The Return Home Part 1: To Be Eight Years Old Again

My Dear Readers,

I find myself standing once again at the crossroads.   After 53 years of holding onto my “inner child,” I am finally able to gather the resilience to let him go home.

To provide context: I was born in Harlem, New York, into a military family.  I spent my childhood and adolescence growing up on military bases throughout the United States as well as in foreign countries.

Along the way, one of the postings led to me spending a part of my childhood in living in Virginia.  I was 8 years old at the time, and these were the formative and developmental years of my youth—just one of the reasons why I consider myself to be a “southerner,” even though I was born in the North.

In Virginia, I became a child of segregation.  Because I was “colored,” I was bused to a “colored school” for elementary aged children.  All of our teachers and our principal were colored, so I imagined that the “colored school” was no different from any other school.

As in other schools, we played at recess, learned our lessons in class and when we were out of line, we were disciplined.   I remember my first year in school as being one of safety, security and positive self-esteem.

On the military base, I often wondered why the white kids went to a separate school that was located 10 minutes away while I was bused 35 miles away, but despite my curiosity, I did what I was told to do and did so without question.

When I turned 8 years old, my world was turned upside down when my parents told me I would be going to a white school for the coming school year.  I wasn’t told why I had to leave my school, but I did what I was told.  In talking with other kids, I heard them say a word that was new to me, “integration”.

So off to school I went.  I left behind my teacher, my classmates and friends.  I was sad, but the good thing was that the bus rides to and from school were shorter.  Like the white kids, my bus ride was now 15 minutes.

And that was how it began: 15 minutes sitting in silence riding a bus to a new school, with strangers who acted as if I was invisible.  For the next two years I would continue to be invisible to them.  I realized later on that integration actually meant meant being one of the two token “colored” kids in an all white classroom, and the isolation that comes with it.

When I reflect on those times, I vividly recall two emotions: shame and humiliation.   My classmates never allowed me to forget that I was a descendent of slaves.  My new white teacher would talk fondly of the “good old days” where she played Missy with the “pick-a-ninnys” who were her maids and servants.

I still feel the horror I felt the day that my teacher called me to her desk, stating that she had heard I did not know my alphabet.  She then directed me to stand in front of the class and recite the alphabet.  Frightened, humiliated and ashamed, I stood there and sang my ABCs, pronouncing clearly and cleanly from A to Z, and afterwards, like her little dog, I received a pat on the head as she led the class in applause for my display of brilliance in intellectual showmanship. The other colored kid, Nathaniel, closed his eyes and bowed his head.  He never said a single word to me from that day on.

I went home that day and never said a word to my parents.  Not one word.

Why didn’t I speak up then?

Because, as the pastor told us, “we were Christian soldiers.”  It was our duty to go to war against segregation. Psychological warfare.  Isolation.  Daily acts of embarrassment and humiliation.   Field trips to plantations and to Williamsburg where it was gleefully pointed out to us that slave laws and codes were enacted and enforced.

Two years into the war against segregation, more sacrifices and new soldiers were required.   Many of us left the battlefields emotionally wounded and psychologically scarred.  Simply put, the “children of segregation” were used as “cannon fodder.”  Cannon fodder is defined as:

“a informal, derogatory term for combatants who are regarded as expendable in the face of enemy fire.  The term is generally used in situations where combatants are forced to deliberately to fight against hopeless odds with the foreknowledge that they will suffer extremely high casualties in an effect to achieve a strategic goal.”

Specifically, the leaders of the African-American community (local, state and national) used the “children of segregation” as cannon fodder to achieve the strategic goal of racial integration of public schools throughout the southern United States. This goal and the importance of using this generation of children were clearly sold to parents as the best chance for a quality public education for their children.

Our parents, knowing what was “best,” willingly gave us to the cause. And, the children did as we were instructed to do.  However, neither our parents nor our community or pastoral leadership provided us with the resources we would need to deal with our emotional wounds, such as counseling or therapy.  In those days, just as it is today, the disclosure of internal secrets and feelings in counseling and therapy was taboo.

So, we did then as we do today…we suffered in silence.

Why speak up now?

Because we need not suffer in silence any longer.   The “children of segregation” can choose to let go of their pain and suffering.  We have done our duty for our community, now it is time for the children of segregation to reach out and embrace the self.

For me specifically, it is time for me to let the 8-year-old me and the things that I experienced go.  It is time to let that version of me go and do what normal 8 year olds do: go out and play.  I have carried him all of these 53 years, and I will carry him no longer.  He is welcome to visit in my memories, and I will embrace him. However, he cannot stay.  To him I say, “go out and play.”

It is for the 61 year old me to continue my journey of self-discovery.   What will it benefit me to go back?  53 years after the fact, there is no going back.  I am returning.  It is time to place the past where it belongs.  I will return to my old colored school and the one that I integrated.  I will walk the old legislative halls of Williamsburg.  I will proclaim what is now my truth: that I am no longer enslaved to the past.  I am free.

Stay tuned…

Standing at the crossroads,

Dr. Micheal Kane

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