SIDNEY — The reality of living in a perfect world is a statement that is far from the truth. Although many of us would like to believe that everyone’s lives are equal with equal rights. We live in a diverse world that is separated by race, political party and socioeconomic. We have seen many African American men and women die senselessly, at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be protecting us. We have seen people protest by destroying property of people in their community. As a result, we have people pointing fingers of blame and forgetting about the issue at hand. If a small percentage of looters can discredit and entire movement, than what does a small percentage of bad cops do?
I have seen and heard many opinions related to the Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM movement was never set on an idea that black lives were better or more important than others or that only black lives matter. It is meant to shift focus to include us in a society where we felt like our voices and our lives didn’t matter. Imagine if you participated in a breast cancer walk and someone yelled at you, “All Cancer Matters!” Subsequently you let the individual know of course they do, but you’re trying to draw attention to the need to find a cure for breast cancer. It’s the same scenario for Black Lives Matter movement when someone says All Lives Mater as a response. This movement was started to draw attention to the unfair and brutal way African Americans are treated in America.
I grew up on Jefferson Street in Sidney (known as 400 Block). Jefferson Street was a place people were scared to go because of the negative stories they heard about it around Sidney. I won’t lie, our street witnessed a lot of interaction between law enforcement officers and neighbors, including some of my family members. But to me, it was a normal neighborhood. We had family cookouts, outside activities, and (friends to play with). On Sundays, everyone would get together after church, have dinner, and then go watch my cousins play basketball at Humphrey Park (known as Tillberry). My grandmother held noon prayer time every day at her house; whoever was around the house at that time was made to pray with her.
For most of my younger years in school, I was the only African American in my class. My first experience of racism happened in Sidney at Northwood Middle School in Ms. New’s fifth-grade class. On this particular day at school, we were getting ready for a class. I was excited to be able to play dress-up at school, so when it came time my classmates and I tried on the different costumes. I had on this old-fashioned dress and as I was doing the turn that little girls do when they wear a dress, two of my classmates stood behind me laughing. When I asked them what they thought was so funny, one responded, “You look like a black slave in that.”
And he proceeded to laugh and then put his foot out and said, “Kiss my foot slave.” At that moment, I didn’t know how to process what was said to me, but I was embarrassed. Ms. New was in the back of the classroom getting more costumes and I asked her if I could go to the restroom. I ran into the bathroom stall, replaying in my head what my classmate said over and over again.
I knew what a slave was because I was taught about slavery and read about it in books. I started crying, still thinking about what he said and recalling to mind pictures I had seen of slaves in books. They did have the same skin color as I did, so was my classmate right and that made me a slave. I knew I had to snap out of it and get back to class because if I took too long, Ms. New would have sent someone to check on me, so I wiped my tears away and proceeded back to my class.
I told Ms. New I wasn’t feeling good and asked if I go to office to call my parents to come get me. She said, “I’m sorry to hear that you are feeling ill, Shamara. I know you were looking forward to this day to try on the costumes.” I replied back, “Yeah, its fine.”
My mother came to get me and on the way home she asked what was hurting me. I lied and said my stomach. When we got home, my mother had me go to my room and lay down, she said she would bring me some medicine and orange juice. I wasn’t sure if I should tell my parents what happened; heck, I didn’t really even know how to explain it. My mom gave me medicine for my “upset stomach” and said she would be back in later to check on me.
I just laid on my bed, staring at my ceiling still trying to process what happened. I didn’t know what to do or how to feel but tears just started rolling down my cheeks. Was I really that different from my classmates and did everyone think I was slave? I thought all my classmates were my friends – no one had ever mentioned my skin color to me. I knew after this day, I never wanted to wear a dress or even have people see me in one again. I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I had no idea my mom was at my room door watching me cry.
She came into my room and said, “Pooh, I know you. You’re not sick. Something else is going on with you. You were so excited about going to school today to try on the costumes for the play, what happened?” I could only get out, “I was, Mom,” before I broke down crying. My mother immediately turned on mommy mode, asking what had happened because I never broke down like that. I tried wiping my tears away even though they were coming down nonstop and looked my mother in her face and asked, “Are we slaves, Mom, because we’re black?”
The expression on my mother’s face was indescribable. She waited a minute to respond. She said, “No! We are not slaves. Where did you get this from?” I told her everything that happened at school that day. My mother wanted to go to the school immediately, but I begged her not to because I didn’t want to go back there that day. She let me know that once my father got off of work, they would be calling to speak to Ms. New about the situation.
When it came to the comment made by my classmate, she told me I was a beautiful African American woman who was not a slave. However, my ancestors were slaves and I should never be ashamed of it because if it wasn’t for them enduring what they did, I wouldn’t be here. She told me I have a crown on my head and should never let anyone get me to the point where I have my head down and my crown falls off. After my parents spoke to Ms. New, she told me I could always come to her about anything. She spoke with my classmate and his parents about what happened and made him write me a letter of apology. Still to this day, when I see this individual in passing, I always wonder if he even remembers me or the comment he made he made that day. I want to thank Ms. New (if you’re out there in the world somewhere) for acknowledging the issue and showing me I wasn’t alone in her classroom. And my classmate, he may have knocked my spirits down and had me questioning a lot of things but he gave me the strength to pick up my crown, readjust it, and to never let it fall again!
Racism occurs every day in school, workplaces here through actions and voice, intentionally and unintentionally. When you walk down the street, do you ever catch yourself staring at people or watching your belongings more closely when a certain race walks past? It’s unfortunate, but as I became older, I would get the normal stare down when walking into stores and would even be followed – to the point that now I’m used to it.
One day, while out taking a walk in a neighborhood, I passed by a house where I spotted an old friend from school in their garage. We began catching up on old times and started talking about how nice the houses in the area were. An officer drove past us and we continued to converse thinking nothing of it. He came back around once again, stopped his car, and rolled down his window. I got nervous despite knowing we weren’t doing anything wrong. He asked if everything was everything alright? I kept quiet and my friend replied back, “Yes officer everything is fine. Just two old friends just catching up.” He said okay and drove off. We both had a confused look on our faces and were hoping this officer didn’t assume the wrong thing. I didn’t want to question if the color of my skin gave off the wrong impression.
Many of my family members as well as friends have told me stories where they have been pulled over constantly and harassed by law enforcement. Some feel like it doesn’t matter whether one is a law abiding citizen with a good job, the car they drive, their age, as long as their skin tone is black they will be subjected to this kind of treatment. Others often feel discriminated against when it comes to employment around here. They have fewer job connections here in Sidney and so their work history is not as good as required. There are many more stories like this I could share.
Growing up, the little interactions I had or witnessed with law enforcement weren’t good, so fast forward and imagine me telling my family I got a position at the Sheriff’s Office. I was uneasy to tell them because I didn’t want any of them thinking I “switched sides” or even agreed with some of the ways of law enforcement they encountered in our community. I felt like I could make a difference and maybe be a sort of mediator between my community and local law enforcement. Once I shared that with them, they were glad I decided to take the job. They felt that maybe now some of their frustrations and opinions could be heard.
I have encountered many people in our community from all backgrounds and races. In working at Goodwill, Sidney City Schools, and the Sheriff’s Office, I have met people who look nothing like me and come from different walks of life, but who have welcomed me with open arms and I’m grateful for that. I was able to participate in a march Wesley Stockton put together. I was happy to see the unity and the solidarity among Sidney residents for a good cause. We shouldn’t be silent here in Shelby County just because we aren’t making the news.
We need to use this as a moment and do better than what we’ve been doing. I applaud the people who understand they may not face the same battle African Americans face and those who say, “I see your color but value your life no less because of it.” We need more people learning, listening, standing up, speaking out, and informing others on injustice – and not just people who look like me or my family.
It’s time for all of us to come together with open hearts, ears to listen, and voices to speak out. This isn’t about religion or a political party, it’s about human decency. It is my responsibility to speak out and say my truth! I owe it to my parents, Dock Henry Foy Sr. and Pamela Dixon, who taught me to always do what’s right. I’m frustrated, that years later, my grandfather still has to watch us endure the same fight for freedoms he did. It troubles me that my nieces and nephews will likely encounter individuals who judge them based on the color of their skin alone.
I write this as an African American woman who knows there is some ignorance and prejudice in my community but also acknowledge the positive things that happen here. It gives me hope when hearing success stories about African Americans here such as James Humphrey (first black mayor of Sidney), Robert F. Sims (the first African American hired as a Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy), and then seeing Tony Cunningham (African American sergeant on Sidney Police Department), Maggi Williams (African American woman educator/coach with Sidney City Schools), and my cousin Kevin Foy (city of Sidney employee) who knows so many people from this area and has made an impact on their lives, can make a difference here in Shelby County. One day I would love to see the law enforcement and the African American citizens come together to find common ground and bridge any gaps that still exist between them.
Ending racism is not a simple task. One person alone cannot put an end to racism; it will take a commitment of everyone in the world. If we as humans could open our eyes to other races and see the person that they are on the inside and stop judging them on color, our world would be one step closer. One of the most important life lessons that everyone should strive to live by, be that the life and the dignity of every human person is sacred and special. The Bible tells us that human beings are all made in the image of God and all he wants from his incarnations is love and the goodness for and from all.
The change starts with me; the change starts with you; the change starts with us.
The writer is a Sidney resident and the first African American woman hired to work at the Sidney City Schools Board of Education office. She also is employed at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.