April 17, 2018
Sam sent me an email today with a scanned image of himself. It’s a local news article, and he’s leading children in dance as he plays the harmonica. He’s so incredibly thin. I was skinny too and wore a size 0/2 until I had my second child. I really can’t believe this is my biological father. He’s nothing like my dad, “Big Jim.” He also attached an image of him and his kids, my brother and sisters.
Sam also emailed me an incredible image of a watercolor he painted of his cat, Alice. I instantly fell in love with the art, and this prompted me to call him. He didn’t answer, but I made sure that I used my “best voice” when I left a message. I didn’t want him to think I sounded weird or unsure. He sent me another email, and we made arrangements to speak later that day.
When I got home, I saw some mail on our kitchen table addressed to me from my Mom. I opened it. It was a card. The front said, “Loving you has been the best adventure.” She didn’t know how much I needed that from her. I know she and my dad love me with all their being; I just don’t understand why and how they kept this information away from me all these years.
So I called him—Sam. His voice was so strange, like nothing I had ever imagined. He sounded like me but in a lower octave, and he kept telling me about how much he loves me… yuck, whoa, (brain explosion)! Sam was incredibly nervous. I found myself trying to calm him down. He was so afraid of saying the wrong thing because he said he didn’t want to lose me again. We talked about our current lives, families, careers.
“I received my degree from an HBCU.
“Excuse me? HBCU? Where?” I snapped.
“Bluefield State College in West Virginia. I didn’t, you know, know it was an HBCU when I attended.”
“Sam, I graduated from an HBCU. Norfolk State University! I’ve never heard of Bluefield State College. And I know my HBCUs! In fact, I was Miss Norfolk State University and when I competed in the Miss Collegiate African-American Pageant. Miss Bluefield State wasn’t a contestant…” I began looking up the College online. And there it was, Bluefield State College, and then Langston Hughs’ face popped right up on the screen. Well, look at that! It’s an HBCU! I said to myself.
“Well, you’ve probably never heard of it because it’s now considered the Whitest HBCU in the Nation.”
>>Pause. Okay, for those who don’t know what HBCU stands for, it means Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs were established to serve the educational needs of Black Americans. Prior to their establishment, and for many years afterward, Blacks were generally denied admission to traditionally White institutions.
Here’s the lowdown on Bluefield State College (BSU) and Norfolk State University (NSU). According to their websites, Bluefield State College was founded in 1895 to provide higher education to the children of African-American coal miners in the region. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis held boxing exhibitions in BSU’s gymnasium, Langston Hughes read poetry on their campus, and Count Basie and Duke Ellington played at BSU fraternity parties.
Norfolk State University, Norfolk State College, was founded on September 18, 1935. The College, brought to life in the midst of the Great Depression, provided a setting in which the youth of the region could give expression to their hopes and aspirations. The College was separated from Virginia State College (another HBCU) and became fully independent in 1969. <<
After telling me about his education, he shared that he worked as a contracted teaching artist in his city. “What?!?”, I yelled inside myself.
“Sam, you won’t believe this, but I used to work as a contracted photography teacher for my city, Santa Monica!”
Then he told me that he helped coordinate Black History celebrations in his town. Okay, this is getting creepier., I said to myself.
“Sam…I developed the annual “Black History “Greens” Festival” for the City of Santa Monica.
I was completely blown away about how similar our interest and background were. Sam confirmed a lot of things I did/do in my life. I played classical piano for 15 years. Sam’s father was a classical music teacher. I’m a visual artist. His mother was a visual artist. The list went on and on. Then stopped instantly when he said, “You know what else, Janeen? I’m one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chapter in Burnsville, NC”.
“To be honest with you, Janeen. I’m an old Black soul trapped in a white man’s body.”