Monday, June 13, 2011

The Moment: Do You Remember the *Moment* You Realized Your Skin Color Mattered?

I was watching a video of Joel Freeman doing a synopsis of his book Return to Glory and he spoke of that MOMENT in your life in which you realized that you would be treated differently based on the color of your skin.

Sooo, I sat there and kinda had to think about it. I am of the white man can't keep me down and black folks should be more accountable mentality.. so it took me a moment to conjure up a memory...

For the most part, my childhood was racism free.. If there was racism, I certainly didn't experience it. I was fortunate enough to experience many integrated settings as I took private flute lessons at Sherwood Conservatory where I was exposed to all races and cultures as well as performed with Chicago's All City Band.  I had friends of all cultures and never thought twice about race being an issue.

Then in 1991, I went away to college at the University of Minnesota @ Morris. A small campus of 2,000 students (80 of whom were black) in west central Minnesota.. not too far from the Dakota's borders. Being a music major, I was required to sign up for a meeting with the band director. the sign up sheet was on his door. When my appointed time came, I knocked on the door to his studio, (music profs have studios) and the look on his face was classic. I can't say the color drained from his face, for he was a very pale white man, but I do remember he turned beet red, stumbled over his words profusely and kept asking me my name repeatedly to which in my 17 year old Chicago black girl attitude replied ROBERTA MATTHEWS AND I AM A MUSIC MAJOR!! Im not sure which floored him the most, me having the nerve to  be standing at his door or the fact that I was a music major, or perhaps it was a combination of both.

It came time for seating arrangements so all 20 of us had to perform a piece and we were seated by level of performance. Now when I was in All City Band, I was 2nd chair 1st row. I didn't figure to be in the first 5 chairs, but I definitely figured to be in the first row. Imagine my surprise when I was seated in the 2nd row, 8th chair. which is 3rd from the bottom. So I said, Ok, maybe since Im a freshman, maybe Im still too new to be up front. A couple of weeks go by and as I get to know my flute-mates I discover that a few in the front row were freshman, and not only were they freshmen, one asked me how to key an upper register note.

*blank stare*

So, you are in the front row, but you dont know how to key upper register notes? Really?

Did I mention I was the only black music major in the music department? The only black in the College Concert Band? I used to sit there during rehearsal and so many would stare at me so intently because they had never seen a black person before.

Anyflutes... 2nd year of college, I am placed 2nd row, 3rd seat. ok.

At the end of my 2nd year, music major were required to perform a jury, and thats when you go before the music faculty and perform a piece from each musical era... I passed, which I was surprised. So I figured by the 3rd year, I should at least be in the 1st row.

Nope. So this time,  my fellow flute mates (all white) were quite sure race played a part of me being seated so low, so they petitioned whoever they petitioned and got us all a re-audition. Which we did, and I moved up one seat. They were pissed. When I think back on it, those white girls had a lot of balls.. but thats another conversation...

During these years, I am struggling horribly in music theory. I do mean HORRIBLY. Although I had private lessons, I never took any classes in music theory in high school . First year theory was alright, but as the difficulty got greater, my grades got worse! I begged my professors for help cuz I didn't understand why I wasn't getting it. I was determined not to fail, for i NEVER failed at anything academic. Not one professor helped me, and believe me I asked for help.

my music adviser told me to change my major, that I would never be a good musician. WOW Talking about killling someone's dreams. Instead of helping me, he tells me to quit. I could see saying that to me if I was being tutored and still failing, but none of them would help me! This totally altered the course of my life.

needless to say, I ended up flunking out of college. and that is that.This is the momement in my life in which I realize the color of my skin played a part of how I will be treated.

The Moment by Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee
I saw a Baltimorean
kept looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
and he was no whit bigger
And so I smiled, but he poked out
his tongue and called me "Nigger"
I saw the whole of Baltimore
from May until December:

Of all the things that happened there
Thats all I remember.

Soooo... what was your moment? Either you are black and realized racism or you are white, and realized your whiteness gives you privilege. Oh, the moment goes both ways, in my opinion.


  1. This is sad. I believe the closer the world becomes to being egalitarian the better it will be, but I acknowledge that I am in the minority.

    Do you still play the flute? It is a lovely sounding instrument.

  2. No... I don't... I allowed that professor rob my joy of playing... played for well over 10 years... seriously thinking about picking it back up because I miss it so.

  3. You should. Self expression is a fundamental need and making music is a great way to do it.

  4. I agree, my thing is - only discovered relatively recently- making pictures. have a look at and let me know what you think ! Greetings from Brussels

  5. Sad ain't it?!?

    I'm a man of color and when I was growing up my father was a US Air Force officer. There weren't a whole lot of those then, not like there are today.

    I honestly don't remember too many instances of racism when I was growing up, but my mother has told me of many things I've apparently forgotten.

    The "oh shit he's black" look is a look I've seen more than a few times in my life Roberta. I'll usually get that when I talk to people over the phone and they get personal......and then realize I'm a man of color when we meet. The stammering and red faces are comical to me.

    I love my country; but the reality is that train ain't never late.

  6. I remember my sister told me that she she, her twin, a friend and my sisters boyfriend went to Reno. They were having breakfast in a restaurant inside one of the casinos. The service was great! There was a group of white people sitting at a table across from them. They called my sisters monkeys and started throwing butter at them. My sister and and friends was about to tear their asses up. The manager saw what happened and threw the white group out. Its sad that Reno is still a racist town.