Some of you reading this post may have an idea of what types of circumstances had a role in my upbringing. Some of you may not, and so I feel I should give a very brief synopsis. I was born and raised in Wisconsin, a state with one of the highest populations of German Americans. A lot of blue eyes and love of beer in that place, and my household was no exception. My father was openly racist and used racial slurs as common language. Niggers, kikes, chinks, and spics were all normal vocabulary in the house. “All in the Family” was his favorite show, and my mother, although not as vocal, possessed the same views. I grew up with an English surname and blue eyes, white skin, dishwater blonde hair, crooked teeth and dorky glasses from the discount section of frames. After my parents split and I spent more time with my mother and my older male siblings than with my father, I still heard the same words: fags, niggers, chinks and spics. This time it was my brothers, not my father.
I knew those were shitty words. To be honest, I was much more fascinated by swear words. I didn’t like the racial slurs, I hated “All in the Family,” and my father was an abusive sociopath that made my home feel like life under Stalinist Russia. Thankfully I was exposed to Milwaukee and diversity after my parents split, and I went to school with children of my age that didn’t look anything like me. I didn’t see why there was any reason to see these kids as different from me. I just wanted to hang out with them like everyone else. Because of that, I was exposed to break dancing. And that shit blew my mind.
I recorded some music from the radio that I listened to constantly – “Electric Kingdom,” “Freaks Come Out At Night,” “Jam On It,” and a few other gems I’m sure can be found on the “Breakin'” soundtrack. I was so into this music that as soon as I got home from school I’d play my tape. One day, my brother heard it and came into my room. He asked me why I was listening to “that nigger jungle music?” He took my tape and never gave it back. I knew I couldn’t let anyone else know I liked that music for my own safety.
Let’s fast forward some to mid teenage years when I heard about this militant rap group that was scaring the shit out of old white people. Being pre-Internet, my exposure was limited to such controversy. I certainly wasn’t going to find out about this group by asking my brothers, and I was isolated from having friends, so eventually when I did get to hear this group it was in high school. Some cool kids gave the goth girl a chance and let me join them for a few Newports in the school parking lot and that’s when I saw the album cover for Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” in a cassette case. I thought-that’s that group!! I got the opportunity to listen after I expressed my like of Run D.M.C. I was so amazed at what I heard! I also understood why assholes like my brother would think these are some scary motherfuckers. I thought they were amazing! The camo and the berets, the arms folded across the chest – these men were not taking anymore shit.
At one point I bought the album and listened over and over, carefully listening to the lyrics. What these artists were expressing was not exclusively about their struggles and injustices, but those of other groups that have been oppressed. I heard Chuck D say: “Teach a man how to be a father/Never tell a woman he can’t bother.” Holy shit. These guys get it. And they know people like my father and my brother SHOULD be scared, because their petty fears are being realized…diversity is coming, and they can’t stop it.
So I signed up for the revolution within myself. I broke the cycle of that hate. I found inspiration in Public Enemy. I realized that I didn’t have to accept those ideas or values that I never felt were fair anyway. I could stand up for myself. I could empathize with people of different races and ethnic groups. We had the same wants, the same fears, and we laughed at the same things. People I met that didn’t look like me were a lot nicer to me than the ones at home…that looked like me. My best friend in 5th grade was a girl named Kelly, and she was so tall and pretty. I envied her social skills. Her name was Kelly Washington and she was a Black girl. That same year, I was asked out by a boy for the first time, which mad me run away because I was so nervous, and his name was Lamont. I always felt so bad for running away from him, and if you’re out there, now you know I ran because I was nervous, not because of you!
Today I tweeted Chuck D a thank you for being one of my heroes, for bringing ideas to rural Wisconsin and into my ears. I didn’t feel so alone after I knew others existed that felt like I did – like the system is FUCKED. He tweeted me back! What an amazing human being. Mr. Chuck D, thank you for helping me see the power in words, and the power in thinking for yourself. You haven’t compromised your values, you haven’t stopped. When I wonder if I should keep writing, if it matters, I realize you never know who’s listening. Thanks for not stopping Chuck, because I was listening.