I was about kindergarten age, the time when you independently interact for the first time with the world outside your home. I was born in Germany, my father was an officer in the Army, and he and my mother were both cosmopolitan, both intellectuals. I had been nurtured by black and international people and culture my entire short colorful life.
My family had moved to a small, primarily white southern New Jersey town. The blandness of everything was in startling contrast to what I had known.
Initially I was an oddity to my new neighbors. My complexion was like theirs but my facial features were not. My bright blond hair was common, but the thick woolly texture of my pig-tails was not.
Some white Americans have a very narrow understanding of the scope of genetic possibilities that can be produced when the diverse people of African ancestry mix with others. Because of our complex and hidden history, many Americans are fixated on color only, with no awareness of African attributes or black culture. As a result, because my skin was so fair and my hair blond, to white strangers, I went largely undetected as a little black girl.
My first friend in my new town was also a little blond girl.
We bonded over Barbies. I regularly went to her house after school to play with her impressive collection. One day her mother asked me where I lived. When I told her, her face went blank, then flush with a strange fear. I lived in that house with that family.
My parents and siblings have light tan-colored skin and my brother and older sisters had big fluffy dark Afros, as was the style of the day. All but me, and occasionally my mother, who did not have kinky hair, were identifiably black.
When my little blond friend's mother learned I belonged to the black family that had funny foreign cars and funny foreign people in funny clothes who came and went, she told me to go home and not return.
It was an emotionally violent and confusing encounter.
I was a child, ill-equipped to negotiate whatever fear or threat this adult mother had projected onto me. I had no reference and no words to explain to my mother why I was bewildered when I returned home from playing that day, and so I silently stewed in a combination of disgrace and rage.
The disgrace was pure instinct -- a natural response to being thrown out. The rage, however, was the result of a summation of evidence. Her house was dark and small while mine was big and vibrant. In my house, there were paintings on the walls and a big dictionary on a pedestal in the dining room where we discovered and discussed words around a large teak Danish table.
Hers had no books, no art and no discourse. How dare she not want me in her house! I was furious like an adult and powerless like a child. My belonging to blackness, participating in unknown culture and befriending her daughter disrupted the comfort the woman's ignorance provided.
Though today I pity that uneducated mother, I recognize her treatment of me as the same vicious strain of hatefulness held in the hearts of the adults who screamed and spat at little Ruby Bridges
Revisiting the event is akin to recalling a first kiss -- in reverse.
It was not a revelation, nothing given. On the contrary, it felt as if something preciously personal was stolen. It was a premature removal of a comfort intended to remain intact throughout one's childhood, like innocence or safety.
What about a little girl scares an adult so much they need to terrify or humiliate her, and what happens to that adult when they witness she is protected not by the National Guard but by a bullet-proof dignity passed down from generations? And what have they passed down to their children?