CNN political commentator Van Jones, 48, a Yale Law School graduate born and raised in Jackson, Tennessee, recently shared an emotional testimony about the impact of racism on his life. He talked about an incident that occurred during his freshman year in high school when several of his classmates, unbeknownst to Jones, spit in a can of soda that he had temporarily placed on a lunchroom table. And while one classmate warned him before he could drink from the can, he said it served as a wakeup call for him.
“I didn’t realize that I was black before that moment in my life,” he said to a fellow reporter.
Call me crazy but I can’t help thinking that Jones, whose work I highly admire, had to be playing to the camera, attempting to stir up juicy conversation — basically pulling our leg. Whether born in Tennessee, Texas or sunny California, black boys and girls learn quickly and at an early age that their skin color sets them apart from those more “privileged” because of their blue eyes, blond locks and skin white as snow.
And the lessons are often quite painful. However, my parents not only helped me embrace my blackness but also provided me with countless examples of black men and women whose contributions improved the lives of all Americans — no matter what their ethnicity — making me proud to be black. Some of those trailblazers would become fixtures in my black history lessons. Others were folks that I could touch, see and to whom I could listen: my parents, uncles, aunts, adopted moms and dads, teachers, preachers, local politicians, Boy Scout leaders … the list goes on.
During a trip to visit my grandfather’s home, my father’s father, in rural Alabama, we stopped at a hotel for a bite to eat and to wash the dust off our faces. The man behind the counter refused to let my mother use the restroom. He refused to allow us to sit and eat. In fact, he told us to get out, using the N-word with great emphasis. I was 5 or six at the time but can still feel my parents’ anger and shame. Watching my mother squat behind a tree to relieve herself was a humiliating experience for all of us. And I couldn’t understand why — at least not yet.
Further down the road, we finally found a restaurant that allowed us to order some sandwiches. But when my mother put her dollars on the counter, the saleswoman tossed the change at my mother’s feet as if she had some kind of communicable disease.
I guess the disease from which she suffered was her black skin.
I won’t try to challenge the veracity of Jones’s story but it sure sounds fishy to me. Was he in Tennessee or was he visiting Tattoo on Fantasy Island? Given the pervasiveness of racism in America and this country’s propensity for exhibiting internalized prejudice, from small town USA to the Big Apple, painful lessons of being the “other” are routinely learned even before Black boys and girls can tie their shoes.
I’ve known I was black, with a mixture of both Native American and Southern white, for as long as I can remember. And I’ve never wanted to be anything else. As James Brown once exclaimed, much to our delight, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Right on!