and I started playing with our new friend. We loved finding bugs, playing with our dolls (which were all White), and most of all, making mud pies. Not just any mud pie, but ours had red berries in them that we would pick from the trees and bushes around our homes.

During one of our mud-pie-making sessions, Sherry said that she wished she could be Black like us. Well, without missing a beat, I had the solution for her. We painted her visible skin with mud, and she helped. We were quite pleased that we could accommodate her so easily. She was also very proud; that is until her grandparents saw her. Needless to say, neither of us got put in "time out". We all got old-fashioned spankings by our respective parents. In Sherry's case, it was her grandparents who meted out her punishment. Needless to say, we never again painted Sherry with mud, and she never again asked us to.

While the Supremes were singing their way into history, I was starting kindergarten. It was an exciting and confusing time. I didn't see many other Black students, and there were no Black teachers. My kindergarten teacher's name was Mrs. Shamus. I tried to be as good as I knew how so that she would like me. I even took up for her when at dinner one night, one of my older sisters, Jessie, said that my teacher had crossed eyes. I knew there was something different about my teacher's eyes, but I didn't know what. So, after Jessie said that, I dropped my jaw in disbelief and said, "I'm gonna tell on you!" And I did. The next day, I told my teacher what my older sister said, thinking that she would hug me and say, "Thanks." Instead, she just looked at me.

At dinner that evening, I told my family that I told on Jessie. When my mom asked me to explain, I said that I told Ms. Shamus what Jessie said. My mom made Jessie go to my kindergarten teacher and apologize that very next day. My mom also told me that it wasn't nice for me to tell the teacher that, and she explained that many people are different for lots of reasons, and it was impolite to always point out those differences. She said it could hurt their feelings. I didn't do that anymore. Needless to say, I wasn't the teacher's pet for sure.

Well, since I wasn't going to be the teacher's pet in kindergarten, I thought that first grade might be very different. Mrs. Wolfson was my teacher. There were two Blacks in her class, me and Debbie Goggins (we're still friends today). I really liked school, and I couldn't wait to go each day. I tried to be good and not cause problems, and I tried to do everything that was asked of me. I wanted Ms. Wolfson to like me, but her favorite student was Susan Whitmore. Susan was White, pretty and very smart. I wanted to be pretty and smart too. My mom said I was pretty, but I thought she was just saying that because she was my mom, and we all know, that doesn't count.

Well, fast-forwarding to junior high school, 1965. It was a new era for me and Black history. The Voting Rights Act was passed that year, and prior to that the armed forces was integrated. My dad was very involved in the voting process, and we went to many picnics to support our voting party. Also my only brother, Doug, who was much older than I, was in the Air Force. I was always very excited for him to visit us wearing his uniform. It was because of him that I knew that one day I would be part of the United States Air Force, too.

In junior high, I had already decided that I didn't care if I was the teacher's pet anymore. I had many Black friends, and I preferred to be called Black and NOT Negro. No one ever called me the "n-word." At least they didn't call me it to my face. My sixth grade year, I went to a pretty rough school, but I still enjoyed school. I excelled in Math and English, and was placed in an honor's math class in the middle of the semester. My new math teacher's name was Mrs. Schrieb. She did not like me, and she acted as if I shouldn't be there. I told my mom about it every day. She told me to just do my best and not cause trouble. She said it doesn't matter if I'm liked or not and just get my education with as little drama as possible.

I tried to not cause my mom much "drama," but one school day about two weeks before school was getting out for the summer, my locker was broken into. All of my books, papers, etc., were gone. As I went to each class, I let my teachers know what happened. It was fine with them all, except Mrs. Schrieb. She told me that I would have to make up the entire year. When I asked her how I could do that with only two weeks left in school, she told me to go to the principal's office and get a pass to come to her class. I did, and when I brought her the pass, she snatched it from me and told me to put my desk in the corner facing the wall. I told her, "No. I'm going home." And I did leave.

Once I got home and told my mom what happened. She left immediately and walked the eight blocks to my school--she didn't know how to drive. She spoke with the principal, Dr. Slocum. She told him what had been happening in the classroom. I thought she wasn't listening to me all those many days I told her what was going on. There must have been other problems with this teacher, because she was fired. Mom let me stay at home the rest of the two weeks before summer; I earned all my credits to go on to seventh grade. I learned something that day. First, my mom really cared enough to not go off every time I had a complaint, but that she knew exactly the right time to challenge an injustice. I remembered that and used that same modus operandi for my own children. But, I never liked math after that and did only the minimum to get by in that subject.

By the time I started high school in 1968, I was sporting an afro, going to Operation Push meetings to listen to Jessie Jackson speak in Chicago, and singing and dancing to James Brown's hit, "Say it loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud." Pres. John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had all been assassinated, in November 1963 then April and June of 1968, respectively. I remember crying and wondering what was going to happen next. I just kept going to school and did my best to not cause drama.

As a freshman in high school, I was placed in an advanced placement English class, and my teacher's name was Mrs. Barbara Pannwitt. I went to a very large high school with 1,188 in my graduating class at Evanston Township High School. For the very first time in my life, a teacher caught me quite off-guard and told me that I was a gifted writer. I was immediately skeptical, because I was the only Black in her class, so I knew that couldn't be true. However, I continued to do my very best for Mrs. Pannwitt, and she continued to encourage me.

High school went by like a blur, classes, parties, dancing, parties, and homework-- and did I mention parties? I was heavy into the Cause, nonviolence, achieving what many told us we couldn't achieve. Then graduation took place in 1972.All of my close knit friends went on to college and graduated. I went to Northern Illinois University. We went even though none of our high school counselors encouraged us to go. We encouraged ourselves and each other. My mom brought me a card and gift from Mrs. Pannwitt. She congratulated me on achieving my Bachelor's Degree in English. I called her and thanked her, telling her I had enlisted in the United States Air Force and would start basic training in July 1976.

When training was completed, I was stationed at Moody, AFB, Ga. I worked the graveyard shift and went to graduate school full-time at Valdosta State College, now Valdosta State University. After I graduated from there with a Master of Education, in Secondary Education, December 1979, I was accepted into the Officer Training Program.

During the many years, there have been many advancements, achievements and firsts for Black Americans. Many doors have been opened willingly and through legislation. While today I don't feel the need to wear an afro for self identity, I can. There is a Black president in the White House; there are many Blacks and people of color that hold political positions, trying to ensure equality for all people. Now is a great time for us to not judge each other by the color of our skin. It's time we not judge each other by the "brown bag" test--how light or dark we are. It's time for it to be okay if a person wants to be identified as African American or Black. It should be okay to wear your hair natural or straightened. It's time for people to stop saying, "Well, you don't sound Black."

It's time to not depend on the government to heal our wounds and solve all of our problems. It's time that we do our very best and not cause a lot of drama. What can you do to make things better for those coming after you? This is a long, long journey. Are we there yet? No, not yet. Even though we've come a long way, there's still quite a way to go.

Shem Hotep (I go in peace)