It never occurred to me that Sariyah, my very best friend on the entire planet, was black.
Her skin was darker than mine until at least mid-August of each year when mine became the browner of the two with a little solar support.
Perhaps on some level I realized the difference in our coloring. I just never thought it amounted to anything important or meant that Sariyah would be treated any differently on that basis.
Especially since every girl in our 6th grade class spent her entire allowance on tanning products trying to look exactly like Sariyah and ultimately ended up various shades of Crayola orange.
None of us could wait for the start of summer vacation to lay out our towels and tan creams and dreams hoping we’d be paid the highest compliment before the season ended: “Wow, you are so dark!”
I figured out after a heart wrenching playground brawl though that starting your life out white and turning black from the sun bore zero resemblance to starting your life black from birth.
Nancy, the class bully, made that abundantly clear one afternoon during recess when she decided to beat up Sariyah.
I jumped in front to protect my friend and collided with Nancy’s fist.
I came away with a nasty bruise. It was superficial.
It took me years to understand that Sariyah was deeply bruised, but her wounds were invisible to the naked eye. Hers were scarring to the soul.
That summer a community center with an outdoor pool opened just down the block.
I asked my mom if she would drop us off. I received a definitive “No” without further explanation.
We made the same request of Sariyah’s mom with the same negative outcome.
Weekend after weekend this scenario repeated itself until I politely confronted the refusals.
It boiled down to a simple handwritten note posted at the entrance to the pool:
Someone had decided that my best friend wasn’t allowed to enjoy her summer swimming and splashing and sliding and diving.
She wasn’t even permitted to sit and soak up the sun which I knew belonged to everyone.
I wanted that person’s name. They had no right to treat Sariyah this way.
I did not swim at the community pool that summer nor go any other place where Sariyah’s color prevented her from being welcomed.
We spent all of our free days together in the little park at our apartment complex.
Swinging side-by-side we were intensely focused on planning out the directions our little girl lives would take.
I was going to grow up to become the Director of the Peace Corps.
Sariyah would be a teacher at an elementary school probably 3rd grade.
Leaving the playground one afternoon Sariyah once again faced the bully but this time the bully brought reinforcements (four would-be bulliers).
She demanded that Sariyah stay put.
I grabbed Sariyah’s hand and told her to keep walking.
Within moments we were surrounded and Sariyah was pushed to the ground.
It was over in a minute and the bully stood over Sariyah her chest puffed out in front of her friends.
Sariyah said absolutely nothing.
Sariyah did absolutely nothing until they had gone.
Then with her shirtsleeve she wiped off the dirt from her face and used water from the fountain to wash away the blood.
It took me a minute to realize I was watching a well-choreographed ritual, one Sariyah had obviously performed too many times to count.
We walked home in silence.
I was the angriest I had ever been in my whole young life and I didn’t even know who I was angrier with: Nancy for hurting my best friend or Sariyah for not hurting Nancy.
I veered off to my apartment without saying good-bye.
The next day we were back to bosom buddy status as though nothing had taken place the day before that had irrevocably altered my insides.
In 11th grade Sariyah’s father decided to re-locate his family to Washington, D.C.
I visited my best friend on her 17th birthday and we spent a lazy afternoon sitting on the swings at a local park.
I was reminded of another park on a very different day long ago.
On the plane ride home I reflected on the true differences between Sariyah and myself.
None had anything at all to do with color.
Sariyah had discovered some important secrets about life, ones that I had yet to master.
She made the best of her lot and did not complain or pity herself.
She preserved her dignity and pride and never gave in to the hatred around her.
She made no excuses and placed no blame.
Instead, she blossomed against the odds.
As life would have it I never did become the Director of the Peace Corps nor did Sariyah become that elementary school teacher.
She became the principal.
Originally published in Skirt Magazine
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