Excerpt: Lena Williams

Oprah Winfrey, the popular talk show host, was once denied access to a boutique on Madison Avenue. Debbie Allen, the actress, director, and choreographer, was refused service at a boutique on Rodeo Drive because the saleswoman thought Ms. Allen could not afford to purchase merchandise in the store. Ms. Allen bought the item to prove a point, only to return it the next day after she realized the offending salesclerk received a substantial commission from the purchase.

Celeste Goring-Johnson, a forty-two-year-old mother of three, from Brooklyn, wasn't given the chance to show indignation like Ms. Allen's. In September 1999, Mrs. Goring-Johnson, who is black, was arrested, taken away in handcuffs, and strip-searched because a Brooklyn jewelry store owner suspected she had stolen a diamond ring.

Mrs. Johnson denied taking the ring. As it turned out the only evidence against her was that she was the only customer near the counter when the jewelry store owner noticed the ring was missing.

After Mrs. Johnson was released from custody, she contacted a lawyer and submitted to a lie detector test, which she passed. The district attorney's office did not prosecute the case.

"Blacks are seen as shoplifters, as unclean, as disreputable poor," Dr. Feagin said to me when I was researching a story on the bias blacks experience in public places. "No matter how affluent and influential, a black person cannot escape the stigma of being black even while relaxing or shopping…"

I've always been ambivalent about my nationality. When I was young I loved being an American. I was as American as Mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet. In school we pledged allegiance to the flag, staged plays on the American Revolution, with little black girls playing the role of Betsy Ross and little black boys reciting the ride of Paul Revere. I believed in democracy, saw communism as a threat to the world, and thought Africa was synonymous with the jungle.

Then black power got hold of me. I danced on the flag and grew to despise the hypocrisy of a nation that preached freedom and justice for all while oppressing a segment of its population. A nation that wanted to dictate policy to communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Cuba but refused to right its own wrongs. Black soldiers fought and died in wars in Germany, Japan, and Vietnam, only to return home to be called niggers. Forget integration; I believed in a separate black state.

When did I change back? When did I begin to hear myself say how disappointed I was that children today do not know the pledge of allegiance? When did I begin to routinely refer to myself as a black American?

Was it 1978, when I and two friends went to Paris and heard Parisians instinctively refer to us as Americans. Not black. Not Negroes. Americans. Or was it in 1983 while visiting London, where British citizens remarked on my American accent.

"Are you from the States?" a London cabbie asked me upon my arrival at Heathrow. "You speak English with an American accent."

But it wasn't in Europe that I found my Americanness. I found it in Africa, of all places.

I went to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1987, to visit a friend, Sheila Rule, who was working there as bureau chief for the New York Times. In the two weeks traveling throughout Kenya and Harare, Zimbabwe, with Sheila, who is black, I was constantly reminded of my nationality.

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