A Nigger No Longer Caged Graduate Admissions Essay

sA Nigger No Longer Caged

I taught myself to read when I was twenty years old. The book I started with was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.

I was raised in Huntington, West Virginia. Living in Huntington was like living at the bottom of a bottomless pit. The hills defining our valley town were four insurmountable walls, imprisoning me in that special hell reserved for children of miscegenation. My mother had broken one of Huntington’s greatest taboos – she had mothered three children by a black man. After three kids and numerous beatings, my mother bravely left him. Disowned by her family and ostracized by the larger white community, her strength did not last long; she started on the long road to alcohol and drug dependency.

My mother did not suffer in silence; instead, she passed on to us the tainted wisdom that her parents gave to her. Her most frequent reminder to us was, “You’re not worth anything, you will never be worth anything, because you’re niggers!” We rarely had food, and many winters we had no working gas for heat or hot water. My mother would conveniently go stay at her boyfriend’s for weeks at a time. Sometimes she would leave me ten or fifteen dollars, and I would buy a week’s worth of food: cereal and milk, hamburger, bread, and potato chips, and Little Debbie snack cakes. When that ran out, my brothers and I had some pretty crafty ways of finding more: talking my father out of some money, begging, or stealing.

My mother had a house in the white part of town, about a block from the geographic dividing line, so we went to the white school. I was one of three blacks in the entire high school. I remember my welcome sign the first day of school: “GO TO HERSHEY HIGH NIGGER” spray painted on my locker, signed in red by the KKK. In my junior year the school decided to celebrate Black History Month by devoting one afternoon’s history class to a discussion of Black achievements. I was so anxious and excited. I was hoping to learn something more than the words of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. My excitement was quickly shot down as my teacher turned to the only Black in the class – me – and asked if I had anything to offer. Remembering my locker on the first day of school, I quickly said no, and the teacher turned to the regular subject. My Black History Month had been reduced to one minute, out of a lifetime of exclusion and epithets.

In my senior year of high school, my mother had a new boyfriend. He would come into my room at night and tell me I was the most beautiful nigger he’d ever seen and how he would like to sleep with me, while my mother stood in the doorway and laughed. Eventually I ran away. At first I stayed with a friend, then I moved in with my dad. My mother moved to North Carolina a short while later.

When I graduated high school, I was fortunate to get a job. My brothers were excited since this meant money for food and clothes. I saw how little money it was and knew that if I wanted to amount to anything I must go to college. I applied to Marshall, the local university. When classes started I had no money for books, and was stymied by financial aid because my parents would not cooperate in providing information. Many days I had no way to get to classes; other days I was too drunk to go. I got straight F’s. I had become everything I hated, an alcoholic with no future.

The following summer I received a lucky break. My mother’s sister called from New York City and asked if I wanted to take care of her two children in exchange for room and board. I gladly excepted the offer. Upon my arrival a whole new world opened up to me. Besides the excitement and pulse of the city I was amazed by the numbers of African Americans doing well. Blacks owned their own businesses and there was even a Black radio station. One of my high school friends visited me in the city from Wellesley College in Boston. I shared with her how my cultural awareness had been developing and she shared with me a book list from one of her classes of great African American authors.

My darkest secret was that I could barely read beyond a fourth grade level. But with this list, a whole new world had opened up. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings slowly and methodically. I read line by line, until I could begin to comprehend what was happening in the story. I did this with every book I got my hands on until I could read whole novels in a day.

I no longer had a drinking problem. I didn’t have to drink. There were museums to visit, interesting conversations, Black people achieving all around me. I told my aunt and uncle I wanted to go back to college. They discouraged me, saying no one would take me because I had failed at Marshall and asking what I would do for financial aid. But I was determined to return to school. I learned how to apply for financial aid on my own. After many rejection letters I found a school that was willing to give me second chance — Fairleigh Dickinson. My first semester I had straight A’s. Immediately I became involved in campus life. By my sophomore year I was voted class president, and had a 3.7 average.

I stopped attending FDU because I was faced with my greatest life challenge yet. I discovered that I was pregnant. Even though my baby’s father did not want any part of my pregnancy, after some serious soul searching I decided I would keep her. I knew that my years in New York and at FDU had shown that I was a responsible person, ready to face the challenge. I had sense enough to know that the few cents I was making as a model and a waitress in New York while being a full-time student would not be enough. I decided to move in with who would have me, my mother in Chapel Hill.

I knew this was a risky choice, but I thought it was the best of my options. My mother had broken her drug dependency when she moved to North Carolina, and was working regularly. She regretted her separation from her children, and was trying very hard to make amends. She wanted to be forgiven, and I wanted a chance to forgive her. She promised she would help take care of my baby so I could continue in school. So I moved to Chapel Hill to have my baby.

My daughter was born in January of 1994, and that September I was excepted at UNC in Chapel Hill as a Continuing Education student. After one semester I was allowed to transfer to the regular program. I have maintained a 3.5 G.P.A. majoring in African American Studies with a concentration in history. I have also been working part time and raising a beautiful, healthy, happy two year old. I, too, know why the caged bird sings.

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