This post is in response to a writing prompt from the LGBTQ Narratives Activist-Writers group. The prompt: When did we first become aware of our own race?
Some background: My story takes place in 1955 in Racine, an industrial community in Southeastern Wisconsin. Racine is located on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Root River, south of Milwaukee and north of Chicago. Waves of immigrants, including Danes, Germans, and Czechs, began to settle in Racine between the Civil War and the First World War. African Americans started arriving in large numbers during World War I, as they did in other Midwestern industrial towns, and Mexicans migrated to Racine from roughly 1925 onward.
It is my personal belief that what separates us in the end binds us together, whether it is race, social class, age, religion, politics, gender or sexual preference. We are compelled to learn from each other, tolerate, understand and finally accept and respect our differences.
WARNING: This post contains explicit and racist language.
As I stood in my backyard looking between the open squares of the chicken wire fence, I saw a face different than mine. His face was as black as the coal that my father shoveled into the furnace that heated our home. I was five years old in Racine, Wisconsin and this boy who stood on the other side of the fence was a stranger to me. He stared back at me too and saw a five-year-old white girl, face-to-face, toes-almost-touching toes and yet we were worlds apart, this young black boy of about the same age and I, strangers and neighbors.
When I asked my parents if I could play next door with the little boy, I was told no, and was reminded of my boundaries. I could go no further than the end of our sidewalk that abutted each of our neighbor’s homes. I could play in the backyard but go no further than the Kowalski women’s home which stood next to the alley behind our house. My only friends were my little sister Roz, and Marge, the 25-year-old maiden daughter of the widow Kowalski.
My first home was in a neighborhood of working-class and poor families, both black and white. My parents were young and just starting out in life, barely in their early twenties with two girls to support. My father worked his factory job, while my mother was a car hop at a drive-in restaurant. One of my favorite things to do at five was walk hand-in-hand with my father and sister to meet my mother after work and when we were lucky, have a hamburger for dinner. I remember, I always ordered mine without pepper and salt. Plain as plain could get.
Our house was sheathed in brown asphalt shingles, called ghetto brick because it mimicked brick and mortar and was a step up from tar paper. Sometimes when the sun hit the shingles from a certain angle they would sparkle. The white sandy particles glistened like diamonds and the black specks like onyx. I didn’t know that I came from humble beginnings and how hard my parents worked and struggled to pay the rent, put food in our bellies, ice in the icebox, and coal in the furnace. Whatever extra money they had was saved for the down payment for their first house, or clothed us girls. My sister Roz and I were always dressed well, with bows in our braids or pony tails, our saddle shoes polished white and our patent leather Mary Jane’s reflected the sun.
One morning following Easter Sunday, I walked to school in my new spring coat. It was red with a pebbled finish to the fabric that was fun to touch. The collar was white lace and spread across my shoulders like wings and resembled the hand-crocheted doilies that covered the polished wood furniture in my great grandmother’s parlor. I was proud of my new coat and felt special in it.
As I got closer to school I noticed a boy following me. As I walked faster, he walked faster, the distance between us diminishing quickly. I recognized him as the boy who teased and taunted me from my kindergarten class. I couldn’t imagine why he disliked me so, but he did. He called me names and sometimes would punch me or push me when the teacher wasn’t looking. As he approached me that day, he was running at full speed and with all his weight and forward motion, pushed me into the muddy puddle where the rain mixed like molasses with the spongy grass and softened earth.
When I arrived at school that day, my new coat and white anklets were full of mud and my knee bloody from scraping the sidewalk as I fell; my face soaked with tears. I immediately sought out my teacher to tell her what happened. Later that day she met with my mother. I felt badly that it was somehow my fault, that I must have done something to cause this behavior in the boy and I was worried that my mother would be angry that I couldn’t take care of something new. When she emerged from the meeting with the teacher, she hugged me and told me everything would be alright. She would have the coat dry-cleaned.
The next day when I went to class, the boy that pushed me was gone. He was transferred to the other kindergarten class. Again, I felt badly. I didn’t want him to be banished, only to leave me alone, or to simply like me as my other classmates did. Now when I looked at the faces of my friends, they were all white and the one black face was absent.
This began an awareness at the age of five of both white privilege and the guilt that followed, that somehow the rules were different for the races, the playing field not level. I became sensitive to the language and demeanor of the adults around me, their conversations sometimes grabbing my attention when I could hear both fear and anger in their voices talking about blacks using the n-word. Yes, the first time I heard the n-word was from my beloved maternal grandmother when she walked me to the corner neighborhood grocery store to buy me chocolate candies that looked like babies. The grocer took the metal scoop and poured some into a white bag as my grandmother said to me, “Enjoy those nigger babies.”