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SANDY BANKS / Life As We Live It

A Long, Hard Journey to Self-Respect

January 16, 1998|SANDY BANKS

I couldn't have been more than 9 or 10 when my mother toted us to a dusty lot at a neighborhood park, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was scheduled to appear.

It was a stifling Cleveland summer day, but hundreds had turned out to hear the civil rights leader preach from the back of a flatbed truck.

I don't remember much of what he said--just the way his voice rose above the static of the cheap sound system. But there is one line I will never forget:

"I don't care what anybody says," he roared, beaming down at the families below. "I have good hair!"

The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. And I stared, confused, at the beads of kinky, black hair that dotted his sweat-soaked head.

Good hair. I'd heard that phrase from family and friends all my life, as in "You're so lucky. You have good hair like your mama."

I was never quite sure what "good" hair meant; mine was way too curly to suit my taste and nothing like my mother's, which was silky and straight. But, unlike my sister and most of my friends, I didn't need a straightening comb to coax it into the kind of styles the white girls wore.

I suppose I knew even then that "good" must somehow be aligned with "white."

But King proclaimed otherwise that day, when he called his nappy hair as good as mine, as good as my mother's, as good as that of white girls who tossed their long, flowing locks in my face at school.

And it was a revelation to this little Negro girl that--although "Black is Beautiful" was still a long way off--you could have straight hair or kinky, dark skin or light, a wide nose, thick lips, a big butt, freckles . . . and it was all good.

Because it was us, as God made us, King said. And we weren't going to let them tell us anymore what we should look like . . . not to mention where on the bus we could sit or which water fountains and bathrooms to use.

And while King made history leading the civil rights movement, he sparked a more intimate--though no less profound--revolution among children like me, with lessons that transcended race and politics.

You have to love yourself and your people before asking others to love you. And self-respect is something no law can give you and no one else's hatred can take away.

It must be hard for our young black leaders today--with their kente cloth, dreadlocks and African names--to understand just how revolutionary that sentiment was.

They don't remember when calling someone "black" guaranteed a whipping--when the word was an insult, not an identification. When donning a dashiki was a political statement and wearing your hair "natural" branded you a radical, frightening whites and embarrassing your parents.

It took a political movement to make us comfortable with being "black," to allow a word that had once made us feel ashamed come to signify pride and solidarity instead.

And embracing it did not come easily for all.

I remember my first reporting job, in 1976, at a black newspaper run by an 80-year-old icon of Cleveland's conservative black middle class. Whenever I wrote "black," he changed it to "Negro," and, infuriated, I demanded to know why. He sat me down and explained:

"When I was growing up, we were 'nigras,' " he said. "Right to our face, and you couldn't say nothin'. If they were really trying to be polite, they might call you 'colored.'

"It took a long time for us to get to 'Negro.' . . . A lot of blood was spilled along the way. And I'm not giving it up for some young, nappy-headed fools who want to call themselves 'black.' "

And now I find myself on the elder side of that ideological divide, arguing with young friends who reject "black" and favor "African American." And I rely, like my old editor did, on both history and emotion when I rise to my defense.

Just as "Negro" represented dignity and acceptance by whites to generations before mine, the term "black" meant we had accepted ourselves.

To paraphrase that wise old man: It was a long journey from "nigra" to "black," and it asked a lot of us along the way. And I'm not going to give it up just because some young folks want to look to Africa to validate our past.

It is human nature, I guess, for each new generation to reject the past; to re-fight old battles, reject old heroes and invent its own.

I see that today among young black folks, who smugly dismiss King as an anachronism from their parents' generation. Who judge his campaign of love and nonviolence against the backdrop of bullets and bombs--the weapons of choice for political movements these days--and pronounce it lame.

And I wish they'd look hard enough at their own history to understand that King took on fire hoses and police dogs, accepted ridicule and imprisonment not because he was a patsy or a coward, but because he knew that no victory worth claiming could be won by joining your oppressors in the muck of hatred.

That only if we loved ourselves could we push forward with pride and self-respect after the laws were changed and the bars to progress came down.

And if he'd been able to stick around and spread that message through the ages, we might actually live as if we believe it today. And we'd have fewer children dying at the hands of young black thugs, fewer lives wasted in prison and on drugs.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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