Growing Up Colored

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I knew we wouldn’t talk about it again; even at that age, I was given to understand that there were some subjects it didn’t do to worry to death. Now that I have children, I realize that what chagrined my father wasn’t so much the Mr. Wilsons of the world as the painful obligation to explain the racial facts of life to someone who hadn’t quite learned them yet. Maybe Mr. Wilson couldn’t hurt my father by calling him George; but I hurt him by asking to know why.

In 1957, Mama was elected the first colored secretary of the PTA, and I thought no more beautiful woman existed than Mama. I was secure in her knowledge of how to be in the world and command respect. Mama didn’t care to live in white neighborhoods or be around white people. White people, she said, were dirty: They tasted right out of pots on the stove. Only some kind of animal would ever taste out of a pot on the stove. Anybody with manners knew that; even colored people without manners knew that. It was white people who didn’t know that. Tasting right out of a pot was almost as bad as drinking after somebody on the same side of the cup, or right after them on a Coca-Cola bottle without wiping their lips off real good. “I’d rather go thirsty myself,” Uncle Raymond would say.

I first got to know white people as “people” through their flickering images on television shows. It was the television set that brought us together at night, and the television set that brought in the world outside the valley. When I was in first grade, we’d watch Superman, Lassie, Jack Benny, Danny Thomas, Circus Boy, and Loretta Young. My favorite shows were The Life of Riley, in part because he worked in a factory like my Daddy did, and Ozzie and Harriet, in part because Ozzie never seemed to work at all. With a show like Topper, I felt as if I were getting a glimpse, at last, of the life the rich white people must be leading in their big mansions on East Hampshire Street. Smoking jackets and cravats, spats and canes, elegant garden parties and martinis. People who wore suits to dinner! This was a world so elegantly distant from ours, it was like a voyage to another galaxy, light-years away.

A year later, however, a new show swept most of the others away. Leave It to Beaver was a world much closer, but nonetheless just out of reach.

Beaver’s street was where we wanted to live, Beaver’s house where we wanted to eat and sleep, Beaver’s father’s firm where we’d have liked Daddy to work. These shows for us were about property, the property that white people could own and that we couldn’t. About a level of comfort and ease at which we could only wonder. It was the world that the integrated school was going to prepare us too enter and that, for Mama, would be the prize.

Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored on TV was an event.

“Colored, colored, on Channel Two,” you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it. And everybody loved Amos ’n Andy—I don’t care what people say today. What was special to us was that their world was all colored, just like ours. Of course, they had their colored judges and lawyers and doctors and nurses, which we could only dream about having, or becoming—and we did dream about those things. Kingfish ate his soft-boiled eggs delicately, out of an egg cup. He even owned an acre of land in Westchester County, which he sold to Andy, using the facade of a movie set to fake the mansion. As far as we were concerned, the foibles of Kingfish or Calhoun the lawyer were the foibles of individuals who happened to be funny. Nobody was likely to confuse them with the colored people we knew, no more than we’d confuse ourselves with the entertainers and athletes we saw on TV or in Ebony or Jet, the magazines we devoured to keep up with what was happening with the race. And people took special relish in Kingfish’s malapropisms: “I denies the allegation, Your Honor, and I resents the alligator.”

Civil rights took us all by surprise. Every night we’d wait until the news to see what “Dr. King and dem” were doing. It was like watching the Olympics or the World Series when somebody colored was on. In 1957, when I was in second grade, black children integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. We watched it on TV. All of us watched it. I don’t mean Mama and Daddy and Rocky. I mean all the colored people in America watched it, together, with one set of eyes. We’d watch it in the morning, on the Today Show on NBC, before we’d go to school; we’d watch it in the evening, on the news, with Edward R. Murrow on CBS. We’d watch the Special Bulletins at night, interrupting our TV shows.

The children were all well scrubbed and greased down, as we’d say. Starched shirts, white, and creased pants, shoes shining like a buck private’s spit shine. Those Negroes were clean. The children would get off their school bus surrounded by soldiers from the National Guard and by a field of state police. They would stop at the steps of the bus and seem to take a very deep breath. Then the phalanx of children would start to move slowly along this gully of sidewalk and rednecks that connected the steps of the school bus with the white wooden doubled doors of the school. All kinds of crackers would be lining that gully, separated from the children by rows of state police, who formed a barrier arm in arm. Cheerleaders from the all-white high school that was desperately trying to stay that way were dressed in those funny little pleated skirts, with a big red C for “Central” on their chests, and they’d wave their pompoms and start to cheer: “Two, four, six, eight—we don’t want to integrate!” And all those crackers and all those rednecks would join in that chant as if their lives depended on it. Deafening, it was: even on our 12-inch black-and-white TV.