In my seven decades, I’ve learned, experienced, been amazed, been defeated, yet survived and thrived. As I read Isabel Wilkerson‘s discussion about class and caste in her immortal work… Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, I re-examined my educational and career experiences considering her intensive dissection of the interaction between class and caste. For those who keep track of these things and set up societal parameters, I’m a Baby Boomer and a member of the lowest caste. Born in 1949, my parents were part of the Great Migration—leaving rural Arkansas for the promise of greater opportunities for themselves and their young family in Rockford, Illinois.
My sisters and I grew up straddling two worlds and multiple realities. Physical, educational, and social boundaries were being realigned. Neighbors depended on each other and gave truth to extended family and fictive kin. Kids belonged to the village (although that term was not in vogue). Adults could discipline you and love up on you, too. I received affirmations for getting good grades from adults. Adults applauded my attempts at public speaking as I developed the ability to talk in public and express ideas for a different and more inclusive future. Little did a teenager know that academic excellence and social class standing did not outweigh Caste.
Because of their southern upbringing, and limited educational and career opportunities, our extended family imposed high expectations for academic achievement. Black kids in the South were either denied or provided a second-class education. We were pressed to take advantage of every academic opportunity offered to us. When we complained about obvious unfair or biased treatment (because children know when they are being mistreated or overlooked), my mother would say: “even when the teacher is wrong, you want to get the knowledge she has in her head. You want to learn. Focus on that.” Extra-curricular participation in sports and other clubs depended on achieving good grades first.
Recent migrants from the South lived in an area adjacent to a toxic waste dump. There was safety, solidarity, and recreated family where children were supervised by everyone in the neighborhood and a sense of security against the harsh realities of urban living. There was only one white family in our neighborhood. While historians focus on the negative implications of those neighborhoods across the country, those of us living there learned valuable lessons that transcended the books written about the poor and downtrodden. The ultimate lesson was to attain the best education possible, continue striving for better opportunities, and stay out of legal trouble.
As a family, we read Ebony, Jet, NAACP Crisis, and National Urban League publications to supplement the white-authored textbooks and library books. We were taught to push against the restrictions through study and press forward back against teachers’ low expectations. Because of that grounding and numerous scholarship opportunities, I attended a Predominantly White Institution PWI). My friends of color and I battled the interactions of campus racism, the Vietnam war escalation, inequality, and the eruptions of violent assassinations of world leaders.
Even before disinformation became a familiar word in our lexicon, we learned to ask questions about race and class. We consulted multiple sources and discerned the biases of newspapers, reporters, and even influential leaders. We watched the nightly national news and then attended the funerals of young men who died in Viet Nam before their 20th birthday.
Black Panthers’ Fred Hampton and Mark Clark spoke on our college campus one week before their murder in Chicago. Their murders were a turning point for pushing against the status quo. We’d been trying to organize against a white administration, and our campus protests took on a higher level of intensity. With only one black faculty member on campus, we created an agenda calling for additional black faculty, changes in administration, and a larger voice in all aspects of governance because of rampant disinformation and exclusionary practices based on caste.
The administration ascribed horrific language and motives to people who just wanted to be seen and heard. To receive a world-class education that prepared us for career advancement and to make a difference in our communities of origin and the world. Yet we persevered.
Joyce A. Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women, but her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria and Battle Creek, Michigan. She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens. Visit her Author’s Page