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Part III of VI: What Blackness Looks Like- WHAT COLOR IS ACCEPTABLE?

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A MILITARY B.R.A.T. THIRD CULTURE KID ON REPATRIATION.

by Sonja L. Motley-Turman

It’s 1962. I am sleeping on my mother’s lap on my way to Germany. This is the first stop on my travels with my parents. My father served in the U.S. Army for more than 25 years. My mother, Edna and I traveled the world for many years. My grandmother knew that her daughter and her granddaughter were planning on living in Germany. Before I came along, my father, T.L., Thomas Lathum, stated, “I don’t make girls.” Well, I arrived female and was born June 1961. Dora, my grandmother, noted that I wouldn’t blend that very well in Bremerhaven, Germany. She decided that my father needed some help and suggested that he name me Sonja after Sonja Henie, a famous ice skater from Norway. My grandmother loved watching her skate and thought that would be a perfect name for me to help the path to acceptance. It’s 1962. I am sleeping on my mother’s lap on my way to Germany. This is the first stop on my travels with my parents.

My father served in the U.S. Army for more than 25 years. My mother, Edna and I traveled the world for many years. My grandmother knew that her daughter and her granddaughter were planning on living in Germany. Before I came along, my father, T.L., Thomas Lathum, stated, “I don’t make girls.” Well, I arrived female and was born June 1961. Dora, my grandmother, noted that I wouldn’t blend that very well in Bremerhaven, Germany.

She decided that my father needed some help and suggested that he name me Sonja after Sonja Henie, a famous ice skater from Norway. My grandmother loved watching her skate and thought that would be a perfect name for me to help the path to acceptance. On our way to Germany, I fell asleep on my mother, settling in for a long flight. We were on our way — the first leg of our journey: destination Germany. As children do, I became curious about my surroundings after my nap. I put my head up above the headboard that was in front of us.

As I surveyed the crowd, my mother told me that someone said, “Hey there’s a baby on board.”

Keep in mind a lot of these passengers were GIs, newly enlisted, and singles without families. These were the days where there was no ill thought of letting a nearby passenger hold your baby. I was passed around like a new toy on Christmas day. I was accepted. My grandmother’s advice about my name was funny, thinking back. The first issue was, well, it never became an issue. My babysitters, as well as my nanny, were German and I spoke German and English. I was accepted.

(L to R) Kenneth Turman and his wife Sonja L. Motley-Turman.

After Germany, it was time to return to the U.S. in 1965. Our next stop was Fort Bliss, Texas. The funny thing about Army brats, we know how to get along in unfamiliar places. We hear laughter, our language, see you smile, and start to play and we carry on. Next stop Fort Monroe, Virginia.

A beautiful place with all four seasons. Red Cardinals, rich history in colonialism as well as African American history. There were eye-opening history lessons about the south. I was accepted in our little community. Learning how to get along with your fellow Army kids came easy for me. Keep in mind this was my life as a child. My father’s interaction with colleagues and service people proved more diverse. The topic, as well as reactions of race, did come up. My father kept it to a minimum in our home. Life was neutral and calm and my father had stories to tell. Between the Korean War and two stents in Vietnam, the experiences offered him a different representation despite his memories… never did company, or a playmate of mine feel uncomfortable in our home.

Time flew by in Virginia, and we learned we would be stationed in a new place on the other side of the world — Bangkok, Thailand. Asia proved to be new and mysterious. It filled my mother with trepidation because she was a black woman born and raised in Denver. As the eldest, she helped raise six brothers and sisters and was a bit intimidated by the whole matter of Bangkok. Well, the Army called and off we go. I attended an international school where classmates came in every color and from every station in life that you could imagine; ambassadors kids, high-ranking military kids, prominent Thai families as well as the regular enlisted families. We all learn side by side. I was accepted. When the time was up for Bangkok, we returned to the U.S. of A. and back to Denver, Colorado. I was in my preteens. Returning never seemed like an issue to me.

I have made friends wherever I land. I have spoken to many people in my life that have had similar childhoods filled with travel adapting to new foreign surroundings. The constant story was a smiling face, which meant a new opportunity for a playmate or friendship. We all learn to adapt—the common goal of friendship. After my return, I began to feel some unfamiliar division and odd responses to my presence from both people of color and others.

I have always known I was black (the term of the time) but it was never an issue and more of a marking of my physical identity, no difference. There were no presumptions or idea of who I am. “I am Sonja — want to be friends?”

I retired the phrase (hi, I am Sonja, want to be friends) and quickly modeled myself with caution. I cannot tell you to this day that I have changed my approach to living my life and making friends and relationships. It altered for a bit and was sprinkled with caution, but I, once again, I have lived a good life filled with people of quality, all colors and all backgrounds.

My heart hurts to the current state of affairs, why it’s at almost 60 years of age- this is an ugly beast of division, separation, privilege and pure cruelty rearing their ugly heads. Never in my lifetime did I expect of this severe of a reversal. I do not feel accepted. Please note I am not naive enough to think that it has changed 100 percent. I’m not naive to think that there will always be people who embrace division, who cling to prejudice, and terroristic thoughts. Those who comfort themselves with the demise of others, who hate differences and fear change.

I just never in my wildest dreams thought it would be fueled and stoked like a fire from people in power as well as people who feel that they are losing the power they thought they had.

My frustration is I do not have the answer. It is frustrating to me beyond belief the tarnishing of the future for other children to live without fear and persecution is heartbreaking. I am living proof you can get along with others and look to see their differences and not be threatened. People with different faiths, people who were born in different places, can be friends as I stated before my story is like many others. A brown child, making their way through life and collecting friends, no matter what the race. It can be done. It must be done. Seeing with your heart, loving like a child — this is not a New Concept. It is a necessity for a quality life.

Can we try again?

Sonja L. Motley-Turman’s passion is being a personal stylist. Styling clients has been at the forefront of her many talents. Dressing clients and helping them express who they are professionally, as well as their lifestyle, is only half of the job. Visual merchandising and all things clothing-related keep her involved and fulfilled. Motley-Turman enjoys travel, creative dining, live music, visiting museums, attending movies, theater, and going shopping. Home, family, and friends are significant to her. She loves being around animals as well. The next chapter has become an exciting reality: Volunteer work to bring knowledge of wardrobing to women in need, helping them start over with confidence as well as with their own style. Stay tuned for the next chapter. Learn more about her work at ClutterFreeCloset.net

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