Age Seven: An Awakening

Along about this time, an incident took place that nagged at me for years. It has become a short story, but I won’t print it here. I think the memory suffices.

I may have been younger than seven; I can’t swear to how old I was. I was old enough for what happened to make an impression but not old enough to understand the implications.

From my earliest memories, we always had a maid. Some people had cooks, too, or a woman who could both cook and clean. Our maid was mainly a housekeeper. She came every day, I think, although I can’t imagine why. The incident I’m remembering happened in the summer. The maid–I’ll call her Rose–came to work with her two or maybe three children, all close to my age, in tow. When Rose showed up at the back door, my mother was miffed. Rose explained that she didn’t have anybody to keep the children, and rather than miss work, she had brought them with her. I can hear her voice in my head: “They won’t be no trouble, Miss Carra. They play outside, they be fine.”

Mother had some project underway–making jelly, maybe–so she needed Rose to stay. She told the children to go play in the yard, and Rose came inside and went to work. The trouble was, I wanted to play with them. I nagged at my mother until she gave in, but she lectured me to “keep my distance” and to come in when she called. I wondered aloud why those kids couldn’t come inside to play. I got no answer.

So I went out to play with the black children, and we wound up under the walnut tree where the swing was. I don’t remember if any of us played on the swing. I had a package of balloons in my pocket, precious treasure from a trip to the dime store a day or two before. I brought them out, and we children sat in the dirt and began to blow up balloons. The fun got out of hand when I showed them how to blow them up and let them go so they went buzzing and flying all around us. Hysterical with laughter, we began to swap balloons, blow them up, let them go.

Balloons
Image by jdurham/www.morguefile.com

And then my mother showed up. Red-faced with fury, she demanded to know what we were doing, but I didn’t have to tell her. She had been watching us. She yanked me up by the arm and dragged me into the house. All my balloons were left behind.

I don’t recall what happened after that. I suppose the black children stayed on and played in the yard. In my fictional version, their mother takes her dignity and her children and walks away from that job. I’d like to think that was true, but I doubt it. Whatever happened, I was left with the feeling that something wasn’t right.

In fairness to my mother, she had reason to be concerned about me and “germs.” I was sick a lot in those days. She would not have considered herself a racist. It was all she knew. It was what I learned, too: a cultural context of racism that I wouldn’t unlearn for many years. That day, though, for a little while, we children saw only those brightly colored balloons. The color of our skin didn’t matter.

I wonder how those children felt, having their playmate taken away from them, or if the left-behind balloons were enough. I wonder if they sensed the discrimination at the heart of it and if the story stayed with them the way it has stayed with me.

27 thoughts on “Age Seven: An Awakening

  1. I’m sorry if this shows up twice, I had an error when posting. When I was 12, I spent the summer with my grandmother. She actually grounded me for being friendly with her African American gardener’s daughter. She said that “they’re fine for things like gardening, but you can’t become friendly with them” or something like that. Amazing. Hopefully, by the time my son is my age, this is no longer an issue.

  2. When I was 12, I spent the summer with my grandmother. She grounded me for being friendly with her African American gardener’s daughter. She told me that they were “fine to do the garden, but you can’t possibly socialize with them.” Amazing. We can only hope that we teach our children equality.
    TALU

  3. I still remember being at a parent/teacher conference at school when I was 10 or 11 – when my mother saw the boy I had a crush on, she had a fit for herself and forbid it. She forbade my crush??? It wasn’t like we were getting married – or even dating for that matter, we were 10!! To make it even more absurd, sometime down the road, she declare it was OK for me to DATE someone who was African American, or even Asian – I just couldn’t marry them. Sigh … [#TALU]

    1. Sabra, I lost track of them, including their mother. Come to think of it, I don’t believe she worked for us for very long after that.

  4. Interesting. My dad was raised in Jackson and he can really irritate me with his racial slurs. When I was little my mom would tell me the things he said were not right and for me not to repeat them. I am so glad she made the point to tell me it was wrong because it helped ensure I was not prejudice. Lovely post, I would love to read the short story.

  5. Wow! This was very powerful, Gerry. How awful to experience it.
    Such a different world from mine. In small farm-town Ontario, the closest I came to racism was when a friend who’d just moved from Toronto told me some of the kids in her Toronto high school wouldn’t talk to her b/c she wasn’t white, & how nice it was to be here where there weren’t any social stigmas. I laughed, thinking she was joking, & asked her what colour she thought she was. She said she was Eastonian, darker than white. For the life of me, I still can’t see it.

    Your memory is beautifully written, and the image of coloured balloons vs coloured children is brilliant.

    1. Thank you! I expect that growing up in the deep South when I did makes for some unique experiences. I didn’t make those balloons up; it really happened very much as I described it. We were having so much fun, passing those balloons around.

  6. This was lovely to read just now — I just got home from a Dismantling Racism meeting where we work so hard at this. Sometimes just the right metaphor really makes it click like why multi-colored balloons are all about fun and games but multi-colored children are about something else entirely.

  7. You grew up in such a different world to me. i am sure you have read the book The Help. That was an eye-opener to me really. At school in NZ we were taught about racism and the countries that had laws based on skin colour, but what i thought i knew was nothing in comparison to the bewilderment you must have grown up with. Kind of a fundamental thing i suppose. I am still confused by racism. this was a beautiful story, in fact as a stand alone memory it was very powerful.. c

    1. Celi, it was strange, but even at that age I felt that things were not right. Yes, I did read The Help and found some of it exaggerated but some of it painfully true. Mine was a country town in the north Mississippi hills. We were not an affluent bunch! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I always love to see you here!

  8. It was only in adulthood that I realized that my Native American bloodlines could be African American as well. Race was a complex issue…still is. If people knew you, they automatically categorized you as white…like my grandpa, because he didn’t act black. Meaning they knew him and what they knew didn’t fit their stereotypes and he was light enough for most folks to ignore any discrepancy. They could accept him without it challenging their entire worldview. The fact that he had beautiful daughters (two blonde) and adoring grandchildren kept the belief suspended.

      1. I think most folks were. I think that is both the key to why it was allowed to go on for so long as well as the key to how quickly attitudes shifted. The majority of folks were not hateful but did not have the space to envision a different way of being.

  9. My grandparents were of the same mentality. Even the most progressive still subscribed to a separate-but-equal idea into the 1990s. It took biracial great-grandchildren – and the strength of my mother to put her foot down on behalf of her grandchildren – to bring everyone around.

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