When my youngest child, Asaad, was about four years old, he said something that brought tears to my eyes.. My daughters Hana and Laila walked into the hotel room where my wife, Lonnie, and I were staying in Los Angles; Asaad was playing with his mother on the bed. It was summer, and Asaad had been swimming all week, so his skin had gotten darker. When Laila walked into the room and saw him, she picked him up and gave him a big hug and a kiss. She then innocently said, "Wow Asaad, you sure got black today!"

Asaad replied, "I'm not black, I'm clean!"

What he said made me think about when I was his age, and how different the world was then. Asaad was still new to the world. He hadn't yet learned about the concept of color. His mind and heart were still innocent. And I thought to myself how wonderful it would be if we could all hold on to the innocence of youth.

Holding onto my innocence as I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s was difficult. I began to recognize the injustice of segregation around me. There were restaurants with signs that read, "Whites Only" and "No Coloreds Allowed." Blacks could only drink from water fountains and use restrooms that were labeled "Colored." My brother and I didn't run into any real trouble with the white kids, but there were times when we were called "nigger" and asked to leave certain neighborhoods. We didn't experience the same violence that many blacks did in other parts of the South, but Louisville was segregated. It was strange going out into a world that looked at blacks as second-class citizens while being raised with pride and self-awareness at home. Although my parents tried their best to shield us from the cruelties of the world, some problems were inevitable.

One of my first encounters with prejudice happened when I was too young to remember, but I've heard my mother tell the story. She and I were standing at a bus stop. It was a hot day and I was thirsty, so we walked up the block to a small diner, where she asked if she could have a cup of water for her son. The man said he could not help us and closed the door in our faces. I can only imagine the pain my mother felt when she tried to find the words to explain why the man would not give me a glass of water. Even during these times my mother would say, "Hating is wrong, no matter who does the hating. It's just plain wrong."

When I was a little older, I saw a newspaper with a front-page story about a boy named Emmett Till. He was a black boy about the same age as me, who was brutalized and lynched while on vacation in Mississippi, supposedly for whistling at a white woman. A picture of him in his coffin was in the newspapers, with a gruesome description of what had been done to him. It made me sick, and it scared me. I was full of sadness and confusion. I didn't realize how hateful some people could be until that day.

Although I didn't know Emmett Till personally, from that day on I could see him in every black boy and girl. I imagined him playing and laughing. As I looked at his picture in the paper, I realized that this could just as easily have been a story about me or my brother. They caught the people that did it and put them on trial, but an all-white jury found the defendants not guilty--even though there had been eyewitness testimony that the defendants had been the ones who had kidnapped the boy. Emmett's mother said, "When something like that happened to the Negroes in the south, I said, 'That's their business, not mine.' Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us anywhere in the world had better be the business of us all." I believe that this is true.

I knew that my heart could harden in a world with so much pain, confusion, and injustice. Somehow, I knew that if I were going to survive, I could not become bitter. I would have to love even those who could not give it in return. I would have to learn to forgive even those who would not--or my soul would wither away.

When I looked in the mirror I was proud of what I saw, but there were many black people who didn't want to be black anymore. Little black boys had no public role models. We didn't have any heroes who looked like us. There was no one for us to identify with, and we didn't know where we fit in. Even pictures of Jesus Christ were always white. I was taught that Jesus was the son of God, and I wondered if God looked like Jesus, too. Jesus was always depicted with long blond hair and blue eyes. Then I noticed how all the angels in pictures were white. There were never any pictures of black angels. And everyone at the Last Supper was white. So, one day, I asked my mother, "What happens to us when we die? Do we go to heaven?"

"Naturally, we go to heaven," she said.

And I said, "Then, what happened to all the black angels when they took the pictures? Oh, I know. If the white folks go to heaven the black angels would be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey."

That was okay because I didn't like milk and honey anyway. I just wanted some answers. I wanted to know why everything good was always shown as white.

One Halloween, a little black girl was trick-or-treating around the neighborhood, dressed up in a superhero costume, but her face was painted white. When I asked her why, she said that her sister told her that there was no such thing as a black superhero. She was right. I turned on the television, everyone was always white. Superman was white, Santa Claus was white. They even made Tarzan, king of the jungle in Africa, a white man. I noticed that Miss America was always white, and the president living in the White House was white, too. Nothing good reflected our image.

At that early age, I could see that something was very wrong. I didn't understand it. I thought that my skin was beautiful, I was proud of the color of my complexion. But everything black was considered bad, and undesirable. Like black cats bring bad luck. Devils' food cake was the dark cake, and angel food cake was the white cake. These may have been subtle messages, but the effects were profound. Every day these messages, shaped the images that I and other nonwhite children had of ourselves. I didn't know how, but I knew that I was going to help my people. Somehow, I was going to make a difference in the world. The more injustice that I saw, the stronger my feelings grew. It made me feel that I was here for a reason.

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