Joshua Gatling fell asleep one day during his seventh grade science class. He woke to find that his classmates had put pins in his hair, laughing at how they looked in his Afro hairstyle. Laughing at how different his hair was from theirs. Laughing at how different he is for being black.
Gatling laughed along with his classmates, but stopped when he was alone.
“Everyone thought it was funny, but what they did not know was that when I was taking the pins out, I was pulling out so much of my own hair,” Gatling recalled.
As a black man raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Gatling’s skin color set him apart from many of his peers and friends. The black community makes up a tiny fraction of the Valley’s population, but despite that, and despite the Valley being a minority-majority region, they still face racism and prejudice.
Earlier this month Black Lives Matters protesters in downtown McAllen were accosted by a man waving a chainsaw and shouting the n-word. A Mission CISD employee left the district after sharing content on social media that the district described as blatantly racist. And last week, comments from public figures viewed as racially insensitive sparked protests and calls for their resignations.
Just Thursday, a mural in Brownsville depicting George Floyd, the black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer last month, was defaced. The question of race and racism in the Rio Grande Valley is still decidedly unsettled.
“People want to say that there isn’t any racism down here, but there is,” Gatling, now 27, said. “A lot of the racism here is the racism of being ignorant to the different types of other people, it’s when they only hang out with only one group.”
Gatling is no longer that grade school child having pins shoved into his hair by his classmates. He’s an adult now, starting his own marketing company. He’s embraced his hair and styled into long dreadlocks.
Despite that, people still can’t seem to get over the hair.
“I can’t go to the store or hang out in public without people going, ‘Oh my gosh I have to touch it,’ or asking, ‘If I touch it, will it hurt?’” he said. “When people are introduced to someone different, they enter it with a sense of ignorance. People react to things ignorantly, naively, because they don’t know what they are talking about… So as a black man, I walk on eggshells.”
Gatling remembers that pervasive, unconscious, casual racism shaping how he was raised and how he perceived himself. From an early age, his parents taught him and his brothers that because of their skin color, they had to have tougher skin. They had to learn how to rebound from setbacks faster than others. To hustle.
“My mom says you get one day to sulk, then you get up and get back on your grind,” Gatling said. “As black men, we don’t get that luxury. As black men and women, we don’t have the luxury to say ‘in a little bit.’”
Gatling remembers the day he got his driver’s license. He was excited, like any 15-year-old. But unlike most at that age, the first thing he did was memorize it. He was afraid of what would happen if he was ever caught without it.
“In case I forgot my wallet for some reason, or left my ID in the pocket of a different pair of pants, I had my driver’s license memorized to the T, so I could tell them all my information on it,” Gatling said. “They could never say that I was lying.”
That kind of planning was prevalent in the Gatling family.
“When my parents told us to make it home safely, that was the motto of our lives,” he said. “When I said I was going to the store, it was, ‘OK, make sure you have your seatbelt on, make sure the lights are on, do you have your license?”
Gatling was an active athlete in high school. He played football, basketball and soccer at James “Nikki” Rowe High School, and said several sports helped him make many friends.
He acknowledged that the sort of racism he faced and continues to face wasn’t as blatant, as regimented, as the sort of racism faced by his grandparents’ generation.
George McShan, a former board member of the Harlingen school district for 30 years, did face that kind of old-school, institutionalized racism. He was a high school student about 50 years before Gatling, and studying in a fully segregated school in Elgin, a small Central Texas city.
Like Gatling, McShan played football, basketball and soccer in high school. But McShan’s football games were always on Saturdays since the nearby white school’s team preferred to play on Fridays.
“All of our games were after the students of privilege, they got what they wanted. We got their leftovers,” McShan, now 72, said.
McShan attended school at Booker T. Washington in Elgin, graduating with a class of 21 in 1965 — a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“One of the things I always wished I could do was to go to the white school because I knew I was just as good as anyone else,” he said.
That legislation didn’t necessarily fulfill McShan’s wish. The University of Texas in Austin was the closest college to his hometown, and he wanted to go there to continue his education, but UT was not accepting black students when McShan applied. He went to Prairie View A&M University instead, studying biology, chemistry and agriculture.
McShan moved down in 1968 to teach science at Brownsville High School, coming to the Valley just years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled segregation unconstitutional. He said that the advancement in equality in education systems the past six decades is almost unimaginable — the idea of desegregation never crossed his mind when he was in high school.
“We have made a lot of progress over the years, as far as the constitution goes,” he said. “Women could not vote until 100 years ago, black lives could not vote until 1964, we have had a black president — we have had pockets of success, but we have to get away from the pockets and have success across the board for everybody. That is what we have to strive for.”
He went on to be the first black person to be elected president of the Texas Association of School Boards in 1998, and in 2004, was the second Texan to be elected president of the National School Boards Association. He’s also the principal consultant for the McShan Consulting Firm, which has long been active in the region helping lead school districts’ superintendent searches.
McShan said part of doing that is by taking on an extra responsibility as community members: advocating for other people of color.
“Once you are put in a leadership position, it is your duty to make sure that you do not have an ethical collapse in your memory and help others and lift people up,” he said. “Once you get to where you are, do the right thing for all people. That would make for a better society and that is what humanity deserves.”
As a pioneering CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs in Edinburg for 30 years, Sabrina Walker understands that pressure. She is the first black executive at any club across the Valley.
“So I knew that I had to make it better. I could not fail,” she said. “I could not fail because then there would never be another black CEO in the Valley. That was on my shoulders.”
Walker grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, where she said racism is more overt. She remembers being called the n-word for the first time at 12 years old, and seeing her hometown’s Ku Klux Klan walking down her neighborhood’s street.
In the Valley, she said, there have been several times when strangers have approached her while grocery shopping to ask if they could touch her dark skin, saying they have never touched a black person’s skin before. It was the same with her braids. She said she does not often get upset over these kinds of instances.
“Racism is not overt most of the time, it is a sense that you get. You have to work harder and prepare better, because you know you are being judged on a continuous basis,” she said.
What she is not comfortable with is the bullying her children have endured. Her youngest daughter, for instance, was called a “porch monkey” in elementary school. The student who made that comment to her daughter was not reprimanded, so she spoke to the principal and said they “missed their opportunity to educate,” Walker recalled.
“I had to explain to her that people are ignorant, she had to learn earlier than others that people are ignorant,” Walker said about her conversations with her daughter. “So I told her, ‘You know who you are, you know who your family is, and you hold onto that and don’t let other people define you.’”
Walker has often hesitated to make a big deal out of the casual racism that her family experiences in the Valley, but she isn’t so sure she’d let it go as easily these days.
“I am emotionally drained, and I am tired of allowing other people to be comfortable with my discomfort,” she said.
Walker also said that she did not learn about Juneteenth, which celebrates the day Texas slaves learned of their freedom, until she moved to McAllen.
Walker is now going on her sixth year serving on the local Juneteenth committee, which often observes the holiday at the Restlawn Cemetery in Edinburg, the only black burial grounds in the Valley.
Lewis Callis, an Edinburg resident who initiated the restoration and cleanup of the cemetery, is buried there. The cemetery was at one point referred to as the “Cabbage Patch,” or the “Colored or Harlem Cemetery,” because of how unkempt it was.
Such history helps illustrate the struggles and plight of black people in the Valley, which Walker believes the community should seek to learn.
One day, she hopes her grandchildren have the opportunity to live in a more accepting community, like generations before Walker wished for her, and that their identity isn’t influenced by stereotypes or caricatures.
“What I wish for them … is that they know who they are,” Walker said, noting that she’s referred to as bibi, which is Swahili for grandmother. “Bibi wishes that they know about their black heritage, that their black heritage has been present. They are going to get their identification of being black from me… ‘Bibi’ wants them to know that they are who they say they are.”