Being The Only One Leaves A Mark: A Black Mother On The Long Shadow Of School Segregation
Sitting in the auditorium of my children’s elementary school, I watch a multiracial group of kids sing a K-pop song in Korean, showcasing their talents in the annual talent show. The audience, consisting of parents, teachers, caregivers, and supporters, fills the gym floor that doubles as theatre seating. As I observe the diverse groupings of people around me, I can’t help but scan the demographics, curious about the various languages being spoken, the represented nations, ages, disabilities, and race. Despite the beauty of the scene, with a diverse community in action, I can’t help but feel the dread that often follows me on the playground during pickup time.
In the Northwest part of Washington DC, where I live, cultural and social divisions are evident on the playgrounds. Nannies gather in groups to socialize while keeping a watchful eye on the infants and toddlers in their care. Mothers who don fashionable workout clothing, coupled with expensive baby gear, frequent the area, while a dad or two may be found on playground duty. Though we joined the local school for its warmth, small size, and history of cultural diversity when our eldest was four years old, I still feel uncomfortable while on the playground, as I belong to several groups and none at the same time.
Being a Black mother, I often feel out of place, starkly exposed and different, as white parents surround me. Even though the school is one of the more racially diverse institutions in the area, the social activities surrounding it, such as parent-teacher association meetings, fundraising, volunteering, and playground life, seem dominated by white parents. I have struggled to participate over the years, wondering if it’s because parents of color don’t feel welcome. Whether it’s a problem of distance, free time, work schedules, or financial pressures, the under-representation of parents of color is noticeable.
Subsequently, the playground echoes the past, and the ghosts of history continue to linger. As the granddaughter of Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark, whose research on African American children was integral to Brown v Board of Education’s supreme court’s decision to desegregate public schools, I know that the findings helped to conclude that segregation was detrimental to the self-esteem of Black and white children. The court found that "separate but equal" was a doctrine that could not stand. But although my grandparents and mother were thrilled on the day the decision was handed down, they also knew it would not be easy. My mother, now 82, remembers that the north was actually worse than the south by neighborhood, even though it wasn’t by law. Black people lived in one area, only to go to school in another.
Overall, despite the progress that has been made over the years, the echoes of the past reverberate today, as minorities frequently find themselves struggling to find a place and belong in diverse, yet often segregated communities.
After my grandparents completed the famous doll test, nearly 80 years have passed, and segregation is still prevalent in many parts of America today.
My fondest childhood memories are of my grandparents’ house in the suburban area of New York City, which overlooked the Hudson River. The house was vibrant with music, aromas, and social interactions during festivities and Sundays. My mother remembers esteemed individuals such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Jacob Lawrence, and John Hope Franklin, who were our treasured family friends. They would gather at our house to chat, eat, laugh, and argue. The house was a lively and colorful place, which is deeply etched in my memories.
At other times, the house would be engulfed with a tranquil atmosphere akin to a museum. My grandparents’ library, which my grandmother gifted to my grandfather, featured sloping ceilings, oddly shaped windows, a colossal desk that dwarfed us all, and bookcases brimming with books, paintings, sculptures, as well as medals and awards bearing their names.
My grandfather wore tortoise-shell glasses and was often found in the library, writing and studying, with a pack of Marlboro red cigarettes by his side. Despite experiencing racism, he carried himself with a refined and dignified demeanor and never tolerated being referred to as "boy."
Sometimes, on Saturday mornings, my grandmother would straighten my sister’s and my hair by heating an iron comb on the gas stove. We would visit the attic, where we would brush against her clothes, including African prints, silks, embroideries, taffetas, and fur. Her elegance and beauty were legendary, and she imposed incredibly high standards on herself and others. Growing up Black in the deep south, she knew that she had to excel above and beyond to be recognized.
My grandparents defied the American society rules that determined who could be upwardly mobile and joined a social class that was out of reach for most Black Americans. They were the first two Black Psychology PhD graduates from Columbia University and established the pioneer Black thinktank in the US. My grandfather became the first African American president of the American Psychological Association and authored several books on the impact of inequality in American cities on children and colored communities.
Together, they founded the Northside Center for Child Development – a renowned center that has been providing support for behavioral, mental, and educational health to children and families for over 70 years. The contributions they made in their industries continue to inspire families, students, professors, and policymakers.
Despite having access to privilege and opportunities, as Black Americans, we were always reminded of our status. My grandfather, in particular, was a staunch advocate of racial integration and believed that every child, regardless of their background, could achieve the American dream if provided with the right tools. He rejected the calls for Black nationalism and separatism during the 1960s and emphasized that education was the key to success.
Although my grandfather gained national recognition as an elder in civil rights circles, his "integrationist" views were not always praised. Many Black activists found it difficult to collaborate with white people due to marginalization and racism. My grandfather, however, remained steadfast and was not afraid to be different or face criticism. In his bid to find solutions, he moderated televised roundtables and discussions with prominent thinkers and activists of his time, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Baldwin – his close friend.
My grandfather enjoyed debates and conflict, and though he didn’t always agree with his peers’ ideas, he was more concerned about finding practical solutions. He had a tight circle of friends and confidants – most notably, my grandmother, who was his constant companion. Her untimely death left him shattered, and he never regained his spark.
When faced with adversity, my mother responded with hard work and academic success, eventually becoming president of the honor society. However, her success did not translate to social acceptance from her classmates. Unfortunately, my own journey and identity are intertwined with this reality, for better or for worse.
Attending the same middle school as my mother, I succeeded academically and made some social connections. However, I still felt a sense of not belonging due to my peers’ curiosity and stereotyping of my "exotic" life.
Seeking a higher education and the ability to contribute as my ancestors did, I transferred to a prestigious private high school in New York City. While there were more students of color than my previous school, I still felt like an outsider amongst the mostly urban Black and Hispanic students. The pressure and environment led to drug/alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and social dysfunction across all races. I worry for my son in the future, as I have seen many male counterparts and relatives experience unconscious bias and indifference to their potential success.
College provided a sense of community and belonging when I finally found diversity and friends who shared similar interests and backgrounds. Most of my friends were Black, and though some saw it as self-segregation, I felt at home with those who understood me and felt like family. My semester at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college, was a magical moment that I treasure dearly.
Sadly, my grandfather passed away disappointed in the entrenched systems of racism and segregation. He was bitter that progress had been slow for Black people and that his vision for the future was unfulfilled. While he envisioned a grand scheme for a better future, my father believes that relying solely on white people to make it happen is not realistic or wise. Trust and hope cannot solely be placed on them, lest the dream be deferred once again.
I often ponder about what my grandparents would think of my spouse. Honestly, I believe they would have been hesitant and skeptical of him until they got to know him better. Despite their warm and close relationships with white colleagues, they were keenly aware of the difference between social integration and the educational integration they fought for.
I have always been adventurous in my social circles, seeking connections wherever I could find them. However, when it came to finding a life partner, I hoped to find someone like my father, not just for his character but also for his Blackness. In the end, I did find what I was looking for, albeit in unforeseen ways. I have no doubts about my choice of partner, but I do struggle with finding a sense of place for our family in today’s society.
The focus on racial division during the pandemic, along with incidents of police brutality and the fight to silence America’s racial history in schools, leave me feeling distressed and intolerant of the systemic injustices. I often worry about living in a predominantly white environment, wondering how it might affect me and my family.
My brother, who is also in an interracial marriage, shares my concerns and is pessimistic about the state of race relations in our country. As we find ourselves more divided than ever, many long for a return to "simpler times," even though that is just a euphemism for when people knew their place.
Unlike Toni Morrison, who excluded whiteness from her cultural conversation, that is not an option for me. My identity, journey, history, present, and future are all linked to this interconnection. I have accepted the reality of our predominantly white-centered playground, though I acknowledge the disturbing inequity within it.
As a parent, my immediate instinct is to protect my children and provide them with everything they need to thrive. While my children are fortunate enough not to face physical violence or poverty, they still face the psychological violence of invisibility and insignificance that can make them feel like they don’t matter. This violence not only affects them but also connects them to other children who face immediate threats and consequences of segregation and inequality.
Although my mother advises me to trust in my children’s foundation and faith, my father agrees that there is no completely safe place for his grandson. He will become increasingly vulnerable as he grows older, though he is the one who is being threatened. No school can solve the problems that Black people face in the world, whether they be economic, social, judicial, or educational.
I continue to grapple with this reality. I wish I could ask my grandparents for advice on how to improve the situation not only for my son but for all children who deserve better. By sending our children to schools within a flawed system, are we just repeating the same cycle without making any progress?
I am no longer grappling with the one-room schoolhouse in the south that only allowed Black children and treated them like family. Instead, I am grappling with the inverse situation, where everyone is invited, but very few have access to opportunity from within.
Many questions and much curiosity arose about Myles’s decision to transfer to Howard University. He explained that he was exhausted from the effort he had been putting into fitting in. Myles wanted to be in an environment where he didn’t have to try so hard to conform, but could instead connect with others on a more natural level. He found that he was free to explore at Howard and could learn and grow without feeling the pressure of trying to fit in. This sentiment resonated with Myles’s younger sisters as well, who both eventually followed him to Howard.
It’s no surprise that Myles’s daughter’s dolls reflect the diversity of her family. She even has a prized doll that looks just like her. On the other hand, Myles’s son has a diverse group of friends, fitting in seamlessly with this interracial group that seems to recognize each other in a way that excludes others.
Myles himself continues to confront the uneasy and uncomfortable feelings he has about the dynamics of belonging and isolation. The playground still feels like a challenge, but he pushes himself to spend more time there, even though it’s not his favorite place. Myles thinks back to his grandparents, wishing he could ask them for guidance and answers.
For Myles, history repeats itself in his family in a cyclical pattern of growth and change. He imagines his grandmother on the Howard campus, happy and free, and hopes to see her ghost there someday. Despite the system that tells us which children belong and which ones don’t, Myles’s grandparents made it clear that there was no other option than to work hard and turn “straw into gold.”