I vividly remember the night I became aware of the Klu Klux Klan. As a third grader, I was up late watching the news when the horrific images of current events flashed on the screen. By this time in my young life I was living in the projects and well aware of the danger this could pose to my neighbors. But, in my young mind, it was going to happen to me.
Two years earlier, I would have never thought this. I would have felt saddened by the news report for “those people” but it wouldn’t have made me lose sleep like I did that night. It wasn’t long after I moved to the projects that I became aware of my mother’s race. Sitting in a reading group with students I barely knew, a boy (I can’t even recall his name or face) started hurling racial slurs toward me about being Chinese. Little did he know I was Korean; little did I know that my mother looked different than others. His remarks stung. I denied them. As the new girl learning to fight to survive not so much the school but the new neighborhood, I was ready to combat his attacks. But more than that, as a person who was noticeably different, at least by my mother’s appearance, I felt singled out. He put me on display and the teacher did nothing to protect me.
I was so disgusted by his ignorance and the teacher’s lack of empathy that I acted like I was physically sick to go home early. Emotionally, I was sick. Walking home alone in the middle of the day, I kept asking myself how I never noticed my mother’s appearance. I was well aware that our single-parent family was different than some of my school friends who had fathers and lived in actual houses instead of a small apartment above a printing press, but I never realized she looked different.
Though I was cognizant of my social and familial status at my previous school, no one ever called me out for not being like them. Mind you, this was still in the city and there was diversity yet I lived unaware. Even growing up in bars and sleeping in corners of parties where no child should be, I didn’t see my mother’s race. I didn’t become aware until I was treated differently because of it.
Deedra’s mother at the most contented time of her tormented life.
Moving from the projects to a small town was drastic. I had to morph into country mouse while city mouse was still very alive within me. The only way I could make this happen was through one constant: school. It had become my sanctuary and not only because of the free breakfast and lunch! It was the place I could be a kid like everyone else. In my elementary years, it was about rest and approval. In my junior high years, the approval intensified to achievement. While I have had to die to that unhealthy need in my adult life, it formed relationships with teachers and created mentors that I appreciate still today. Aside from that, it made me eager to learn.
Growing up without diversity bothered me. Fully aware that my mother looked different than everyone else and not being able to forget my experiences from the inner city, American history became personal for me. This was magnified by the excellent teaching of my 8th grade history teacher, Dan Wells. From that class, I learned many Americans realized slavery was not just a system of labor and began to debate whether or not it was morally right. In fact, the issue of slavery would be a political undercurrent decades before the Civil War and not completely settled for many years after. But, the part of history that stuck with me that year and forevermore was the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The Constitution mandated that slaves who fled to free states must be returned to their owners. In short, the Fugitive Slave Act kidnapped free blacks and pressured Northern citizens to serve as slave catchers. Citizens taking the law into their own hands.
Another effect of the Fugitive Act was the strong antislavery reaction. Those who could say slavery was wrong from a distance were now faced with the decision of participating. What would they do? Would the use their rights as citizens to petition the national government for overstepping the limits of the constitution? Would they present theological arguments? Would they use whatever voice they had to change the injustice?
The Fugitive Slave Act provoked one woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, to draw attention to slavery by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.