You’re Korean? Most of you are as surprised as I was to learn that! Many people are because my sister was the one blessed with my mother’s physical attributes. As a matter of fact, I can vividly recall the day she came home from school ranting about her 6th grade class picture. Aside from being a tween (a word not yet invented), I couldn’t understand her disgust. It was beautiful as far a school photos go. She didn’t like it because her friends said she looked Chinese. By this time in my life, as a college freshmen majoring in Elementary/Special Education, I encouraged her to embrace her uniqueness. She didn’t look like anything but who she was designed to be.
The awareness of eternal value regardless of external differences had been a journey for me, and I was pained to know that she would have to learn that for herself. My path to discovery began the day I sat across from the boy stretching the corners of his eyes to make fun of my ethnicity.
It’s ironic that living in the projects taught me to see race and to ignore it. From my best friend to my boyfriend, Jimmy Mac, and from my drug suppliers to those I drug around to stake my territory, they all looked different from me. But, I wasn’t aware.
There’s a saying that becomes clearer as you age: “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” That could have applied to my new situation, but for me, the adage became “you don’t know who they were until they’re gone.” You see, due to the my mother’s limited ability to care for us and the ever-increasing danger of the community, we relocated to be closer to the only relatives we had. I moved into the projects afraid and I left the security of that insecurity resilient. Once again, moving to an income-based apartment complex, I was ready to become queen of the mountain. However, I quickly realized the communal setting was not what I was used to. We weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
No, wait. I think this is far more like Kansas than I’ve been used to.
As a ten-year-old, diversity became crystal clear to me when there wasn’t any.
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.