My Turn: Racism rears its head in Juneau

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I look forward to every February, as a time to reflect on the progress that black Americans have made.

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With a solid, respected black presidential candidate in Barack Obama, and an extremely capable female, African-American secretary of state in Condoleezza Rice, it seems that things have really progressed. Even at the personal level, things are good for me and my family.

In mid-February, I found myself enjoying a round of drinks with a 69-year-old Caucasian man in an Anchorage bar. We began a very frank talk on race that ran well into the evening. It turned out to be the most productive and informative talk I have ever had on the subject.

We may not have settled the problems of racism in one evening, but we went away with the feeling we had at done something to help in our own little way. I was still riding that high, when the reality of racism hit like a run-away truck the following day.

My 13-year-old son came home from school, crying. My son is usually talking a mile a minute when he comes home, so this emotional outburst was completely unexpected.

He was upset because some kids on his school bus had thrown ketchup on his brand-new winter jacket. They also had made numerous marks on it with a marker.

After quite of bit of digging, he told me why it happened. Because he is black.

Not because of some gang thing, not because he had done something mean to them, but because he is black.

I felt a surge of anger rise up in my gut, such as I hadn't felt since the Rodney King verdict. My beautiful, first-born child had been introduced to the 300-year-old ugly face of American racism.

As it turned out, this incident was just one in a two-years-long series of harassment that he had endured. It involved multiple children and was beginning to get more violent.

At this point, they had called him every name in the book. He was now nigger, monkey, half-breed, Oreo, big-lipped and inferior. His recent achievement of maintaining yearlong honor roll status was brought low by the taunting of his peers.

I could see from his body language that this nonsense had hurt him deeply. My wife and I both cried.

It cut to the bone to know that after all these years, our kids would have to face this type of ignorant and malicious racism.

I was born at the end of the Jim Crow era. I've had to deal with the horrors of segregation and the social apartheid that resulted.

I had begun to believe that those dark years were in the past. I had dared to imagine that my kids would grow up in a land where their skin color would not matter or hinder them in any way.

That America does not exist yet. I have achieved more in 40 years than most black men my age, but I can't help but feel it was all for nothing if my children still aren't safe in public school.

Now my son wears a familiar scar. He also lost faith in a group of teachers and administrators who he once believed were there to help him. His attackers got off without a scratch. Their parents weren't even notified. The harassment continues as I write this.

The bottom line here is that I refuse to let hate consume me. I will not teach my child to do anything else than turn the other cheek.

He will be taught to keep working hard and achieving in spite of what he's called, how he's viewed and how hard they fight to exclude him. I will not teach him to give up.

In the words of the old Negro spiritual, which have often brought our people comfort in times like these, "We Shall Overcome."

And in case you've never heard the second verse, it goes like this: "Black and White together, we shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome, some day."

How about today, Juneau?

• Gerry Bigelow is a Juneau resident.

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