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COLUMN — Light, bright, almost but not white

Got a fire in my belly and I must tell it.

Passionate anger inside of my belly has been my reaction to the way that we, as “Blacks” have been treated by systematic racism and white supremacy in what Isabella Wilkerson calls a “caste system” in  her book, “Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent.”

It ignites a desire, a fire so to speak, in me to share more of my stories, which include my family, my community, and experiences in which we were trampled upon, yet victoriously and wholeheartedly, we have thrived. The Big G guided us both individually and collectively for the highest good of ourselves, our families, and our communities. My stories and experiences have played a monumental role in the trajectory of my life and the woman that I have now become. So, let me share a bit of history and a racial incident that left me in tears and loads of shame.

My great-grandmother, Ellen Brown, was born on what was considered a plantation in Mecklenburg County in 1858. Her mother was enslaved and from what I have been able to learn about her, she never ventured out into the world beyond the surrounding areas after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. What was told to me was that my great grandmother was fathered by a white man. Now, during those times the owners of the plantation fathered children by the enslaved women. Of course, there is no documentation, but our wombs were used with no regard, no respect or concern for our feelings. We did not count.

Great-grandmother Ellen could have passed for white, but she had black blood and was enslaved. The law deemed her a “slave.” She was light, bright, and almost white, but not white. She married my great-grandfather, Whit Brown, who was Native American and Black. Grandma Ellen died when I was 15 years old, but I never got to meet her because she was put into Central State, in Petersburg. She suffered from what is now labeled dementia, but she was labeled insane and stayed there until her death at 105 years old.

I have often wondered how she managed to cope with her mixed heritage. For me, being a very faired-skinned woman of color, it has been difficult at times with both white and black people. I was like her, not white enough, and an incident left me in tears and feelings of unworthiness because of my heritage.

Around 15 years old, on one of our trips to Chase City for my mother to shop at the Farmers supermarket, I encountered a face-to-face incident of racism and discrimination.

While my mother shopped, I wandered merrily down the Main Street in Chase City. I loved to sing to myself, so I sang as I wandered. At certain moments, I would stop to look at the clothes in the windows of Leggett’s, where all the pretty pink, blue, and red dresses stood on all young white girl mannequins with blonde hair. I knew that my family could not afford them, but I could dream.

Of all the stores, my favorite was The Chase City Department Store. It had a black kilt-pleated skirt with a big gold like pin on the left side and a ruffly white blouse, which had been in that window for a while. I was in awe and knew I had to have that outfit. In my mind, I knew I would be the envy off all the girls at my school. I stood there probably for about 15 minutes staring and wishing and then I became very thirsty. So, in my naivete, I skipped on down to the local Rexall store in my used blue, plaid dress and black ballerina flats with ruffle white socks.

All the shiny chrome stools, about eight, with red leather-like padding on top, adorned the floor next to the counter. There sat a white woman eating a hamburger and drinking her glass of Coca-Cola. So, with my innocence intact, I sat down next to her. She immediately reacted with a frown of disgust on her face, not saying a word, but no words were needed. You would have thought I was a poisonous snake. She moved abruptly to a stool that was the furthest away from me. I knew I had done something wrong, but what on earth was it? Did I smell bad or what? That “how dare you” look of disgust, I had never seen before and as I watched the pharmacist coming toward me, and before I could ask for the Coca-Cola to quench my thirst, he said, “I cannot serve you, and you have to leave.”

I was completely baffled and wondered what I had done wrong. So, in tears, I ran out of the door not even looking back. I had to find my mother to tell her what had transpired. I was crying the whole time but eventually I was able to tell her the story because I did not understand what I had done wrong. My mother, Marie Harris Brown, smiled with her double dimpled chocolate face and said lovingly, “You are not to go in there again to sit at that counter. You are not allowed because you are “colored,” and they only serve white people. They are the only ones who can sit there. Do I make myself clear?”

That moment and those words, “You are colored,” became etched in my mind. On that day, I lost my child-like innocence because I was, “Light, bright, almost white, but not white.” You see, I could buy things in the store, but I could not sit down on those stools. I never again attempted to sit at the stools to be served there, nor at F.W. Woolworth in South Boston or Danville or any other restaurant in the area. You see, I was a “colored person,” a “negro.” I was less than the white people.

Welcome, Deloris, to the world of white supremacy and racism.

I became very shy and withdrawn at times after that. I was taught to stay in my place, to be seen and not heard. So, since I could only buy items there, I did go back to the Rexall Drug Store to purchase a pink diary. That was where I wrote all the things that I could not express about my life. The diary was my friend. For me, as I now look back and connect the dots, that was a touchstone in my life. Writing became a part of my inner process and it continues to this very day. I wrote my first poem at 16 years old in that diary and it was published in my first best-selling book, “Couldn’t Keep it to Myself.”

So, I can say now, being a woman of color, who is now known as, “Beloved, The Soulful Poet,” and author, I have thrived. I freely express who I am and unapologetically and wholeheartedly declare and decree, “That I am not white, but I have a fire in my belly, and I need to tell it.”

I now live from an empowered place. I am worthy, and I am a valuable human being. I am a contributor to the highest good of all humanity. And I am using my writing skills to share my stories so that I can heal and inspire others to do the same.

Yemaja Jubilee is a poet, author, inspirational speaker, creative consultant, and TV/radio personality.