Three transfers and thirteen hours later, the plane bounced onto the runway. The landing gear screeched to a halting stop. Feelings of uncertainty assailed me as I stepped onto the tarmac into the humid southern air.
It was almost midnight in Florida, yet I could feel my shirt sticking to my back. I carried my tired three-year-old son, and held tightly to my little daughter's hand as we made our journey into the unknown. I swallowed the emotion I felt, recalling what Dad said before we left Hawai'I, "Remember if you ever want to come home, tickets will be waiting at the airport." Being the youngest and the only girl, I enjoyed a position of privilege and indulgence in our family. One Christmas I counted fifty-two presents under the tree. My father's words and those of the rest of the family echoed in my head as I tried to find a familiar face amongst all these strangers.
Disappointment swept over me as we left the gate and headed to the baggage claim. I began to have doubts if Ricardo was going to be there or not. Maybe he got cold feet? After all he was only twenty-four, handsome, carefree, and single; why take on a ready-made family? It was there in the middle of baggage claim I felt my composure slip. Here I was in this foreign place with no family or friends to look to for help. I was alone with my two little children; what have I done? It was then that I saw him; he was hiding behind the corner watching us, probably thinking the same thing. This was the man I left my family for and I was having second thoughts.
Mayport, Florida is a small Navy town south of the Georgia border. It's surrounded by water, and houses a quaint fishing port.
However, as in any Navy town it was sprinkled with strip bars, liquor stores and pawn shops on almost every corner. This is where we would live, in a small apartment next to a trailer park. I began my new life in Florida without a car, furniture, or job. Prior to this, I never lived in an apartment and there are no trailer parks in Hawai'I.
Three days after our arrival, a sailor in uniform knocked on our door. My future husband, Ricardo, was recalled to the ship, from his thirty-day leave immediately. Once Ricardo left we would'nt have any day to day contact for the duration of his deployment. The ship would be gone for three months, leaving me to fend for myself. In his uniform, with his sea-bag in hand he walked out the door. The children and I watched trying to hold back the tears until he was out of sight.
Financially things looked pretty bleak. Ricardo was a low ranked sailor; he received nine hundred dollars basic pay a month. We were not married yet so we didn't qualify for any family entitlement. I was forced to find a job fast! I regretted all the needless spending and shopping I did before I left home. I couldn't pay the bills or feed my children with designer clothes and perfume; how foolish I was to spend money that way! I found a job working for a school bus contractor. ^ The pay was five hundred dollars a month and I could bring my children with me. With my last paycheck from my job in Hawai'I, I found an old clunker of a car that would take me to and from work.
The Chevette didn't have a parking brake, so I wasn't surprised one afternoon when I heard the children screaming outside. Looking out the window, I saw all the kids in the complex standing behind my car trying to keep it from rolling into the parking lot. I rushed to find a brick and put it behind the car. From that moment each time I moved the car, the brick went into the trunk, and each time I parked, it went behind the tire. This was my life now, having no money makes a person resourceful-so if a brick for brakes was my destiny then I accepted it!
My first day of work brought eye opening news. It seemed that no one else wanted the route I was assigned to drive. It went into an area of Jacksonville Beach known as "the hill."This housing project was in a predominantly African American community. The people were poor, mostly on welfare and angry for the dehumanizing undercurrent of racism which they dealt with every day living in the south. Dealing with racist people and situations was new to me, having lived in Hawai'I almost all of my life. Hawaiians like me and my family were not minorities in Hawaii, thus we were not subjected to racism. I was assigned three separate routes in "the hill" area; high school, middle school, and elementary school children.
I pulled up to the stop at 6:OOAM; sixty-five high school students were ready and waiting to break in the new driver. The boys were dressed in baggy jeans, those muscle shirts called, "wife beaters" and "colors". The "colors" were in the form of red bandanas, which signified they were members of the "East Coast Posse" or better known as "Bloods". These colors were creatively displayed wrapped around heads, tied to wrists or just hanging from the back pockets of their jeans. The girls attached them to back packs and purses. They rushed the bus, and as soon as they headed toward the rear seats, I started hearing nasty comments and racial slurs. They assumed I was Hispanic thus they dubbed me Taco Belle. Each time they came aboard my bus,
I heard versions of "Speedy Gonzalez" cat calls, and references to every commercial Taco Bell ever put on television.
I completely ignored them and this worked for awhile. However it didn't stop the harassment. When the leader of the "hill" gang, Marcus decided he was bored with this game, he began making sexual innuendoes and graphic comments about how he would, "fuck that bitch" and "eat that pussy". I went to the Dean of Students for assistance. He was a white, balding, overweight "good ole boy" named Mr. Duval. "Yes little Missy, how may I assist you this fine day?" He said with his thick southern drawl. I knew just by his tone of voice I came to the wrong place for help. He asked me in front of the students, what they said verbatim, expecting me to repeat the humiliating comments and expletives they assaulted me with. They laughed and snickered at his questions. I could feel the anger well up inside of me at his tirade. His enjoyment of the circumstance and my shame, it was an injustice that I had to be subjected to cross examination in front of the perpetrators. I hated Florida; I hated the red neck bastard in front of me and I hated the black students for subjecting me, and my children, to this oppressive situation. Mostly I hated myself for being so selfish to want to make a new life for all of us, in this God awful southern town.
It was during that time we met Jamal. He was one of the little black children that rode my elementary run. We had a break before the last pickup of the morning. I would park the bus across the street from the stop and feed my children breakfast, reading them stories while they ate. My son noticed this little figure waiting at the bus stop all alone. We invited him to come aboard with us. He was a little guy with a big dimpled smile and green eyes that lit up his face when he spoke of things he liked, such as, pizza and ninja turtles. The latter drew my son to Jamal, and they became fast friends. I didn't think Jamal had much of a home life, and I knew he didn't get breakfast until he went to school, so Jamal spent each morning before school with us. One day he sat looking at me for a moment and thoughtfully asked, "Miss, why do ya'all have white people hair?" I was shocked at this question! I asked him if he thought we were black? He responded, "Aint you?" I never thought anyone would mistake me for being a black person, much less think of myself as black? The feelings I felt were confusing, it was almost resentment yet I didn't want to feel resentful: could this be my racism? I had always felt special being a Native Hawaiian and never wanted to be anything else. Perhaps this was a safety net for all the times I had been mistaken for a different race and suffered discrimination. Yet when they found out I was Hawaiian, they wanted to know me better. Here this lovable little boy jolted my world with one innocent question. Why did it upset me so much? Did I think I was better than Jamal? The horrific realization that I might be racist discomforted me. I felt disgrace and betrayal of this sweet little angel which was Jamal. I explained that we were Hawaiian. He said, he had never met a Hawaiian before and did all Hawaiians have the same color skin he did, I replied, some Hawaiians were darker and some lighter. With that Jamal said, one day he would like to go to Hawai'i and marry a Hawaiian girl just like my daughter. That was about all he cared to discuss the subject and off they all went to play.
The day Jamal didn't show up at the bus stop, we wondered where he was. When my elementary kids boarded the bus, they reported that Jamal had been shot in a drive-by, the night before. I pulled to the side of the road in shock; the tears wouldn't stop coming and I couldn't drive the bus. I cried for Jamal all of the things he spoke of; his tender heart and childish dreams, the way he loved his Mama and brother. My children were crying too. The kids on the bus watched and some cried with us. It was senseless and so sad. I still feel an ache in my heart when I think of Jamal.
As I entered Mount Zion Baptist Church of Jacksonville Beach, the wail of a soft spiritual rang in my ears, the hushed sobbing of Aunties and cousins could be heard. It was crowded with family and friends. When I went to express my regrets, there sat Marcus. The leader of "the hill gang", except here Marcus was not the gang leader anymore. He was a big brother, guilt ridden in pain for his loss. When I turned to leave Marcus came to me, "Miss Shelly Im sorry," he said in a breaking voice through his tears, "I want to thank you for being so kind to 'little man'." I hugged him and in that moment all my anger and humiliation disappeared. It was replaced by both a shared grief at the loss of a beautiful little boy and humility in realizing my own troubles seemed small indeed next to those of Marcus and his family. I felt guilty for being able to walk out of the church knowing my family was fine, that we were fortunate to live in a safe environment. My children never went to bed hungry or rushed to school so they could have breakfast. They didn't have to wear colors to feel protected and part of a family. It was not much that separated Jamal's family from mine but there was a separation. It wasn't clearly defined but it was there unspoken. How does one person change this separation of races and colors? How do we fight against what every person in this world should be able to feel? Acceptance; "I want to see the color of a person's skin and think isn't it beautiful? I want others to view me that way as well" (Lee Mun Wah).
I knew then that the world didn't revolve around me, as I always assumed in the past. I understood how it felt to be alone and the only person I could depend on was myself. I also knew what it felt like to be the minority, my race as well as my gender. The most important realization was I knew I was capable of racism and I strive to change that for my children, my culture and myself. I learned so many valuable things in those three short months alone, I grew up. I became G.R.I.T.S. a Girl Raised In The South!
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Sheleigh Solis a native Hawaiian, is a returning college student after 20 years of being out of school. She took a Coordinated Studies Class at NSCC which changed her life, thinking and outlook on raising awareness about racism. It has helped her to find her voice and to strive to achieve her educational goals. Her desire is to obtain a BA degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (Political Science and Sociology) and return to her home in Honolulu, Hawaii, to become a Political Activist for Hawaiian rights and Sovereignty.