“Just remember…they are the same as us on the inside.” This was my mother’s feeble attempt at race relations in the early sixties. When I started school in the first grade (we didn’t have kindergarten back then in those country schools) there was not a single person of color in the entire school. EVERY single kid in the school was white. No blacks, no Native Americans, no Asians, no Latinos…. It was a veritable sea of all white all the time. So, my mother tried to pave the way by telling me to treat this new little girl that was starting school with us the next day the same as I would anyone else because the only difference was our skin color. She told me she was just like us. There was no difference underneath the surface of our skin. I took that advice to heart and actually became somewhat intrigued by people who looked “different” than me.
At this time there was elementary school and there was high school. There was no middle school or actually Jr. High as they called it back then. There was a High School and a “Colored” High School. When they finally did “integrate” several years later they made the smaller “colored” high school the Jr. High.
But, for now, I was in the second grade and we were to have a new student the next day. This was my mother’s way of attempting to “pave the way” for this little girl. Darlene was the very first “colored” person I was ever around. Save for my brief encounter with a “colored” man once in the grocery store when I was probably 3 or 4 years old. I had entered the town grocery store with my mother and at the far end of the aisle I spied my dad’s work pants and shirt and went sprinting as hard as I could for him. I never looked up because I was not a particularly graceful child so I
was staring at the ground until I got right to my “dad’s” work pants covered legs at which point I threw myself around his legs yelling “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” My mother, mortified, came running up, grabbed my arms and started pulling me away. I was quite confused until I looked up and saw this huge “colored” man smiling down at me. I had never seen a real lie “colored” person in real life before that I could remember. I stammered out “You’re NOT my daddy!” as my mother, beet red, dragged me down the aisle, quite embarrassed.
I’m not sure why she was embarrassed. Whether it was because I could mistake a colored man for my father or because of what the townspeople might say. It’s not that there weren’t any people of color in our small town, there were, I just never had any occasion to run into them. They went to different schools, and different churches, and different stores.
My mother was attempting to make me understand something she didn’t understand herself. She, herself, didn’t believe what she was telling me but I am guessing that’s what the parents of all the elementary school students were told to tell us to assuage our fears and curiosity. I wasn’t sure what all the hoopla was about. Darlene was just another kid. I’m sure it was very hard on her though. She was the first child of color ever to attend our elementary school and for a couple of years she was the ONLY one. I’m sure it had to be scary for her because there were other students and teachers who treated her differently. They did NOT take to heart the fact that she was the “same” as us underneath her skin.
They didn’t want to use the bathroom after her so they always made her go last when we lined up. At first I thought she was just slower getting in line because she was a little chubby but soon found out the teachers made her wait until the rest of us lined up before she was allowed to line up. I never did understand why she did that. As far as I knew she was the same as us she just looked different but didn’t we all “look different” unless we were related? We all had different shades of skin and hair color. She was always last to be called on sides for PE and at first I thought it was because she wasn’t particularly athletic but then again, neither was I! She was never invited to any of the other kid’s parties or to their houses to play.
When I was in fifth grade they finally integrated the schools completely and “created” the Middle School/Jr. High. So from the time I was in middle school it was “normal” to share our school with people of all “colors”. We finally got a few kids that were Native American and once we even had a “foreign exchange” student from South America who spoke Spanglish but I really don’t think we ever had kids who were Asian the entire time I was in school, or none that I remember anyway.
By the time I got to high school I’d “been around” people of different skin colors for a couple of years but still had never really gotten to KNOW any of them on a personal level. I mean, I rode the bus with them and had the same classes but I never took the time to actually talk to them or listen to them. Then one day I met this young boy who was a couple of years older than me who treated me differently than anyone ever had. He actually acted interested in what I had to say. He treated me with respect and we became fast friends and I actually developed quite a crush on him. We (my best friend and I) would go and hang out at his house with him, his siblings and his parents. They didn’t treat us any differently and that intrigued me. I knew better than to tell my mother about my new “friend” because despite her protestations that they were the same, I knew I had never seen her ever interact with anyone of “color” nor had we EVER had a person of color at our house or to dine with us. The only person of color I ever saw her “interact with” was the man who worked at the little country store down the road from us and though she was cordial with him, I wouldn’t have thought that she actually considered him her “equal”.
Several months into our friendship the assistant principal apparently informed my mother of my newly formed “friendship” since he didn’t think it was healthy. My mother informed me that I was never to talk to this person again nor any other males of color since it wasn’t “respectful” for a “white girl” to talk to a “colored boy”. I was embarrassed and quite bewildered by her total reversal of her previous stance to “treat them just like you would anyone else” as she had so haltingly told me in second grade. Why was this any different? Why had she changed her mind? Why couldn’t I choose who I wanted to be friends with? What difference did it make that he looked different.
One day after a particularly heated argument about why I couldn’t be friends with him anymore I summoned all my courage and looked her straight in the eye and said “Just remember …they are the same as us on the inside.”
This post was brought to you by way of Mama’s Losin’ It and Mama Kat’s Pretty Much World Famous Writer’s Workshop and prompt #3)Write a post that begins and ends with the same sentence.