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Gary Younge
The act that gave the struggle new life

On the day that I sat at that counter I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration. I felt that in this life nothing else mattered. I felt like one of those wise men who sits cross-legged and cross-armed and has reached a natural high.

Nothing else has ever come close. Not the birth of my first son nor my marriage. And it was a cruel hoax, because people go through their whole lives and they don't get that to happen to them.

And here it was being visited on me as a 17-year-old. It was wonderful but it was sad also, because I know that I will never have that again. I'm just sorry it was when I was 17.

It was the most intense peace within myself and my surroundings. I had no tensions and no concerns. If there's a heaven, I got there for a few minutes. I just felt that you can't touch me. You can't hurt me.

I was brought up with a major myth. I was told that if I worked hard, believed in the constitution, the 10 commandments and the bill of rights, and got a good education, I would be successful. For a long time, I held it against my parents and my grandparents as well. I felt they had lied to me and I felt suicidal. I felt that if that is what this life was all about then it wasn't worth it. There seemed no prospect for dignity or respect as a young black man.

So we decided to do something.

When we sat down, and the waitress refused to take our orders, there was a policeman behind us slapping his night-stick on his hand. I thought, I guess this is it. But then it occurred to me the policeman really didn't know what he was doing, and I must say I was relieved.

Some way through, an old white lady, who must have been 75 or 85, came over and put her hands on my shoulders and said: "Boys I am so proud of you. You should have done this 10 years ago."

That is exactly the sort of person you didn't expect to hear anything from.

Then there was the black help in the Woolworths kitchen who told me to get up and leave, saying "You are not supposed to be here". At that time the whites did the serving and the blacks did the washing and helping out. It was only 15 or 20 years later that I learnt to forgive them and understand them. I was threatening their livelihood. And it was around that time I realised that my parents weren't naive in the cruel lie that they had told me. They lied to me be cause they loved me.

This is an edited extract from No Place Like Home, A Black Briton's Journey Through the American South, by Gary Younge, published by Picador at £16.

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