Posted March 10, 2012
I had a great visit with an AP Lit class at the School Without Walls Charter School in Washington, DC on Friday. The class was comprised of 15 seniors, mostly girls. We began by going round the room with each student telling me their name, what they planned to do after graduation and their favorite book. I gave them some background about myself and how my novel came about – I was a young journalist living in Southwest Virginia and wrote a newspaper story on the local Native American culture, which inspired my novel, The Color of My Soul. That, along with my own questions about race and culture and how they influence a person’s identity.
One of the first questions was about Alex – was he a real experience that I had? Women love Alex, but alas, he is a complete figment of my imagination.
The students had some great questions, some personal, some about my writing style and process, and others about race and culture. I explained that I had grown up in Scotland with my white mother and black father (who hails from Richmond, Va.). I was asked if people had approached me in a certain way because I was of mixed race – yes, I’ve had people say I’m stuck up and “act white” and others say I’m too dark with hair that’s too frizzy to be white. So how do I identify myself? Interesting question. When I first came to the United States I was completing forms for college and saw the question asking about my race. Growing up in Scotland, a predominantly white society (I don’t remember seeing any other black folks except me and my dad), I was the only “colored” girl in my school. There was one other person of color – an Indian boy a year older than me. I had never been asked my race before and seeing it on the form made me pause. I wasn’t sure what to say. To say I was black denied my mother. To say I was white would not only deny my father but get some strange looks considering my skin color and hair texture. So I went with what people would say I looked like and denied what I felt inside – neither white nor black. I was just me. I’m glad to see that forms now include the option to say mixed or more than one race.
I told the students that I look to them to embrace our differences and look beyond race and religion to create a society that is not color-blind, but “color-embracing.” There will always be extremes, but they can make all the difference by simply accepting one another.
I will be visiting another school next month and give my thanks to the PEN/Faulkner Foundation for arranging these visits – especially to Ariel Martino who coordinated everything and gave up her day off to join me at the school. And thank you to Mr. Edward Ismail for teaching literature to the next generation and giving me the opportunity to share my story with these wonderful students.