Black Queen, golden-faced goddess, flower child, nappy headed globetrotter, African-American woman, small town Indiana bred, proud daughter of Mother Tuskegee, “young, black, and gifted,” bookworm, spiritual, blessed, funny, nation builder, warrior tribe.
These are the crowns I carry and the many clans that I claim.
I did not like Tuskegee when I first came. It was not the place or the people, both of them intrigued me. It was me. I did not talk the same, I did not look the same, I did not feel like I belonged. I was wrong.
I was raised in Columbus, Indiana located in the southern region of the state. It is home to Tony Stewart, Cummins Engines, a lot of corn and me. So my life began, a little black girl in a little white town. The word, “Nigger” is something I grew up with. As a child it was how other children distinguished me. Not everyone was racist, but enough were. Enough to make me fully understand as a child, that there was a difference between white and black. I was always too black for something; too black to play Betsy Ross or Ann Frank in the school play and too black for the boys to talk to in the halls. I was just a little too black for this and much too black for that.
I am light skinned so some of my peers did try and dangle a rope for me to grasp.
They’d say “sit with us” at the lunch table and ask to “pet” my hair or if I too bled red blood when I was cut. Once one of these “friends” told me not to talk to another little white girl because she was a “nigger lover” when I reminded her that I was black, she sighed and said “Yes but you are not that type of black” so it was “OK.”
So as you can imagine, I began to despise my hair, my lips and the shape of my nose. I began to dream of getting a nose job and hair weaves to make me look more “normal.” Then I went away to college and psychologically never looked back. Columbus’ homogenous aura did odd things to the black people I knew. It drained from them, their highest senses of self. It heightened the men’s once deep voices, it stifled the melody of their children’s laughter. It distorted the women’s hair and took a couple inches off everyone’s stance. In many ways it washed them gray.
When it was time for me to leave for college, my mother—the wise woman she is, sent me to our families’ Alma Mater—Tuskegee University. Tuskegee is the place where her parents met in the 1940’s and where she and her siblings and relatives had received a combined total of more than 30 degrees. She sent me for more than legacy, but so that I could reestablish my identity.
I felt like an oddball from the moment I arrived. I knew they’d say I “talked white” and that they would smell the Indiana on me. I learned that I was prejudiced in many ways. My Indiana upbringing had taught me to cast all black people into similar stereotypes. Yet, Tuskegee taught me to see black people for people. It taught me to look beyond their color and to see their character. I had never been in a classroom of all black students and had the freedom of knowing that the teacher was not being discriminatory. Driving down the streets I saw black men riding and enjoying their music, free of fear of police brutality. Here cops actually reflected the racial and social makeup of the community.
Tuskegee is the first place where I really feel like I am in a “community.” Pride lives in the eyes of the elderly residents. The esteem of being products of the “Tuskegee Machine” abounds. When I looked around the faces I saw, I no longer wanted to augment my appearance. People embraced the way that I looked and in turn I embraced me too because I could see and be appreciated for my beauty. .It is not all about being black, but it is all about being your true self. I live in a community full of characters. Individuals fully committed to being their true authentic selves. Many are natives, but many are transplants like me; dreamers and doers seeking the solace of other dreamers and doers.
It’s hard to explain, it’s hard to imagine, but it’s utterly authentic. It’s a gem and I wish to see it return to the heights it once reached.
Tuskegee has been torn by many grabbing hands and twisted minds. Yet she lives on, patched, thatched and reconstructed by elegant builders such as myself.