Black People, White People, and Racism With a Smile

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This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster) in which Kevin, writer and activist, vividly recounts the horrific poverty of his youth, his struggles to overcome a legacy of anger, violence, and self-hatred, and his journey to be a man and a voice for others. Available for pre-order now on Amazon

"The Education of Kevin Powell is a raw, deeply painful accounting of a life born of poverty, racism, abandonment, abuse, and complicated love. It is a memoir as much about a mother as it is about her son, a memoir born out of stunning writing and surprising vulnerability. A memoir of rage and insight, heartbreak and hunger. Powerful, brave, and unforgettable."
--EVE ENSLER, author of The Vagina Monologues

Chapter 2: That Little Boy

One day my mother and I were out shopping in an area in Jersey City called Journal Square, when an old White woman stopped my mother, grabbing her by the arm and saying, "That little boy is so cuute!"

Then my mother did something I had never seen her do before. She giggled like a child herself, and her body seemed to contort and bend at the waist as the old White woman spoke.

"Thank you so much!" my mother said. "He real smart, too. He know his alphabet and can count and everything."

My mother shoved me forward and gave me the signal to speak. I said my alphabet, then counted until I ran out of numbers. Then I stepped behind my mother and hooked my fingers to her trousers, peeking at the White woman with a hump in her back and a patch of gray hair on her head. But when this old White woman looked at me, I fixed my eyes on the pavement, afraid to make eye contact with her. I could feel her examining me, her ocean-blue eyes sweeping across my body from head to toe. It made me tense and uncomfortable, but I did not know why. She then pulled a piece of peppermint candy from her purse and gave it to me.

"Boy, you keep doing what your mother tells you to do and you will be a credit to your race."

I did not understand what the old White woman meant, but I looked up at her and nodded. Then she walked away. As soon as she was out of sight, my mother swung around to me, the mother I knew. "Kevin, if a White person says you cute, then you know it must be true. They don't just be saying that to anyone."

There was a level of unmistakable pride in my mother's words, loaded with energy and meaning that I could not grasp at that moment. But those words stayed with me. "If a White person . . ."

Available to order now on Amazon.