Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding.
Since the age of three, I was raised “on Grandma’s block” – one single city block in the Black Pearl, where six of the homes belonged to my maternal family. What a blessing it was to have the benefit of growing up at the feet of great-grandparents, grandparents, and a host of aunts and uncles.
The wisdom imparted by my elders to the younger generations was personal and authentic. I was introduced to race relations through their first-hand accounts of schooling, employment, underemployment, voting, and more – before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement. These valuable life lessons could never have been taught in a classroom.
My close-knit family upbringing, while teaching me the prejudices and injustices that my ancestors faced, also enveloped me with love, encouragement, and protection from that same racism.
I was one of just four blacks in my Kindergarten class of 25; but by my eighth grade graduation, there were only 6 white students. During those nine years, I was never made to feel “different” due to the color of my skin. We were all of the same “privilege”; we were all treated the same. To that end, I had not knowingly experienced racism.
God is no respecter of persons.
The tint on my lenses would soon change, upon entering an entirely new environment: high school. I can recall three incidents in particular that painted an entirely different picture:
- Anyone who knows me will attest that the only thing I love more than ice cream is dancing! I studied for 13 years. When I failed to make the cut for our school’s dance team, my deflated ego and I struggled to understand. A friend told me, “Don’t feel bad, they only choose two blacks per classification”… She was right.
- I rode the same bus every day as a white upperclassman, who lived three blocks away from my Black Pearl home. One particular afternoon, I did not go to the restroom because I didn’t want to miss the bus. When we got off, I asked if I could use the bathroom at her house. She responded, “You can’t come into my house, my parents don’t care for black people”… (WOW!!) We never spoke again.
- One rainy afternoon, a classmate and I ran through puddles to get to our next class. The teacher scolded me: “I don’t understand how you can keep your shoes so dirty.” My white classmate (whose own saddle oxfords were also muddy – and void of white paint) tried to come to my defense but was told it had nothing to do with her. At report card time, I discovered the 9 white students had all received A’s – while the 3 blacks received B’s. Hmm… I spoke to my counselor in confidence (or so I thought) and was confronted by the teacher the very next day, who accused me of calling her a racist.
That was the longest semester of my high school career. My experiences would be my formal introduction to racism and privilege – privilege I did not have because of the color of my skin.
That same year, the founder of Covenant House visited our school. I listened intently as he shared the agency’s mission and ministry. I went home that afternoon and excitedly shared with my parents that I had to work for Covenant House. Not too long after that, my graduate school course work culminated with an internship at Covenant House. Two months after receiving my Master’s degree, I was offered full-time employment. That was 31 years ago! I am now three years into my second tour with the “Cov,” having returned for the same reasons I first discovered in high school.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.
I wish more neighborhoods today were like I had growing up: a place where youth listen and gain wisdom, knowledge, and understanding from the elders. But I have also learned the benefit of listening to our youth – both my own four children and the young people God has entrusted to our care at Covenant House. It can be tough work, but it is only in listening that we can truly understand the oppression and injustices they feel. It doesn’t matter their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or socio-economic status – they have a voice and deserve to be heard.
On a larger scale, l pray that members of our communities, cities, states, our country, and our world would take time to listen and to hear the oppression, injustices, and racism the black community has felt for the past 400 years. In particular, it is incumbent for our leaders and law enforcement to listen – and be slow to speak or become angry. It is the only way we will heal. We have a voice and deserve to be heard.
Deneen Jackson is the Director of Non-Residential Services at Covenant House New Orleans.