For my first 10 or 11 years, my world was populated by white people.
As I said in my last post, I went to an all-white elementary school. From first through sixth grades, my school was segregated, so I only saw other white students. And white teachers and lunchroom ladies. Perhaps the custodians were black, but I don’t remember that.
My church was all-white, too. Of course. Even now churches tend to be segregated by race.
Surely I was around black people when our family went shopping in the small city near us, but I don’t have any specific memory of that.
The only memory I have of an interaction with a black person in childhood was with a little boy who was my age.
I must have been five or six, maybe seven. My fuzzy memory takes place outside, between my aunts’ houses. I remember playing with this little boy, perhaps with one of my cousins, too. I remember running around, being breathless in a good way, in a way of exhausted fun that only little kids can have.
I remember that this boy was a very dark brown color. But for me, as a little kid, his color wasn’t a “race,” it was a color – like blonde or brown or black or red hair, like brown or green or blue eyes. It was like being tall or short. Being freckled or not.
His color didn’t matter other than as a distinguishing characteristic. I had brown hair. He had black hair. Those were distinguishing characteristics.
He wasn’t a “colored” person or a “negro,” the race terms of that time.
He was just a little boy who was darker. And I was lighter.
Only one thing really mattered to me.
He was fun!
We had a really good time playing together that afternoon. I was glad his father had brought him along while his father did some work for one of my uncles.
I hoped he would come back so we could play some more.
But he didn’t.
* * *
I was vaguely aware during my childhood that the doctor’s office had different waiting rooms, that we went into the door on the left. I may have known that black people went into the door on the right, but that’s not a clear memory.
I don’t remember seeing “Colored Only” water fountains. Did they exist in my world? Probably.
But I don’t remember them.
The Civil Rights movement was in full swing during my childhood, which spanned the 1960s. Surely I saw news reports of marches and mistreatment, but I have no memory of any specifics.
I do have a couple of memories connected with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., though.
One took place in the educational building of our church. It must have been before our Sunday school class started. I remember two adult women talking in the hallway just outside my upstairs classroom. They were probably both Sunday school teachers.
The woman I specifically remember was the mother of one of my friends. She was angry that The Lutheran magazine had just published an issue with a cover featuring Martin Luther King, Jr., accompanied by an article about the Civil Rights Movement.
She said to the other woman, “Can you believe The Lutheran put that n—– on the cover?!!” She said he was a troublemaker.
I was astounded. And appalled.
This friend’s mother, someone I had always respected, had said the word n—–, the N word, in a church building! I had been taught that you never said that word. At all. Ever.
And to say it in a church building, immediately before Sunday school – well, to my young mind, that was blasphemy!
My parents never used that word.
They had spoken respectfully of Dr. King.
I remember being so surprised that my friend’s mother had such a different view than my parents did.
That was perhaps my first introduction to the fact that people who attend the same church do not necessarily hold the same values. It was perhaps the first disillusionment of that sort for me.
My other memory connected with Dr. King has to do with his assassination. Even though both John and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated during my childhood, I have no memory of learning of their deaths – but I do remember when I learned that someone shot Dr. King.
This memory is a very shadowy one.
It is of a phone call.
Apparently someone, likely one of my aunts, saw on the television news that Dr. King had been shot in Memphis. And she called my mother to tell her.
I remember sensing that the call involved some bad news. My mother shared the news with my father. I remember their concern. I think I asked some questions, as I was a child very attuned to the emotions in the house.
I remember praying for Dr. King.
Did my mother tell me to do that? I’m not sure, but I remember sending up silent prayers.
And I remember finding out later that evening that he had died.
I remember feeling sad. And confused. Why had someone shot and killed him? He seemed like a good man.
When I read now about his funeral, I have a vague sense of seeing it on television, so our family must have watched it.
I don’t remember my parents’ reactions to the Civil Rights Movement. I’m quite sure they didn’t hate Dr. King. They must have respected him, because I have a general positive feeling in my childhood memories of him.
I don’t remember anything from our local area as a part of the Civil Rights Movement, though I bet I could do some research and find that the small city close to us did indeed have some protests of some form. But I have no memory of my parents’ or relatives’ or anyone’s reactions to that.
Yes, I lived in a pretty insulated world. One in which race didn’t play a large part.
At least I didn’t think it did.
There’s a part of me that wishes I could go back to the innocence of the little girl who played with a little boy who happened to be a lot darker than she was. A little girl who was unaware of race.
One who thought that the world of this little boy was much like her world.
But, in reality, his childhood was very different from mine.
His school got second-hand textbooks. He sat in a different waiting room at the doctor’s office.
Some people treated him as if he were inferior to them.
His opportunities were much fewer than mine. I received advantages of which I was totally unaware.
Our lives were different.
And because of those differences, I can’t be that innocent child.
I need to consider that I grew up with advantages that merely seemed “normal” for me. I need to consider what difference that made in my life – and how many of those differences still exist today.
I need actively to be a part of helping this world be one of true fairness. One that only sees skin color as a distinguishing characteristic.
I need to help people become those who see just as my younger self did.
And I am starting with myself.