5 Things I Learned as the Only Black Kid in Class: Memoirs of an ‘80s Kid
February 5, 2024 •Mylan Stevens
From backgrounds to education and so much more, the strength of Franklin Energy lies in the diversity of our teams. That's why we've started the blog series Telling Our Stories, where our experts can share stories and learnings from their own unique life experiences. This blog article was written by Mylan Stevens, Regional Director.
I am proud to say that my early formative years occurred in the ‘80s, so chances are I will remain biased about many things associated with that decade—for better or worse. (If I say, “Go Joe” or “Where’s the beef?” and you immediately know what I’m referencing, you’re probably a legend.) I was born in a small northern Indiana town to a single mom who was working hard to finish high school and earn money from her part-time fast-food job. We spent the first several years of my life living on the south side of town, which was an ethnic melting pot with cheap rent and higher crime rates. Thankfully, we had plenty of family members around for support; I didn’t know any better and loved growing up with cousins, aunts, and uncles living in the same house. But it was always my mom’s dream to move us out of that area so my younger sister and I could have more opportunities for a better education and a better life.
That day came in January of 1987, when my mom, stepfather, sister, and I moved into our first home on the north side of town, which was predominantly populated with white families; in fact, we were one of only two Black families in our entire subdivision. It meant that for the first time, I’d be going to school where the majority of my classmates didn’t look like me or personally know anyone who looked like me. Walking into Ms. Sailor’s first grade classroom and being introduced, I remember having a smile on my face from the excitement of a new beginning. I also remember being met with mostly blank, bewildered stares as I found my seat in the back of the class. I soon learned there were just six Black students at the entire school, and for many classmates, I was the only person of color they had ever been around. With that said, over the course of the next four months and during the following years of elementary school, there were five things that stuck with me.
These are the five things I learned as the only Black kid in class:
- Be prepared to tackle strange questions. Not long after I arrived, I began getting questions from curious white classmates like, “Can I touch your hair?” (a couple times I allowed them to touch it, until it got weird), “Can Black people get lice?” (yes, it’s possible), “Can Black people get sunburn?” (yes, it’s possible), and “Have you ever been to Africa?” (no, I’d never been out of Indiana). It felt odd to receive all these questions, but I appreciated that I wasn’t at least being completely ignored because I looked different.
- You’ll be reminded early that you look different. One day at recess while I was on the playground, one of my first-grade classmates came up to me and said, “White people have skinny lips and small noses, but Black people have big lips and big noses.” He laughed and ran off. From that moment on, I was frozen in self-consciousness because of what he had told me. I even gradually picked up the habit of sucking in my lower lip and flexing my nostrils inward to make them a little less “big.”
- You’ll need to adjust your speech. In my household and among my extended family, words like “y’all,” “finna,” “ain’t,” and “im’ma” were normal in any conversation. I quickly learned that saying “I’m finna” do anything was not only flagged as improper grammar in the classroom but also drew laughter and mocking. My “finna’s” and “im’ma’s” quickly became “about to’s” and “I’m going to’s” and that part of my identity began to fade a bit more each year. Side note: It’s interesting how parts of speech commonly used within the Black community, which drew jeers for me back in the ‘80s, are now culturally appropriated in today’s world.
- You represent “all Black people” to that small group of students. For some folks, learning more about Martin Luther King Jr. or the Civil Rights movement during February is fascinating and informative; for me, especially during the first few years of elementary school, it just became another time to receive unwanted attention. Any time the teachers read about the plight of African Americans over the course of history, I could feel the gawking eyes of other kids on my back. It was particularly noticeable whenever the subject of slavery was discussed, albeit briefly in most textbooks in those days, when kids would look to watch my reaction as those painful realities were discussed. The history of my ancestors and forefathers was not their history.
- Your Black friends and family members may resent you for trying to advance. Moving out of the mostly urban part of town and up to the north side often led to snide remarks from cousins and friends we visited. It wasn’t unusual for me to hear, “Ya’ll live in a white neighborhood now” or “You tryin’ to be white.” What my mom intended as a come-up for our family was sometimes criticized as a way of selling out by those closest to us.
Learning these tough lessons was difficult to cope with and led to many days at home reflecting on who I was and why God made me the way he did. I wondered often if it would just be easier to be white. Thankfully, I had a strong mother of faith whom I could talk to about my feelings and who gave me some solid advice. She encouraged me to recognize real friends who wanted to get to know me rather than accept false presumptions about Black culture. She reminded me that the societal playing field would likely always be uneven for Black folks in this country, but that I was not allowed to treat that fact as a crutch to put less effort towards self-progress. Rather, I should use it as motivation to push myself to rise above and set the right example for those whom I could influence. Lastly, I was reminded of the little old wooden plaque that sat in my grandmother’s house that simply stated, “Treat others as you want to be treated…that is the Golden Rule.”
The principles I learned from my mom still resonate with me to this day as I look to impart them on my own children. My hope for them and for kids in classrooms across this country is that their grade school experience will not have to mirror mine. I hope they will have five very different things they remember about their time in elementary school, regardless of what they look like or where they came from.
I’ve also come to realize that my personal experience in and of itself isn’t unique. I have heard from friends and read about similar challenges that many other African Americans faced during their school years. The constant reality of “only-ness” has followed many of us from the classroom and into career spaces where most of our colleagues are white. It’s a normal burden that is contended with daily; there is both real and perceived pressure to do as much as possible to avoid being negatively singled out. In recent years, there have been well-documented efforts by business groups and institutions across the country to encourage more racial and cultural diversity. For example, Franklin Energy founded the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEI&B) Roundtable which hosts webinars, sends regular emails, and even sponsors a book club where employees primarily read books written by women and people of color. All this action represents a step in the right direction but should not be where the road to progress ends.
So, what can we each do within our sphere to advance the movement? I’d suggest that we have the conversations now with all groups represented, actively set goals to improve, take visible actions, and hold ourselves accountable to create a different normal for all of us while we still can.