Chapter ?, Wrestling With Race, Part II

Miami is not Cleveland

I was aware, early on, that there was something very strange about the way the white people I knew viewed black people. If you are white and did not grow up in the South, you do not realize that it is not so much a question of experiencing overt hatred all around you all the time as it is a question of bumping up against a big secret. The earliest memory I have of encountering this secret relates to our move from Cleveland to Miami, a trauma-filled time for me in many ways.

One of the earliest things I remember about Miami is riding the bus on shopping excursions. Segregation took care of any other situation where I might have seen colored people. It was a long ride, involving a crucial transfer. The bus we caught from downtown was the Liberty City bus. That bus, in fact, said “Liberty City” and that was how I knew it was my bus, long before I knew that Liberty City was where the colored people lived. The transfer was from that bus to another, almost at the end of the trip. This arrangement gave me a golden opportunity to observe that, for some reason utterly inexplicable to five-year-old me, all the black people sat at the back of the bus. I was informed, in no uncertain terms but with no explanation, that white people never sat at the back of the bus unless the bus was so crowded that all the black people were standing up, since white people got the seats first.

I received this information as wordlessly and obediently as I received all such absurd pronouncements from grown-ups but it was never a hard-wired directive for me, as it was for children raised from birth in the South. And, I never stopped thinking about it. At some point in my childhood, I began consciously experimenting with the prohibitions involving colored people. The bus seating directive was the focus my earliest such experiment. I wondered what would happen if I sat in the back of the bus.

glenda ed 2

My friend, Glenda, who participated in my sitting-at-the-back-of- the-bus experiment.

By that time, riding the bus alone was nothing new for me. My friend, Glenda, and I were both latchkey kids and usually, on weekdays and even some weekends, were unsupervised until our parents or my sister got home from work or school. One of the compensations for not having a mother waiting for us with chocolate chip cookies when we got home from school was that we enjoyed an unusually large degree of independence. Part of that was that we both learned early to ride the bus. I would save my quarter-a-week allowance and she was an expert at finding loose change left around her house by her mother, who was a curb-hop.

When we had the money, we would get on the bus and just ride around with no destination in mind, though on Saturdays we might ride the bus a very long way to the roller rink way down 27th Ave. At the age of 10 or so, we realized that the most private place on the bus, furthest away from the driver and most conducive to giggling and mischief, would be in the very back of the bus, but we were forbidden to go there by what seemed, to me at least, a completely arbitrary restriction.

One day I talked Glenda into sitting in the very back seat, when there were only one or two colored people on the bus, just to see what would happen. What happened was that the bus driver came and got us and moved us up to the front. He made it very clear that he was angry that we had made him do that. I saw then that segregation works both ways, not with equal effect, but with effect, nonetheless. If colored people are present, they can only sit in the back and white people can only sit in the front. Glenda and I can never escape the bus driver’s eye by sitting as far away from him as possible, not only because colored people are forbidden to sit in the front, but because white people are forbidden to sit in the back if there are colored people present. I was not unaware that the taboo came down much harder on colored people when the bus was crowded because they would end up standing, but it was nevertheless a lesson to me that I was also limited by segregation.

Strange as the whole bus thing was to me, there was something else I noticed that was even more mysterious. I noticed that when black people arrived at the 79th street bus stop that was the transfer point for them to get on the Liberty City bus and us to get off it and onto another, and there were other black people waiting for the bus, they all greeted each other as if they were old friends, and they would then talk and laugh together like old friends. No one in my world acted that way at any time, unless my Aunt Jewel and her family came to Miami to visit us from Okeechobee, and then the laughing and horseplay were strictly in-house or backyard. White people, on the other hand, ignored each other completely at the bus stops and on the bus, except for possibly a slight, formal nod upon arrival at the stop, if it was unavoidable.

While it is now something of a standing joke among black people that white people think they all know each other, my early observations in Miami suggest that it is not quite such a comically stupid misapprehension. Since I was always an inquisitive little thing and this was such a glaring difference in the two groups’ behavior, I was inspired to ask my mother about it. “Mama,” I asked in my little girl voice while standing at the bus stop, “do colored people all know each other?”

Surprisingly, my usually less-than-sensitive mother gave me a pretty satisfying and perceptive answer. Deciding after some consideration that it was a straightforward question, not some kind of a trap, she said, “Hush now, you don’t want them to hear you. You might hurt their feelings. No, I don’t think they all know each other. I think they just like to stick together when they are around white people.”

She later elaborated that, since they all had to live in “their own place” and go to “their own schools and churches” and since they all shared what were very hard lives, they probably were just glad to find others like them any place they were and so they all acted like they knew each other so they would feel less alone. It made perfect sense to me and, isolated as I felt by my cold family, I envied them that part of their experience. My mother was occasionally capable of some pretty deep sociological insight. I can only add to that now, from the perspective of my life history, that they were also highly recognizable to each other and, with some exceptions, very distinct from white people visually, and that that alone might tend to make them glad to see each other.

“But, Mama,” I asked then, “Why don’t white people like to stick together when they are around colored people?” She was stumped.  So was I, until many years later, when I learned that they do, in their own way.

Early on in Miami I must have been instructed not to use the colored drinking fountain or anything that said “colored” on it, such as a waiting room at a bus station. Bathrooms, if they were available at all for colored people, I learned later from books, said “colored” on them, but I actually do not remember ever seeing a “colored” bathroom, at any time. If they existed in the Greyhound bus stations, they would have been in the colored waiting room, where I would not have seen them.

Although I rarely saw black people other than on the bus, there was one place where I did see them. This was a large, possibly a discount, grocery store that my parents went to sometimes. I remember that it was a very long drive down 27th Ave toward Hialeah, which is probably why we did not shop there more often. My parents took me with them when they went. It was the scene of another one of my social experiments.

In the front was a huge awning over a sort of carnival-like area with hot dog stands, ice cream stands, cheap toys and something new—little individual rides with slots where you put in a quarter to be jiggled or shaken on a plastic horse or pretend racing car. Colored people also shopped there, unlike at our usual grocery store. This must have been an arrangement of long-standing since, in the back of the store, were located, side-by-side, colored and white drinking fountains. It was the only place where I can consciously remember seeing such an arrangement.

On one trip to this store, I begged to be allowed to wander around by myself under the awning, looking for something to spend my allowance on. I was a bit curious about the coin-slot rides, since I had never seen them anywhere but here, but I was too shy to just get on one by myself and put my quarter in. As I looked at the plastic horse, speculatively, two black children, both younger than me, got on it, laughing and giggling and bumping themselves up and down as if riding a horse.

Without thinking, I walked up and put my quarter in the slot and stepped back to watch them ride the horse. It was not an act of charity or pity or superiority or anything like that. I did it because I thought if I cannot ride it myself, I can at least see what other children get out of it, what the appeal was. The two children wasted only a split-second being surprised and began to scream with delight and get into the ride. I stood and watched them, enjoying the ride vicariously, and laughing with them. When it stopped, they simply jumped off and ran inside the store, probably to tell whomever they came with. I looked around, saw people staring at me and ducked quickly around a vending machine before anything could come of it.

My father, had he known, would have been incensed that I had “wasted” my allowance and my mother would surely have suggested that I not get “any allowance at all if I couldn’t find anything better to do with it,” so I never told anyone until I was grown. But, the memory of that sweet moment I shared with the other two children, in the context of how very unpopular and lonely a child I was, was something I carried around with me for a long time. In the long run, it went into my mental file labelled “Black people are just like us, what in the hell is the fuss about?” along with numerous other items. It was a question that subsequent events in my life made all the more urgent.

Although segregation permeated everything, it was also imperceptible to white people, in a strange way. You had to notice the visible signs and think about them and most white people were trained not to do that. I, however, often thought about it and was always full of questions.

I was fascinated not only with colored people and their plight, but with their music. Late into the night, on those nights when my sister was out on a date and my parents had long been asleep, I would turn on the little plastic radio my dad had given me for my birthday, turn it down too low for it to wake him and press my ear close to listen. Although my tastes were very eclectic and I would listen to almost anything musical, from Cuban to classical, I did tend to drift towards the station that played Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and Ray Charles, singing songs with words I often, luckily, did not understand. I knew that some of the singers I liked best were colored, but I did not realize until I was grown that I had been listening to a black radio station and that all of the music I liked best, most of the single vocalists and all of the “sha na na” groups I liked, had been black.

In junior high school, when I was home alone or only with my sister, doing chores, I listened exclusively to the station that had “T.J. the DeeJay,” since he played the best music, which was also the best music to skate to at the new, modern outdoor skating rink in Opa-Locka. My parents knew of my musical preferences and had no objections, as long as I turned the radio down or off without question when requested to do so. I can even remember explaining to my mother why I liked T.J.’s music the best and trying to get her to sing “bop bop shoo wop” to Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops,” so I could sing the words. The syncopated response format was, after all, not that unfamiliar to us, since so many hymns in the Broadman hymnal contained it. She gave up, after much laughter, but no one ever complained or explained that the music I loved was black music and I never saw the performers live or on TV or saw pictures of them, so I never knew. At least regarding musical styles, it seems, the racism of my parents was somewhat patchy.

The exception was  Cab Calloway.  One did not often see black people on TV at all and it was not until I was in the sixth grade that we even got a TV, so the sight of a colored man on TV at all was quite memorable. To see one with his own show was more so. Cab Calloway had a regular half-hour show, probably on Saturday, when I usually had full control of the TV, and I never missed it. “Hidey, hidey, hidey, ho,” I would sing right along with his theme song, never putting it together that he would not have been allowed to stay in the hotel where my mother worked.

Cab calloway(1)

Cab Calloway, as I remember him from the local Miami TV show I loved. The picture does not begin to convey how dynamic he was.

(It is no dramatic exaggeration when I say that I actually cried quietly in the back seat of the car when we moved from Miami, not only to be leaving my friends and all I knew, but because I knew how much I would miss T.J. the Deejay and the music he played—never knowing he and it were black. I did know the quality of my radio listening was in for a big dive.)

Like any 10-year-old child I was interested in anything that made my parents uneasy but, unlike the 10-year-old children around me, I had also noticed that talk of colored people, in particular, was a subject that would make my parents uneasy. So, I asked many questions, using my highly perfected innocent persona. Why do they have to go to different schools? Where do they go to the beach? Why are there two different kinds of drinking fountains? Why do they have to sit at the back of the bus?

The answers I received were probably relatively tolerant, for poor white people in that time and place, but I never received answers that I could validate from the standpoint of either Christianity or rationality. So, I was fascinated with black people and wanted to understand how just the very mention of them in my milieu could change the tone of any gathering.

I remember asking a question once, when we were driving to a beach we liked in the greater Miami area, and it was a long drive because, being poor folks, we lived a long way from any beach. I asked my father where did colored people go to the beach. He patiently explained that colored people have their own beaches to go to. I asked him if their beaches were as nice as our beaches and received a less definitive answer. In part because of such waffly answers, my perception of racism grew as I grew. I  continued to test, with my experiments,  just how deep it was.

Good morning

One of my experiments was actually the result of a class assignment I was given in the fourth or fifth grade. It was a school assignment, the like of which I have never seen, before or since. I am thinking maybe it was my fourth grade teacher, one of only two teachers I had in elementary school who was nice to me in spite of the extra trouble I caused her by being so far ahead of the class. Perhaps she was especially interested in social behavior because she had a withered arm due to polio and had thus, presumably, been the recipient of negative behavior on the part of others, herself. In any case, the assignment was to smile and say “hello” or “good morning” to whomever we might encounter, for a day, and then report back to the class on how people reacted.

Such an experiment, needless to say, would not be encouraged these days, given the modern and justified fear of predators, but it was the early 1950s. We had not gotten there yet. At that point in history I was riding my bicycle to school every day. The morning after the assignment, I was riding to school on a slightly different route than usual,  just for the variety, when I saw a black woman in a white uniform walking along the side of the sidewalk-less street. She was surely going to someone’s house to work, a very unusual occurrence in that part of town.

This woman is not the woman I met on the street in Miami, but the woman I met looked a lot like her. This woman is Katrina Wilson-Davis, the former principal of the defunct Liberty City Charter School. I hope she will not be offended by this use of her beautiful image. Photo by Ryan Stone for The New York Times

This woman is not the woman I met on the street in Miami, but the woman I met looked a lot like her. This woman is Katrina Wilson-Davis, the former principal of a defunct Liberty City Charter School. I hope she will not be offended by this use of her beautiful image. Photo by Ryan Stone for The New York Times

I had never seen a colored person on the way to school before and never saw one after that. I knew I was not to speak to colored people. By now, I was a little more adjusted to the southern view of things than I had been when I first arrived from Cleveland. But, the teacher had said nothing about race when making the assignment and I disingenuously resolved to use the assignment for my own experiment. If anyone said anything about it, I could always act innocent and say, “Well, that was the assignment. . .”

As she approached, I slowed down, looked her square in the face, smiled my best smile and said, “Good morning.” She was so shocked that she came to a dead stop and stared at me unbelievingly. I stopped my bike and continued to give her my best Sunday School smile. Finally, she looked around to see if anyone was watching. We were alone. There were no houses close by that could have hidden someone looking out from behind a venetian blind. She said, still not smiling back, “Honey, you’re not supposed to say ‘good morning’ to me. Why would you do that?”

I told her about the assignment, all innocence. She stared at me a little longer, face softening. Then, she said, “Why, Honey, I’m sure your teacher didn’t mean for you to say anything to ME.” “Why not?” I said. “It’s supposed to be anyone we meet. Aren’t you anyone?”  Still looking around nervously, she did manage to generate a smile for me at that and to say, “Well, good morning to you, little girl. Now, run along to school and don’t you tell anyone about this now, you hear?” And that is just exactly what I did. I am sure I was able to make up some plausible story that met the assignment. But, I certainly reviewed the whole thing over and over and it probably contributed to the planning of my next experiment.


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