Token: My black girl narrative in Oak Park

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By Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

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In the fourth grade at Horace Mann School we studied the Prairie Era. The curriculum ended with the annual trip to a prairie reserve in which we would dress up as a prairie student during that time period. As our teacher gave us instructions about our roles, I vividly recall my fellow black classmate Jordan turning to me and whispering, "Would that make us slaves?"

I broke into laughter because I realized that we would have to pretend to be white to realistically fit into the prairie narrative that our teacher assigned us. Since the black narrative was not accounted for, acting white during that field trip was the only way I could reconcile being in the classroom of a 19th-century prairie school because, realistically, a face like mine would not be cast as Laura Ingalls Wilder's friend.

Being one of the few black faces in a predominately white space such as Oak Park and River Forest required me to frequently reconcile my race and identity with the majority narrative — the majority narrative being the way I was initially perceived according to my race. 

In high school, the majority narrative of a "typical" black girl was someone who fought during lunch, didn't participate in class, and was not in your honors or AP classes. In efforts to combat the smothering stereotype of the uneducated, angry black girl, I constantly felt obligated to overcompensate by always raising my hand, smiling more, and having a high bubbly voice.

Thus, for a while I hated being black as an Oak Park student. Not because the physical sight of my skin color repulsed me but because I was constantly reminded of how much easier life would be if I were white. Whether it was the strict enforcement of the dress code for black girls, or the assumed threat of multiple blacks gathered in a group, or dreading the aftermath of my hair during swimming class, as a teenager being white seemed like a much better deal.

By no means am I saying that my predominately white classes were analogous to a Klan rally, but during the impressionable years of middle school and high school, I couldn't help but internalize being the only black girl in class. How was I the only black girl? I was constantly told by some of my peers that I wasn't "black, black" or a "real black girl," and for a period of time I believed them. Since the narrative of the academically successful black girl was not commonly accounted for, "acting white" was the only way I could reconcile being in that AP classroom because, statistically, a face like mine was not a successful student. 

I was no more likely to be a straight-A honors student than I was to be Laura Ingalls Wilder's friend in the fourth grade. By my junior year, it became tiring and very isolating. I knew it would be much easier to fall into the majority narrative because there was less resistance, and I was not charged with the task of constantly proving my "blackness," while simultaneously combating its negative stereotypes. 

It was a token experience that shaped my perception as the token black girl.

Michelle Mbekeani, 27,  is a lifetime resident of Oak Park. She is an attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. She is the mother of an energetic and loving 2 year old boy. Michelle enjoys singing and volunteering thoughout the community, supporting Oak Park public schools, and the Oak Park Festival Theatre.

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Moira A. Sullivan  

Posted: February 12th, 2018 9:14 PM

I'm so surprised to read this is a relatively recent time period. When I was at Horace Mann living a block away from school (1971-93) I had many African American friends. In fact my neighbors were black, my first boy that really liked me (we couple skated at Ridgeland) and many girls in my class...all black. I had many high school friends also black. I brag about Oak Park and how progressive and amazing it was. I'm so glad I grew up there. Race to me and in my experience was colorblind.

Frank Patterson from oak park   

Posted: August 8th, 2017 12:39 PM

Great article, sharing three anecdotes from my daughter's experience at OPRF which was mostly positive. Sitting in a literature class, reading Tom Sawyer, while all the white students debated if it was ok to say the N word as they read aloud, never asking the two students of color their opinion. Being told by her counselor not to take an art course because she needed to select more academic classes due to the perceived gap. Marching to the counselor's office with another student of color who was singled out for an out that was nowhere as inappropriate as some of the white students were wearing. The last words one of her middle school teachers said to her .....As you get into the higher level classes at the high school, there will be less and less students of color in your classes.

Deb Lindner Cogan from Oak Park  

Posted: August 2nd, 2017 10:01 AM

It's a shame that your teacher didn't include the African American narrative in teaching about the pioneer period. The civil war ended 2 years before Laura Ingalls was born, and many African American men and women (along with Mexicans and Asians) played a huge part in opening the western frontier. It is only Hollywood's depiction of the Wild West that excluded POC from this time period. Think Nat Love, one of the best cowboys and cattle ropers of the period who wrote a book about his adventures. In fact, many estimate that 1/4th of all cowboys on the western frontier were black. Most headed west after the civil war to seek a better life and the kind of freedom they had never known, whether slave or free, when they lived back east. Even black women played a huge role in the west. Think of "stagecoach Mary" who drove a US mail stagecoach and was known for her imposing stature and refusal to put up with anyone' s ill treatment. So no, your friend would not have been a slave in the activity role playing Laura Ingalls. She would have been a free woman seeking her future in the west. I'm saddened that this wasn't communicated and instead was left to be misinterpreted and added to the long list of things to carry through life believing your skin color excluded you from the historical narrative of our nation. This is a big miss for our educators. And I wonder how much better our students of color would feel and how much less resentment and exhaustion there would be if we could stop them from assuming POC played no part in the formation of our nation apart from slavery.

Libbey Paul  

Posted: August 1st, 2017 10:40 PM

I really appreciate this essay. Thank you for sharing it.

Lois Thiessen Love from Oak Park Thank   

Posted: August 1st, 2017 9:52 PM

Thank you. I'm glad to hear how you experienced school and am looking forward to hearing more from you.

Christine Fenno  

Posted: August 1st, 2017 7:52 PM

I look forward to more of your columns!

Jackie Moore  

Posted: August 1st, 2017 6:47 PM

I remember Jordan coming home and sharing that 4th grade field trip experience. Keep sharing your experiences and perspective, they are valued and valuable.

Christina Sellis Loranz  

Posted: August 1st, 2017 5:56 PM

Thank you for sharing your story Michelle.

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