Being Black in Franklin County, Vermont

Warning, this article contains the “N-Word.”

Keiona Fulton, Writer

“Oh hey, there’s watermelon today, you want some?” This comment is followed by snickers and laughs. Hearing this kind of comment is something that has happened regularly at BFA, to me.  Being black in an almost all white state can be very hard sometimes.

For me, I was born and raised in Vermont, so color really did not bother me. I thought I was like everyone else, but I was not.

I had to really discover who I was as the only person of color in my grade school, at City School. The first time I really realized I was different was when my class was taught about slavery and the civil rights movement. I still remember getting stares, when we were studying these subjects, like people were expecting me to have a different or special reaction.  I assumed it was because I was black.

My ancestors were the ones who were captured and brought to America, and they had to fight for their right to even be considered a person. So much hate and cruelty my ancestors had to face in the past.

As I advanced through my grade school years,  I just knew I was different from the other kids, but I had to find that out on my own. My teachers never pulled me aside and told me that we would be talking about a sensitive topic.

I’m not sure; was it because they were afraid to point me out as the only black kid in class? Or was it because they didn’t want me to feel that I was different from everyone else?

Before I arrived at BFA, while in 8th grade, I had one of the most eye-opening moments in my life. I got into an argument with another kid in class.

And this student called me a nigger.  Yes a nigger. I had never been called that ever in my life. My mother’s side of the family is all white besides my grandmother who is mixed race, and my mother and uncle are black.

My family elders had told me no one should ever call another person nigger. They said that it is one of the most hateful words out there.

After I was called a nigger in grade school, the school handled it the best way that they could. They suspended the student, switched him to a different class and had a talk with me about how they were taking the situation very seriously. They also called my mother and said the situation was being handled.

But it still left an imprint on me, an imprint that I was different from everyone else.

In the present day, everyone hears the term nigger, shortened to nigga; it’s heard in music, coming out of people’s mouths.

But why would such a hateful word be twisted into something that can be heard almost everywhere you go?

“It was created to divest people of their humanity,” Dr. Maya Angelou said. Divest means to deprive or take away something. If my very humanity, or humanness can be taken away by this word, where does that leave me?

Nigger is a word that is really used to express hate. It can still be used for hate.

When I was called this dehumanizing word, I knew it was mostly out of ignorance. But I found out that day that it was hate; it was a hateful word. And hate is something that will never go away from my memory.

When I came to BFA, I was nervous about everything. One of those things was race. Despite my fears I made many new friends. With them, my being black never seemed to be an issue with friendships.

But it’s not quite that simple.  My friends would make jokes sometimes, such as “Oh, let’s go have fried chicken.”  Then they would look back at me and laugh, casually, like that is something that people who are friends do not second guess.

But it is these kind of things that make me realize that I am black almost every single day.

It is not a bad thing for me, to realize this. But still, the jokes can be hurtful sometimes, because they emphasize the differences between me and my friends.

Every year I have been at BFA, I have experienced a negative racial conflict.

Freshman year, a student called me the slur of nigger.

Sophomore year, I lost a friend over the racial comments she made, after I had told her to stop.

And then came junior year.  All BFA teachers teach the same book during the first semester of junior year, and it is called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is widely known that this famous book uses the word nigger.  The setting is in the south at a time when slavery existed.

Before this book was even mentioned in class, I was pulled aside by my teacher, Mrs. Downer. She talked to me about what the book would be about, and the use of the term nigger in the book.

I really appreciated her pulling me aside, but the class acted the same way as my middle school peers.  They stared at me.

Clearly, the nature of the word nigger presents a challenge for everyone.  My sophomore English teacher, Ms. Tourville, was willing to speak to me about her experience: “I show videos of people talking about the use of the N word, because that’s the hard part.  Thrown out into the classroom that this word is uncomfortable for everybody, for teachers, students that are white, for students who are black. It’s just hard and why is it hard? And beginning that conversation so awkward and no one really knows what to do or say, but then I always feel like there are a few students that are willing to talk about it. Everyone comes to the agreement that it is hard because of the history behind it. But words have so much power and that particular word has changed its meaning over time in so many ways. And it’s always kind of cool to talk about how it’s changed and why.”

In my time at BFA the school has responded to a number of race related issues. Two separate public protests by the Burlington Black Lives Matter group were held in St. Albans.  The first was in December of 2015, and the second was held on February 27, 2016.

As a way to ‘respond’ to the situation and controversy brought up by these events, BFA worked with the New England Anti-Defamation League to design and hold a full school day of workshops to address race and diversity at BFA. This day took place on April 27, 2016.

Teachers had a separate training, and among other things that were specifically addressed,  was how to approach the teaching of Huckleberry Finn.

I thought this was a good idea to have this day for kids to really understand the meaning of diversity, and learn how to avoid ignorance when it comes to people of color.  But the whole day that the workshops were going, I didn’t feel like the topics that really needed to be brought up were a part of the program.

Such as, why did Black Lives Matter protest? These protests have been going on around the country.  Why are they happening? The use of the word nigga or nigger, and is it okay to use it. The police brutality that has happened around the country, with black youth involved at a much higher rate than other races.  Being aware that ‘innocent’ jokes hurt people sometimes.

I tried to bring up some of the issues involved with being a black person in the school. But everyone seemed too shy to talk about the racial issues that are really affecting the school and community.

But even after the training for all the faculty and staff, I experienced racism again. This incident involved ignorance and hate fixed into one bundle. In Art class, a student decided to draw a picture of me as a gorilla, in a cage with bananas.

This is a textbook example of racism, dehumanizing a person by changing them into something that is insulting.  This is just what Maya Angelou was talking about.  That picture dehumanized me, changing me into something that took my rights as a human being away.  If you draw me as something that is not human, you are trying to take away who I am and my rights as a person.

And putting ‘me’ into a cage.  Black people were and have been put in cages in the past, just like animals. I saw that drawing and thought: how could one human being do that to another human being?

For their own amusement? To see other students’ reactions? To hurt me personally?

I will never know what they were thinking.

Some Vermont people have never experienced different cultures and races beyond their life lived only in Vermont.  Sometimes, these individuals seem to think that everybody fits neatly into a stereotype.  All Muslims are trying to bomb us, all Asians own or work for a nail place or restaurant. Picking someone out for something they have no control over is not right, and deciding about a person before you even know them is wrong.   

BFA took care of this Art class situation in the best way I believe they could have.  The student was gone for a few days, which I was assume was a suspension, but we were still in the same class and nothing really changed after that, though I never saw any more offensive pictures.

After this experience as a junior, I have not experienced any big problems with race during my senior year.

The only thing that keeps happening for me is that classmates continue to make jokes about my race, such as the jokes I referred to before, about black stereotypes. I’m comfortable with myself being a black person. Even though I’m going out of state for college, Vermont is my home.  

I have been told by my mother, who was a BFA student in her high school days, that racism was much worse when she attended BFA in 1997. “I am so glad that BFA has come a long way with race conflict,” Kendra Douglas said.

But it’s not BFA as an institution,  it’s the students, the students that attend BFA are what make BFA what it is. BFA, the institution, is improving, but it still has a way to go.   And students need to keep learning to avoid stereotypes, and make other students of all colors and religions feel welcome and safe.

I briefly interviewed Assistant Principal Geoffrey Lyons to discuss race at BFA.

“We all like to think that we are open and transparent and honest to all folks of color, nationality or race, but for some folks there is probably a degree of uncomfortableness and there are others that have no problem. But I am sure there has been underlying issues among students with regard to race, there is no doubt about that. The use of the N word inappropriately, I don’t think there is an appropriate way to use that word,” Lyons said.

As I go though my last month at BFA, I feel that a lot of great things have happened to me here. But even the bad things I have learned from, and they have changed my perspective on life.  The memories of my experiences here will echo through my mind, but they will never take away the lessons I have learned from this school.  I don’t regret these situations that have happened to me, I have learned from them.

But words like nigger are filled with hate, and every time I hear it again it’s like a broken bone that keeps getting shattered over and over again.