Growing Up Black in Brooklyn

          My reflection story is about being a dark-skinned girl during a time when having a dark complexion was viewed as ugly. All dark-skinned people were looked down upon by whites and sadly, by blacks as well.  The unfortunate part about blackness is that the very people who had to deal with racism—would also feel superior over one of their own because of color.  That was but one of the many conditions imposed on us as a people by slavery as well as colonization. For a long time older black people would tell my mom how pretty I was with my dreamy eyes and my dimples.  My peers, however, did not share the same sentiments.  Yet, they were the ones I actually wanted to impress. I had a dark complexion, large lips and “nappy hair, all the things that in the seventies and eighties were not good features.

           I was born in the late sixties, during a time when integration was alive, but the races (black and white) were still separate; tension was exercised daily between the two. Blacks and whites, in general, did not mix.  Biracial relationships and marriages were not accepted.  The dividing line between the two groups was visible and violence was the result, if defied. Back then we were termed Black as a race; not Negroes, not Colored nor African American, just Black. The whites did not like the blacks and the blacks did not like the whites.  Tension was not hidden, and feelings were raw.  Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but intermingling was not the norm when dealing with races, every race stayed to and with their own; at least in my area.

          My views regarding racial mixing and dating has matured a lot with age.  Yet there are still instances where my past views remain in the fore.  This, in an era where the racial mixing has become normal and interracial dating has skyrocketed to an all time high. Unfortunately, the past has put a dent in my ability to just see people as people and not races.

          The area in which I was born was Brooklyn, specifically Coney Island. The location of Coney Island at that time was purely black and Puerto Rican. There was also a gated community called Sea Gate and Brighton Beach; both were inhabited by white people as a majority. At one point, Coney Island was also a haven for whites, however, when NYCHA projects were built and the blacks and Puerto Ricans started to move there—whites began their exodus to the suburbs.  It seemed as if all of Brooklyn was under a transformation—in ways that mirror today’s reverse gentrification in all of five boroughs.

          Funny thing, to think back to that time, Brighton was inhabited by Russians, but to the young mind, they were white also.  However, the reality of the situation was they were immigrants and not considered white.

          In my Coney Island, there were no white children or adults to speak with.  There were no outlets to learn about or understand their cultures and ways of life.  My only point of reference was what was shown on television—a world of whiteness; since there weren’t any black sitcoms or shows at that time.

          Not knowing and not mingling with whites made them seem alien; with everyone one of them having a good life and not having hardships and poverty. There was one family that lived in the building we resided, a mother and her daughter. They were older, and the mother was very gruff but the daughter was very nice and friendly.  As a child, the mother seemed mean, but as an adult I can only surmise that the real reason behind her anger was most likely due to the influx of blacks and Latinos moving in. Obviously, they were the left behinds that could not afford to run and move away like all the others like them did.

         Racism was not spoken about during the elementary years, there was no one around to show and express the ills of the divide. We played as children with the other children that were just like us, black or Latino. No one had much money.  Of course some had more than others, but it was like everyone was one even ground. We just played and enjoyed our innocence, not realizing the difference between not having any whites around because of…  Throughout my elementary school experience there were no black teachers that resided in our neighborhood. Being new to school and learning, racism still wasn’t an issue.

         I can remember a teacher pinching my cheeks and saying “what a cute little monkey”.  I was happy to be acknowledged and to be told I was cute.  It wasn’t taken as a racist remark, but in hindsight it could have been, but then again it could have been as innocent as I believed at that time.

         Onward to junior high school was when the separation and the dislike between the races became open, apparent and real. As Coney Island had only one J.H.S., we had to be bussed out to the surrounding areas of Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge which were populated by whites in homes, not projects.

         The schoolyard could have had a line dividing the races, that was how serious the non-mixing was at that time. Since they were young they did not have any reason to hate blacks or Latino’s, the hate was fostered from what was learned and spoken of in their homes—on the superiority of their race and the inferiority of ours. They were not happy about us going to their schools. It was hell if a person missed the school bus. The train station, which was the means of transportation when you missed the bus, was three long blocks away.  Many boys were jumped if they were caught by the white boys on their way to the subway, some girls were targeted too. 

         The discrimination didn’t stop with gender—no that is where fairness prevailed. It would have been the same difference if a white boy came to “the hood”, they would have received the same treatment from the black boys and girls as well.  Although I can’t remember any deaths, at least not in my days and in my area, some of the instances, nevertheless, were pretty brutal.

         Some of the educators were just as racist as the students which made learning, and even trying to get along with the opposite race even harder. Those times were hard and the word “nigger” was not taken lightly. Unlike today, it was not deemed a term of endearment, nor could someone outside of the race be allowed to use in a joking or fun manner.  Nigger was specifically used to hurt and label. That word had much more of an impact on our race at that time than it does today. 

         For a time, the word nigger being used freely by all races as a term of endearment seemed a really good idea.  For me, it took the sting out of the word—making it appear that its negative implications were forever lost.   But with the word constantly being spewed about, the clarity behind the fight of our elders to abolish the word becomes more understandable as I age.  Our great-great grandparents, our political and religious leaders and all of those before us, took so much slack, abuse and death—all because of the fact that they were not seen as men or women—but as niggers.

         I am happy that we as a people have come so far from the era of our ancestors.  We have made leaps and bounds in our mobility and education.    But all is not well.  We still have a very long way to go.  The playing field still needs to be leveled for all of the future dark-skinned girls from the projects in Coney Island, such as myself. 

Monique Anderson

February 2010