In this piece of work from Gabriel’s senior year of high school, he outlines his racial awakening and subsequent passion for racial justice and reconciliation.
The Birth of an Activist by Gabriel G. Scheller
Over the years I have probably read more books than the average teenager. This can partly be attributed to my four years of home schooling with a literature-based curriculum and partly an early introduction to novels by my mother. I have also seen many movies and television shows, more than is probably healthy. Because of these two factors, I was hard-pressed to think of one book or movie that has had any significant influence on my life. The movies I chose are Remember the Titans and Glory; the book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I have been blessed to live as a bi-racial child in an entirely Caucasian family. I never knew my Tanzanian birth father. About a month after my first birthday, my mom married my father and he adopted me when I was five. I have never felt uncomfortable around my white family. Everyone on both my natural mother’s side and my adoptive father’s side treats me with love and respect.
My parents tried as hard as they could to make sure I never tasted the bitterness of racism or bigotry. They even moved the whole family from Point Pleasant Beach, NJ, which had hardly any diversity to Long Branch, NJ, which had everything from Hispanics to Asians. In turn, I never had to deal with discrimination because of the color of my skin. I was never denied access to any public place because I was black. I could always drink out of the same water fountain as anyone else. This was a blessing in almost every way, except that by not suffering myself, I was not as sympathetic towards the people who had suffered as I could have been. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement seemed so far away that I never appreciated what had been sacrificed.
It was not until eighth grade that I began to realize the things I had been taking for granted. My mom, my brother and I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing style was breathtaking and powerful. She made me feel the ice cold water of a woman trying to escape through a frozen river and every lash inflicted on Tom by Simon Legree. As we read, I had to breathe sighs of relief throughout the book and thank God that he did not create me to live in that time.
Later on I saw the movie and it was very disappointing, as most book-based movies are. I was the only one in AP History class who had read the book and I had everyone excited to watch it. “Wait ’til you see how bad Legree is. You’re gonna’ hate him so much.” Unfortunately the film makers could not fully visualize just how evil Simon was. They did not make his voice drip with hate or send tingles up my spine every time he entered a scene. The movie made him out to be simply an angry drunk, more pitiful than malevolent. The effect was exactly the opposite of the one I had had as a reader. Instead of hating Legree, I almost felt sorry for him.
This new found empathy with the suffering of my predecessors invigorated me. I wanted to do everything for Civil Rights! I wanted to fight the good fight! But there was not even a little inequality I could find in my town, considering the fact that minorities were the majority.
It was not until sophomore year that I saw the two movies that have had the greatest effect on me. I recall seeing posters advertising Remember the Titans and scrutinizing it harshly. How could a Disney movie about football be worth seeing? After it came out, the buzz of the critics was positive, but anyone can find a critic who likes a bad movie. I didn’t take it that seriously until I heard the kids in school raving about it. It was inspirational! It made grown men cry! I finally watched it in my US History II class when it came out on video. I was astonished by Denzel Washington’s stellar performance. This movie didn’t sugar coat anything. It showed the bigotry and skewed logic of disrespecting someone just because of their skin color.
I wanted to do something. I thought for a long time and finally decided I wanted to make a movie, a story of racism that takes place in the present. I wanted to show that it still lives, to show that even though the movers and shakers of the Civil Rights Movement made astronomical advances, we still have a ways to go. I also wanted it to be set in the North. Unfortunately other than setting, I really had nothing to go on. I thought for days, but nothing came to mind and I gradually forgot about my plans.
That spring the class watched Glory. Once again I watched as African Americans were hated for no logical reason. I watched them fight and die for the freedom that I still take for granted. I wanted others to feel the same way I did, watching these movies and reading that book. I was reminded of my screenplay. This time I was determined to come up with a plot. I tried for almost two weeks. Everything I came up with was either pitiful or reminiscent of some other movie. Three weeks had gone by and I had given up. I went to sleep depressed and discouraged. It must have been 2:30 in the morning when I woke up. I saw it all in my head: plot, camera angles, what the actors needed to look like. Everything was there. I hopped out of bed and took out a piece of paper from my desk drawer. I had to get it all down. I couldn’t forget. I crawled back into bed after almost forty-five minutes of furious scribbling and fell asleep with a smile spread across my face.
After much refining and lots of thought, my screenplay evolved into a book. I figured that it would be a lot easier for a first time author to have his book published than it would be to have a screenplay made into the major movie I wanted it to be. Plus, I had no idea how to write a screenplay. It just made more sense to write it as a book, hope it would be popular and then have it made into a movie.
The novella is coming along very slowly. I have been writing it for almost a year. Due to writer’s block and my tendency toward procrastination, I have spent much less time on it than I would have liked. In the move out here to California, some of my important notes were lost, which set me back further. I plan on bouncing back and reaching my goal before I have to leave for college, where I will probably be so sick of writing things that I’d rather have my fingers broken than do it voluntarily.
These three media pieces have influenced me for the better. I have more respect for myself and appreciation for my ethnicity. I don’t let people make ignorant comments about my being mixed the way I used to—even if it’s only in fun. I have decided to stop pretending that it doesn’t hurt. One day I hope and pray that I will have done something to make at least one person feel the same way.
[© GGS 2002, all rights reserved.]