THE VERY 1ST BLACK PERSON I KNEW AND FURTHER CHILDHOOD REMEMBRANCES OF THE TIMES THAT SHAPED MY LIFE
Up until the age of four I don't remember seeing a Black person or knowing of their existence. In addition the natural protective ring that surrounds "the baby" of the family was enhanced by my Father being in the Army. Although President Eisenhower had desegregated the Armed Forces years before, this was by and large a paper illusion.I was born in '61 while we were stationed on one of the Nike Missile sites that surrounded Pittsburgh. At the age of two, we moved to Yorba Linda California, the birth place of President Nixon, so as to be close to my Mom's sister's family while my Father was sent to a duty station in Germany. To this day the area is made up of a predominately White populace.
At the age of four we moved back onto a Military Base. This time to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The housing was just like any place in any of the growing suburban areas growing around large cities. Except for where the housing ended, the Desert began. My Mother like all the women I knew were kept busy being homemakers and visiting each other for "coffee". I could knock on any door and be recognized. Bearing a strong resemblance to Opie complete with red hair and freckles made me adorable in any Mother's eyes. If I wasn't being Mothered by my own Mom or my big Sister, I was Mothered by numerous other Mom's in the neighborhood. Us kids ran around in and out of each others houses and the birthday parties were straight out of a Norman Rockwell scene.
Due to the financial challenges of raising six kids, my Mom got a much coveted job at the PX. She seemed pretty happy about that and so was I. Until, the realization that I wasn't going to be with her. That stark reality came to me when she left me at the Nursery School. Struck with utter terror I screamed and clung to the iron gate as she walked to the car and drove away. It took a long time for the 2 strange ladies to peel my little fingers off the gate. I'll save my memories of Nursery School for another time. Suffice to say my presence there was short lived. According to what I could decipher from listening in to the Giants, something "didn't work out".
Oh happy me! I was going to be with Mommy again! But, alas the Giants had figured another way to separate me from my Mom. This time though at least she told me what was going to happen. I was to be dropped of at a "Nice Lady's Home" and she would take care of me till as promised my Mom would come straight from the PX to pick me up.
On the 1st day I was delivered to the "Nice Lady's House" I was comforted by the fact that my own home was just down the street and in my part of the neighborhood.
After my Mom knocked on the door it was opened by a person such as I had never seen.
I was stunned to see that this Lady has quite dark skin. My first thought was that something bad had happened to her. Though the Lady shown a kindly face to me, the immediate adoration demonstrated by all Women when they met me was absent. My Mother kneeled down, reaching up she gently closed my mouth that was hanging open, kissed me and told me to be a good boy and to do what I was told as if she told me to do it.
As the Lady led me into the living room I marveled at the immaculate appearance of her home. Nothing was out of place; the furniture was polished to a gleam. Not a speck of dust or smudge was to be seen. We sat down on the couch and though pleasant, her attitude towards me was quite different than what other Mothers had shown.
We made small talk and she told me the rules, stressing that I was not to make a mess. Thinking that maybe her attitude was due to her “sickness” or something, I asked "what happened"? She said, "What do you mean"? I said, "Your skin, did you get burned or something"? She looked deep into my eyes for a moment, and then smiled sweetly and said, "No, some people have black skin. I was born this way." She then said, I was to stay in the living room and entertain myself while she was busy in the kitchen.
I had not brought any toys with me, so I wandered about the living room. I was still amazed to see the place so shiny. I noticed that she had pictures displayed on the wall. There I could see that indeed there were other people with Black skin. As was the norm the photos were in black and white so at the time I did not see that there were varying degrees of black skin. There was her wedding photo with her husband and other pictures which I could see were taken a long time ago. On top what was I would later deem to be a glass doored bookcase, were pictures of a black boy about my age. I could see the resemblance to my new sitter and figured that was her son. Oh boy! I wanted to meet him! We could be friends! And I could further ask about black skin and all! After all, he was a kid like me and not one of the Giants.
Inside the glassed doored bookcase I saw that there were toys. Boy toys like I had never played with! Inside was a huge shiny Fire Truck! Lifting the glass door carefully I reached in and got the Fire Engine out. I played with it for sometime.
Deep into my world of make believe, my sitter came in from the kitchen. "What are you doing"?! She demanded? I was scared and just blurted out that I had found the Fire Truck in the case and was playing with it. She was quite upset and taking it from me said, "You had better not of damaged it". She looked it over carefully and said, I was not to play with any of the toys in the case. They were her son's and admonished me for not asking first. She went into the kitchen with the Fire Truck and came back in wiping it down. She carefully put it back into the case. She than said, "Look, you smudged the glass, don't go in here again". I knew then I could not get in the case undetected. She went back in the kitchen and came back with a spray bottle and cleaned my little smudges off the glass on the case. Looking into the wonderful toys I could not touch I asked her when does her son come home?(I thought from school).
She said he would come home later after my Mom picked me up. I told her I was sorry. She looked deeply into my eyes and seeing that I was being truly sorry, smiled and said, "its okay Dear, just bring some toys of your own to play with." This reassured me that she was not too mad at me, for I was to come back.
Later she came in and said lunch was ready. That day and every day thereafter the lunch was the same, save 2 minimal variants. I ate either Chef Bor-r-dee spaggetios or ravioli. Soon after I curled up on the couch and napped. I woke up to find that she had covered me with a blankie sometime while I slept. It was then that I thought she loved me like all the other Giant Ladies I met, but would take some time for her to be charmed. I was also greatly relieved that she did not tell my Mom that I had touched her Son's toys.
Though I never charmed her, we settled in a comfortable routine. Though the 1st day
was the most she spoke to me on any one day, I knew what to expect and felt safe with her. There were no other interferences for unlike every other homes on base, the neighboring Mothers never stopped by for coffee and we did not go anywhere either.
That was in 1965. These are some other events that took place that year -
Martin Luther King is arrested on a Civil Rights protest in Selma, Alabama. Then after protests are banned, Martin Luther King leads 25,000 civil rights protesters in Montgomery, Alabama.
Malcolm X is shot dead at a party meeting in Harlem on 21st February. Three black Muslims were convicted of the murder. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on interviews he'd done with Alex Haley, was published.
The Watts riots in South Central Los Angeles began on August 11th. Lasting six days, 34 died, over 1000 were injured, 4000 arrested and an estimated $100 million worth of damage was done. The catalyst was a white policeman (Lee Minikus) pulling over a black man (Marquette Frye) who'd been reported as driving erratically. However the inquiry into the riots revealed that poverty - housing problems, bad schools, unemployment were the chief players in the tragedy.
Some of the named on record who died in racial violence in 1965 -
Allie W. Shelby murdered Flora Mississippi January 22 1965
Deputy O'Neal Moore murdered Bogalusa Louisiana June 2 1965
Willie Brewster murdered Anniston Alabama July 15 1965
Perry Small lynched Greensboro Alabama August 27 1965
Eddie Cook murdered Detroit Michigan November 7 1965
During one of my big sister's visits a few months ago, I related the story above to her and my wife. I said after all the years I had come to the conclusion that the Lady who took care of me so many years ago, had a hard heart towards White people and most likely resented having to care of somebody's White child. Reasoning that she was forced into it because of financial needs.
My sister who is seven years older than I, remembered the Lady including her name. She went on to tell me that on the contrary my sitter was quite friendly and not at all hateful towards White people.
It was her son that was the problem. Back in 1965 I thought he was a kid just a bit older than I. The toys I was forbidden to touch were his from his childhood days. He was then, like his father, in the Army. He was what was called a Militant back then.
A Black Panther member. My mere presence in the house was kept secret from him. The actions of my sitter became much clearer. The easily hidden can of spagettios. My isolation in the house. Fingerprints smudges that I knew I put on various surfaces, gone when I returned the next day. Yes, she must have been very concerned that her Son would find out.
Fear and Hate affects even the smallest amongst us. Later in my life I was completely overcome with the very same hate and fear that pervaded America. Though most of us have come a long way, at times it seems America is just as racially divided as it was 41 years ago. The respect towards others even of the same race, seem to me, much declined as compared to 1965.
Nowadays it is quite common to hear White people called Cracker or WASP. All derisive terms. Just as racially ridden with Hate and Fear as Nigger, Kyke, Wop or Spic.
Two or more wrongs don't make a right.
There are so many inequities such as the huge disparity in the numbers of Blacks sent to prison as compared to Whites convicted of the same crime. The hoops people of the Moslem faith are required to go through while others are not. For Women unequal pay for equal work. The assumption among many that every Latino is an Illegal Alien. The Gay Bashing that is reminiscent of the Lynching of Blacks. The list is long and I'm sure you could add quite a few that does not jump to mind right now.
I will be writing some further posts on Race and the experiences that shaped me throughout my life in the coming weeks.
I guess the best thing we can do is be a good example to our children. To really try to live by the Golden Rule. I want a better place for the children of the World to grow up in.
It's time we Redeemed the Dream.
This is a T-shirt that I bought for $3.00 near the Lincoln Memorial at the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. I couldn't stay for the main speakers, because I had only stopped by on my way to Fairfax Virginia to see Governor Dean kick off his Summer Campaign Tour.