Growing up in an African American family, I was trained on how to conduct myself in certain situations. I was taught at an early age to be polite, always use “proper English,” and to never, ever put my hands in my pockets. These unspoken rules were not uncommon in my family, so I never questioned them. I practiced those rules religiously, not really knowing why. It was just how things were done.
Everywhere I went, I could hear my mother’s voice chastising me if I didn’t follow those rules exactly. At the convenience store across the street in my two-story home in north Minneapolis, me and my cousin Jay would spend countless hours in the candy aisle, clutching the quarters we had saved up throughout the week. Our hands smelled of old metal; the ridges of the coins making unsightly marks on our palms. Jay and his family didn’t have much, so these trips were always special. His clothes were worn, holes running up his pant legs, and his shoes that never managed to stay tied were two sizes too small. Even though he was a little older than me, he still didn’t know how to tie his shoes.
One day while visiting the store, I offered to tie Jay’s shoelaces. He politely declined my offer, and we made our way into our little convenience store. The building was old, with paint peeling on the sides of the walls that had faded from a crispy white to an eggshell over time. Roughly 10 minutes after arriving at the store, I heard a shout and the sound of metal hitting hardwood floor. Jay had tripped on his untied shoelaces, taking down several candy stands with him. I tried to help him pick up the candy; the colorful wrappers surrounding my cousin on the floor as he yelped in pain. It was too late. The store manager and her police officer husband came rushing around the corner; sharks who smelled blood. Before I had a chance to explain what happened, my cousin was in handcuffs. He was only 10 years old. I gathered up our quarters, and silently showed them to the officer, the shock of seeing my cousin in handcuffs rendering me mute.
Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what to say. My mother’s rules had taught me one thing, but at times, my heart said something else. At the age of 16, I received my first job at a JCPenney. While working there, I have experienced customers of all kinds. Some are nice, some are sweet, and some are just plain nasty. However, there are also customers who aren’t so easy to decipher at first glance. I had experienced this kind of customer during my first week on the job. She was about 60 years of age, with short gray curls that fell just above her shoulder blades. Her cheeks were round and full, and had a slight pink tone from her blush. She stood just a few inches shorter than me. The image of a typical, sweet, grandmother. She hobbled up to me, cane in one hand and purse in the other. She looked at me.
“You know, you are very well behaved for a black girl,” she said.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I could hear my mother’s voice telling me to be polite. All I could muster was a half hearted smile and a “Thanks.”
In truth, I was disgusted and confused. What did she mean? “Well behaved for a black girl?” How was a “black girl” expected to behave? These types of comments were not rare, and soon I found myself not wanting to be black. I was “pretty for a black girl,” “smart for a black girl,” and had so many other attributes that were apparently very rare among African American women. With skin just a little darker than the common Minnetonka dweller, and hair that grew up and out instead of down, it was clear that I was different.
The police officer in the convenience store didn’t think I was that different. He didn’t know that I was a young writer with dreams of being a published author. He didn’t know that I got straight A’s in school. He didn’t know that I was a quiet, intelligent girl who spent hundreds of Saturdays organizing books at libraries. He thought I was like everyone else, which in his words were, “little thieving nigger children”. I had hoped he would realize that this was an honest mistake, that we were paying customers. Little did I know that he would then accuse us of stealing both the candy and our little change. Next thing I knew, I was in handcuffs, too.
Long after those handcuffs were removed, I still felt somewhat chained. In April of 2014, I decided to cut off all of my hair. I wasn’t quite sure where to go for the cut, so I checked out a few different salons. I soon found a Great Clips in my neighborhood. I had heard great things about them, and the prices fit my budget perfectly. After walking for about fifteen minutes, I arrived at Great Clips. I opened the door; the little twinkle of a bell signaling that a customer has arrived was light and pleasant. I was met by pairs of eyes, some blue, some brown, all wary. The stylists stared for a second, unmoving, and cast glances at one another. You go. No, you go, I imagined them saying in their heads. After ten seconds of awkward silence, a young lady stepped forward.
“May I help you,” she said, her voice quivering.
“Yeah, I was looking to get a haircut.”
“Oh,” she whispered. “Well…”
“Are you busy? I can come back later — ”
“Well, it’s just that,” she cut me off. She glanced back at her coworkers who were pretending to be busy. Each of the following words came out slow and careful. “We don’t do… that kind of hair here.”
I didn’t understand. “What kind?”
“The ethnic kind,” she said, saying ethnic as if it was a dirty word.
Once again, I was placed in an uncomfortable situation, and speechless. I was shocked at her words. The ethnic kind, I echoed in my head. I wanted to scream, wanted to cause a scene and draw attention to the degrading selectivity. I then remembered that doing so would violate rule number two: stay level headed, no matter what. I walked out of Great Clips and silently walked home, the siren of a police car blaring in the background.
While in the back of a police car at the ages of nine and ten, I replayed the situation in the store over and over in my head. If only Jay had let me tie his shoes, I thought. After arriving at the juvenile detention center in Minneapolis, we were scolded by the police officer. One of the doors at the center swung open. A bigger, older guy walked out. His uniform was slightly darker than the one the other officer was wearing, and had a bigger, shinier badge that read: Sgt Johnson in fancy letters. The head honcho, I thought. I explained to the older gentleman what happened, fresh tears replacing the dry stains on my cheeks. For 15 minutes, Sgt Johnson scolded the officer who arrested us, sounding like a mother who was very disappointed in her child. Sgt Johnson apologized, and offered me and Jay some candy. We declined. We were then taken home by a different police officer. Luckily, it was not put on a record, and my parents were not home. They never found out about what happened.
Thinking about those events in the past made me realize that I am different. But instead of being ashamed of my differences, I should be celebrating them. I should be proud of my curly hair, and others should be proud to be who they are. I used those experiences as material for my poetry, an outlet I discovered while reading pieces from Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. Stumbling upon “I, Too” by Langston Hughes and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou in a 5th grade English class was a defining moment. Growing up African American, I often felt like that caged bird Angelou wrote about. That was when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I want to communicate my ideas through the written word. I want to evoke emotion, and give a voice to those who are silenced. I have done some of that already, having been published through several outlets, and I’m publishing a book of my poetry highlighting some of my experiences. I want to realize my dream of bridging gaps between cultures and educating our youth. I want to build a world where one is not “pretty for a black girl”, but rather “a pretty girl”. Continuing my education and reaching my goals won’t just aid in educating myself, but rather, educating an entire community.