It was only about 15 years ago that I walked through the door of a Level II Trauma Center as a young black nurse in a rural town in Florida. Many of my patients had to be convinced I was their nurse. I know it doesn't seem like that long ago, and it wasn't. Minority nurses in the South faced a profound challenge: proving ourselves to our fellow nursing students, coworkers, teachers, and patients. Being average was never good enough for a minority nurse.
I worked full time, changing my clothes while I drove from work to school. I struggled and studied my way from certified nursing assistant to licensed practical nurse to registered nurse, all for a better future for my husband, my children, and me. It was difficult, but more than that, it was a challenge to do more and be more.
I remember being a sales associate at Sears only two or three years earlier. I worked in the drapery department. One afternoon, I spent an hour talking to an elderly white woman about her made-to-order drapes. We went over measurements, patterns, colors, lengths, and sizes. When the sale was complete, she turned to me and said, "You're the best little colored girl I ever met." I found myself saying "thank you" without hesitation. After she walked away, I was left with the loneliness of my thoughts. I was so disappointed with my response. How could I have thanked a woman for suggesting black men and women as a whole were somehow inferior to her? What was wrong with me? Then I remembered what I had always known to be true since the day I moved to the South: being black and successful makes you an anomaly.
I hoped that anytime a white man or woman recognized a black man or woman for being intelligent or hard working, it would be a second chance for the next black man or woman to cross their path. That was my justification—or was I just at the center of some kind of racial circus, with white Southerners out in the audience clapping at the possibility of competency in a black person?
Eventually, I moved to Tampa and started working in the ICU. I grew very proud of myself as I moved up the career ladder. My work as a nurse has given me so much insight into human nature. When I looked around the hospital, I saw so much diversity: black and white, male and female. It was like a new world. I felt like an explorer on the shore of an uncharted land filled with potential, promises, and opportunities. But as time went on, I noticed a lack of dark skin and faces in the many intensive care areas.
Being a minority means knowing that many of the people you encounter draw conclusions about others just like you based on your individual actions, so I continued to be the overachiever. While in the ICU, I filled my mind with as much knowledge as it could hold. I pushed to continue my education and received as many certifications as I could, all part of a plan to convince my children, my husband, and my coworkers that black is not a barricade to success but a motivator for excellence. I thought that the actions of the individual would catch up to the thoughts of the majority. I told my children to work hard and be the best at whatever they decided to do, and they would achieve success. But in the back of my mind, I don't know if I truly believed that sentiment. I know the world is cruel and being black is like having a target you can't hide. Whether the title is "valedictorian," "Miss America," or "Secretary of State," there are still people out there who differentiate you by the color of your skin. "You know, the black one"—I've uttered those words myself.
After being in the ICU for a couple of years, I had the opportunity to serve my country, if even for a short time, after 9/11. I was asked to go up to New York and help with medical relief in the hospital that housed many of the severely burned victims of the tragedy. I felt honored to be there and for the first time in my life felt like I was a part of the fabric of America. I felt woven together in the fabric of despair, solidarity, and deep remorse for those who were hurt and lost. We were all motivated into action. And even though it was extremely sad, I felt a kinship toward those involved and affected. It was a new, deep American connection I have never felt before. A nation pulled together to help one another, offering kindness, concern, and sympathy after what could have been a spirit breaking event.
After returning to Florida, I was promoted to clinician (what we used to call assistant managers) while in the ICU. I worked 60 hours a week in order to give my family the life I thought they deserved. I graduated with a bachelor's degree from USF, and was feeling pretty good about my career and the message I was passing to my children about hard work and dedication being the route to success.
I remember one day in particular from the summer of 2005. I was helping a coworker during a one-hour dressing change in the ICU. The television was on in the background, and I glanced up at the screen. The images overwhelmed me: black bodies floating in the water and black faces appearing desperate, pupils dilated, breathing hard, eyes without hope, and bodies unsure of movement or purpose. Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans and the devastation was appalling. Day after day, the black faces stared back at me on the television screen; scared, lonely, frustrated, and hungry. They waited for relief from the country they believed in. The fabric I once felt a part of now reminded me of an old weathered quilt with holes, tattered and barely holding together. It offered no protection and comfort. We were exposed, and the Katrina tragedy exposed the disparities that still existed in a nation referred to as "united."
I went home everyday to four children full of questions. Why doesn't the government care? Why aren't we doing more? I had no answers for them—at least no answers I could share with four black children who were brought up thinking we were all created equal. Then I watched the looters, many of them also black faces, and I listened to the commentators speak about the atrocities unfolding throughout New Orleans. The country often described as the protector of the world could barely mobilize to help its own people. All I saw was the lack of respect for and diminished worth of the poor and minorities everywhere.
I was promoted to nurse supervisor a few years ago. Though I was young, I felt confident in my new position. Commanding the respect of my peers and subordinates was difficult, and I still struggle with it, but I make sure they know I haven't forgotten what it's like to be a bedside nurse. However, as confident as I felt, I would sometimes walk through the hallway doing rounds and think to myself, "What is this little black girl doing in this position trying to tell these folks what to do?" But I could quickly push those thoughts aside when I spoke with other minority nurses who would say, "I'm so proud of you," or "We're glad you're here." I know that feeling. It comes from seeing someone do something you deemed impossible. It's the same feeling I had as I watched Barack Obama on his journey to becoming our president. I sometimes wonder if he, like me, has his moments of, "How did I get here?" and "Do I deserve this?" But if he's anything like me, he'll gain purpose and strength from the people that look at him with admiration, having achieved something that once seemed unobtainable. Could there be hope for a country that just a few years before turned its back on its minority citizens, calling them refugees?
I remember watching with pride on Election Day as Obama was announced the President-elect. However, this was a different kind of pride. This pride was for my country. The United States again pulled together at one of its most difficult of times to elect a leader—not a black leader, just a leader. I felt a change in my heart I had only felt once before, after 9/11. I felt like a vote for Barack was more than a vote for a black man; it was a vote for a united nation. Like so many Americans, my husband lost his job during the recession and I needed to pick up a second. I found myself watching Obama's inauguration on my lunch break at a new hospital. I sat at a table with a couple of my coworkers and stared at the TV intently. I watched as Joe Biden was sworn in. I listened and cried as Aretha Franklin sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." I smiled as President Obama's daughters stepped up to witness history and as his wife held the Lincoln Bible.
My coworkers talked about the future and how President Obama could prove himself. They chatted with cautious hope, wondering whether or not he would live up to his impassioned speeches. I smiled, thinking, "If they only knew." If nothing changed from that moment on, one very important thing had already. I finally realized that change happens not just through the act of an individual, but rather through the actions of many. When I look into my children's eyes, and when they look into the eyes of their children, we can say with the utmost veracity that the American dream belongs to all of us. And for the first time in my life, I really mean it.