"There's such a range of how writers interpret the idea of diversity in their own lives," says Jim Daniels, Carnegie Mellon University English professor who oversees the Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards for high school and college students. "I thought we had a diverse group of winners."
Kidsburgh is pleased to print one of the winning essays here, a first-place high-school winner by Sarah Ryan called "My Soul and I."
"We're trying to extend the reach of the awards beyond Martin Luther King Day," Daniels says. The annual contest is also trying to reach more schools and more of the community with the winners' prose and poetry. Recently, two of the winning poems were used in the Emanuel Episcopal Church's Sunday evening jazz service themed on race and difference, held at their North Side facility. On July 11, Daniels is hoping that award winnings essays will be read at the Chautauqua Institute in New York.
"It is high-school kids wrestling with a subject our society still wrestles with every day," he says. However, he adds, "there've been more students writing about being gay or sexual differences and more students writing about being mixed race. A lot of times, they have the support of the kids' families in dealing with some of these issues, in taking a risk in writing about this delicate subject."
The collection of all current winners' work is online here
Writer: Marty Levine
'My Soul and I'
By Sarah Ryan
She looked at me and said, “You’re black.”
Then she turned to my soul and said, “You’re black.”
“Yeah, I know” I said.
My soul nodded, “yeah,” it said, “I know.”
My soul and I had stumbled over what to fill out on the application in the ethnicity category. There was no category for half black-half white. I didn’t want to be the pedantic kid who checked other, refusing to define herself as one ethnicity, righteously protesting categorization. Because I don’t care. I know I’m black; when you mix two colors together, the darker one wins out.
My soul, however, tried to mask its surprise. It didn’t know it was black. But why? It wasn’t that it thought it was white. It thought it was self. It thought it was special, different, unique, indefinable. Obviously not. It was black. How could it go this long without knowing?
I had grown up in a very diverse environment. Everyone had labels like, black, white, Hispanic, Indian or Asian. On our first day of school we had tags to tell people our names. My sticker said, “Hello, My name is Sarah.” My skin said, “Hello, I’m black.” We didn’t wear our name tags the second day and everyone forgot, but we kept our ethnicity on, so that no one would have to ask. I knew people saw that I was black and because of it, knew things about me. They knew my ancestors we slaves. They knew they struggled and fought for freedom. They also assumed things about me. At first, the assumptions could shove me down. I would trip, their words like gravel, tearing into my palms and knees and peeling my skin back until it began to sting and foam blood. Eventually I grew calluses, hardly feeling it at all.
My soul never grew calluses. It did not know that everything being said applied to it. Not that everything was offensive, but it meant that people would rather group all black souls together than get to know my soul personally. Up until now, my soul thought it was being judged on merit. My soul wondered why the application readers needed to know it at all. The application had sections for grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, a personal statement, and finances, for aid, but what would race tell it? How do skin color and heritage weigh in to the decision? These were neither accomplished nor earned.
Marking down black on an application could be to my advantage when I apply to college. If there are two students with identical applications applying they will often go with the minority, or so I’m told. I do see that there is some unfairness to this, but when I apply to school I will do anything to make myself look better. If they pick me to boost their minority numbers, that’s fine. I can show schools my talents once I am already there.
My soul does not like to ask for help or to be given an unfair advantage. When its fortitude and determination pay off, my soul is reassured of its abilities and feels talented. Thinking that it did not earn all of its opportunities crushes it. Did people see its talent? Its hard work? All its life my soul had thought it was given opportunities because of its effort. My soul lost confidence.
I saw my soul on the ground nursing its skinned knee, sipping air, trying to keep composure. I helped it up. I told it that time heals all wounds; my soul just needed some time to adjust to its new label, to being defined. After all, my soul and I live in a very diverse and accepting community. On my dad’s side I have first cousins that are red haired Irish and others that are half Korean. We all look alike still with the same nose and face shape. We are family. In my life it is rare that my ethnicity is ever even discussed, except, of course, on applications. However, I am occasionally confronted by prejudiced people and remarks. When this happens, I use my thicker skin to protect myself. I’ve gotten strong. My soul would learn eventually, but right then, in that moment, my soul could only think about how it was not going to cry.
I checked the box labeled African-American nonetheless. I can’t protect my soul’s feelings forever. At some point it has to learn how the world works. My soul will have to grow calluses too.