How I Learned About Nelson Mandela

STAKidsIn first through eighth grade, I attended an almost entirely Black school – St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park. Hyde Park is an integrated Chicago neighborhood; but then again, it’s not.

I grew up in our racialized American culture, which – even at St. Thomas – taught me that White was smarter, better behaved, and more desirable than Black. It was subtle, but in my grade, we three White girls were given privileges by some of our teachers, which looking back makes me squirm. And I never became very close to the Black kids in my grade who should’ve been my friends; who were smart, kind, interesting, fun people. Vanessa, Troy, Brian, Shelley, Renee, Ashley, Kenyatta, Erica, Terrence, Derek, Jamarr, Aubrey…


But because of St. Thomas, I grew up feeling comfortable being the only White person in a room of Black people. I feel a sense of comfort and at-home-ness in Black culture. I learned about Roman Catholic culture, music, and spirituality, as well as Black Gospel music. I learned math, science, and history.

And I learned about Nelson Mandela. When I heard about his death this week, my mind went straight back to St. Thomas because it was there that I was first immersed in the stories and news about South Africa under apartheid, in the late eighties. Our teachers showed us lots of movies, as if to make us junior high kids witnesses to the things that were happening out in the world that we might not see otherwise. We watched “Gandhi,” “Romero,” “Cry Freedom,” and “Mandela.” We went on a field trip to see the musical “Sarafina!” before it was a movie. (I loved it and dragged my parents to go see it, too. I can still sing all those songs, even some of the Zulu lyrics.)

It wasn’t until I was older that I really learned about race; that I read and listened to testimonies from Black people about what it’s like to be Black in America. But seeds were planted in me for a different story about race than Hyde Park was telling, or America, or our history textbook.

Thank you, Ms. Edwards, Mrs. Copper, Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Jordan, Mr. Driscoll, Ms. Stewart (in the photo at the top), Sister Reginalda. and many others. And to my parents, who were brave and stubborn enough to send me and my brother to a school that other White parents might not have chosen.

IMG_2407(Me looking way too serious at eighth grade graduation. The boys formed a sort of honor guard, and the girls walked through.)