From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

And He Looks Just Like Me

There should be no “Negro History Corner” or “Negro History Week.” There should be an integration of African American culture in all of its diversity throughout the curriculum.

Janice Hale Benson

Every cell of my body quivered. I was about to step into unknown territory; I was terrified and alone. On the outside I looked great. My mom had made sure I was dressed superbly, but on the inside I was shaking. As I sat on the bus that early drizzly morning, I looked at the faces of the people around me. No one seemed to notice I was gripped with fear.

Today was “Youth in Government Day” in San Francisco, and I had been chosen to represent my high school. I had never been to City Hall, and now I was going to be a politician for one whole day. Everyone told me how lucky I was and that this was a great opportunity, but none of this soothed me.

We didn’t have a car, so I was on my own during the morning rush hour. As I boarded the second bus that would deliver me to City Hall, I had a panic attack. My knees started to shake, and I felt sick.

Clutching my umbrella, I approached City Hall determined to be okay. There was a steady line of cars dropping off other kids. My heart sank because no one looked like me. I walked into the reception room desperately looking for a familiar face. I was disappointed again. Out of two hundred high school kids, approximately ten were African American. We acknowledged each other with that Oh, I am so happy to see another black face nod. We were all feeling displaced, and I knew that we all held the same wish inside. We were hoping that Judge Kennedy was our city government official. He was the only African American in city government at that time, and we would feel safe with him.

No luck.

I was escorted down the hall to meet Mr. Tax Assessor. When his secretary called to him that his student replacement had arrived, he came out of his office with a big smile that vanished when he saw me. He exchanged glances with his aide, while I read disappointment in his eyes. He was cordial to me—for all of five minutes before he dismissed me to his aide. I never saw Mr. Tax Assessor again.

Around mid-morning I was taken across the street for coffee and donuts with four local politicians. When we walked into the coffee shop, everything stopped. The people stopped talking, the waiters stopped waiting, even the coffee being poured stopped in midair. All eyes were fixed on this little black girl surrounded by four white politicians. I squared my shoulders, locked my knees, pushed my head up and glided across the floor with the biggest smile on my face. When we reached our table, the coffee started pouring, they started talking, and the waiters went back to serving.

“Well, Brenda, what do you want to do when you finish high school?” The conversation at the table turned toward me.

“I really like psychology, and I love to work with children. I want to be a child psychologist,” I declared.

They turned beet red and looked quickly at each other. After they recovered, someone cleared his throat and said, “Oh, my son is a child psychologist.”

Then another said, “Brenda, you seem to be a very bright girl. You will probably make a good secretary.”

The words in my head screamed, A good what? How dare you! Your son can be a child psychologist, but I can’t? How dare you try to dissuade me from my dream! But the words coming out of my mouth were said, calmly and with conviction, “Oh yes, I would make a good secretary. But I am going to be a child psychologist.”

They started to play the invisible game with me after that. You know—talking like you are not there. But I didn’t care. I had made my stand.

As the day rolled on, I longed for something to validate my existence. On several occasions I wanted to scream, “I am here and I matter! I am somebody!”

When lunch finally rolled around, I was grateful. Only one more hour and I would be free from this alien land. I sat at a table with two other students who looked more bored than me. The keynote address was going to be from the student mayor, but I wasn’t really interested in who was speaking or what was going to be said. I felt like I had been in a fight all day to defend my existence. All I wanted to do was leave City Hall and put this whole day behind me.

The “mayor’s” introduction was made, and everyone started to applaud. As I swung my chair around and looked toward the stage, my mouth fell open, my eyes widened, and my whole body swelled with pride. I was looking at the student mayor-for-a-day and he looked just like me!

His skin was mocha chocolate, and with his full lips and his parted afro he represented us, he represented me. He was the most articulate, well-versed young man in the place, and I loved him for that—for with him, on this day, we would be counted. I sat in my seat smiling and thought to myself, Look out, world, because here I come!

That day, I decided I was going to be successful no matter what anyone said or felt. I was just as good as anyone else, and I could be anything I desired to be—even if my skin was black, maybe even because my skin was black!

Forty years later, a black man chose to become mayor of San Francisco—and he did. A black woman chose to become the city’s tax assessor—and she did.

I did not decide to become a politician, nor did I decide to become a child psychologist, and no, I did not decide to become a secretary. I chose to become a child protective worker, and the most important part is that I chose—and I did!

Ahmon’dra (Brenda) McClendon

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