When I was a girl, I lived on an Army base in Munich, Germany. I was surrounded by people of color and the diverse spectrum was my norm. As a teenager, I lived in northern Virginia, attending a high school that had multi-lingual signs over every bathroom.
I grew up in the years following the Civil Rights movement, living in a blissful sense of “everyone is equal” ignorance. I lived through the smashing of barriers as different people of different backgrounds and ethnicities took their places of power. They were landmarks of progress and I was proud to be part of the generation who watched change happen.
I think the key-word, though is watched. I wasn’t part of the change. I didn’t usher in change. I lived through what I thought was change.
I lived in a world filled with roses that smelled sweet and tantalized the eye with their beauty and perfection. I could dance in this Garden of Eden and not worry about the serpents looped around the tree branches.
Until the day I reached for a rose and found the hidden thorns.
I started removing my blindfold in 2015 when Freddie Gray died. A preventable act that, in my opinion, was malicious, he was taken on a “rough ride” that ended with him in a coma that eventually lead to his death.
The riots in Baltimore exploded and I was in my classroom in a Virginia suburb, teaching classes of students that were predominantly white. Thankfully, my Black students spoke out. One young woman in particular, taught me about the reality of being Black in the early 21st Century.
She described being followed around in stores.
She narrated her brother’s fear of stepping outside his house.
She described the pressures, the constant need to surpass just to be seen as equal.
What? But…the Civil Rights Movement? The change? The progress? President Obama!
Were landmarks in history but that didn’t mean that history had changed.
Somehow, I had confused myself that, with the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, with the legislation that had been passed, that the Civil Rights Fairy Godmother had come down off her perch and waved her magic wand and racism and poverty and inequity just….poof!…disappeared.
I didn’t understand the real meaning behind Black Lives Matter until a Black man whom I was tutoring/teaching grammar to (and later his son) taught me. He showed me that it wasn’t lifting one race over another. It was about shedding light on the extreme inequality and resulting pain one race felt due to the actions of others.
And then things seemed to get better. But they didn’t. In my rosy-colored ignorance, I went back to my Garden. I tidied my rose beds. I fertilized my flowers and kept watch for the snakes and made sure that all were welcome in my happy world.
Life shifted for me about eighteen months ago when I started writing a collection of short stories inspired by the #MeToo movement. I realized the mythology of equal treatment for women was just that….a myth. And I decided to start nailing the reality to the wall and strip away the perfect mirrors so people could see the distortions underneath.
My characters are Greek goddesses, each an archetype for different aspects of women’s lives. My first story is from the perspective of Aphrodite, teaching the toxic realities of women and sexuality. My second is from the Greek Fates, women tied to fate, to tradition. And now, my third, the one that is taking me through lots of rabbit holes into a Wonderland that frightens me. Athena. A Black woman who works in a medical research facility, working on curing a genetic heart defect.
I wanted to write a story in which I analyzed the fact that women are consistently not seen as smart as men. I loved the fact that Athena introduced herself to me as a Black woman. Only….I don’t know what it means to be a Black woman. So I started interviewing colleagues and former students who are Black so I could understand, so I could learn.
“We are taught to be twice as good and work twice as hard to be viewed as equal.”-BJM
The scrutiny. The following around in public places. The language of hate. The cruelty of others. The man who parked his truck at the base of subsidized housing and blasted a song that made reference to stringing up dope dealers on short ropes over tall tree branches and hanging them until the sun goes down.
My fingers bleed from the thorns. From the snake bites. But the blindfold is gone. Under my feet, trodden into the red clay that looks like murky, old blood. I was proud that I have tried to introduce my students to multi-cultural literature. But that concept of “introduction” has become immersion. Guest speakers. Artwork. More about those who brought about change whose names have been tucked away into the annals of history because they weren’t so..ivory colored.
I am not ashamed of who I am. I am a product of my DNA. I am a product of hours of interviews with people who narrated their experiences about discrimination, whether it was fifty years ago….or five days ago. I grew up after change was supposed to happen.
I live as change does happen. Whether it is in my classroom where I will challenge my students to see beyond the limited scope and their own rosy-colored blindfolds.
Or my daughter who is 16 and has changed her mind from becoming a graphics designer to becoming a politician so she can and will enact change. My daughter who is devoting her life to civil service because she wants to see change become permanent. My daughter who now talks of running for Congress so that she might create a path toward the White House because she is furious that racism and discrimination and inequality are still the norm.
She stripped away her rosy-colored blindfold when mine had started drooping. And as she moves forward with her actions for change, I will be right beside her as she marches forward with spotlights that brilliantly illuminate the dark, hidden corners no one wants to look at. I will support her. I will help. I will follow her.
I will be the change.
Gracelesscurran is the pen name for Heather Curran whose short story, “Put On, Put Up, Put Out, Put Away,” was published in Bottom Shelf Whiskey, a literary magazine. When she’s not teaching students, she’s either tucked in a corner writing or reading or she’s chasing her dog out of the garden.