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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : Teaching Our Children : Bring Down the Barrier of Racism for the Next Black Generation

February 13, 1989|PAULA POINDEXTER-WILSON | Times Staff Writer

My daughter, Alexandra, is 2 years old. She recites her alphabet in English and the days of the week in Spanish. She counts to 15 in both languages and enjoys my reading "La Semilla de Zanahoria" ("The Carrot Seed") as well as "The Velveteen Rabbit."

Alexandra is tall for her age, and her slimness makes her look even taller. With her single ponytail perched atop her head, her big eyes, captivating smile and sunny disposition, Alexandra is a delight to have around.

As I watch Alexandra, my heart fills with the most incredible love and pride.

But this only makes me fear that Alexandra will not have the opportunity to live up to her potential for happiness, health and success because of the color of her skin.

How do I explain to my child the realities of growing up black in America? How do I teach my child to never give up her dreams even when the roadblocks of prejudice and discrimination stand in her way?

I will teach her to love herself by loving her unconditionally and by displaying my affection for her as often as I can.

I will pass on to her positive values--education, self-discipline, perseverance, tolerance, love of family, friends and racial heritage--that my parents instilled in me.

I teach her to appreciate other cultures. One of Alexandra's godmothers is Jamaican, her sitter is Honduran, many of our neighbors are Korean. Her books are about people of all colors; even her dolls are different colors.

When she is old enough to understand, I will teach Alexandra to respond to the discrimination she surely will encounter. I will share with her my experiences as a black person in America, in hopes that she will be better equipped to handle her own confrontations.

The prejudice and discrimination I encountered growing up were not life-threatening and did not make headlines. Nevertheless, prejudice and discrimination, whatever the form, hurt deeply.

I first learned the meaning of prejudice and discrimination when I was 4 years old.

It was 1954, and I lived near Houston on the campus of all-black Prairie View A & M College, where my father, a veterinarian, was a professor. My mother had a degree in home economics. I was the youngest of four children.

The nearby town of Hempstead--like the rest of the South--was segregated. Blacks and whites were separated at water fountains, in restrooms, restaurants, doctors' waiting rooms, movie theaters, the swimming pool, at county and state fairs, hotels, schools, in the academic and athletic competitions, in neighborhoods, jobs and at lunch counters.

One day, my mother let me go into a drugstore alone to buy my first ice cream cone--strawberry.

When I sat on a lunch counter stool, the clerk said, "You have to get up." At first, I didn't understand because every stool was empty. The clerk scowled. "Get up. You're not allowed to sit there."

I jumped up. Embarrassed. Humiliated. I paid for the ice cream cone but couldn't eat it. I never told my mother about my first lesson in discrimination.

Later, I attended a high school undergoing desegregation. Whenever I sat next to a white student on the bus, the student jumped up. You would have thought someone ran an electric current through the seat. And when I sat down first, white students would not sit next to me. They would huddle in the aisle rather than sit next to a black person.

I never had a junior or senior prom. They were canceled after blacks joined the student body.

I had always dreamed of being class valedictorian. My father had been told by someone close to the school board that I had the highest grade point average and would get the honor. But, it went to a white girl instead.

As a student at the University of Chicago, I helped recruit minorities. Returning to my room at a Holiday Inn in Memphis one day, I discovered that my room key would not open the door. A white man appeared behind me and said I couldn't get in until I paid my bill, even though I was not checking out until later that day.

I expressed my shock at this, but he said I must follow him downstairs to the front desk. In the elevator, I repeated, with righteous indignation, "I am a representative of the University of Chicago; I intend to pay my bill when I'm ready to check out."

The man turned around, looked at me, then shouted, "Shut up, nigger!"

I was humiliated and too scared to say anything. I paid my bill and was escorted back to my room by the same man. He unlocked my room with a special key. I stepped inside, closed the door and burst out crying.

After college, I applied for a job at the CBS affiliate in Houston, KHOU-TV. I was hired by the production manager at the same station that turned out Dan Rather, Jessica Savitch and Linda Ellerbee. The production manager said I should call him back to discuss when I would start. I was thrilled; my parents were thrilled. But when I called back, the job was no longer available. He said he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do.

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