Living a white lie

Feb. 23, 2009, 10:46 p.m. | By Lily Alexander | 15 years, 3 months ago

In 1954, Jim Queen arrived at Montgomery Blair High School. The school was all white. He was not.

The janitors would come to watch him run. They knew - or at least sensed - he wasn't who he said he was. As he raced around the quarter-mile track at old Blair High School, they would silently agree about what was never said aloud. And at a time when race relations in the United States were defined by divisions, from water fountains to hospitals, Jim Queen was an anomaly. The janitors suspected it. His parents knew it. And so did he.

Jim Queen, 70, now lives in San Francisco with his wife of 40 years. From 1954 to 1957, he attended Montgomery Blair High School, where he was forced to pass as a white student by hiding his far more complex and multiracial heritage.

The school system did not.

Three years before MCPS officially opened its doors to integration, Jim Queen was a student with a mixed heritage - part white, part black, part Native American - studying at a school comprised entirely of white students. For over two years, Queen maintained this façade, keeping his racial background a secret from friends, teachers and classmates.

Now 70, Queen is far-removed from his time at Blair, but the experiences of his upbringing and childhood clouded by questions of racial identity and self-discovery have played a large role in small farm in shaping the man he has become.

Hidden identity

Born in 1939, Queen spent the first six years of his life in southern Prince George's County on a small farm in Oxon Hill. The end of World War II brought about great changes for his family. After his father returned home from military service, the Queens decided to pick up and move from the rural Oxon Hill area where they had spent their entire lives and been surrounded by a familiar culture. Queen's parents belonged to a group called Wesorts - members of the Piscataway Indian Nation of Maryland who shared a mixture of white, black and Native American ancestry. "Both my parents were mixed. The Wesorts always intermarried within the group," Queen says. "If I had stayed I would have also grown up with that culture."

But in 1945, after saving for a down payment on a house, Queen and his family left this close-knit community for Takoma Park, Maryland, which was at the time largely white. His parents wanted a different life for their son, one that would provide broader educational and social opportunities. They exchanged the world they had always known for a completely foreign environment, cutting themselves off from their old identities, relatives and friends. "When we moved to Takoma Park, Maryland we couldn't talk about our other family," Queen says. "My parents, who were deceiving everyone, automatically had to hide their background because they were living a different lifestyle." Due to their light skin color, Queen and his parents were able to pass as white, allowing them access to the economic and social benefits in Takoma Park. This included attending Blair - which was then limited solely to white students.

According to Melina Chateauvert, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, the practice of "passing" continued well into the 1960s, becoming especially prevalent in the North. "Even as late as the 1960s … when the 'black and beautiful movement' took hold as a popular concept, there were still a lot of people who continued to call themselves white," Chateuvert says.

Queen's parents did not seek complete anonymity, however. In many ways, Takoma Park provided a new and liberating life for his parents, who thrived in their new environment despite having to conceal their true racial identity. Queen's mother was known throughout their neighborhood for her "warm and gracious personality," according to Queen. She maintained a beautiful garden that was the "showcase of the neighborhood," a place so inviting that neighbors asked if they could get married there. But for Queen, hiding his race made him feel exposed and isolated. "The prevailing issue in any new setting was the fear of being found out that I was passing," he says. This fear intensified when he entered Blair as a freshman in 1954. Queen says his concerns about being exposed and personal feelings of self-doubt prevented him from forming close friendships at Blair. "I was very frustrated in living a lie," Queen says. "It was a very damaging thing when I was younger, and in the interaction with my friends I really didn't know who I was, which caused a lot of drama."

Despite Queen's efforts, not everyone bought his story. The school's custodial staff - the only blacks legally admitted to Blair at the time - seemed to understand what Blair's teachers, students and administrators could not. Their presence at the track demonstrated what Queen believed to be a sense of racial kinship. This attention, however, made him feel as if the whole world could see through his secret. "The janitors made me feel anxious because everyone was watching, and I did not want people to make the connection as to why," Queen says.

The conflict Queen faced took its toll, causing him to drop out of Blair after the following year. "The contradictions and social injustice that created my situation made me feel isolated and anti-social, which is why I dropped out my junior year," he says.

'It's not all peaches and cream'

His time at Blair now complete, Queen soon found himself following in his father's footsteps. In 1958, he entered the armed services and began to accept and embrace his true ethnicity. In many ways he felt relieved - but his choice to openly acknowledge his mixed heritage ushered in a whole new set of challenges. While working as a medic in the Navy at a military hospital in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Queen began to date a young white Southern woman. They wanted to marry, but she knew that her parents would "never accept a person of mixed blood," Queen says.

Depressed and discouraged, she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. Although she survived, the experience left Queen with a brutal reminder of the potential consequences of revealing his race. "So my first experience being who I really was ended up being a reality check on the reality of racism in America," he says. "I spent two years in Camp Lejuene without dating or going off the base - two years of introspection, study and reflection. Trying to make sense of it all."

Members of Blair's janitorial staff in 1955. Picture courtesy of Silverlogue.

By focusing his thoughts inward, Queen became a keener observer of others' prejudices, a newfound awareness that was put to good use when he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan for six months. After witnessing American soldiers taunting and disrespecting the Okinawan women who did the laundry on the base, Queen became the coordinator of the laundry workers. While carrying a bucket of clothes over to the clothesline one day, Queen says he saw one of the Okinawan women break down in tears of shock and appreciation. This helped ease the tension between him and the woman, leading her to reveal her feelings of disgust toward the treatment of Okinawans.

If Queen's time at Blair served as a primer on racial segregation, it was his years in the military (1958-1962) that cemented his understanding of the pervasive nature of racism. "It taught me that it wasn't all peaches and cream," Queen says with a laugh. "With those experiences and my own reality growing up, I was beginning to see the contradictions. It opened my eyes up."

Aisha Queen, Queen's oldest daughter, says that her father translated his experiences into his parenting by creating a welcoming and accepting home for his family. "We were always raised with the principles of respecting yourself and others," she says. "My father showed us that there's a beauty in all the different ethnicities, and the importance of being proud of that."

Giving back to the community

With a new understanding of racial identity, Queen settled in San Francisco after leaving the service in 1962. He then earned his undergraduate degree and later his master's, before going on to start community work as an organizer for a small, city-funded youth summer program. The multi-ethnic group of kids with whom he worked, ages 12 to 18, soon became the foundation for a volunteer-based organization called the East Mission Union Youth Organization (EMUYO), which evolved into the Real Alternatives Program (RAP). The organization's main purpose was to empower youth, Queen says, by educating them about everyday social and economic problems they face and providing an alternative to the juvenile justice system. "Once educated they must become the voice, provide the leadership and be the primary advocates for the struggle for social and economic justice," Queen says.

More recently, Queen launched the "One Race Movement." This movement promotes the idea that we all belong to one race - the human race - and that the concept of multiple races is "a false social construct used historically to divide and exploit people," rather than a scientifically-based idea. He developed this idea after rediscovering his own Wesort roots and learning about the Genome Project conducted by Craig Venter, which aimed to prove that all humans originally come from Africa. To convey his movement's core message, Queen designed a symbol that now adorns clothing and posters, depicting the silhouettes of many different colored faces and the word "ONE" beneath it.

The One Race Movement symbol is being used in schools, concerts and large festivals throughout San Francisco, and Queen hopes to take it even further. His ultimate goal is to change the way people think about race so that it is seen as a common uniting force, not a divisive wedge. Aisha Queen says that the symbol can be interpreted in various ways, but its ability to resonate with people is undeniable. "It's a simple and non-threatening way of getting across an idea without imposing a viewpoint. It's a universal symbol of peace where everyone is represented," she says.

Behind the symbol, though, is a philosophy, one that Queen can articulate better than anyone: "I firmly believe that whatever your religion, that the bottom line is we all came from the same roots and we all love that we're human." The path Queen took to this conclusion was a difficult one, littered with encounters with racism and moments of self-doubt. During his short-lived tenure at Blair, he was forced to live a lie. But half a century later, Jim Queen believes he has found his truth, and he says the reward was well worth the journey. "When I look back on all that formed me I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But in the end I'm blessed," he says. "If I hadn't had these contradictions, race would not have become so prominent in my life. It helped me to heal myself and go through a transformation."

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Lily Alexander. Loves El Salvador, James Franco, "Freaks and Geeks" (best show EVER), Mint chip ice cream, softball and field hockey. She is OBSESSED with gmail and adores "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights" (and aspires to dance with Diego Luna). More »

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