This past week I participated in an event on campus called “My Story.”It’s this event that happens every semester where students, faculty, and Linda Vista community members share bits and pieces of their lives. They tell their story and folks just “shut up and listen”. It was a super great opportunity! I was vulnerable about my feelings (which is not something I’m used to doing with a room full of strangers). And I was able to share my experiences going to predominantly white schools and coming into my blackness.
Whilst developing my story, I thought back onto my childhood, and I remembered a time when my blackness was apparent to everyone else but me.
When I was 10 years old, I auditioned for a part in our 5th grade production on the history of Nevada. I really just wanted a part in the play. But for some reason the only available role left for my class was the role of a slave. Yes. You read that correctly a slave. (Clearly, it was the reject role since it was the only one left.)
I remember I auditioned for a part in front of Mr. Westbrook’s 5th grade class. I was up against another little girl who was Mexican. Everyone said that I did a much better job than her. But I can’t help but think that I got the part because of the level of authenticity I brought to the role. I was one of four black kids in the class, two of whom were boys and had no desire to play a woman, and one girl who had better sense than to accept the role of a slave. I, on the other hand, was struck by the idea of stardom.
I was so excited about my role, that on day of the play, I wore my slave costume several hours before and after showtime. And no one had any objection! I was walking around on the play ground with my hair wrapped wearing some baggy ass gown. I wasn’t even a historically known slave like Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglas, I was a nameless slave. I even spoke in a shaky southern accent.
I had just been sold, and I was writing a letter to my husband who I had been separated from. “Dear husband, I write you a letter in distress. Our children have just been sold…” That’s honestly all I can remember, but that’s some pretty heavy stuff for a 10 year old, right?
I guess it makes sense to have a black person play the role of a slave considering that authenticity is key in a historical context and black folks were slaves at this time. But my peers were all playing pioneers and gold rushers, and my role just felt sad. I had the most dramatic lines, and I only appeared once in the play. Also, we were 10. This play was clearly not winning any Tony’s for its ability to really move an audience so they could’ve came up with a better role for me or stressed how integral slaves were to the making of the supposed “land of the free and the home of the brave” (*snaps finger in a “z” formation*).
After it was all done, it felt unsettling, and as I get older and think about it, the more dumfounded I become. They real life let me play a slave! Playing that part contributed nothing to my intellectual growth as young black woman, and if I could go back to the age of 10, that’s the one thing I would’ve stopped myself from doing.
So I guess the moral of this story is don’t let your kids play slaves in school. Half of the time, it’s done in a really sad and non-inclusive way. And if your kid goes to a school like mine, in which they are on of few black kids, they’re most likely being tokenized. Let them actually learn about the accomplishments of black folks, and how their people contributed to this country in a positive and reaffirming way.