Editor’s Note: This Transcending Borders post is from a woman who, like many of us, knows that there are things that divide us. What’s more important is what we do, great or small, to bridge the gap. It all begins with us.
My 8th grade school year started out ok. I was a good student and I had good grades. I walked a few blocks to school every day. I was making some friends, I was officially a teenager and I felt good.
Things started changing pretty quickly. My Mom was suddenly ill and had to go to the hospital – she had had a nervous breakdown, whatever that meant, and she was going to be gone “a while”. I had my first period and my beloved Papa had died which meant that now, both my grandfathers were dead. And on one cool fall day, President Kennedy was assassinated.
We didn’t really understand a lot of what was going on, but we knew that it seemed nobody was happy. Mom came home in time for Thanksgiving but she wasn’t the same; an awful gloom seemed to be hanging over everything.
I don’t remember the exact day I heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but I do remember that it was different from all the dead teenager songs and the guys who had hit songs on the radio all the time. They sounded so new and so happy!
I’ve always read a lot of magazines and I saw a picture of John, Paul, George and Ringo — and I fell in love. They didn’t have their hair combed back into that duck-tail hairdo and they weren’t wearing sweaters; they had long hair and cute suits and great smiles and every week there was another song by them on the charts. Suddenly, I had something to be happy about…until my parents told us we were going to move and that I would have to go to the other junior high school on the other side of town.
Galesburg had two junior high schools, and if you were in 7th, 8th or 9th grade, you went to one of them. I liked the one I was going to and I had friends there. But now, I wouldn’t be able to walk to school anymore. I would have to ride a school bus for the first time in my life. I would be going to a new school for the second time in less than 5 years. We had moved to Galesburg only a few years before and it had taken me a while to find my niche and now, suddenly, I was going to lose it.
My Mom bought me that record by the Beatles to appease me I suppose; it was a 45 and it came in a sleeve with their picture on both sides. I was ecstatic! My first day at the new school, I tucked it inside my notebook — I couldn’t wait to show it off! I hoped it would help me make friends. The bus got to school about a half hour before it opened so we had to wait outside. I stood alone for a few minutes till I saw a girl I knew from the community center where my Mom had been the director. I walked up to her and we talked for a moment — and then I showed her my new treasure. She looked at me like I had two heads and asked, “Who are they?”.
The Beatles, I told her breathlessly. I started telling her that they were English and that they were the newest thing and that they had a lot of other new records out but she stopped me cold. She gave me The Look and then she said, “Brenda, they’re white!” like she was saying they had tails and fangs. “You listen to that kind of music?”…and she walked away. I was stunned.
Soon, every black girl I knew gave me The Look when it came to the Beatles. I hadn’t expected that and I realized then that I was not like the other black kids I knew. I loved Smokey and the Temptations as much as everybody else did, but I also loved the Beatles and the rest of the rock music that was emerging. I wasn’t shunned; I just had no black friends. My friends were mostly white girls – which further distanced me from the black folks in school.
So because I listened to “white music” and had white friends, I was some kind of a pariah? That made no sense to me at all. I thought we were supposed to find common ground to learn to live together…it hurt but I got used to it.
I also got used to getting The Look. It was usually accompanied with a smirk and a comment like “You like that kind of music?” or “She’s your friend?”. I learned to not let it bother me.
I never have done things I am supposed to do because I’m black. They say I don’t “act black” because I love rock music and white guys, I’m articulate and smart and I read a lot. I guess to some that makes me rather weird so I learned to embrace my weirdness. I did a lot of things that black folks didn’t usually do. I went to rock concerts and I was usually the only black person there or one of a very few. I wear Chuck Taylors with my jeans and Doc Martens with my skirts. I do what works for me.
And I smile now when I get The Look.