The following is a personal reflection excerpt of Jeanine Canty’s chapter, “Seeing Clearly Through Cracked Lenses.” This comes from a book she recently edited, Ecological and Social Healing: Multicultural Women’s Voices (Routledge, 2017). This academic book features essays by fourteen diverse women engaged in work exploring and crossing the boundaries of ecological and social healing.
As a teacher and academic, I find it is easier to speak about the larger patterns in the world than to focus on my personal story. In light of all of the suffering on the planet, my experiences seem benign. Yet I realize that my convictions are rooted with my life experiences and I have an interesting bricolage of diversity, life events, critical reflection and practice that may be useful to others. I have encountered many cracks to my worldview. What follows are some small fragments of my personal story. …
I am sure that everyone can remember the moment they felt as their most tragic, where one’s safe reality was punctured, leaving a lifelong imprint of sadness. For me, this occurred during the first grade. In the early 1970s, just a few years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, which among other things barred discrimination in purchasing a home, my parents moved our family from the inner city Bronx to a new suburban community outside of Princeton, New Jersey. We were the only African American family and among very few people of color. My parents had moved us there to get away from the inequitable and often unsafe conditions of New York’s inner cities. They had achieved the “American Dream,” buying their first home, establishing a healthy family, and living in a safe community with “good” schools. I was an infant when we moved and my earliest years there seemed normal. I was an affectionate and curious child—making friends with strangers and always eager to chat about what I found interesting in my world. Entering kindergarten was an exciting time for me—more kids to play with, new things to discover. I delighted in that first school year. But something changed for me in the first grade.
Within the first few days of that school year, a group of boys started to bully me, causing me to cry each day, and continued the entire year. The first time it happened, I doubt they intended it to be a daily game. One of them told me that I was bad because I was Black. He said that I was not a real person. I can’t remember what else those boys said. I just remember how stunned I was to hear this. It was as if I was told the worst secret—of all the kids, I was a freak, unworthy, did not belong. As a very sensitive and naive seven-year-old, I burst into tears. Those boys must have been shocked by the power they had over me. All I know is that they quickly became junkies. Each day they would tease me with their bigoted, cruel remarks until I broke down and cried. At first, it did not take much to break me.
One or two hurtful words could do it. Later, they started using harsher words such as the “n-word.” I remember one time, they brought over the only other kid of color in my class, who was East Indian, and informed me that he was okay because he had never been a slave. As the year progressed, their tactics got worse. The taunting became longer, often taking a large portion of recess time. About mid-way through the year, they started recruiting other classmates to help. There were days when I was chased and heckled by the entire class. Going to school was so horrible, I was so dismayed, so confused. By the end of the year, I had become a different child.
When I reflect on this experience, I can put it into the context of prejudice and racism and the post-Civil Rights issues the US faced. Clearly this was not the greatest injustice of the era, lots of kids are bullied, yet for a young child this marred my sense of safety and delight in the world. I also get angry that the adults that were present did nothing. With the exception of one teacher’s aide that would sometimes come to my rescue during recess, none of the adults did anything. No one talked to my classmates or contacted our parents. I did not even tell my parents until much later in life. It was the first crashing of my belief in the world. The scarring left was a sense of isolation, a fear of not fitting in, being the other and the pain this sense brought. This wound does color my worldview and while I now view not ever feeling like I truly belong to one group as a gift, there will always be underlying pain.
The following year, my parents moved my older brother and me to a very diverse community and things grew better for a while. We had another three-year stint as the only African American kids in Connecticut and then moved back to the diverse community. Yet I realize that the fixed identifiers such as Black and White do not hold strongly with many of my experiences. I identify primarily as African American and hold ancestral roots from Jamaica, Barbados, the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, East Indians, the Catawba and Cherokee. Most of the stories of my lineage are lost and those I do have are partial and often mysterious and sad. I am descended from the enslaved, the colonizer, and the colonized. While my parents came from poor and working class backgrounds, I grew up in an upper middle class household and hold a certain sense of privilege. And while both my parents identify as African American, they have distinct upbringings, with my mother coming from a West Indian heritage and my father’s parents coming from North and South Carolina. With the coupling of the economic background and living in all White communities in much of my early years, I often find that I do not fully fit in with my cultural peers—as if I missed some important social upbringings that I would have gained if I lived in predominantly communities of color.
Interestingly, it was during those early years that I had my first encounter with a wild place. One day I wandered off with my brother and some of his friends outside of the planned, suburban community we lived in. I remember ending up by a small creek and something shifted for me—the patterns of square plots with the exact same houses with domesticated nature vanished and a new rhythm was revealed. From that time forward I was always drawn to wild places. In my mid-teens I had a peak moment when I was feeling extremely anxious about life and was sitting outside and everything simply started buzzing—the sunlight, the air, the surrounding sounds—and in that moment I first experienced peacefulness and contentment. By my mid-twenties I always lived on the edge of the forest and walking through the woods and being outside in wild places is where I feel most at home. I have had so many experiences in the natural world that have expanded my worldview and fostered relationships with living beings that I never knew were possible.
Jeanine M. Canty, PhD, is professor and chair of the Environmental Studies department at Naropa. Her work focuses on issues of social and ecological justice, both the patterns of oppression and healing.