Red, White and Black
A conversation with students who know what Barack Obama has seen and felt.
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They sat in three rows in front of me—sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in one of the most diverse schools in our state—as we talked about the inauguration of the first African-American president, scheduled for later that morning. Some students were dressed in the colors of the flag. And all—except for three girls and a boy who, I presumed, were born without an embarrassment gene—were reluctant at first to join in.
Reflecting the student body of Windsor’s Sage Park Middle School that is two-thirds minority (including three Native Americans), the children have names like Fatima Choudhury, Jevaughny Sweeney, Thienly Nguyen and Edna Maldonado. And yet, in one way they were almost all of one mind.
Everyone in the room had rooted for Barack Obama, even the sixth-grader whose parents were vocal in their adoration of John McCain. Stella Rivera confided: “My family is Republican. I wanted Barack to win. I thought it was a significant event, but I didn’t tell my parents. My little brother [8 years old] was with my parents on this because he doesn’t know how to think yet.”
Well, it didn’t take very long for the group to warm up and for candor to flow easily, even as one teacher recorded the event on video. All seemed to agree that this monumental political event sent a strong signal. As Kasey Shemanskis said, “It’s good that Barack Obama is president. It shows that if we never give up, we’ll achieve goals.” But when I asked them—even with the imminent prospect in Washington of a man born of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother reaching the Oval Office—whether they thought racism and bigotry is still a problem in America, at least a dozen hands went up.
At first the talk was of the American South and references to films the students had seen that showed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (many of them had memorized parts of his 1963 speech in Washington), the black children trying to get into public school in Little Rock and police attacking civil rights marchers with fire hoses. But I pressed them on whether, right there in Windsor, Conn., settled by members of the Plymouth Colony in 1633 (making it the oldest town in the state), they see evidence of bigotry today. Again, many hands went up.
Brianna Wilson told us about a swim meet held at Wesleyan University. As the only black member of her team, she was asked by a competitor in the 100-meter freestyle, “Are you sure you are in the right place?”
Several children told stories of how, when they enter stores at the mall, they seem singled out for scrutiny by managers and security staff. Monica Rodriguez said, “They think that because we’re Puerto Rican, we don’t have money to buy stuff.”
Delecian Young said that when her family went shopping for furniture, the manager was suspicious. “He thought we’d steal something. But how can we steal when it’s just couches?”
Nathaniel Williams added, “My family went out to eat at a fancy restaurant, and the waiter had a nasty attitude and tone. There were white people behind us, and he was friendly and smiley to them.”
Victoria Huertos seemed to sum up the feelings of the group on that score: “It’s not right to judge people on how they look.” And, she said, it happens to every minority: blacks, Puerto Ricans, Muslims. “It’s something we have to overcome. If you see people being racist, you have to stand up for what you believe in.”