For these angry high school students, I had become the symbol of all they found remiss in the land of liberty.
As an adult working overseas, these memories receded. It was only when I returned in the 1990s to Annapolis, Md., capital of a former border state with divided Confederate and Union loyalties, that I realized how far we had come – and how far we still had to go – in untangling the complex web of race relations spun in America.
At the time, my son was eleven months old – on the cusp of trying out his first words. On an outing with him in his stroller through downtown, I saw a large crowd. I was told a KKK rally was being held at the Capitol building. Suddenly the two of us were swept into an anti-KKK demonstration moving swiftly up Main Street. Briefly I thought this must be a flashback – perhaps I had inadvertently time-travelled to an earlier ugly era.
But no, the Klansmen had assembled in their iconic white gowns and steepled hoods before the State House, staging their event in full view of the state's seat of legislative power. Policemen advised me to keep at a distance. Upon seeing the KKK's gowns, my son, perched high in his stroller, thought it an appropriate moment to attempt speech. His words were not the usual "cat," "dog," or "Mommy," but a marchers' chant.
"K-K-K, Go a-way!" he shouted.
It was a six-syllable rhyme as easy as a Dr. Seuss verse. He recited it for many days to come.
Since that day my son has mastered a wider lexicon, blacks continue to fill the ranks of the middle class, and America has elected its first black president.
And yet what really brought home to me the drama of America's race relations came recently in the unlikely setting of a medical office. I had fallen. My ankle had morphed into a black and blue mass the size of a small football. My doctor started her examination when her cell phone chimed. She quickly took the call and hung up after a brief conversation.
"I apologize," she said, agitated. "That was my retarded uncle. He likes to chat. I am his caretaker." She studied my ankle. Her uncle was in a convalescent home nearby.