Lisa Marie Simmons·Guest Writer-Wed, February 17, 2021, 9:00 AM
“Say it again!” I yelled, staring Billy T. down. Though there was a hot, prickly itching behind my eyes, they stayed dry. He chanted in a taunting schoolyard singsong.
“N**ger, N**ger, N****ggger.”
I was 11 years old in Boulder, Colorado, the only Black kid in the schoolyard. All the kids gathered around to watch me cry. Again.
As a little girl, I didn’t know I was Black. Not until I was 9 or 10 did I understand how my color set me apart.
I was adopted at the age of 8 by a white woman and a Black man. I had been moved around between foster homes and a previous adoption, and though my current family had some issues, my brand-new baby brother and sister were beautiful. I’d landed all right.
My parents were lower middle class, but my brother and sister and I always had food on the table, our home was heated, we had new clothes every school season, went to concerts, hiking in the mountains, the zoo.
When I was 8, I was in love with first the books and then the TV series “Little House on the Prairie” based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls.
I had a porcelain hurricane lamp beside my bed, and for my birthday my new adoptive mother had sewn me a matching blue dress and bonnet, which I had been yearning for. I would imagine myself to be as strong, as resourceful, as intrepid as Laura, living inside those pages even when my mother insisted, “You’re gonna ruin your eyes with your nose always stuck in a book, go out, get some fresh air.”
Pulling on my trusty bonnet, tying it tightly under my chin, though not before pulling some yellow yarn through my kinky ’fro so I’d have the long flowing hair necessary. I’d trek down the sidewalk, the modern world of 1970s Boulder, Colorado, hidden from view by its long brim.
I’d travel to the creek immersed in my frontier world. The irony in the fact that for a little Black girl in the wild old West, her adventure would most likely have been of a much different sort altogether was lost on me.
Though I lived in Laura’s world in my head most of the time, the perfect backdrop for a homesteader was my grandmother and grandfather’s 19th-century farmhouse. Snapping beans on the porch, riding the horses they rented pasture out to, the old-fashioned teal stove and old wood furniture. Climbing the narrow creaky staircase up to the rooms under the rafters, white chenille bedspreads and a cedar chest smelling of the past. All this made it easier to immerse myself in my fantasy.
Then came “Roots.” Watching Alex Haley’s story in our living room, it struck me that my history was there too. Suddenly my ancestors spoke to me. In the second episode, when Kunta Kinte was beaten, I started crying hard at the screen. Hiccuping, sobbing, can’t catch a breath, ugly, desperate weeping. My new mother told me, “If you can’t control yourself, you’re going to bed.”
I choked back my tears. There were another six episodes to go, and I wasn’t about to miss one. Hovering out of sight, a silver minnow darting beyond my peripheral vision, I could feel my antecedents. I had never been introduced to Black stories, Black authors, and after following “Roots,” I sought them out. There was nothing on our school library shelves, so Boulder’s public library became my second home.
Boulder is known as a hippie haven and not much associated with the struggle for civil rights. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan had a stranglehold over Colorado, with Klan members dominating the state’s government.
According to the Denver library website, the Klan and its sponsored candidates controlled the Colorado state House and Senate, the secretary of state’s office, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven seats on the Denver District Court, and city councils in several Colorado towns. The Denver mayor, Ben Stapleton, and Colorado’s governor, Clarence Morley, were both Klansmen. The place I grew up in, Boulder, and the neighboring towns of Lafayette and Longmont all had local Klan lodges.
They had gained such massive support through a racist platform with the message that Mexicans, Jews, Catholics and Indigenous people, who were more prevalent in number than Black people, posed a threat to “Protestant ideals.” My grandfather Wilbur’s membership was confirmed by his daughter, my Aunt Amanda, who has shared many of her memories with me.
She recalls those groups as the primary focus as well; she told me, “If you weren’t a WASP, you had an ugly slur attached to you.” She added, “There was an elderly Black couple in town who would babysit on rare occasions; they never entered by the front door, always the back. It was said they knew their place.”
So, if my grandfather Wilbur was a KKK member, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine Billy T. and other of my schoolmates had family members who shared the same dogma. I’m sure “Roots” stirred up some complicated feelings in many other homes, not just mine.
By the time I met Wilbur after being adopted, he had mellowed, or as my aunt mused, he liked the idea of a college education and accepted my Black adoptive father because he had one. The two laughed heartily and often together, and the room carried no tension with them in it.
I have fond memories of my grandfather. He was gentle and kind to me in an essential moment ― when I was diffident and bruised. I had just arrived, a skinny, traumatized, shy little girl in an oh so very white Boulder, Colorado. I remember him holding me on his lap in his big rocking chair, though at 8, I was already gangly with long legs that hung off his lap and reached the floor, feeling safe.
I remember his enormous hands, dry and callused yet extraordinarily tender. I remember his gravelly voice, always pitched low, always with a smile in it, and his twinkly eyes. He made me feel special in a way I never had. He died not long after my arrival, and the atmosphere in his house changed utterly.
My grandmother, a thorny woman with a thin face and steel-gray coiffed hair, held fast to her racist views; I knew she didn’t like me, but I couldn’t figure out why. I was terrified of her; you could practically hear the crackling of the force field of hatred and negativity she emanated. She spoke as little as possible and was very direct. When my siblings and I were left alone with her, she’d say tersely, “Into the living room, don’t touch anything.”
She’d sit us in front of “The Lawrence Welk Show” with a plate of sugarless cookies, a unique torture (Eeeek, Lawrence Welk! Weird cookies!), and then leave the room as fast as she could. She was tall, lean, with a face as hard as a closed oak door, and if we didn’t obey immediately, she had a penchant for pinching. Hard.
The next time Billy T. provoked me, I was sick of hearing it and sick of feeling “othered,” feeling ashamed and weak. So I challenged him.
We met down at the creek surrounded by our classmates as Billy jeered, laughed, and dared once again to name me n**ger. I was no longer intimidated, and I felt none of my previous newfound shame at being perceived as different from my fellow students.
I sensed instead a red river stream, carrying power and resilience within it, running through me. Billy came right up in my face, and with one hand, I pushed him into the shallow creek. He fled, but I’ll tell you what, he never demeaned me again.
Three years ago, I found my birth mother. I discovered that my great-grandmother Mama Pet’s mother, Lula, and Lula’s mother, Florence, were born into slavery in Louisiana.
For the year previous, when meditating each morning, I was moved (and still am) to thank my ancestors for the opportunity of this life. There they still are hovering just out of sight. There they are up and to the right. I couldn’t imagine where I had come from, but here I am, I thought, and I am alive and vibrant. What a gift this body, this brain ― I’m in love with humans and this planet, and I am so grateful for whatever blood runs in my veins urging me toward endurance, toward creation and kindness. Every day I thanked them; after a year of this, I found my mother, Shirley.
Thursday, April 6, 2018, I walked into the lobby of the Millennium Harvest House in my hometown of Boulder, where Shirley and Randolph were staying after a 15-hour drive from Shreveport, Louisiana, and my life was forever changed. There is a line that exists now — everything that came before and the rebirth that followed.
The thing about meeting your birth family is ― how does one prepare? Anything might happen. No rule says you will identify with or love them, or they you ― because of your shared blood.
It seems almost silly, after all, I have forged my identity on the very idea that blood is not what matters, but the family of your choosing, the family you create. While I still believe it to an extent, I was unprepared for the wonder, the utter, complete, boundless awe of holding my blood relatives in my arms.
Since George Floyd’s murder, friends from my past are now waking to the abundance of their privilege and viewing our shared history from a new perspective. While I welcome the soul-searching, I find it baffling that so many were unaware my Boulder experience might have differed at all from theirs. As I find it baffling that the many murders before George Floyd, all of the books and art made, the innumerable essays and songs written, did not inspire an awareness of the brutal reality of the systemic and institutional racism BIPOC experience.
There is, all across the nation, a great white reckoning in progress. How robust are these seedlings, and will they take root?
I had no idea the Klan had such a powerful hold in Colorado until I found confirmation about my grandfather Wilbur and began researching. Unless we teach the truths of our troubled history in our school systems, our garden can’t help but be stunted; if we rise to the challenge imagine how lush it could be.