From The School Bus To The Hospital, A Doctor's Experiences With Racism

Aug 28, 2020
Originally published on August 28, 2020 1:27 pm

As nationwide protests continue to inspire conversations about racial inequity in America, Ayim Darkeh is reminded of his not-so-distant past.

Darkeh, an emergency room doctor in New York City, spoke with his mother, Shirley, in June about his experiences with racism dating back to childhood.

The family moved to Westbury, Long Island, in the 1970s, where Ayim was one of the few Black students at his elementary school.

"What I remember is that the kids used to call me 'blackie,' " Ayim, now 43, told his mother in a StoryCorps conversation. "But the moment that it boiled over was in the school I had 'two best friends' and we were on the school bus coming home. And some childhood argument over who got the last Fruit Roll-Up erupted and Scott, who was white, called me a 'negro.' "

"I just remember feeling upset with myself for being so devastated and allowing someone to have such an influence and effect on me."

Shirley, 85, said she didn't tell her son at the time, but she went to the school to speak with a teacher about the incident. "The teacher had the audacity to tell me that 'Well he is Black, isn't he?' "

When Ayim wasn't at home, Shirley worried more about his safety than that of her two daughters, she said.

"You being a little boy, I was very much concerned," she recalled. "But I made it a point not to let you know my concern. I had my prayer partners from church, and I believed in you and knew that the sky was the limit. And that's what we encouraged you to do."

It was Ayim's late father who inspired him to pursue a career in medicine.

When his mother asked him what it is like being a Black doctor, Ayim said it is "like being a Black man anywhere."

"There are moments where it's amazing, and especially when I get my older patients who are members of the civil rights generation, they're so proud of me," he said.

While working in Evansville, Ind., a young Black woman told Ayim that he was the first Black doctor that she'd ever had. "She invited me to church," he recalled.

What infuriates Ayim are the subtle ways he still experiences discrimination.

"Going to a patient's room at age 40 with some gray hairs, with a medical student who's 25, and they direct all their questions and talk to him like he's the doctor," he said. "So they'll ask him, and he will look at me. I will respond to the patient. They will look back at the 25-year-old and ask another question."

Ayim Darkeh with his children at their Brooklyn home last year.
Courtesy of Ayim Darkeh

Ayim is now raising two young children of his own, a daughter and a son.

"I have more fears than have hopes for my kids," he said. He hopes that in their childhood, "they are still regarded and looked at like they're children."

"I think about how much apprehension you had," he told his mother. "And now, I look at my boy, and I just — I hope I'm able to protect him and he has the opportunity to be young and to just grow."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mitra Bonshahi. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted this story for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, which means it's time for StoryCorps. And today we have a story about racial equality and identity from the 1970s. Emergency room doctor Ayim Darkeh grew up in Westbury, Long Island, and told his mother, Shirley, what it was like being one of the few Black students at his elementary school.

AYIM DARKEH: What I remember was that the kids used to call me Blackie (ph). But the moment that it boiled over was in the school, I had, quote-unquote, "two best friends." And we were on the school bus coming home, and some childhood argument over who got the last Fruit Roll-Up erupted. And Scott (ph) called me a Negro. I just remember feeling upset with myself for being so devastated and allowing someone to have such an influence and effect on me.

SHIRLEY DARKEH: And I never told you, Ayim, but I had to go up to the school and talk to the teacher. And the teacher had the audacity to tell me that - well, he is Black, isn't he?

A DARKEH: How did you feel about us leaving the house and playing and going out and...

S DARKEH: I was always more afraid for you than for the girls. You being a little boy, I was very much concerned. But I made it a point not to let you know my concern. I had my prayer partners from church, and I believed in you and knew that the sky was the limit. And that's what we encouraged you to do.

Can you tell me what it's like to be a Black doctor?

A DARKEH: Being a Black doctor in the ER is like being a Black man anywhere. There are moments where it's amazing. And especially when I'm with my older patients who are members of the civil rights generation, they're so proud of me.

A DARKEH: I remember working in Evansville, Ind., and I had a young lady - she told me I was her first Black doctor that she'd ever had. She invited me to church (laughter), you know? But it's the subtle things that are infuriating - going into a patient's room at age 40 with some gray hairs with a medical student who's 25, and they direct all their questions and talk to him like he's the doctor. So they'll ask him, and he will look at me. I will respond to the patient. They'll look back at the 25-year-old (inaudible) student and ask another question.

S DARKEH: So what are your hopes and dreams for your children?

A DARKEH: So if I am going to be honest in this moment, I have more fears than I have hopes for my kids. I hope that they could run and jump and be blissful and do all the things that children are supposed to do and that while they're doing that, they are still regarded and looked at like they're children. I sometimes think about them, and I think about how much apprehension you had when we would leave. And now I look at my boy, and I just - I hope I'm able to protect him and he has the opportunity to be young and to just grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "NIRVANAVEVO")

INSKEEP: Dr. Ayim Darkeh, speaking with his mom, Shirley. They recorded their conversation with StoryCorps Connect, which lets loved ones interview each other remotely and safely. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.