The Next Page: Two searingly honest essays from the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards
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Since 1999, the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University's English Department has organized the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards. The guidelines call for poems or personal narratives that "reflect on encounters with race and difference in their own lives." The competition is open to students from local high schools and Carnegie Mellon.
Twenty-six students were honored for their work this year. Here are the two essays that shared first place in high school prose.
The complete works are published online here . Winners will read the work during CMU's Martin Luther King Day celebration, Monday, 1:30 p.m. in the University Center.
Everyone desires to stand out. No matter the profession they wish to pursue, the effort they put into their reputation, or the reasons that motivate them to do so, succeeding is always the main goal. When I was young, I loved the idea of being someone unique. A girl who stands out against the crowd, and whose work and ideas can count for something in the future. I studied, I researched, I experienced the world as best as I could, and yet, there was a barrier. I never thought about my race as something that defined me.
With every standardized test, I marked the clear bubble "Black/African-American" without a second thought. I actually thought of it as impractical; why in the world would they need to know that? It's not like it changes my score, I thought. I had eventually achieved my lifelong goal of individualism, and realized it was much harder than I believed. It wasn't until I had begun accomplishing something with my knowledge and skills that I realized how much that bubble on that page actually meant.
I've been labeled and categorized as a variety of titles throughout my lifetime. "Silly," I could agree with; "weird," I could live with; "black," I was forced to accept. However, I don't endure the projected hatred that was so prevalent during Dr. King's time.
I have friends of every different shade, and every origin. I've gone to two schools: one being a public school with the majority of the students being African-American, now currently a private school that has more diversity in its student body. The transition was odd, as I've never been a minority -- as defined by the color of my skin at least. With my final goodbyes to my elementary school memories, I realized how out of place I've really been. As a straight-A student at the time, I was constantly criticized as "too smart." Being described as a person who is "not black enough" shocked me even more. I can't remember what scared me more: the idea that there was ever a thing as too smart or the air of inferiority my friends had towards me. In my mind, I was just as "black" as the rest of them. Metaphorically speaking, I was the black sheep in my class. In my entire school. I was singled out among my many friends.
But to many, I was not black.
"What does this mean?" I thought to myself. What does black actually mean, and why doesn't it seem to fit with my identity, according so many people I identify with? Since when did my character determine who I was supposed to represent on the outside?
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that he hoped to "look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." What would he say if the same people are, in fact, being judged by their character, but are being compared and discriminated against because it may not "fit" with stereotypes attached to the color of their skin? Since when is intelligence a personality trait of Caucasians? When did the diverse genres of music I listen to -- I've recently gained an obsession with Korean pop -- make me an anomaly in the black community?
All of these questions swirled around in my head. I started to believe what people were saying about me: I'm just not black enough.
About two years later, I was a rising sophomore at Winchester Thurston. I pursued the same goal of developing my character, but I still questioned the definition of black. I shied away from most of the students, hoping that they would just make a label for me that I could live with.
Despite this, my personality shone through, and I made friends, like any other high school student. However, there were very few African-American students, compared with my old school, who really accepted me. I was fine with this; I had friends, and that's all that mattered. By then, I was a competitive rower for my school's crew team, I was a major trumpet player in Winchester Thurston's jazz band, and I had pretty decent grades. I was finally happy, and I thought I had found a place where I belonged. I didn't think I was seen as "not black enough."
During that Thanksgiving break, however, I had an encounter that shook my confidence. I was accustomed to answering questions from my family about the reality of attending a private school. "What are the students like?" was in the top 10. I gave bromide responses, and they usually accepted them. But one day, I was asked about my rowing career:
"What in the hell kind of a sport is crew for a person like you?"
I was puzzled. "I love rowing," I replied.
"Rowing? That's not like you. You're too big anyway, and when's the last time you've seen a black girl in a boat? I guess you aren't that black after all. I knew those white people would change you."
And just like that, my hopes were dashed . Besides my self- esteem about my weight being crushed into the dirt, everything I believed about my greater community became a lie at that point. From the words of someone so close to me, I'm not black. How could I give up something I was so passionate about in order to be accepted? I recognized that no matter what I do, the color of my skin would scream black to a person of any other color, and to blacks, I am just a mistake. A failure to uphold the current black stereotypes that everyone knows about. An anomaly.
Two months ago, I watched the documentary "Black Is... Black Ain't" by Marlon Riggs, and it inspired me to truly think about who I am as an African-American -- or, who I thought I was.
According to Riggs, because one's black identity was so often limited, distorted and made shameful by whites, asserting a new black identity became important to many African-Americans. His camera traverses the country, coming face to face with black people young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, gay and straight, who are grappling with the paradox of several, often contested definitions of "blackness"--just like me. Additionally, generalizations were being imposed upon African-Americans not only by those outside the race but by black people themselves. I was surprised that I wasn't the only one enduring this discrimination and relieved as well.
Furthermore, every skin color has a set of beliefs portrayed by the media or just word-of-mouth to the public. How could I protest my lack of inclusion in the black community, when those of other races are undergoing the same struggle? Maybe anomalies aren't the issue: labels based on appearance are. No one should feel discriminated against because their personality doesn't fit these labels.
The war that Martin Luther King Jr. fought against discrimination is by no means over; the battle of white vs. black may have been won, but not the battle of an individual versus his/her corresponding stereotypes, which is a battle that I have been fighting for my entire life. A battle for many individuals whose complexion, class, speech, intellect, religion, gender or sexual orientation have made them feel like anomalies to the stereotypes they have been fighting against.
To this day, I realize that these labels aren't leaving anytime soon; this doesn't require that I, or anyone else, must live with them either. I am me, the hard-working woman that I've aspired to become, and no label can take that away.
Erika Drain is an 11th-grader at Winchester Thurston .
I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world -- and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence and perfect moral aesthetic. I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part of anything so flattering.
Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish was in no way possible to escape growing up. It was constantly reinforced at every holiday, every service and every encounter with the rest of my relatives. I was forever reminded how intelligent my family was, how important it was to remember where we had come from, and to be proud of all the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.
This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about Israel's spotless reputation to the back of my mind. "Our people" were fighting a war, one I did not fully comprehend, but I naturally assumed that it must be justified. We would never be so amoral as to fight an unjust war.
Yet as I came to learn more about our so-called "conflict" with the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases and other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason. "Genocide" almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner; they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or simply that it was a "difficult situation."
It was not until eighth grade that I fully understood what I was on the side of. One afternoon, after a fresh round of killings was announced on our bus ride home, I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. "We need to defend our race," they told me. "It's our right."
"We need to defend our race."
Where had I heard that before? Wasn't it the same excuse our own country had used to justify its abuses of African-Americans 60 years ago?
In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were -- like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a "conflict" -- the term "Israeli/Palestinian Conflict" was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the "Caucasian/ African-American Conflict."
In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.
I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. He too had been part of a struggle that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be "Not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who ... lives by a mythical concept of time.... Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
When I first read those words, I felt as if I were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had been conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the same apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too, held the role of an accepting moderate. I, too, "lived by a mythical concept of time," shrouded in my own surreal world and the set of beliefs that had been assigned to me. I had never before felt so trapped.
I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could not answer my misgivings, no one could.
The next time I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over the course of the 17-minute cello solo that was routinely played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep).
When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked: "I want to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many killings?" I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me.
"It is a terrible thing, isn't it?" he said. "But there's nothing we can do. It's just a fact of life."
I knew, of course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did not by any means commit murder for its own sake, but to portray our killings as a "fact of life" was simply too much for me to accept. I thanked him and walked out shortly afterward. I never went back.
I thought about what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I could not hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the rest of my life as one of the pathetic moderates whom King had rightfully portrayed as the worst part of the problem. I did not intend to go on being one of the Self-Chosen People, identifying myself as part of a group to which I did not belong.
It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever it came to the attention of any of our more religious family friends that I did not share their beliefs, I was met with either a disapproving stare and a quick change of the subject or an alarmed cry of, "What? Doesn't Israel matter to you?" Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me perceived me. It was worth it to no longer feel as though I were just another apathetic part of the machine.
I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be an African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as though I know exactly what it must have been like to be white during that time, to live under an aura of moral invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs, and to contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face simple everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it lasted, but I decided to pass it up. I have never been happier.
Jesse Lieberfeld is an 11th-grader at Winchester Thurston
First Published January 15, 2012 12:00 am