Mississippi Simmering

Sometimes my jaw drops at the audacity of some in this great nation. They believe we are charged with “spreading democracy around the world.” Our leaders tell other nations they should have a democracy, like us, and they should let their people live free. Did they have their heads in the clouds growing up, like I did? Or did they miss class the day American history was taught? Because our country hasn’t always been free. Some of us have, but some of us haven’t. Some of us came to this country for freedom, and some were brought to be slaves.

Freedom is when everybody is free. Because of the place and time I grew up, I can’t write a memoir without talking about that.

_____

It was the White South. If I were to make a fist, closed up tight like a cotton boll, and then open it to the point to where my fingertips just barely didn’t touch each other, like burs separating to hold fluffed cotton, it would be a representation of my life, growing up. That fluff was me, contained, held in place, protected. I was detached from issues that defined my world.

I only knew life at my fingertips. I was busy being a kid. It was a rich time, and even for folks who didn’t have a lot of money, like Mama and Dad, we still had a lot of new gadgets and toys and dreams, and I knew that anything was possible in my world. Mama and Dad had grown up during the Great Depression, fought and won a world war, and now, they were going to make darn sure my sister and I had every opportunity they didn’t have.

A few months before I started kindergarten at Hill Demonstration School on the college campus six blocks from my house, the Supreme Court said that “separate but equal” had no place in public education. I was too little to know what that meant, if I even knew about it. It certainly didn’t affect me. Life at my fingertips had always been separate—all white schools with kids just like me. In the days that followed, though, my vocabulary grew to take in new words: integrate, integrated, integration. I also learned the cheer that other kids were chanting: “Two, four, six, eight. We don’t want to integrate.” I was attuned to anything with rhythm and rhyme.

At the beginning of third grade, over in Arkansas, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort black children to an all-white school in Little Rock. I watched it happening live, in black-and-white, on TV. I heard the term “integration” again. But other things occupied my thoughts in those days. Mama was my third-grade teacher, and I had to call her Mrs. Hardy like all the other kids, and all in the world I wanted was to be normal like everybody else. I didn’t want everyone thinking I was getting special treatment because of my status as the teacher’s child. I wanted to be equal.

In third grade, a girl knew she was popular if she could get on the merry-go-round at recess, and the other kids did the pushing. I was privileged. I stood on that round platform with my friends Jacqueline and Mary Sue and held on tight to the bars, and the other children pushed us, and I laughed and let my hair blow. I don’t think they ever got a ride. I told them once they could have a turn, but they said no, it was okay.

When I started sixth grade, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were running against each other for president. Mama sat me down and told me we were “unpledged” and “don’t tell anybody who we are voting for because Dad’s customers might get upset and quit coming to him.” I didn’t know who they were voting for anyway, so it didn’t really matter. But Mama had never gotten so serious with me before, so I got the idea that something was up.

Yet life at my fingertips consisted of a boyfriend named Scotty and a whole new wardrobe of dresses and skirts and sweaters from the Sears catalog and Frehling’s dress shop. There was boy-girl softball at recess, and I played in a dress with full petticoats under it. Sometimes, I took off my shoes and played barefooted. Sometimes, I stuck sticks down in doodlebug holes.

The summer after sixth grade there were Freedom Riders. To be honest, I really couldn’t understand if people were saying Freedom Riders or Freedom Writers, so when I repeated that term, I said it so it would sound like either one. I didn’t understand what it was all about. But there was a lot of talk going on, mostly about “troublemakers” and “stirring things up.” “They should stay in their place,” some said. That meant separate. Separate waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, separate schools, separate seating at the movies, separate public restrooms, separate water fountains. Separate churches. They had their own separate cafes, but then they began to have “sit-ins” at lunch counters at Woolworth’s in faraway places, but not in my town.

This was about the time The Twist came about, when Chubby Checker introduced the song and dance on American Bandstand. I went to 4-H camp that summer and saw the older girls and boys doing it, and I did, too. I knew things would be different after that.

In junior high, my school closed the day James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. Leaders were afraid there would be trouble. Everybody was afraid of what it was going to bring. But me, I had penny loafers and Piccolinos and a black leather jacket and a charm bracelet, and I learned to “rat” my hair. I had a crush on an Australian boy who moved to town and started high school. The biggest concern of my day was getting the timing right after third period so I’d be passing through the corridor between the junior high and high school at the same time he’d be coming the other way to go to the lunchroom, just so I could say hey. That’s as far as it ever got.

The summer after eighth grade, Medger Evers was gunned down in Jackson. I saw it on the news and heard talk. People feared there might be trouble. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day … sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

As for this great-great-granddaughter of a slave owner, I could only see as far as the end of my arm. I had a new friend named Linda Gail, I’d be going to a new school, I learned to wear my hair in a flip, and I had Pep Squad tryouts. I discovered The Varsity, with its juke box and hamburgers. And I had to find just the right shade of pink lipstick.

Cotillion Gown

In ninth grade in the middle of Mississippi History, the intercom came on. Another rocket had launched, we thought, because Mr. Crain always turned it on when we shot one into space. There was so much static we could barely hear. Gunshots. In Dallas. Parkland Hospital. The president. Dianne Bobo started to cry. Some were saying good, serves him right, he deserves it because he was the civil rights president. Many of us didn’t go immediately to the gravity of the moment. But then, a pause. And the announcement was made. “The president of the United States is dead.” And then it was recess, and it was raining that Friday afternoon, and we stood outside under the canopy at the entrance to Margaret Green Junior High, stunned, and all we could say was I can’t believe this, as cold chills and a sense of loss and a loss of innocence covered us.

It was all uncovered and laid bare — all the wrongs — the cancer that was eating to our core.

I knew things would be different after that.

I saw that freedom didn’t come easy, that it would come hard and painful and with a high price.

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