When I was a child, my Mother and my Nana didn't talk about Race as an intellectual exercise and certainly not often if my brother and I were within hearing distance. There were never “lessons” on Race. Later, we knew about colored people and white people, but never to the extent those terms would become clear during the late sixties and early seventies, when I was coming of age. They never actually sat us down to explain the situation. There was never the “talk” Black parents know instinctively today to have with their children or the talks I am almost positive parents routinely had with their children in the South about white people. When I was about seven or eight, I could have been Emmett Till in Chicago before he met his untimely fate in Money Mississippi, unaware of the danger of being Black around white people. We were simply, colored people.
There was of course, general talk, about white people and colored people, and of the Irish and the Italians and the Jews. My Nana’s distain for the Mintz's, the Muntz's and the Lang's were palpable; white, German-Jewish families with their "big, pretty homes," and for whose homes she cleaned, washed and toiled twice a week, each for twenty dollars in cash. Back in those days, one hundred twenty dollars could get you fed, stave off the mortgage man, pay the insurance man and provide dose of Father Johns from time to time. It might not be enough to purchase coal for the basement heater, but it was enough most times to keep the gas oven warm with its door open and a pot of water inside; Nanny thought a pot of water made it safe to heat the second floor that way. Though she thought of them with much distain for what she called their lack of cleanliness, Nanny never complained about going to work. Mommy talked about the Irish and Italians with whom she worked at the aluminum plant near Grays Ferry. She got along with them, but she always felt there was always a distance they kept between themselves, and they never fraternized after work.
If I could imagine any kind of talk remotely concerning the nature of Race and Racism, White Supremacy or Race as color, the children on my block would have been the ones to have implied something portentous about good white people and bad white people, neighborhoods that were safe and those that were not, the places in the city where we needed to avoid, and of the really pretty “White neighborhoods.”
It was the late fifties on a kind of day that was blue overhead and perfect for a ride on my bicycle well past where the implication of safety was apparent. Why not? I’d always liked driving through those pretty white neighborhoods with my mom and her boyfriend on the way to somewhere else. I had crossed the large street that divided the okay Black neighborhood where I lived into the pristine stretch of cement sidewalks and manicured brick row homes of the closest pretty white neighborhood to me. As I rode further along, I suddenly came upon a playground. In it was a bright red, new chain link swing set for both small children and older kids, polished steel sliding boards, a labyrinth of gleaming metal monkey bars, and seesaws, all spread out over trimmed grass and cushions of dry brown mulch. This playground was a striking contrast to the only playground within blocks of my house, with rusty chains holding splintered wooden seats passing for swings held by a rickety frame, and a hulking cement staircase mimicking the size of Cheops, with a dual slide at the top, made of pot market cement, sure to toast an unsuspecting hind part not aware of the physics of friction.
It was a mere eight blocks away from my home and although I knew I shouldn't have strayed away from my own neighborhood, I expected to have an uneventful ride. Although the playground was open, there were no children in it at all. The solitude felt pleasant as I rode my bike around the perimeter of the fence surrounding the tranquility of the playground.
Suddenly, a little boy with the stringiest, yellow-white hair and chalky skin turned crimson about the cheeks, started sprinting toward the playground from a small side street adjacent to one of the playground's tall chain link fences. His sprint seemed determined, with clenched fists, arms flailing. Above the flush of his ruby cheeks were the slits of his eyes, two light blue beads with dark middles. He couldn't have been more than my age, or perhaps eight, maybe nine at best. I didn’t think much of the little boy at first, only that he looked intent on getting to the playground, perhaps for some fun. Maybe we would play together, I thought. I continued to ride my bike around the playground fence.
When the little white boy’s blue eye slits were close enough to meet my wide, dark brown eyeballs, I gripped my handle bars, breaking hard so as not to hit the little boy who had finally caught up to me.
"Get outa here, you nigger! Get away from my playground,” he yelled.
Then he began yelling loudly as though alerting the entire pretty white neighborhood of my obvious transgression.
"Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! ... Nig..."
He pointed at me with his finger very much like someone who had fallen asleep the night before and body snatched during the wee hours, and I was the only speck of humanity left on the Earth.
Of all the things I am certain of, I missed the last refrain of "nigger" in my ear, since I took off on my bike; with a certain amount of intention, barely hitting the little burgeoning bigot, and while shouting obscenities back at him as I bolted back to the safety of my neighborhood.
Yes. I had gone East of Broad Street to one of the pretty white neighborhoods of the time, but unlike Emmett Till, it wasn’t the South and it wasn’t deadly. That little boy took my Racial virginity and had busted my spiritual cherry. He had been given no consent from me or anyone else for his behavior that day, but he didn’t have to get consent. The acquiescence of his family and a nation built to accommodate an ideology of white superiority so unyielding that a small patch of concrete and neat row homes could be claimed as inaccessible to my little Black body was all he needed. The approval of generations of white Racial hatred had invaded me and my heart using a repulsive ancestral legacy like a non-consented molestation. Though through that experience I believe was actually fortunate. I only lost my innocence on that day, but I gained.
I gained a commitment to the cause of anti-Racism and the ability to express myself in ways that neither he nor any white supremacist will ever be able to claim or take away.
Oh did I gain.