Who do I think I am? Thoughts about color and gender on MLK day

I may have been only nine or ten years old when my mother talked to me about my color and  gender. She said she could not predict how the world would treat me as a woman of mixed race (not to mention, two nationalities); whatever the case, she said, I should plan to do my very best in all endeavors. That would stand me in good stead.

My father Al Edgell took this picture of my mother, Zee Edgell, and I at the Taj Mahal (India). She was pregnant with my brother Randall Edgell. Circa 1976.

Have I done my best in all endeavors? Admittedly, no. I know I strived mightily to get through high school math and science, while sailing along through English and History. I started college with a 3.9 grade point average and scraped along with less than stellar grades in economics and other areas which my brains find hard to grasp. The result was a 3.2 GPA by the time I got my bachelor’s degree.

Graduate school found me back to “doing my best” form. Having been in the real world for four years, I realized that “pretty good” will only get you so far. I finished a 24-month program in 15 months, with a 4.0 GPA.

It’s harder to rate my performance in various jobs. Official evaluations are helpful, as they often come with some kind of score and feedback about how to improve. But big picture, there are many ways to ourselves off the hook, right? Then, there are those life events that take the wind out of us and seem to blow us off course–or leave us clinging just enough to make it through. Been there.

The bigger question for me on this day is this: Have I lived up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dream?

I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis in early 2011. It's built around the original Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was killed in 1968, the year before I was born.

For me, it’s normal to have a circle of friends from a range of ethnic groups and nationalities. Likewise, I have been the beneficiary of great mentorship from men and women from many backgrounds. I hope my efforts to mentor have made an impact of the lives of those who have sought my counsel.

When applying for a job, new apartment, car loan, or other trapping of American modern life I have done so boldly, feeling–rightly or not–that I would not be judged as “less than” because I am a person of color and a woman.

In some cases my identity surely helped me, whether through formal Affirmative Action programs or simply because society was changing; perceptions and beliefs were changing. Certainly, I’ve managed to build a career in journalism and teaching.

So, thank you Dr. King. Thank you to the thousands (millions?) Americans who fought what may be the most important battle in American history. The struggle continues; it’s underway in every person who strives and makes the most of what our forefathers and foremothers made possible.

I thank my black mother and my white father, who managed to not make race or gender a big deal in our home while gently nudging my brother and I toward our own identities. It didn’t hurt that most of our formative years were not spent in the United States. We didn’t grow up completely immersed in a society still coming to grips with a legacy of slavery and racial divisions.

Although they are fictional characters, I’d also like to thank women like those who appear in The Help (book and movie); they traveled their individual journeys in dignity, walking in grace, blazing trails for people like me.

The greatest gift of all? I feel comfortable in my skin. Still, I think Dr. King’s example reminds us: there’s always room for improvement.

Birthday 2010 in St. Louis, with my father, Al Edgell, and my brother, Randall Edgell, MD.

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