A racist nun’s verbal attack was the catalyst for my career pursuit in journalism.
I was the lonely only, or one of two Black students in many of my classes at Messmer High School, a Roman Catholic high school located a short bike ride away from Milwaukee’s lakefront. Because of this dubious distinction I was teased and called names from two sides. One group called me Spot (like a stain or blemish ̶ not like a pet dog) to call attention to my complexion. My diction was reason enough for others to call me Oreo suggesting I spoke “too white” for a Black girl.
One morning Sister Julius, my freshman English teacher, called me up to her desk. Walking past snickering and finger-pointing classmates, she shoved my composition in my face and demanded, “Who wrote this for you?”
I’d written about my baby sister and how much joy she brought to our family. Confused, I lowered my head and told her I did. Leaning in, with a cross necklace dangling from her tunic, she retorted: “You people don’t know how to speak good English. So, I’m going to ask you again. Who wrote this paper?”
“You people” was a polite way of calling me the n-word. Pain and embarrassment stirred in me. It was the first time I was made a public spectacle because of my skin color. I was prepped by my mother to expect to work twice as hard to achieve the same goals as my white classmates. However, I was ill-prepared to have my academic excellence ridiculed.
I steeled my spine and stared her deep in her eyes. Then with a strong, clear voice I said, “I did.” The nun, a “woman of God,” threw the paper at me, not wanting to touch my hands, and sent me back to my desk. An “A” was scribbled across the top. I knew at that moment that God blessed me with a talent for writing. Even though I told the principal what happened, nothing resulted from me speaking up.
Becoming a journalist put me in rooms where decisions were being made. The profession takes me places around the country that allows me to witness history unfold. More importantly, the job positions me to be a watchdog for my people, fervently insisting our stories are represented and written accurately.
My reporter’s notebook and press badge didn’t magically shield me from bigotry and stupidity. There were newsroom editors that joked about watermelon and fried chicken. Covering a circus resulted in a wad of snot plopped in my hair by a group of wicked, n-word spewing teens. And, while out with newsroom colleagues at a predominately white bar in Connecticut, a drunk took delight in setting my hair on fire to light his cigarette.
There’s an emotional toll that takes over when reporting systematic racism and police brutality. There are numerous times when I wanted to put my tape recorder away, and join the movement with my fist raised shouting, “Don’t shoot!”
In all, the rewards outweigh the risks and I can sleep at night knowing my pen is my sword in this fight for justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “If you want to change the world, pick up a pen and write.”