The First Time I Realized I Was Black, a new CNN series featuring animated videos and opinion pieces featuring more than 25 celebrities and artists recalling the first time they realized their skin color made them different, dug up some serious—and maddening—memories for me. There was the time the white male photographer near snatched my arm out the socket posing me in my ballet pictures—a gruffness I instinctively knew was egregiously different from the way he treated the other girls in my all-white-save-for-me dance troop. And there was the time someone burned something on the front lawn of our family lawn in Long Island, infuriating my father, who, I didn’t realize until years later, likened the action to burning a cross on his grass. I’ll never forget, either, the time the new neighbors, not even a week in their home across the street from ours, erected an eight-foot fence around their property and told the kids to tell us they’re “not allowed to play with niggers.” I was young and too naive to comprehend the gut-punch each of these incidents intended to elicit.

I was 12 when I realized this brown skin would leave wounds that would forever change me. Click To Tweet

But an incident when I was 12 made crystal clear for me that living in this brown skin wouldn’t be easy. That it would sear deep down to my soul, leaving wounds that would fester and puss and forever change me.

It happened one afternoon when my cousin and I dared ride my bike on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was only one block away from my childhood home, but it might as well have been Mars in my neighborhood, where Black families had only begun to dot the lily-white streets of this mostly blue-collar, working class community. There were streets you walked down if you were Black and many others you didn’t—those were the (unwritten) rules, and those of us who lived there just kinda went with it.

My cousin? She was from South Carolina. And a rule breaker. And since she was driving and I was riding, we found ourselves on Pennsylvania Avenue, cruising past my Girl Scouts Troop leader’s house. Her daughter—a fellow scout—was having a party with a bunch of other girls from our troop (no, I did not receive an invitation) sprawled all over her front lawn. My cousin and I had barely gotten past the yard when the troop leader’s daughter hurled her greeting.

Nigger want a watermelon?

Stunned, scared, hurt and betrayed, I was rendered mute. But my cousin, whose mouth was bigger than the Long Island Sound, had no problem saying a few choice words back—nasty enough to get the fellow scout and all of her friends to chase us all the way down the street. All the way off Pennsylvania Avenue.

I never stepped foot back on that block again. And I never went back to Girl Scouts, either, for obvious reasons.

That was the first time I realized I was Black—in a way that made me feel different viscerally. It was a helluva thing to swallow, especially with only 12 years on the earth under my belt. I wish I could say that something profound came from it—some lesson on how I got bigger because of it. I did not get bigger. The incident made me feel small. So… very… small. Surely, I shrank because of it.

I shrank.

That was the first time I felt like I was Black. When did it happen for you?

Check out CNN’s videos, showcasing more than 25 celebrities and artists like Doug E Fresh, Jason George, Kamau Bell, Van Jones, Angelique Kudjo and more, sharing their stories about the moment they realized they were black—and how skin color affected how people saw or treated them. CNN also plans to feature opinion pieces online and across CNN’s television and social platforms. Share your story with the hashtag #realizediwasblack.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

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