NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Leaving Identity Issues to Other Folks (July 2005)

By Phyllis Allen

Dallas, TX –

Standing in the rain waiting to go up the steps to the balcony of the Grand Theater I gripped Mama's hand and watched the little blond kids enter the lobby downstairs. It was the 50's, I was Colored and this is what I believed: my place was in the balcony of the downtown theater, the back of the bus and the back steps of the White Dove Barbecue Emporium. When I asked Mama why this was so, she smiled and said, "Baby, people do what they do. What you got to do is be the best that you can be."

We got our first television in the 60's and it brought into my living room the German shepherds, snapping at a young girl's heels. It showed children just like me going to school passing through throngs of screaming, angry folks, chanting words I wasn't allowed to say. I could no longer be Colored. We were Negroes now, marching in the streets for our freedom, at least that's what the preacher said. I believed that, even though I was scared, I had to be brave and stand up for my rights.

In the 70's: beat up jeans, hair like a nappy halo and my clenched fist raised, I stood on the downtown street shouting. Angry young Black men in sleek black leather jackets and berets had sent out a call from the distant shores of Oakland, California. No more non-violence or standing on the front lines quietly while we were being beaten. Simple courtesies like please and thank you were over. It was official, Huey, H. Rap, and Eldridge said so. I believed in being black and angry.

By the 80's, fertility gods lined the walls and crammed the display cases of all my friend's houses. People, who'd never been closer to Africa than a Tarzan movie, were speaking broken Swahili. The 80's made us hyphenated, African-American. Swaddled in elaborately woven costumes of flowing design, bright colors and rich gold I was a pseudo-African, who'd never seen Africa. "It's your heritage," is what everybody said. Now, I believed in the elusive promise of the Motherland.

In the 90's, I was a woman whose skin happened to be brown, chasing the American dream. Everybody said that the dream culminated in stuff. I believed in spending days shopping. Debt? I didn't care about no stinkin' debt. It was the 90's. My 401K was in the mid-six figures and I believed in American Express. Then came the crash, and American Express didn't believe in me nearly as much as I believed in it.

Now, it's a brand new millennium and the bling-bling, video generation ain't about me. Everything changed when I turned fifty. Along with the wrinkles, softened muscles and weak eyesight came the confidence that allows me to stick to a very small list of beliefs. I'll leave those identity issues to other folks. I believe that I'm free to be whoever I choose to be. I believe in being a good friend, lover and parent so that I can have good friends, lovers and children. I believe in being a woman ? the best that I can be, like my Mama said.

Visit NPR's "This I Believe" page

More North Texas commentary from KERA