This story is by Bethaney Herrington and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Welcome to Monticello, GA. It’s 2002, I am twelve years old and like most prepubescent teenagers, I’m in the middle of an identity crisis. I’m Black, but I’m sitting at the lunch table with all of the other gifted kids, most of whom happen to be White. The Black kids are sitting at a table adjacent to mine. I feel the same internal conflict that I have felt every day since middle school started. I am wondering if I belong, where I belong and why this race thing matters so much.
Monticello, GA is a small town in the center of the state. Few people end up there for good – no more than 3000 to be exact – but many people pass through on their way to more important cities, like Augusta or Macon. It’s idyllic with classic Southern charm. Antebellum houses line the small streets leading into the town square. Friday night football is at the very core of what it means to be alive. Yep, Monticello is that small Southern town that you have seen featured in every movie about the South – for better or for worse.
My family ended up in Monticello because upon my father’s retiring from the Navy, my parents wanted a piece of land they could purchase and call their own. This was in 1996. They found some land in Jasper County and the Herrington family moved in. Monticello isn’t the kind of place that just welcomes outsiders, but that’s what we were. And over time, it became home.
I was tracked into the gifted program at some point during my 1996 school year. I don’t know how it all happened. I just remember being pulled out of my first-grade classroom and asked to take a test where I had to draw a basket of fruit and and answer some questions. I guess the test went well. They let me in. As a part of the gifted program, we had access to extra classes, the best teachers, and first dibs on the most advanced books. Our little group of nerds became a family. We progressed through elementary school into middle school together, frequently reveling in the special privileges afforded to our small tribe.
It wasn’t until middle school, however, that being one of the “smart ones” started to feel more like a scarlet letter than like a badge of honor. This feeling of standing out just a little too much was only exacerbated by my dark skin. I was the only dark-skinned one in my program.
An aunt of mine had the theory that they only let Black girls into the gifted program when they expected them to get pregnant and drop out. And Black boys were never even given the program test. This was all part of a design to let the White kids thrive and let the Black kids inch along. While I don’t know if this theory had any merit, I do know that I was only Black person in the gifted program until I graduated. Yep, they didn’t test and accept another Black student into the program for at least eleven years.
In any case, while the other gifted kids were getting picked on in middle school for being smart, I was getting picked on for being Black and for being bold enough to think I’d earned the right to stand out.
Apparently, in Monticello, GA for a Black student to be a high-achieving student was a collision of two worlds. As is true of any two worlds meeting eye-to-eye, a battle of expectations around race and success ensued. And when you’re all twelve, the best outlet for this confusion is harassment.
So harassment it was. Or more accurately, bullying.
I didn’t have the perspective at the time to call my experience “bullying.” Even now, there is a twinge of shame attached to the idea. But bullying is precisely what occurred and it happened all of the time.
The memory that sticks out to me most is of sitting in the cafeteria that day in 2002. I was with my friends and classmates. We were laughing about who knows what. And then, out of the corner of my eye I see another student who was making just enough noise to get my attention. Her name was Michele. Michele did not like me and she made sure I knew it. On this afternoon in particular, she watched me eat and mimicked my every action. If I picked up my sandwich to take a bite, she picked up her sandwich and in an exaggerated fashion copied me. If I said something, she repeated it in a mocking, “White girl” voice. If I moved or laughed, she did the same thing – again, in an exaggerated way. She mimicked all of my motions, my laughter, my words. I felt dirty, misunderstood and exposed. The most painful part was that the sense of betrayal I felt as the other Black girls at her table laughed with her and at me. I thought these girls were my friends. When you’re twelve years old, friends are everything.
The most painful part however was that my White friends, with whom I was sharing a table, did not even seem to notice.
I was dying inside. I was just a kid and I didn’t know how to tell my friends that this was happening. I had also spent a great deal of time and energy downplaying my Blackness in my friendships because I didn’t want to stand out. At the same time, I wanted the other Black girls to know that I was Black too. I wanted them to know that I, too, relaxed my hair every six weeks. I wanted them to know that I, too, ate collard greens on holidays cooked with fat-back and that I, too, listened to R&B. I wanted the White kids to think I was White. I wanted the Black kids to think I was Black. I wanted to be smart. I wanted my race to not matter so much. I wanted to be myself. But in a society with fixed boxes and a set of expectations about who you must be because of the color of your skin, being yourself is not really an option.
There is no grid for carrying two worlds in your one story.
It’s been fifteen years since those days in that cafeteria. It’s been fifteen years since those moments of confusion, tension and pain. I know that bullying is a relatively normal occurrence for middle school girls. I suppose that what strikes me most as I reflect on those days is not the challenges that we all grew out of, but the parts of the story that have remained the same.
It’s been fifteen years and yet I still find myself sitting at tables with White friends who don’t even see the pain people of color are experiencing right under their noses.
It’s been fifteen years and yet I still find myself in a world where people set their expectations of other people based on the color of their skin.
It’s been fifteen years and yet I still wonder if I’m Black enough for the Black community to receive me while fearing that if I’m too Black, many White spaces certainly won’t.
It’s been fifteen years and these two racial worlds are alive, well and as far apart as ever.
I wish I could say that these narrow ways of thinking are relegated to good ol’ Monticello. Unfortunately, I think these racial divisions and racial expectations are ones that we all carry in our bones. Whether we live in the middle of a city or in the middle of nowhere, we have set of expectations for our neighbors in darker skin or in hijabs or in gay marriages. We carry these narratives of “the other” in our souls and we make our homes with them. We grow with them. I’m not sure of how we let them go.
Fast-forward fifteen years and I find myself sitting in my home waiting for my fiancé to come meet me for dinner. I’m Black. He’s White. I think often of our one-day children who will be carrying two identities, two stories and two worlds in their blood and in their bones. I think about their coming days of internal conflict. I think about their moments of wondering if they belong, where they belong and why this race thing matters so much.