|Originally published in the evening newspaper, the Winston-Salem Sentinel. The handwriting is my mother's note to her brother, my Uncle James: "This is Reggie. Your nephew. My son." They are both with the ancestors now. RIP - rest in power
Topics: African Americans, Civil Rights, Diaspora, Diversity, Diversity in Science, History, Women in Science
This is a photo that should not have happened. Since I volunteer to teach SAT math, I use it as an inspiring story, especially to young women and men that share my same cultural experience. I've posted this photo, or one like it before. It occurred to me I've never told the story behind it.
When I was in the ninth grade at Atkins High School in Winston-Salem, NC, Major Thomas L. May and Sergeant Major Dennis R. Casey - my Army ROTC instructors - invited the Cadet Brigade Commander of Winston-Salem, Forsyth County Schools. Cadet Colonel Wall was tall and lithe, blond-haired and steely blue-eyed; his rank represented by three shiny diamond-shaped metal insignias on his uniform collar, or in many cases his shirt collar. He spoke to each ROTC class and conducted a rank inspection. During class time after the inspection, I approached the-then Brigade Commander, impressed with his ribbons and medals, not knowing what else to say with a nonchalant question: "how did you achieve your rank?" I thought I was making a rhetorical statement. He took it as I was asking for me: "YOUR KIND will never get to this rank!" he exclaimed.
"Your kind"...I was dumbfounded and silent with rage. "Your kind" was an insult to my mother and father, whom he had never met. "Your kind" castigated my sister, who as a young woman put her life on the line in the Civil Rights movement a decade before our encounter. "Your kind" damned generations after me, for all time. "Your kind" was like the faux "curse of Ham" Jedi mind tricked on my culture, or myths of angels in the war of heaven coming to Earth as either "light-skinned or dark-skinned babies" depending on some measure of valor opined, but not observed. "Your kind" labeled my sons and their future children as failures before they landed on the planet! I was fourteen, but suddenly I was in an instant thrust into an adult world of privilege, power and prejudice.
My instructors looked embarrassed and tried to move to another subject. My friends were also silent, and somewhat disappointed that I didn't follow my first instincts and deck him. Even then, Juvenal detention was an ever-pending reality for any African American male teenager that stepped out-of-line. I fumed silently. I discussed the affront with my parents that night at home, who were genuinely and understandably upset. They asked me if I wanted them to call the school, or visit the principal. I said no. I wanted to handle this one myself. My mother, in her gentle way reminded me of Philippians 4:13.
Colonel Wall returned the next day. It was now, or never...
"Do you read?" I asked. (I noticed I didn't address him as Colonel Wall anymore.)
"Of course I do," he said.
"In three years," I challenged, "I will be wearing your rank!"
"I doubt that very seriously," he scoffed.
"Watch me!" At that point, hitting him resurrected, albeit briefly.
I took that as a challenge to prove him wrong. I studied harder than I had ever before. His name became a metaphor for any barrier presented I had to overcome. I was up to that point indifferent to academics until my encounter. I routinely wheezed and coughed when I ran on our track during gym. I worked on my running, push ups, sit ups, weight training; I improved. I joined the pistol, rifle and orienteering (ranger) teams. I worked on my public speaking skills, presenting for an Air Force ROTC inspection at North Forsyth High School, where I matriculated after the 10th grade due to forced busing. I memorized what amounted to twenty-two ribbons, one medal and two shooter's badges I could identify without looking down at the pocket they were pinned on. Three years later, I went before the city board that decided which young man or woman would be the next Brigade Commander for the 1979-1980 school year. I became that person. It was not without challenge, as the Ku Klux Klan (or, someone affiliated with them) apparently didn't take too kindly to my ascent. The Greensboro massacre was fresh on my mind, months into my tenure. I was sent threats to "not show up, or else" on a poorly written note left in my locker regarding our annual Brigade Review in Bowman Gray Stadium. I ignored whoever that cowardly cretin was too. I had participated in the annual parade as a cadet. I was going to as its commander.
Later in life, I was a commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force, having completed my matriculation at NC A&T State University in Engineering Physics. The former Cadet Colonel Wall had gone in the Army, enlisted. I saw him at Bergstrom Air Force Base...and he saw me (though from his body language, he tried to avoid me). By the US Constitution we both swore to protect and defend, he by law HAD to salute me. We said nothing, other than me saying..."carry on, Sergeant."
"That was a good story," my SAT student said. I summed the moral of my personal tale to the group of young men and women that you'll have obstacles placed in the way of your goals. The key is to ignore the erstwhile opinions of "your walls" and overcome them. They at least nodded they were paying attention. I smiled. They are "my kind."