To my Grandmother, who always knew who I was and nothing can ever change that!
When I was a little girl, my father, who was in military, moved us out of the Black community in Durham, NC to Okinawa, Japan. Once there, I discovered the beauty of banana trees in my back yard and the fun of playing with children of all ethnicities. We didn’t really discuss race because all we cared about was having fun. That all changed for me in the second grade. We also had a maid, a gardener, and a dress maker who made all our clothes. This was my normal during my time in Okinawa.
Before I left the US, my grandmother had always told me that I was pretty and smart and nothing could ever change that, so that’s the way I expected the world to see me. When I went to school, the little boy who sat in front of me let me know that the world saw me very differently from my grandmother’s loving description.
I remember as if it was yesterday, when Mike McDowell turned to me in class and told me that he couldn’t be my boyfriend because I was Black. I informed him that I was not Black. I already knew that I was Siena because my crayon box told me so. I was convinced there was something very wrong with this boy. Although I survived Mike telling me that I was Black, something happened that I did not realize. This incident marked my path in a very unique way.
Almost six decades have gone by since my encounter with Mike. The experience sent me on a life-long journey for identity. As time passed, I looked at my elementary school photos so many times that I believed that I knew every detail of my young faces. But there was a huge detail I missed every time I took a look until recently.
I recently signed with a publisher to write about my Siena story in a children’s book, entitled, I am Siena. I have written numerous books and have rarely encountered writers block. Over the last few months while writing this book, the harder I tried to complete the manuscript and tell the story, the harder it became for me to see my experience through my seven year old eyes. I seriously could not tell what was blocking me.
One day, I decided to stop trying to write and take a look at my grade school photos from Okinawa. Perhaps they could help me with my story. I smiled as I looked at my first grade photo. I remembered the joy of first grade. I giggled when I remembered that my mother had a red velvet dress made for my second grade photo. I wore my Brownie uniform for my third grade photo and a beautiful black velvet jumper for my fourth grade picture.
While basking in the glow of my memories, I suddenly gasped in shock as I again looked at my second grade self. There was the block standing before me. It was a mark I had made fifty-eight years ago and I never noticed until that moment. I had taken a blue ink pen and scribbled all over my young face. I had looked at this photo countless times for nearly 6 decades and never realized that the boulder of my experience was sitting in the road stopping me from finishing the book. This boulder filled with racism’s hatred, had also caused me, on numerous occasions, to hesitate, stumble, miss opportunities, second guess, and minimize my own knowledge, skills and abilities in many different circles. I had been standing in a razor blade forest with no escape, because the cutting seemed normal.
As I sat there looking at my seven year old school photo, I felt the impact of my childhood experience with Mike and I wept. I don’t remember weeping when it happened because I was still filled with the magic of my grandmother’s words. At that time, her words were freshly written on my heart and they danced freely in my mind. I could still hear her tell me that I was pretty and smart and nothing could ever change that. But something did and it was this experience. I had been going through life, not even realizing the weight this boulder incident placed before me.
After I wept, I sat still in a deep silence. I so longed to once again hear my grandmother’s voice. But as silence wrapped me in her arms, she whispered that I now had a voice and it was now my time to speak. I needed to speak to myself. I needed to speak to that hurting little girl on the photo. I needed to speak to her and bring her into my present atmosphere. Silence told me that now; I am wiser; more resilient; more powerful; and filled with a fierce resolve. The boulder had not done what it fully intended. Silence gently whispered for me to speak to boulder and it would be moved into the sea.
I wiped away my tears and decided to move the boulder. With one word and one touch of my keyboard, I engaged someone to digitally restore what was taken from me fifty-eight years ago. With one word and one finger, I removed the boulder that kept this little girl from telling her story. When I saw her face again, for the first time in many years, I knew the true taste of liberty!
I am now finishing the book. I can now tell the story. I can embrace who I am and stand in my place and own it like never before. I realize now, that although I covered her face, I never left her behind. I am still that little girl in big girl skin. I am pretty and smart and nothing can ever change that!
Watch for Dr. Gail’s book, I am Siena in 2021!