By Ari Wright Thompson
My family and I moved to Sanford the summer before kindergarten. With a good amount of extended family, a slow-paced town, and space to grow, Sanford was a pretty ideal place to live while establishing our family.
From a young age, I was very optimistic and saw the good in any and everyone. Sanford has some really great people who have helped me in so many ways. For instance, so many people within Sanford helped me get to college, and for that I will forever be grateful.
With Sanford being smaller and slower-paced, it was quite fitting to develop who I am and what I believe. Sanford will always have a special place in my heart, but I have also had my share of racism growing up.
As you develop through elementary school you create friendships, memories and thoughts that these people will be your friends for life, but as you get older, friendships begin to drop like flies.
Once you hit middle school and then on to high school, people’s true colors and beliefs start to show. I was once asked at the lunch table my junior year of high school during a heated political discussion, “Ari, when have you ever truly experienced racism?”
Just like my white friend at the time, so many people seem to have a misunderstanding of what racism is. Yes, there are the blatant acts of hate like the time a white classmate told me, “I’m going to make you the next Mike Brown,” or my mom being called a “ni**** b***” in front of her two elementary school children at Lowe’s Foods, or when I had to confront five or six white classmates on an overnight school trip for continuing to say “ni***” in rap songs and to have them respond “it’s OK, because it didn’t have a hard -er”.
I have had my fair share of blatant disrespect here in Sanford, but there are other subtle things. We live in Lee County, named after the infamous Robert E. Lee, who was no one to celebrate. I ride up and down Jefferson Davis Highway almost every day. It’s in a way funny that people feel this is “honoring our heritage.” But this is nothing that would make a black individual feel appreciated or welcome in this town.
Everyone is cool with being friends with a black person until they speak their mind in opposition to the ignorance that sometimes seems to spew from people uncontrollably. Growing up in Sanford made me sometimes feel dissatisfied with those I interacted with daily, and quite honestly has caused me to push myself away at times. The same individuals, ignorant ideas and social climate will all still be here to continue Sanford’s culture.
I’ve been trying to express that my life matters for too long for people to still not want to hear me.
I’m tired, and continuing to argue with what feels like a brick wall would only drive me insane. My senior year of high school, I had a discussion with a teacher about why kneeling during the National Anthem wasn’t disrespectful. In situations like this with people you know, they don’t understand that just because I’m your black friend and you know me, doesn’t mean that in anyone else’s eyes — somewhere else in this country, state or maybe county — I’m a suspicious individual. I still walk around with what feels like a target on my back, and the list of lives taken at the hands of racist cops or citizens grows every year.
This is how friendships usually end, I feel like so many times I express my feelings and in response the true racist reveals themselves.
The unwillingness, ignorance and stagnancy like I said has caused me to push myself away from wanting to be in Sanford. I want to see change, and am willing to fight for it.
Like I said, Sanford has a special place in my heart, but change must occur to truly welcome everyone. All things considered, growing up here was troubling at times and overall Sanford has periods where it feels stagnant.
To all the friends, teachers and anyone else who has shown their true colors; you have gifted me every example of what this country has been dealing with from the beginning: the prejudice toward black people along with unwillingness to hear black people. Growing up, at times, I thought Sanford had failed me, but I have been given every example of what I will continue to fight.
Ari Wright Thompson is a 2019 graduate of Southern Lee High School in Sanford and currently attends Morehouse College in Atlanta.