Friday, March 9, 2012

Race in the Sixties: Confusion and Conviction

During our playtime in the backyard on hot summer afternoon  my friend Debbie and I decided we needed to be the same.  We stripped all our clothes off, lay down on the grass and proceeded to see whether I could tan as darkly as she had.  We were four, and we had absolutely no clue that she was African-American and I was Caucasian.  Hell, we couldn't even pronounce those words!  All we had realized was that our skin color was different, even though WE were the same inside.  We played the same games, we had the same rules in our families ("come home for lunch," "no going outside after dark," "no talking back to Mom/Dad"), and we both knew that we'd be going to school next year at the Hamilton grammar school.  What we didn't realize was that all the adults knew why we were different . . . and neither one of our mothers was particularly thrilled that our naked young bodies were on display for the world to see.  We had no clue that "bad men" might think dirty thoughts when looking at us, and we certainly had no clue that adults who looked like us might not like each other.  We liked each other, and that was all that mattered.

Both our mothers punished us that day.  Mine made me sit in my bedroom with my clothes still off, waiting for my father to come home to give me a spanking.  I can still remember looking out the bedroom window toward where my father would park his car, and feeling incredibly humiliated.  Ironically, my father never came in my bedroom to give me a spanking, and I suspect that he and my mother disagreed on my punishment.  That was fine with me.  I had suffered enough.

What they didn't realize was that they had taught me a lesson that went much deeper than "don't go outside naked."  They had taught me about the difference in race, and it pissed me off.

Debbie moved shortly after that.  I have no idea why, and I never saw her again, but when I got to school the following year, there were other girls and boys whose skin looked like hers, and I wanted to be friends with them.  My mother swore throughout my childhood and young adult days that I was a rebel from the very beginning, but if embracing different races and cultures and being curious about other people made me a rebel, so be it.  I was and am fine with that.  I believe my life has been a lot richer due to my interest in other people than it would have been if that first "lesson" had turned me into a person who saw the world in only one color.

When we moved to the projects shortly after that time, there were few Black families who lived there, but the family who lived across the street from us (the Johnsons) was a family I both respected and admired.  Their mother, a tall and stoic woman, raised her two boys much more strictly than any other mother on our block.  She took no guff whatsoever.  That was abundantly clear.  And their father, a little more friendly than she was, took a back seat to her.  But I spent most of my time watching the two boys.  They were young teenagers then, addicted to basketball and popular among their circle of friends.  And incredibly handsome.  I fantasized being their age and going on a date with one of them, though it had by that time become clear that white girls didn't date Black boys.  So what?, I used to think.

My parents had always told me when I asked about my own race that I was "Heinz 57" -- a little of this, a little of that.  "Am I Chinese?" I would ask, and my mother would nod and smile.  "Am I French?"  Another nod and smile.  "Irish?"  Yup.  "African?"  Absolutely.  "A little of this and a little of that," she would repeat.  "Heinz 57."  So, it wouldn't make a difference who I dated, right?  My mother would reply that she would love any little baby that came from whatever relationships I had.  Perfect.

Throughout my school years, I had friends of all races (though I must admit there were very few Asians in our neighborhood, so I can honestly say I didn't become friends with anyone from an Asian country until I went to college).  Little did I realize during that time period that my own family was a minority.  There weren't too many families in the Italian-Irish area where we lived whose ancestors came from Sweden.  When I returned to Everett for my 40th high school reunion, I realized that most everyone in my graduating class had an Italian or Irish last name.  And though I had what I thought were lots of African-American friends, they were in the minority, too.

By the time I reached high school, I understood all too clearly that the division between the races was an ugly one, and again, I felt that anger rise in me.  JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. were angry too.  They worked on two different sides of the social spectrum, yet I respected both of them for what they did, and still, to this day, feel they are my heroes.  They validated the questions I had:  Who had the right to tell someone else they weren't good enough?  When would people come to the conclusion that everyone had the same needs in life -- the need to be loved, to be part of a family, to be respected?  Had someone discovered a line in the Bible that said one race was better than the other?  I had taught enough Sunday School classes to realize that the Bible said just the opposite.  I had also come to realize that the Bible said not to kill, thus the war the U.S. was embroiled in also made absolutely no sense.  That rebellious nature my mother had identified early in my life was what I came to define as self-righteousness.  There were certain things that were just plain wrong.  Prejudice was one of them.

Other friends came into my life then.  And sometimes the friendships required a lot of work, especially when Black girls started realizing that they were being treated unfairly by people who looked like me.  It broke my heart when one of my friends turned against me just because of the color of MY skin.  I knew why she had done it, but logically, I had thought she knew ME for who I am instead of the color of my skin.  That was when I realized that my anger was one millimeter of what she felt.

And there was another boy, a senior in high school when I was a sophomore.  I really, really liked him, and I would have been quite happy if he had the freedom to ask me out.  But I was a sophomore, and he was a senior, he was Black, I was white, and he was a star athlete.  There were many reasons why that relationship would never exist.  I surreptitiously watched him with my girlfriends' brothers, seeing the natural affiliation of athletes (no matter the color of their skin), and I knew that he was not only athletic but also smart, and could tell that he was truly kind, as well.  When I shared my crush on him with one of my friends, she looked at me as if I'd truly lost my last marble.  "You could never go out with him," she exclaimed.  "Eeewwwww."  When I asked why, she stuttered, then said, "He's a senior!"  What was unsaid was profound.

Since that time, I've broken that dating "rule" many times over, yet I've discovered that it is still something with which the majority of people don't agree.  Mixed couples still aren't "accepted" in most circles, but dating others outside my race has enriched my life in many ways, and I won't stop.

Because of what I learned in those early years and the anger I felt about it, I marched with those who protested against the division in race, starting in high school and continuing throughout my life.  In fact, just recently, I made a trip to the Mississippi Delta for a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Civil Rights.  It dawned on me during that trip that my upbringing in New England never prepared me for what the rest of the United States experienced.  I think I'm thankful for that. I'm also thankful that my New England "toughness" gave me the freedom to say how I felt about the ways in which people have treated others unfairly.  And I'll always be thankful to my mother for giving me the freedom to be "Heinz 57."

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