Racism affected my entire education. I vividly recall the summer of 1976. July 4 was my sixth birthday and our country’s bicentennial, and I experienced my first visit to a public school in our district. An administrator told my African American grandma as I stood by, "I don’t care if you live in Massapequa -- no colored kids will attend this school!"
Although our home was in Nassau County, East Massapequa was creatively rezoned so students were relegated to Amityville schools in Suffolk County. Lawmakers did not like "the infestation of coloreds from the city," as my grandmother was told by a Massapequa Chamber of Commerce representative. That set the tone for the discrimination there.
Instead, I attended Maria Montessori School, then in Massapequa. The principal was excited I would be "the only mulatto boy in first grade." Mom and Dad explained to me that the principal was excited, saying, I was "special for being part-Black and part-white." I didn’t quite understand the relevance, but I thrived academically.
Soon, though, classmates started calling me "Kunta Conte," referring to "Kunta Kinte" from ABC’s "Roots." This and other racially biased name-calling — and escalation to violence — went on for four years at that school, my next four years at St. Rose of Lima in Massapequa, and at St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington. In sixth and seventh grades, I was called racial epithets and hit, smacked and kicked. In 1982, a boy punched my nose, knocking me down. I asked why he did that. He said, "Because -----don't belong here!"
That year, I joined the student council, but the president did not like being "forced to serve with a half-Negro." One day, he and his friends cornered me, and he punched me in the chest. I answered with a hard punch to his jaw. After that, no one at school tried to physically assault me, though name-calling continued. I was also shunned, rarely invited to parties: "Sorry, Bob, I want you to come, but my parents don’t want Blacks in the house" and "I’m not prejudiced, but if my neighbors see you, I’ll get in trouble." Fortunately, a few classmates did fully embrace me. We proudly called ourselves the "Island of Misfit Boys."
I threw myself into my studies, after-school clubs, sports, and selling comic books. Scoring 100% on the chemistry Regents exam and 98% on the algebra Regents led me to hope things would change. But some students questioned if I had cheated or stolen a copy of the test. In open class, one asked our teacher, "Do Blacks get extra points for affirmative action?" It was demeaning.
I was not welcomed by many people because of my biracial ancestry (Italian and African-Scottish), and it hurt. I equally embraced my father and biracial mother's heritage. Yet, Blacks shunned me, too. I realized that all multiracial children have their own unique identity issues.
A classmate invited me to be her prom date but reneged for fear of being ostracized by family and friends for going with someone "not fully white." That was the last straw; I was spiritually broken, wanted nothing more to do with school and was repeatedly absent. My grades suffered, and I stopped caring, not experiencing the joys of senior activities — including my graduation in 1988. I never picked up my diploma. I was done!
I enrolled at Farmingdale State College in 1989, but the same issues existed. In my business administration class, a woman and I worked on a presentation, and we liked each other. She was rumored to be a "slut" and "into Black guys" -- untrue and unfair. She could not handle that and stopped socializing with me. Losing her friendship was hard and helped me see that my life here would not improve.
Luckily, my first comic book -- a biography of my favorite rock group, KISS -- sold out. At 19, I was suddenly a rising talent and decided my road to happiness could only be achieved by not returning to college and to focus on my career. Ultimately, I left Long Island for Manhattan and wrote and edited comic books featuring iconic and original characters.
Later, my dream came true -- working for KISS, writing liner notes, helping remaster many albums and collaborating with co-founder Gene Simmons. I used my pop culture knowledge to enhance other iconic brands, including "Star Wars" and Disney characters. Millions of copies of my work are in print, and I feel blessed to have achieved many goals. Something, though, remained missing.
Last fall, St. Anthony’s Alumni Director Denise Creighton invited me to an "Open and Honest Conversation with Alumni of Color" Zoom event. She knew of my school struggles and believed I could help new students. Telling my story and hearing others' experiences was too much for me. After it was over, tears streamed down my face, mourning the child and teen inside. But support from former and present students and staff has been incredible and part of my healing process.
The school's latest principal, Brother David Anthony Migliorino, invited me to officially graduate, with cap and gown, at age 50. After 33 years, I was faced with reopening a closed, dark chapter of my life. I decided to return, officially accepting my diploma during the live June 5 commencement. As I rose, I was greeted by a boom of applause followed by a standing ovation. Wow!
Receiving my official diploma has symbolically and spiritually reopened the door to further my education. In hindsight, I should not have let racial prejudice beat me down to the point of hurting myself by missing my graduation. Yet the education I received helped propel me to follow my dreams and earn a living, matched with incredible experiences. Accepting my diploma puts closure on most of the terrible events I experienced so I can someday concentrate on earning a master’s degree.
This experience has made a difference for me and perhaps my story can make a positive difference for others who have been discriminated against for simply being themselves. St. Anthony's acknowledging what happened to others and me is a wonderful first step in healing the wounds of racism.
Today I have a strength I haven’t felt in a long time, and I want my three children to see that their father considers education important and that it is never too late to heal and better oneself. As I am always proud of them, I hope to make them proud of me, too.
Reader Robert V. Conte Sofia lives in Little Neck.