We’re very honored to be able to feature this story by Kerry King. She gives a real and raw account of her varied experiences as a black woman.
“Posting this is one of the most impossible things I’ve ever done. For two decades I have struggled with where to put these feelings inside of myself. In truth, I also did not want to hurt others, some of whom have become lifelong friends.
Much of what I’ll say is intensely personal, tinged with pain and sharing it still feels far too vulnerable. What if I am judged to be playing the race card, living in the past, being guilty of carrying unforgiveness in my heart, of having been disingenuous in my friendships, complicit in my silence or what if the bias is mine? Plus, if I have matured and had evolutions in my perspective since these events, certainly others have too.
Was it unfair to evoke events related to a time when we were all finding ourselves, shaking off childhood and navigating our adult selves? If I actually hit ‘post’ remains to be seen; but if I do it will be out of an overwhelming sense that for too long I have carried an emotional burden that is not mine alone to bear. It will have been because it is too easy to speak of an incident, such as the death of George Floyd, as an isolated incident, without recognizing how the accumulation of incidents impact a life, a psyche and a people. It will be because our actions have consequences in the lives of others that outlive our personal interests in and memory of the events.
In August 1995, I left the island of Barbados and moved to central Ohio, in order to attend a small liberal arts college, affiliated with the evangelical denomination in which I had been raised. I had lobbied my parents to attend Howard University, the illustrious historically black college, because I knew many of the island’s scholars had thrived and found their voice there. I craved the same for myself. My father, fearing for a daughter raging to see the world but who had been raised in the cocoon of close family, a whole lot of church, and a predominately homogenous small island nation, did not feel I was ready to be independent in a big city like Washington DC. I persisted in being allowed to go abroad and the compromise was to send me to this Christian college.
My uncle, a minister in our denomination, had attended briefly in the late 70s/early 80s. He’d had many brushes with prejudice but it was a different time. I would be safe there. There would not be wild parties and violence. I would not be exposed to the wrong element and run the risk of abusing my newly minted freedom.I had been to the United States before, as my sister and I had spent multiple summers in the Maryland suburbs with our aunt and her family. I had also met American evangelicals before in the form of missionaries and officials from church headquarters who would visit the island from time to time. Due to the extent of my parents’ involvement in the Barbados district’s congregation of churches, we had housed and fed many of them. I know they were grateful for the comforts we’d offered them and often displayed unveiled surprise at the quality of our home.
Yet, I always felt they viewed us, collectively, as poor third worlders to be evangelized. I remember sitting at the tabernacle, our denomination’s central gathering place, and listening as a missionary addressed the crowd. Embedded in his address, during which he asked our district superintendent whether we understood him, was the repeated request for those gathered to respond with, “Praise God”. I was a child and did not yet know that his manner could be defined by the word condescension but I will never forget my aunt muttering under her breath, “Praise God we are not as stupid as you think!” Such was my early experience of white people. Christians who brought us American candy and spoke down to us. I began to formulate in my mind that white people thought we were beneath them but somehow I also believed it was all a trick because we knew a secret they did not.
That truth lived only in their imagination.
Anyway, I was off to great America. I was excited and felt I had pulled off a coup in getting my father to agree. It had only taken me two years to convince him! My mother saw me off with tears, surrounded by our youth group and their homemade farewell banner which hung in my dorm room for many years to come.My father, uncle (a different one) and I were picked up at the Columbus airport by a family friend who was the best friend of the first uncle and a then minister in this Faith. I knew him. He had preached a memorable week of crusade services at our church. He had not spoken down to us. We had anticipated that he would but he had not. I can tell you every detail of a sermon he shared with our congregation about putting out your ‘fleece’ as a test of faith.
That sermon was a large part of the reason I was sitting in that car.
As we drove the 30 miles northeast of Columbus, excitement increasingly shifted to anxiety. Almost immediately as we left the Columbus city limits, we stopped seeing people of color. I was not certain what it would mean but I noticed it. I felt somehow less protected. These black people did not know me but by then I knew we were all known to each other. Had I not sat with trepidation alongside my family years earlier as we watched Nelson Mandela walk out of that South African jail? It had been my experience that black people everywhere were one. We were inseparably joined by a trait that allowed us to share in the collective experience of each other’s joy, suffering, and pain.
The three of us set up camp in the Super 8 Motel (to this day the cleanest and most nicely run one I have encountered) and waited for move-in day to come. We excitedly shopped for dorm stuff at K-mart and Walmart. I bought boots and a jacket in August because, well…island people. I was excited about the endless availability of shopping and American junk food at my fingertips! I would no longer have to wait for a relative to visit from the States or ship a barrel home in order to indulge. It was all at my disposal! What a coup d’e-tat.
On one of my first nights in the dorm, girls gathered and giggled, as Freshman and Sophomore girls do. People were already beginning to stake their claims on life partners, talking about who was cute, who they had made eyes with during summer on-campus visitation and the like. I watched, feeling slightly awkward but happily soaking in the newness of this life. In the midst of the giggling, one girl, turned to me and said, “Who are you going to date?” And then inserted the name of one of two black males on campus. Her face did not hold malice, simply innocent inquisitiveness. She was not attempting to inflict pain. She had accurately assessed that there were no other black men there and it was of course understood that I could not have one of theirs. Until that moment it seemed to have been understood to all but me. No one reacted with surprise or dismay at her statement. They also waited with curiosity. “I don’t like white boys”, I replied.
In truth I did not know whether or not I did. I had never had the opportunity to find out.
Unlike her, I said it out of malice. I needed to establish that their automatic and nonchalant withholding of something from me did not hurt. Like sour grapes, I had not wanted it anyway.
As the years progressed, I did date white boys. It could even be said that love had a chance to bloom. Of that I am not even certain, because the desperate loneliness that I felt during that period of my life caused me to cling and distort emotions in a way that now invalidates what felt like love then.I remember walking across campus with a guy I was seeing and having his teammates walk by and slap him on the back sing-songing, “(insert name) has jungle fever”! As incredible as it sounds, I had never heard the term and did not know exactly what it meant, but I knew that it had to do with his choice to be with the black girl.
Somehow his affiliation with me had gotten him associated with the jungle. Was I the animal or was he? I felt conspicuous…exposed…objectified.Another young man pursued me relentlessly for weeks only to abruptly stop calling. He no longer lingered after the chapel services so we could walk to class together. He did not wait for me outside the cafeteria. He did not ask me to drive with him to Walmart. He suddenly halted what had begun to emerge as our routines. When it became unbearable, I cornered him and demanded to know what had changed. He sheepishly explained to me that on his visit home over the past weekend, it had become clear that his family could not accept him dating a black girl. His Christian, bible-believing, regularly church-attending family could not accept me as a suitable match for their son. I did not love him so what I felt was not heartbreak. It was devastation. In spite of all that I DID represent that was good, people would reject me because of something over which I had no control. Something not implicated in my character or conduct.
Being black made me unpalatable to ‘good people’.
I was angry that he did not stand up for me. I was outraged that he could so easily discard me.In my freshman year I sat in a packed lecture theatre. I was one of many who raised my hand in response to the professor’s question. When he pointed in my general direction, we could not differentiate who he meant. In the midst of the confusion of, “me?”, “me?”, “me?” he, in final exasperation said, “the black girl”. A gasp echoed around the room, followed by a deafening silence. I straightened up, eloquently made my point and pretended to be unaffected. I do not know what was more impactful. Having been singled out or my classmates’ reaction to the verbalization of what was clearly true.I remember walking through the halls of an elementary school where I did my first teacher training practicum. A little boy walking by me in the hallway snarled out, “yaaaah black girl!”. I told myself I was unimpacted by his ignorance and actually pitied his upbringing.
I was devastated that such hate resided in the heart of a child so young. That at the age of six or seven he had already determined that the legitimacy of my adult authority was inferior to his innate white superiority. He is now an adult in this world, and I pray he is not raising children who snarl at black people or participate in ‘George Floyd challenges’. God help us.
Obviously no one was flying me home for brief mid-semester breaks. Friends would offer for me to come home with them. I had become bold enough to ask the important questions. “How does your family feel about black people?” Too often I heard, “My (insert grandmother, grandfather…other relative) says things. They are from another generation”. I would politely decline. Being an accidental target is one thing. Choosing to be a target is lunacy.
In my senior year I attended a costume party where a few kids thought it would be funny to show up dressed as the KKK. I wasn’t explicitly invited but went along with some girlfriends. When we got there the party was in full swing. Everyone was having a great time. I arrived and made things awkward. I did not make a fuss. I did not cause a scene. I stayed long enough to not seem like I was running. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, perhaps feeling their own, we decided we would leave. I can’t remember if we spoke about it. The next day a member of the college’s administration called to ask whether I had attended the party and witnessed my classmates dressed as the Klan. They apologized that I’d had to experience this and informed me that they’d be meeting with these students. Later, one of the boys involved came and pleaded with me to speak with school officials. He wanted me to explain to them that I knew it was just a joke. That based on the identity of one of the participants it was obviously meant to be ironic. He wanted me to explain that we were friends. He wanted me to explain that I was not offended. What I actually felt was singled out…trapped…made to be responsible for whether this young man and others would be allowed to graduate. I felt it should not have been on me. I felt responsible nevertheless. I did not advocate for them. I did not advocate against them. They graduated.
In four years at an evangelical Christian college I learned that I was an object. I learned that people would always see my skin before they saw me. I learned that I could be the brightest (graduated Summa Cum Laude and Salutatorian), nicest, most charming person and I would still be unpalatable to many simply because I was black. I learned that hiding your true feelings so as not to make others uncomfortable, no matter how offensive they may be, is an unfair burden. I learned that internalized prejudice is subtle. I learned that the prolonged and subtle experience of prejudice is worse than being called a nigger to your face. The latter you can rage against. The invalidation of the former leaves you feeling helpless in a way that lingers long after the experience is over. I learned that in order to make sense of rampant discrimination you can begin to believe that if ‘those other black people’ could just behave like me they too could be accepted as palatable…they should stop making it bad for the rest of us. The people who taught me these lessons were not neo-Nazis. They were the people who would genuinely give their last to someone in need, who spoke of what it was to have a servant’s heart, who evoke the name of God and speak with the appearance of spiritual authority.
There were people there who loved me.
In saying this, I recognize that it will appear as a statement of appeasement to some. It is also true. My former academic advisor, assistant chaplain, college president and his wife, the registrar (who I refer to as my Ohio grandpa) are counted among the number who made me feel seen and loved. I needed them desperately. Without them I would have drowned.
There are others who have left me confused in the years hence. I have read their tone deaf and often vile social media post about matters impacting the lives of individuals like me and have wondered if I’d imagined their support for me. Did they see me as acceptable because they had made me somehow different (than the others) in their minds? I recognized early on that having a “cute” accent, quick laugh, sharp mind and attractive face have been my greatest tools in navigating white America. I recognize that they put others at ease. They allow people to tell me boldly that I’m not like most black people. It makes them comfortable enough to joke that they are blacker than me. I have not always rallied against this notion. I am not proud to acknowledge this but I am also not ashamed because like my ancestors, I am also built to survive. Sometimes it truly is by any means necessary.
These are a few of the incidents that stand out in my mind. I don’t even know why these ones. There are four years’ worth embedded in my memory banks. Too many to recount. Not worth the emotional energy to relive.
I think if my father had known what I would have learnt there he may have calculated that the risk of me partying, drinking and smoking pot may have been a lesser evil. He did not know. He thought I would have been safe. I was not.
Right now I’m tired. Tired of living this. Tired of thinking about it. Tired of holding it. Tired of not wanting to hold it. Tired of the effort to release it. Tired from speaking it. Tired of calculating how to be palatable. Tired.
In the last few days every time I have felt depleted, and unable to process any more, unable to rebut insular thinking, I have been fortified by the voices of my friends. Many of them from my time in college. They have spoken with clear voice about the persistent wrong of racism. I sat in tears as I saw a ‘Black Lives Matter’ march in my former college town. I never anticipated that in my lifetime.Much is wrong in the world. Stereotypes are easy. As black people we have felt too justified in holding on to them because in many instances they are intimately tied to our safety. A miscalculation of friend or foe can cost our lives.
The required hypervigilance of living in that dynamic is exhausting. It leaves us depleted, angry, resentful. Even as I speak my truth I am hopeful that we will ALL do better.
We have been silent for too long.
As black people we have sat and languished in feelings of shame and inferiority that are not ours alone to bear.
It is long past time.
We have been silent for too long. As black people we have sat and languished in feelings of shame and inferiority that are not ours alone to bear. It is long past time.Tweet