How I Found My Voice And Turned The Fight For Civil Rights Into My Life's Work
"Get out of my seat, nigger."
I was 14 years old when I realized that racism wasn’t just something you read about in history books. No, racism was alive and well and dressed-up as a grungy little white boy, staring me dead in my face, as I sat in what he presumed to be “his seat,” before the bell rang on my second day of 9th grade.
I can remember the fire that crept slowly through my body as his hate-filled words left his mouth and lingered in the air, enveloping me like a low hanging cloud. I can still hear the sounds of chairs screeching as his friends began to awkwardly recoil away from him. I can still feel their eyes peering at me in embarrassment wondering, “What is she going to do?"
I can still hear the deafening silence that choked their words, as they were unwilling or unable to muster the courage to defend me.
For a moment, I sat there drumming my fingers slowly on the desk, the way drum majors do on the battlefield as they march toward the enemy. Then I turned my head and looked up at this gangly little kid and said, “As far as I know there have been no seat assignments made so, I am NOT moving. Go and find yourself another fucking seat."
Now, I was no Rosa Parks, but that was my defining moment. I had two choices, either stand up for myself or allow entitled jerks like that boy to think they could “put me in my place." I chose the former.
As one of just a handful of black kids at my school, I was a card-carrying member of the “only-one” club. I was the only black girl in the class, at the sleepover, at the party, on the track team, leading various student groups, etc., and my social calendar was always booked. So, it was easy for me to think, foolishly, that there was no such thing as racism anymore. Which is exactly what I said when I went home to tell my mother what happened in class.
She shook her head and said, “My God, I have done you a complete disservice."
Having grown up in Jamaica surrounded by black people, my mother’s experience couldn’t have been more opposite than mine. She grew up in a country where everyone, including the prime minster, was black. Imagine a world where all of the lawyers, doctors, politicians, nurses, teachers, and engineers were historically black. That was the empowering reality my family came from. Contrary to the reality of African Americans, whose historical imagery is steeped in pictures of black bodies standing on auction blocks, black bodies hanging from trees, black bodies being hosed down in streets, black bodies being lawfully separated from dignity and respect.
Images can be both a powerful motivator for excellence, as it was for my family, or a stark reminder of your inferiority, as it has been for African Americans.
My mother’s parents brought her to the states, bought a home and built the American dream. In my family’s minds there weren’t any boundaries or barriers they couldn’t get through, and race was the least of the obstacles they anticipated when they came to the States. They didn’t leave Jamaica for New York until the 1970’s, long after Rosa Parks' stand, the March on Washington, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the turning point when all Americans would presumably be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
This was not their history. Anyone who has immigrant parents from a Caribbean or African country are very aware of the fact that while the mainstream may see them as “just black,” there is a big cultural difference between African Americans and black immigrants.
Black immigrants had a choice in their pilgrimage to the states, and if they’ve made it to the U.S. and successfully built a life, they are most likely considered the crème de la crème of their country. Their hard work has always been rewarded in upward mobility, unlike African Americans who spent centuries enslaved, decades treated as separate and unequal, and today are still stunted with regard to economic growth.
Oddly enough, my family’s confidence as immigrants who had made it to the Promised Land was diametrically opposed to my reality as a Jamaican American living in the suburbs of Long Island. I was both a proud Jamaican and a proud American, so both histories were part of my story. While I carried myself with the confidence of a person who was only provided empowering images and stories of black excellence, I also had to learn how to strategically navigate the reality of what my chocolate skin meant in a sea of vanilla.
Sure, at home (aside from my loving Italian step-father, but father for all intents and purposes) everyone was black, but in my day-to-day life everyone, and I mean everyone, was white. I didn’t have a black teacher until I was 19 years old. Think about the message this sends to students for a moment. My white classmates could essentially grow up in a world where not one authority figure or professional they came across in their daily lives was black, or non-white for that matter.
From that eye-opening moment in my 9th grade history class, I made it my mission to search for empowering images and stories of black people to add to my intellectual arsenal, providing myself with the necessary armor needed to navigate my two worlds—child of proud black immigrants and black American. The more I learned about the black experience, the more I felt like I had been born in the wrong time.
I wanted to understand what it meant to fight for your rights and have the level of conviction and power that would drive college students in the 1960’s to sit at “whites only” lunch counters, demanding to be served. I wanted to know what it felt like to show up on a hot summer day in August 1963 to listen to a young minister speak of the promise of a better day, where black children and white children would play together and learn together. To be among those so impassioned by his speech that they would make it their mission to dedicate their lives to actualizing his dream. I wanted this reality to be my truth.
I spent years romanticizing the history of civil rights before it occurred to me that I am continuing the legacy of that movement. While I would never experience first hand the pain of being hosed down in the streets, or the fear of being caught in a white neighborhood after dark, as a black lesbian, I am still far from fully equal. I still don’t have the same opportunity to love, work, and live out loud as my straight neighbors. This is why I’ve placed myself on the front lines of the movement for LGBT equality.
I know first-hand how it feels to testify before the city council in Washington, D.C., petitioning for the right to marry the woman I love. I know the power in sharing images from my wedding in a popular black magazine, so other black lesbians have for the first time positive models of what their lives could be. I use my life as a lesson to assuage the fears of parents who think their gay sons and daughters will never know love, but only pain and rejection.
As I stood hand-in-hand with my wife on the National Mall commemorating the 1963 March on Washington, a sense of true purpose washed over me. Fifty years ago my story would not have existed. The image of two married black women wasn’t even a thought 50 years ago, and yet here we are, a living testament of how far we’ve come since then.
It occurred to me in that moment that I had gone from a young girl standing her ground in history class to a woman living history, embodying the best of three worlds—proud child of black immigrants, proud black American and proud lesbian—and that it wasn’t a dream, but my reality.
Danielle Moodie-Mills is strategic advisor for the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality or FIRE Initiative at the Center for American Progress.