I wrote this four years ago while working at the Covenant House. I just found it while searching for a mailing list on a thumb drive.
Here are my reflections on my childhood friend who passed away, Changa Kidd and his fathers impression on me during the inauguration in 2009. Dr. Kidd passed away in December, 2012 and I share this posting as a memorial to Dr. Kidd and Changa. – Crystal
I was there, on January 20th, 2009 watching history unfold as the first African-American President, Barack Hussein Obama, was sworn in. I shared this historical moment with the Kidd family and millions of others in Washington, DC. It was fitting that I would be with this family on that auspicious day as it was their charismatic son, brother, and father, Changa Kidd, who first challenged racism in my life.
I, like Barak Obama am bi-racial with light skin, born to a White mother and Black father. I too, was raised by my White mother, with Mom’s parents playing significant roles. Both Obama’s and my father were largely absentee, as were African American role models. Indeed, neither the President nor I had Black communities in our schools or hometowns to support us through various bouts of identity questioning.
There are notable differences in our lives however. Rather than embracing diversity and the pursuit of education as Obama’s family did, my mother’s White Appalachian culture often taught me to fear Black people, as well as other “outsiders” and that a high school diploma was sufficient preparation for adult life. With little value placed on multi-cultural understanding, I was left to form my own theories and attitudes about race, in an environment of subtle and not-so-subtle racism. As a result, I developed habits of self-doubt and insecurity, always fearful that my Blackness would be discovered. I refused to eat fried chicken in the elementary school cafeteria, for example, and refrained from drinking chocolate milk, somehow believing that the chocolate would darken my skin.
At the age of 15, during my mother’s divorce from my cruel stepfather, I was sent to live with my maternal grandfather, a native West Virginian who had relocated to Tallahassee, Florida. Among Granddaddy’s various rules was one forbidding my ever saying that I was Black or bi-racial. His excuse was that it could cause discomfort for his wife’s children, “Just tell ‘em you’re American,” he regularly admonished, perhaps with an unsaid wish that his granddaughter would simply blend in.
I was stunned by how different Tallahassee’s LeonHigh School was from St. Albans High. The drastic socio-economic differences were the first surprise. Although Granddaddy was White, drove a Cadillac, and had a swimming pool (which previously had classified him as rich in my book), he was far below the wealth levels of the typical Leon students driving BMWs, Porches, and Range Rovers. Further, my accent and blue collar manners quickly gave me away as less enlightened.
Simultaneously, I was awakened to the cultural diversity of my new community. There were different types of people — Blacks, Latinos, Asians – more than I had ever seen at St. Albans High where there had been fewer than a dozen students of color. Further, these Floridians seemed proud to identify themselves racially. It was among these students that I was told directly, for the first time, “You are NOT a White girl!”
It was during these first days that I met Changa Kidd.
Changa, his friends, and his family embraced me. Their influence changed my perception of what it meant to be Black. In them, I found none of the fearsome stereotypical images and perceptions which I’d been raised to expect.
How my life changed during my time in Florida as Changa and others taught me about American Black history! Study hall was spent discussing Martin Luther King. Passed notes not only included “What are you doing for lunch?” but contained talking points to convince my Grandfather to accept my being bi-racial. Through Changa and his friends I gained entrée to the homes of middle-class and wealthy Black families where, for the first time, I saw art and photographs capturing Black people as regal and grand. Those very images have served as permanent sources of inspiration over the years. They also helped me understand how artistic expression is powerful, educational, and provides solace to the soul. In those living room paintings and framed family photographs, I began to find a new confidence and surety, just as the image of Barak Obama is certain to inspire confidence in African American youth for generations to come.
Changa would drive up and down my street at least twice a day. I always knew it was him by the loud engine and the honk. One day I heard his car coming and waited, anticipating his honk. There was no honk. Instead I heard the door bell.
It was a bold move.
I opened the door with great anxiety to find the dashing Changa on the doorstep. “I was driving by and thought I would go for a swim with you,” he teased, then laughed at my gasp. He was aware I had been taught by White folks to never swim with Black people for fear of getting “greasy”.
“I just wanted to tell you hello,” Changa admitted, smiling as he grabbed my hand to place a copy of Malcolm X’s autobiography in it. He drove off, arm waving out the window and horn blaring.
I stood in the foyer afraid to move, sure I was going to be in serious trouble for having a Black visitor, even if my friend was not invited to cross the threshold. I hid the book in the small of my back while quickly turning to apologize to Granddaddy. He said nothing, shocked perhaps at the audacity of Changa Kidd.
I was often on punishment at my Grandfathers house. In fact, Changa’s surprise visit occurred during one of my weekend groundings – no phone, no television. The remainder of that weekend was spent writing in my journal (in a now undecodable teenage code), secretly reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X by flashlight.
Upon closing that book, I took my own leap of faith deciding to proclaim that I was Black in a school research paper, which I was determined to then share with my grandfather. The assignment was an “I-search” paper in which we were to research, write, and give an oral report on something about ourselves. “It’s simply the truth,” I kept telling myself.
Changa and others diligently edited my writing. They helped me to develop points and led me to understand that this paper was the most important of my 15-year life. They pushed me to solidify my ideas and perfect my grammar. “Good is never good enough, Crystal Good, when you deal with these issues,” they advised.
Following my well-received school presentation and A-minus grade, I felt newly confident and free. Still, it was with trepidation that I shared it with my grandfather and his wife (a former English teacher who read my work with a red pen in hand).
Looking at their stunned faces, I declared, “I am mixed race, but in this American culture that means I am Black.” Granddaddy’s wife started crying. “But you can pass!” she exclaimed – a commentary on my fair skin. They could not conceive of why I would “choose” to be Black..
My Grandfather’s teenage stepsons took a stand for me, stating that my Blackness imposed no inconveniences or hassles for them. It was only then that my grandfather agreed to “let me” be Black.
Naturally, this was not the end of family racial tension. When Granddaddy refused to allow me to attend a lecture by Rosa Parks, I skipped school and went anyway. That night, in further adolescent protest, I snuck out of the house to attend an all-Black dance on the campus of FloridaA & MUniversity — the first such event I ever attended. Changa and I danced to Digital Underground, New Edition, En Vogue and all the now “old school” jams of the 80’s and early 90’s. It was a moment of pure adolescent joy.
The next morning my grandfather, who had found my room empty, yelled that my behavior was unacceptable. I learned I was being sent to live with my father, whom I had never even met, so that I could be “Black”.
Another cultural shift awaited me. My biological father’s neighboorhood was a stark contrast to the Black world of which I’d caught a glimpse in Tallahassee. Crack and poverty abounded. Although finding money for new school clothes and supplies would always be difficult, I found a peace in being racially authentic, something that I had not experienced in life before.
With my dad, I was not forced to be or to say I was anything other than what I was. I could be friends with whomever I wished, openly read whatever I chose, and listen to hip-hop at my pleasure.
Changa had made certain I took plenty of books with me from Tallahassee. He encouraged me to consider college. He gave me books by African American poets, books on African Art, and others on how to successfully debate. Some of the most impressionable books he shared were on the Black Panther Party. I was intrigued by the Panthers for their efforts to develop their own schools and to feed the poor — even poor Appalachian Whites. I read all the books Changa gave to me, once even by flashlight. This time, the flashlight was not necessary to hide my activity, but rather due to Dad’s electricity being shut off. During my adolescence I went from White and blue collar; to “claim you’re White” and middle class; to Black and poor. I decided then that I would rather be poor and authentic, than “rich” and living a lie. Living with my father, in all the complexities of poverty, I understood there is no substitute for living the honest truth.
Sharing the Inauguration with the Kidd family and studying Barack Obama’s journey to the White House was another lesson in the value of education. Watching the Rosa Parks bus lead the Inaugural Parade took me back to myself as the defiant teenager when, like Ms. Parks, I demanded equality and acknowledgement of my equal rights and heritage.
I realized, as the parade passed by, that my actions had been inspired nearly entirely by books and dialogue. This leads me to theorize that American families can start a positive revolution, beginning in our homes, simply by educating ourselves through reading, encouraging our children to read, conversation and art.
The Inauguration was also, for me, like many others, a call to action. It encouraged me to hold fast to my passion for diversity and to continue challenging others to include and think about people of different sexes, sexual orientations, cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds.
Dr. Kidd, the patriarch of the Kidd family and a former college president, spoke at an intimate dinner following the Inauguration. He advised close friends and family in attendance that the ongoing challenge is to pursue not simply education—but an education for all that embraces tolerance.
Dr. Kidd’s words gave me a new perspective on the diversity work I do and have done for organizations such as Jackson Kelly PLLC , Charleston Area Alliance, Covenant House, Create West Virginia, Generation West Virginia and many others. Over the years, I had abandoned working toward the concept of “tolerance”, turned off by its connotation to merely “put up with”. That had never been sufficient for me. I was still rebelling, I suppose, at my grandfather’s willingness to tolerate “letting me” call myself Black without allowing me to fully embrace Black culture and society. I am now moving toward tolerating “tolerance”. “Tolerance is our first step,” Dr. Kidd said, assuring me that it’s tolerance that precedes acceptance.
I realize now, healed by years of time, that my Grandaddy actually took that first step in agreeing to provide a home for his biracial granddaughter in my time of need. Then, he took yet a second step by allowing her to proclaim that I was Black. Had I more patience and allowed more time, Granddaddy would have eventually taken another step, allowing me, his granddaughter to wholly explore and celebrate my full self under his watch.
I now pray that those who do not fully accept and embrace the idea of President Obama as an African-American will at least find tolerance enough to “put up with” him. That will probably buy him the time he needs convince them that they should and can support him.
My friend, Changa Kidd, died of cancer at the age of 34. His life changed my life. His constant encouragement of self-education inspired my own quiet revolutionary habit of gifting books to total strangers, friends and sometimes CEOs.
Prior to Changa’s passing I visited Tallahassee to see Granddaddy with my then husband (a Black man) and our three children. Changa was bald from chemo but looking as fit as he did at 16. Together we sat with Granddaddy in his living room, laughing together and reflecting on the joys and challenges of life.
Changa and I would never have believed the day would come that Granddaddy would embrace Black people gathering in his home.
But, on that day, he did.
Likewise at the Inauguration, millions said they never thought the day would come that America would inaugurate a bi-racial or Black President.
But, on this day, we did.
Reflecting on the Inauguration and my experiences, I am reminded of one of my Granddaddy admonishments. I am now, more than ever, willing to recite his mantra to my children: “Just tell ‘em you’re American!”
Crystal Good, 34, lives in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a proud member of the Affrilachian Poets, and works toward “justice for all” as the Assistant Director of the Covenant House.