“Trophy” is never a word people use to describe something that someone loves. Trophies are about possession and pride and objectification. Above all, trophies are seen and not heard. It’s for these reasons, and many others, that so many people chafe when they’re categorized as one. I should know. I’ve been the trophy of many for longer than I’d care to mention.
I don’t think that it’s overreaching to say that we live in an imperfect nation. I also don’t think that I would be straying from the truth if I said that we are often reluctant to speak about those imperfections. Especially the ones that seem to persist, no matter what we do. Especially the ones that some like to trumpet as “solved” in an effort to forget about the corrosion that exists just beneath the surface.
I’ve spent most of my life crossing back and forth across the color lines that litter the landscape of Boston, my hometown. Though this is primarily a story of that place, it could be a tale with roots in any number of American cities and towns.
At a very young age I was labeled bright, a shining little star who liked to read books and do puzzles and write stories about piggies sitting in puddles. I was equal parts goody two-shoes and know-it-all and, after skipping a grade in my small Catholic school failed to prove a real challenge, the adults in my life decided that it was time to move me from my predominately black school in the predominately black neighborhood of Roxbury to a new school where I could really “grow.” Back in the colonial days when Boston was merely a bulb at the end of a sliver of land, Roxbury had been the city’s source of food and potable water. But by the early 1990s, the neighborhood had become one I needed to be removed in order from to find “something better.” It may not surprise you that while better meant many things, it mostly meant whiter.
Not that I wasn’t excited by the prospect of leaving. Middle school was just around the corner, and these new schools that my mother and I visited were amazing. They had tetherball and science labs and no uniforms. Some of them didn’t have gross, smelly boys running around. And there were always cookies. I’ve never met a cookie that I did not like.
I was smart, but I was also still very much a child, and like many children, I loved having attention lavished on me. Parents and administrators called our home trying to convince my mother that their private school was the one that we should choose. One mother, a psychologist, insisted that my mother not send me to an all-girls’ school, as it was sure to turn me into a lesbian. My mother told me that this woman was totally and completely full of shit. In the end, I did choose one of the schools without the boys I found so annoying at that age.
The choice was easy for me. I chose the place where I felt that I would be happiest, where I didn’t feel as much like a trophy in the independent schools’ fucked-up games with each other to pull “the best and the brightest” of the underprivileged out of their situations to prove how progressive they all were. That wasn’t what I would have articulated to you at almost ten, but even if I couldn’t put words to my feelings, it was the source of the warmth that I had for the place. It wasn’t going to be all cookies and tetherball, after all.
Almost seven years later, I was in the middle of an elective course called American Social History. We spent that semester examining the issues of race, class, and gender throughout the history of the United States. I was equally excited and apprehensive about the prospect. And by apprehensive I mean scared shitless. I had never been much of a talker, but I had become particularly adept at keeping my mouth shut about certain issues and any of the attendant feelings that they stirred up within me. I had done my job well. I had continued to be bright and talented and silent. I had smiled in pictures and sung in assemblies and hit balls around grassy fields. And although my teachers cared for me and my friends loved me, something about it all left me unsettled. A dull pain throbbed within me almost constantly, but I continued to sit on my little model minority pedestal without uttering a word. But by that semester, I could at least write some of it down.
That spring we read Stud Terkel’s Race, and when I was given the chance to interview myself in the style employed in the book, I leapt at the opportunity.
“Her name is Samantha Powell. She is a junior…She lives in an apartment in the South End, a small neighborhood of Boston, with her mother. She has lived in some part of Boston all of her life. She is sitting on her sofa with her legs crossed humming to herself before the conversation begins.”
It was a history of me, of how I had ended up in that place, and, just barely, about how that journey had left me feeling. On the cusp of the college application process, I knew that I wanted something more.
“I want to find a school where people are not afraid to speak their minds, so that they can teach others about their experiences and learn from the experiences of others. Maybe I’ll find that place, but I think that most institutions that I enter will be similar to [this one].”
My history teacher, who awarded my brief opening up and self-awareness with an A, wasn’t as happy with my conclusion.
Samantha, An outstanding treatment of the issue of race through the style of Terkel. Wonderfully written – probing and honest. I feel like you end abruptly with a powerful statement that deserves examination. Your sense of wanting honest dialogue and meaningful relationships in college – and in life – suggests you will search carefully for the environments you select in the future.
It was noble of her to think so much of me. But although I was willing to write down how I felt, I was still far, far away from acting on it in any real way. There was still an endgame, and I was going to continue silently playing my part.
A little over a year later, I wore a white dress and flowers in my hair and collected my diploma in its red leather case to head out into the world, or at least college. I hadn’t gotten any better at the talking piece, at speaking my mind and telling people what I really felt. At saying no. Any discomfort was dealt with in whispers or pushed deep down inside.
Although we had made it all the way to the 1990s in my American Studies class (a combination of English and US History) during my senior year, there were some books that we never had time for. So that summer, after receiving the little diploma in its red leather case, I sat in a lab waiting for RNA to replicate and gels to run while reading everything that I could get my hands on, including a slim volume by James Baldwin.
I learned a couple of lessons during that first reading of The Fire Next Time. One, lab reading should only be distracting fluff or journals like Nature and Science. Two, it is possible for a book to crack you so wide open that you find yourself in the bathroom outside of your lab having a full-blown panic attack.
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.
There weren’t many girls or women working on that research floor, so I could have my heartrending break in peace. It was the only real consolation.
At college, the plan was to learn, and to go through the motions when necessary. Make it through, make it out, and leave it all behind. That plan started to crack the moment that I stepped on campus. But I wasn’t a quitter and I hung on by my fingernails. Everything suffered. Sometimes my friendships. Definitely my appetite. And, most devastatingly for me, my grades.
In the summer before my senior year of college, I once again found myself working in Boston, crunching numbers in a sleep lab and half-heartedly preparing my applications for medical school. I was close enough to my old school that on my lunch break, I went to visit the teacher who had been my advisor throughout my high school years. A lot had happened and nothing had happened and as we sat in her sunny office on the top floor of my sleepy alma mater, I rambled in an effort to mask my discomfort and unhappiness. I had once been so good at that, at deflection, but nearing the end of the road, I was tired. Exhausted. Depleted.
We both stood in order to make our goodbyes. She softly took my head in her hands, gave me a kiss, and said what had been written on people’s faces for years. Hidden in their sighs and masked in their eyes.
“I don’t know if it was worth it for you.”