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I thought I understood

Fifty years ago, in my early 30s, I accepted a job that changed my life. I was offered the position by the first Black associate superintendent, head of a new department established by a California K-12 school district to address racism and conflict. We built a staff, all people of color except for me. I learned how it feels to be the only “minority” person in a room, one of a thousand new insights.

We — the Multicultural Department — worked with teachers, parents and students to address textbook racism, recruit people of color, and learn from Black historians and authors. I experienced discomforting push-back from white teachers who were forced, for the first time, to face these issues.

During the late ’70s, I met an African American man, Steve. We shared a passion for world-changing and began dating.

“Do you know why I wear this ‘smiley face’ t-shirt?” he asked.

“You think it’s cute?”

“No,” he laughed. “I wear it so that people around me will understand that although I’m Black, I’m not dangerous.” My real education had begun.

This conversation floated back recently when African Americans clarified why they feared wearing COVID masks.

During the three years that we dated, through a series of ominous experiences with police, I learned fear. Steve, driving his sports car, was stopped by the Stanford Patrol — ”Driving too fast.” Still thinking of police as “my friend,” I started to open my door to step out ... “No!” the officer shouted, jumping back, hand on his gun. I was stunned.

Another time, I was driving. We were stopped on El Camino by a city policeman. We sat as he, unsmiling, looked over the inside of the car, slowly stared at us. “Driving too slow,” he growled. “Just watch it.”

So, this is a taste of what it’s like to be Black.

Steve went on a trip, leaving his car with me. That week, police came to my door: “We’re towing the white sports vehicle out front — unpaid tickets — and the vehicle hasn’t moved.” They had marked the tires. Outraged, I called neighbors who offered to lift the tiny car onto my property. “Absolutely not,” the officer said. We never saw it again!

By 2020, I thought I understood something of what goes on for people of color, but I touched a deeper level one night recently while reflecting on recent events. I remembered an incident that occurred in college a lifetime ago. The University of Florida accepted no Black students in the 1950s. In conversation with white students about this, I experienced the most disgusting racist talk I had ever heard.

One semester, I took a photography course. The final was a project using Life Magazine as a template. We created a theme to illustrate with our images. I chose to photograph Black workers in and around the university, all blue-collar — taxi drivers, janitors. I named it “Education for What?” to highlight institutional racism. I discovered a “Black township” nearby with an elementary school. Oh joy. I could take photos. I found the school, asked permission, and accepted the teacher’s reluctant “yes.” I recall the photo — scared-looking 6-year-olds, staring at the camera, dirt floor, pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room, grim-looking teacher, arms crossed — protecting her heart?

My question 60 years later: How fearful were these individuals upon whom I had imposed myself? I imagine the dilemma they must have faced when I asked to photograph them — could saying “no” bring reprisals? I was unaware then of the constant danger Blacks faced. I didn’t think about lynchings or the Klan, random violence from whites, perhaps drunk, rampaging students. I remembered a fraternity on campus dedicated to the Civil War, with a Confederate statue, the Confederate flag always aloft. I never knew anyone in that fraternity, had never given it a second thought — only now, finally mindful of what that fraternity stood for. What had I done, with no consciousness at all, to a group of people trying to live unnoticed in the segregated South of 1959?

The photos were good, but the professor, it turns out, had been a member of that fraternity. He didn’t like my project — gave me a C.

Sometimes it takes 60 years to grasp what it means that Black Lives Matter, and even now, I have much to learn.

Janet Boggia lives in Ashland.

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