Walter Backstrom | Letter to a young black man
By WALTER BACKSTROM
Bellevue Reporter Columnist
Mar 20 2009, 1:26 PM
It seems sometimes I grew up in a different country than you.
I grew up in a time and place where black people couldn’t vote. It seems times have changed. Sometimes it seems nothing has changed.
When I tell you stories of racism, you look at me in disbelief, trying to understand how could it be.
I remember in elementary school, being black was OK and there was no cost. In junior high school, I began to feel there was a cost, but I didn’t know the price.
My hair was what they called “nappy.” So I bought a product for my hair that was supposed to straighten it — so that I would look more like white people. I used to put a lotion on my face to make it lighter — so that I would look more like white people.
The cost of being black began to appear, and I realized something might be wrong. But in my mind, the jury was still out.
You ask me, how could that be? You tell me you have friends of all colors. You say this whole race thing is crazy.
I am your age now, a teenager, full of ego, not knowing much, seldom right but never in doubt. In high school, the price became painfully clear, and it was enormous. The school I attended was majority white. I guess you can call that experience a slap in the face. I was not prepared for what was to be.
I am walking in a department store, and I am being followed, just like you are. Do you remember having teachers who silently believed you weren’t smart enough? So did I. The difference? My teacher told me I wasn’t good enough. I played sports and was good at it, just like you.
Do you remember being pulled over by the police, telling you that the car you were riding in fit the description of a car involved in a robbery? So do I.
I was a good kid. I listened to my parents sometimes. I was popular with the girls, and I went to church on Sunday, just like you.
I began to wonder, so I asked my parents, what was the deal with all this race stuff? They told me about growing up in the South, and the separate bathrooms: One for whites and one for coloreds. I remember listening, with my eyes wide open and my heart beginning to close. As they told me these stories, my heart pounded. My hands clenched into fists that shook with righteous indignation.
I was mad that I couldn’t protect my parents, who were decent God-fearing people. My face turned away, and I gazed out the window, thinking with righteous indignation, which helped cover up the shock and sadness.
The cost of being black was altered forever. The world was no longer filled with wonder. It brimmed with shame because of my blackness, and there was nothing I could do.
I wanted to do something, but what? I had to present to the world a different face, a different persona that you couldn’t hurt or touch. Underneath that new look was a scared and frightened little boy, wanting the world to be different and be fair to me, my parents and all other black people.
At that moment, the changed occurred, and the cost seemed unbearable.
Where I grew up, the majority of people were black, and they knew the rules. Where I went to school, the majority of people were white — and I knew the rules. Rule number one: Always smile, just like today.
Young man, I am sorry that your father is not around. I can only imagine the pain. I was fortunate to have a dad who taught me how to be a man. I wonder, who did you learn from? Your mother? The streets? The gang? The counselor at the Boys and Girls Club?
In this society, they see you walking around with your pants sagging, with no father to tell you to pull them up. Where is your father, who is supposed to call your teacher about your grades? Where is your father, who tells you to quit listening to that rap music and saying the n-word?
You know, it’s a lonely world out here without dad to protect you and guide you. I want you to know that I pray for you — even the ones who scare me.
You think drugs, fast money and loose women are the answer? It just helps mask the pain. However, in that quiet moment, where you meet you, there is that emptiness. That hole in your soul that can’t be filled by anything earthly. The hole can and must be filled by grace. I know I haven’t told you that I believe in you, but I do. I haven’t told you that I love you, but I do.
I don’t want to bore you anymore because my heart is heavy and my eyes are filled with tears. I can only tell you, as my father told me: Son, do the right thing, even if no one else does.
Do the right thing, you ask me? How will I know?
I say, be still and listen to your heart. I love you dad.
Walter Backstrom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org