I was born in a post-Civil Rights-era in South Alabama. My parents were born in segregated hospitals. Even though I’ve known this fact all my life, it still blows my mind. Because I grew up believing I could achieve anything and be anything. If I was born less than 20 years prior, I would be born in a world that forced people who looked like me to serve whites eternally and be grateful for that opportunity.
But in reality, that’s not so hard to imagine. I was alive during the Apartheid. And I was born in a world where folks were still getting used to the idea of integrated spaces and some openly rejected integration well into the 21st century. I was born in a world where black dolls were still hard to find. I was born in a world populated by adults who remember drinking from separate fountains. I was born in a world where being black and having a college degree was rare. My family went from being property to having advanced and professional degrees in three generations. That’s fairly impressive, but that achievement was only made possible by the passage of time. And ultimately, being within the first post-Jim Crow generation means that no one after my generation will remember how difficult life was for the average black person, especially in the Southern US. No one will eventually remember that it was illegal for black people to sit next to white people on a park bench. It’ll just be a list of facts in a history book skimmed by “non-racists” in February.
I have never known legalized segregation. But three years before I was born, a man was lynched by Klan members not too far from my birthplace. He was picked at random. The conviction of Michael Donald’s murderers was supposed to represent a new era for race relations. One of the murderers, Henry Hays, was the first Klan member to have ever been executed for the murder of a black man. The year he was executed? 1997. The next year, three Texas white men killed a black man by dragging him until he lost his head in a drainage pipe.
We are still a long ways off from full integration. After all, when I was born, the governor of Alabama was the same man who was governor when my mother was born. You know, the one who ran for president as a segregationist…
“That’s not fair,” you say. “Wallace denounced his segregationist views by the time you were born. The world did change.” Well, being shot by a member of your own race and being left paralyzed as a result may get you to rethink your legacy. Also, imagine how different the world would actually be if Arthur Bremer stuck with his plan to assassinate Nixon instead. That still doesn’t change the fact that Alabama lawmakers changed the state constitution to allow one of the most famous racist politicians to serve beyond the previously set term-limits. It also doesn’t change the fact that two of the longest-serving US senators of all time are an admitted Klan member and a segregationist who was hiding a secret black daughter the entire time. And when I became the voting age, both senators were still serving.
The first American members of my family arrived sometime in the early-to-mid 1700s. In chains. While nearly 80 percent of Black Americans had ancestors that arrived through Charleston, most of my folks came from Saint-Domingue into the New France colony of La Louisiane-Basse, in what is now South Alabama, Southern Mississippi, and Louisiana. Some of my ancestors were legally free, but free or slave, my black and mixed-race ancestors would have been legally required to cover their hair in public. But it also didn’t matter whether my ancestors were born free or not. One of my father’s ancestors was illegally enslaved and smuggled into the United States from Ghana in the mid-1830s. Two generations later, my illegally enslaved ancestor’s grandson was lynched.
Growing up in a post-Civil Rights Movement era has made me feel any complaints I have about race are not as valid as ones my parents or grandparents would have had. My grandfather had to deal with voter intimidation at work and I’m complaining that there’s not enough black faces in the room I’m standing in. It makes me sound like a whiny brat in comparison. But because we no longer have legalized segregation, it is my duty — and the duty of every first-generation post-CRM person — to make sure we don’t have de facto segregation. Because we are still in our integration phase and somehow there are human beings who justify the killing of citizens by police because they were up to no good playing with toy guns, driving with a registered weapon, attempting to assist police, reaching for their wallet, or wandering leisurely outside at night. I need to raise my voice and speak out because someone doesn’t want to hear that loitering laws are racist hold-overs from that previous era. They rather believe that everything magically changed in 1965 and we have been singing “We Are The World” ever since.
We are not a colorblind society and we never will be. We are getting used to integrated spaces, but it’s still a novel idea. It’s up to us whether we want to fully leave the corpse of Jim Crow in the cesspool where it belongs. But old habits die hard.