We all have them, don't we? We all have many individual events that make us the people we have eventually become. The memory of those things will sometimes make you smile. Some of those things will make you swell with pride. Some of those things really hurt.
In my junior year of high school, (I graduated in 1981) I took a class which was being offered for the first time, called famous black writers. I was sure I would enjoy it... until the first day of class.
I got to the classroom just before the late bell rang to discover that, for the first time in my school experience, I was a class that was populated by a majority of black students! I thought that was pretty cool, considering that the black population in my hometown was (and still is) probably less than ten percent. I say majority black, because there was one white kid in the class... his name was Matt DiFanzo (who dropped the class the same day).
I sat down in the front of the class (which was my first "mistake"), while the teacher took attendance, passed out our text and syllabus, etc...
Once the class got started, the teacher, A very young, earnest, first-year-out-of-college, white man named John Murphy, introduced himself and started talking about the class and what he hoped to accomplish with it. We got right into it on the first day, and asked for a volunteer to recite a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, called "We Wear The Mask". I volunteered to recite (second mistake), and proceeded to do just that. Apparently I did a good job of it (my third mistake). I was pleased with myself, Mr Murphy was pleased... but my classmates, well, not so much.
Being able to recite poetry with proper inflection and good meter isn't something I was supposed to be able to do.
Because I'm black, that's why.
Who knew? No one had sent me the memo.
My recitation of that poem led me to no end of grief for the rest of my time in high school.
As I was told later, reciting poetry is "acting white".
It isn't that it was the first time I was accused of this, but it only got worse.
The fact that the author of the poem was black counted for nothing.
I told myself, then, the same thing I tell myself now: "Don't worry about that stupid crap, Bill", and I don't... but, twenty six years later, it still pisses me off.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask