Today, I answered a question concerning my racial lineage as a child. What was my first positive or negative memory of my racial lineage? I am pretty sure I did not quite understand the question, but the venue in which it was asked, came from a safe space. My first response in my mind was to think of the positive memories. The family gatherings every summer spent at North Myrtle Beach, the Black side of the beach. The afternoon church programs and after the worship services ended, the food gathered from the opened trunk of cars, ready for us to devour. To this day, I could never figure out why the food that waited for us to stop singing and shouting, shut up in the back of trunk cars, never spoiled.
I reminisced about the school I attended. This school was all Black. Students, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, band directors, athletic teams, home economics, future farmers of America, administrators, principal, and others. The grades started from kindergarten and went all the way up to high school. My mother worked in the cafeteria. My first grade teacher was my after-school baby sitter. My bus driver was the deacon of the Black Presbyterian church that served as a beacon of light to the community. I attended school with my older cousins who were in the marching band and who I idolized and could not wait until I was older enough to be in the band. I wanted so much to be a majorette! Our majorettes were tall, elegant, beautiful and their afros were gigantic rays of energy. I never got the chance.
The end of the school year, in 1972, before summer break, the 5th graders gathered in the gymnasium to hear an important announcement. Our older brothers, sisters and cousins would not be with us next school year. They would be bus to the white school. Apparently my state took forever to integrate the public schools because simply they did not want to, until the law forced them to do so.
Our principal stood tall and Black, a handsome man, short sleeve shirt and a tie that looked like it was too short. He spoke into the mic, and told a bunch of 5th graders, who were all passing to the 6th grade, and happy about it, that when they returned, their school would be different. White children were coming. And because white children were coming, we (all of us who passed to the 6th grade) had to do better. We had to be better. We had to be smarter. We had to prove that we were worthy. I wondered, “worthy to who?” He may not quite have said it this way, but this is the way my 11 year old, almost 12 year old brain, received the message. Were we not already better? Were we not already enough?
I returned to the question and sat with the trauma that still holds on to me after 51 years. I thought I forgot. But, I have not. The summer of 1972 changed my outlook on life. Would I always have to compete to be good, to be worthy? Would I always have to show out in all my excellent ways because whiteness demanded it and now the people who knew me best demanded that I be accommodating. All I wanted to do was go on summer break, go to the Black beach, make mud pies, shoot fire crackers on July 4th, eat watermelon, spit out the seeds, run barefoot, play with my cats and dogs, dance to the Jackson Five music, and be a child.
We returned after summer break. The marching band was gone. Our school colors were gone. Our teachers were gone. The principal was gone. We huddled together in the hallways, watching and praying, could we meet their standards? Not once did we ask the question, “could they meet our standards?” We were different now. Everything was different now. The summer of 1972, in a small rural town in South Carolina, the world changed for Black 5th graders who just wanted to have fun.
The summer of 1972.