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My grandmother India always said God had pointed a finger at our family, asking for just a bit more discipline, more praying, and more hard work because he had blessed us with good health and good brains. My mother was one of the first few blacks to integrate the University of Arkansas, graduating in 1954. Three years later, when Grandma discovered I would be one of the first blacks to attend Central High School, she said the nightmare that had surrounded my birth was proof positive that destiny had assigned me a special task.
First off, I was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. Mother says while she was giving birth to me, there was a big uproar, with the announcement that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. She remembers how astonished she was, and yet her focus was necessarily on the task at hand. There was trouble with my delivery because Mom was tiny and I was nine pounds. The doctor used forceps to deliver me and injured my scalp. A few days later, I fell ill with a massive infection. Mother took me to the white hospital, which reluctantly treated the families of black men who worked on the railroad. A doctor operated to save my life by inserting a drainage system beneath my scalp.
Twenty-four hours later I wasn't getting better. Whenever Mother sought help, neither nurses nor doctors would take her seriously enough to examine me. Instead, they said, "Just give it time."
Two days after my operation, my temperature soared to 106 and I started convulsing. Mother sent for the minister to give me the last rites, and relatives were gathering to say farewell.
That evening, while Grandmother sat in my hospital room, rocking me back and forth as she hummed her favorite hymn, "On the Battlefield for My Lord," Mother paced the floor weeping aloud in her despair. A black janitor who was sweeping the hallway asked why she was crying. She explained that I was dying because the infection in my head had grown worse.
The man extended his sympathy. As he turned to walk away, dragging his broom behind him, he mumbled that he guessed the Epsom salts hadn't worked after all. Mother ran after him asking what he meant. He explained that a couple of days before, he had been cleaning the operating room as they finished up with my surgery. He had heard the doctor tell the white nurse to irrigate my head with Epsom salts and warm water every two or three hours or I wouldn't make it.
Mother shouted the words "Epsom salts and water" as she raced down the hall, desperately searching for a nurse. The woman was indignant, saying, yes, come to think of it, the doctor had said something about Epsom salts. "But we don't coddle niggers," she growled.
Mother didn't talk back to the nurse. She knew Daddy's job was at stake. Instead, she sent for Epsom salts and began the treatment right away. Within two days, I was remarkably better. The minister went home, and the sisters from the church abandoned their death watch, declaring they had witnessed a miracle.
So fifteen years later, when I was selected to integrate Central High, Grandmother said, "Now you see, that's the reason God spared your life. You're supposed to carry this banner for our people."
Black folks aren't born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you're teething and says, "Here's how you must behave as a second-class citizen." Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of segregation creep over you, slowly stealing a teaspoonful of your self-esteem each day.
By the time I was four years old, I was asking questions neither my mother nor grandmother cared to answer. "Why do the white people writeColoredon all the ugly drinking fountains, the dingy restrooms, and the back of the buses? When will we get our turn to be in charge?" Grandma India would only say, "In God's time. Be patient, child, and tell God all about it."
I remember sitting on the dining room floor, writing letters to God in my Indian Head tablet. I painstakingly formed the alphabet just as Grandma had taught me to do in order to distract me from my asthma cough. I could do the multiplication table through ten and read and write simple sentences by the age of four as a result of all those long nights working with her.
When I was five, I had my first true bout with testing the harsh realities of segregation. My family -- Grandmother, Mother, Daddy, and my brother, Conrad, plus most of my aunts and uncles -- had gathered at Fair Park for a Fourth of July picnic. As usual we were separated from the white people, set apart in a wooded section away from the pool and the merry-go-round. While the grownups busied themselves setting up the meal, I made my escape, sneaking away to ride the merry-go-round. I had had my eye on one horse in particular, Prancer, the one I had dreamed about during all those months as I saved up the five pennies I needed to ride him.
I reached up to give the concessionaire my money. "There's no space for you here," the man said. But I pointed to Prancer's empty saddle. That's when he shouted at me and banged hard on the counter, spilling my coins on the ground. "You don't belong here, picaninny." I didn't know what that word meant. But his growling voice hurt my ears and made my knees shake. Angry faces glared at me as though I'd done something terribly wrong. Scurrying past the people waiting in line, I was so terrified that I didn't even take the time to pick up my precious pennies. At five I learned that there was to be no space for me on that merry-go-round no matter how many saddles stood empty.
As a young child, my life was centered around the big, old, white wood-frame house at 1121 Cross Street that was my home. I lived there with my mother, Lois; her mother, my grandmother India; my father, Howell; and my brother, Conrad. Seven red cement stairs led up to the front door. A giant rubber plant stood just inside the front hallway next to tall mahogany bookcases that held the cherished volumes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Emily Dickinson, and of James Welden Johnson and Langston Hughes that Grandma and Mother loved so much. Some of the shelves held the textbooks Mother used for teaching seventh-grade English and for the night classes she took to get her master's degree.
Next came the living room with its tattered, overstuffed green velvet chair and matching couch. The half-moonshaped radio with brass knobs sat on a round mahogany table. Wine-colored leather chairs stood on either side. Great-grandma Ripley's clock and a copper horse that had belonged to Great-grandpa rested on the mantel over the fireplace.
The kitchen had a huge old-fashioned stove, a red chrome-trimmed breakfast table and chairs, bright yellow walls, and a linoleum floor with visible marks of wear and tear. Grandma could usually be found scrubbing it sparkling clean or baking cornbread, simmering collard greens, or preparing her special gourmet salmon soufflé. She had learned to cook some of her fancy dishes when she worked as a maid in white ladies' kitchens on Park Hill.
For as long as I can remember, I spent late afternoons with Grandma India in her garden, tending her four o'clock plants. I would stand beside her holding on to her skirt as she pulled the weeds or held the water hose. That's when we had our private talks. Once when I was six or so, I explained to her that I believed each human being was really only a spirit -- made by God, and that our bodies were like clothes hanging in the closet. I said I thought that one day I would be able to exchange my body for a white body, and then I could be in charge.
"Some of your thinking is right, child. We are not these bodies, we are spirits, God's ideas. But you must strive to be the best of what God made you. You don't want to be white, what you really want is to be free, and freedom is a state of mind."
"Yes, ma'am, but..."
"I hope you haven't told anyone else about spirits and bodies." She squeezed my hand. "Well, have you?"
"Good. It's time you started keeping a diary so's you can write down these thoughts and share them with me sometimes, but mostly keep them to yourself and tell God."
The next time she went to town she brought me a pink diary that I could lock with a little key. Most evenings before sleeping, I looked forward to going to my bedroom to write to God.
My room was a place for my stuffed animals to live and a home for my huge brown Raggedy Ann doll, the one Grandma India made for me. It was a magical place where I daydreamed for hours as I listened to music or radio shows. There I could be whoever I wanted; I could be white -- I could be free.
My brother, Conrad's, bedroom was filled with strange trucks, glass jars of crawly bugs, and a wooden train Daddy made for him. Conrad spent lots of time counting marbles, putting puzzles together, and playing Monopoly. His room always seemed to be cluttered with pieces and parts of things, and Daddy would often march into Conrad's room and demand that he put all his toys and trucks back into the red wooden box they had built together.
Daddy worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad as a hostler's helper. He would arrive home, his huge muscular body obviously tired from the physical labor of his job. Mother constantly reminded him that if he'd finish just one more course, he could graduate from college and have a professional job that paid more. But he resisted, saying he preferred to work outside in the fresh air, where he was free. He loved hunting and fishing and getting away to the wilds where nobody could bother him. It made Mother very angry that he wouldn't follow her advice. I worried they might do what my friend Carolyn's parents did -- get a divorce.
The dining room with its big oval table was the place we gathered each night for dinner and evening games. Daddy sat in the brown leather chair, reading his newspaper and working his crossword puzzles. Grandma entertained us with reading or checkers and chess so we wouldn't bother Mother as she studied for her night-school exams. She was determined to complete her master's degree.
With the passage of time, I became increasingly aware of how all of the adults around me were living with constant fear and apprehension. It felt as though we always had a white foot pressed against the back of our necks. I was feeling more and more vulnerable as I watched them continually struggle to solve the mystery of what white folks expected of them. They behaved as though it were an awful sin to overlook even one of those unspoken rules and step out of "their place," to cross some invisible line. And yet lots of discussions in my household were about how to cross that line, when to cross that line, and who could cross that invisible line without getting hurt.
There were so many times when I felt shame, and all the hope drained from my soul as I watched the adults in my family kowtow to white people. Whenever we shopped at the grocery store, they behaved as though they were worried about something.
The grocer, tall, skinny Mr. Waylan, with his Adam's apple sticking out above his collar, his fish-belly blue-white skin and oversized fingernails, was the white man I saw most often. At least twice a week, I would accompany one or more of the adults in my family to his store.
Mr. Waylan's store was one of my favorite places because going there was sometimes like going to a neighborhood party. Mostly our people shopped there, although a few whites from a nearby neighborhood came there, too. There was sawdust on the floor, and the air was filled with the aroma of spices, fruits, onions, nuts, and potatoes. Maybe it was the festive colors and sounds that reminded me of a party.
Early one Friday evening, when the store was crowded, our entire family went in for a shopping spree. We had Mama's teaching check, Daddy's railroad check, and the money Grandma India had earned from her work as a maid. It was one of those times when we all felt joy and peace and lots of hope. I looked forward to the bill paying because the grocer sometimes rewarded Conrad and me with Sugar Daddy suckers after the grown-ups handed over the money.
Grandma was the first to look over Mr. Waylan's bill. Her forehead wrinkled; she mumbled and handed it to Daddy. He looked it over. By the time Mother examined the bill, all their faces were grim. They quickly moved Conrad and me with them to a corner of the store.
They were certain the bill overcharged them by twenty-two dollars. That was more than a day's pay, Daddy said. Still, they seemed frightened to speak up. After lots of whispered angry words, they decided to complain. Although Grandma approached the grocer in a calm, respectful way, he shouted back at her in an angry voice -- loud enough for everyone within a block to hear. He said he gave us credit when we didn't have eating money, so he expected us to pay without complaining.
Seeing Daddy's jaw tighten and his eyes narrow, Grandma touched his hand to stay him. There was an ominous silence in the store. Everybody was staring at us. Other people in the store, some of them our friends, stood absolutely still, fear in their eyes.
At first Mother, Grandma, and Daddy stood paralyzed. Then Mother took a deep breath, stepped forward, and said in a commanding voice, "Even when we're being overcharged?"
"You just watch your mouth or you'all will be eating beans next month." The grocer was shaking his fist at Mother Lois. There was fire in Daddy's eyes, but once again Grandma looked at him and he backed down; the three of them cowered like children before a chastising parent. There was a long moment of complete silence. All at once Grandma started to pull dollars out of her purse and Daddy did the same. Together, they paid the full amount.
Mama quickly shoved Conrad and me out the door. We'd make do with what was in our cupboards for the next few days, Daddy said. We wouldn't be going to that store anymore.
On the way home Grandma fussed and fumed, saying she was fed up with buying day-old bread and slightly rotting meat for one and a half times the price fresh food was sold to white folks. I couldn't stop wondering why Mama, Grandma, and Daddy couldn't talk back to that white man.
Daddy was a tall man, over six feet four, with broad shoulders and big muscles in his arms. He could toss me in the air and catch me or hoist me over the fence with ease. Until that moment, I had thought he could take on the world, if he had to protect me. But watching him kowtow to the grocer made me know it wasn't so. It frightened me and made me think a lot about how, if I got into trouble with white people, the folks I counted on most in my life for protection couldn't help me at all. I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that white people were definitely in charge, and there was nothing we could do about it.
The next day Grandma called all her friends and tried to get them to agree to form a group to shop across town. All but one person warned her not to cause trouble. After she had dialed at least ten numbers, she sank down into her chair and sat silent for a long while. Then she picked up her Bible and read aloud the verse that cleared away the tears in her eyes: "And Ethiopia shall stretch forth her wings." With a smile on her face and fire in her eyes she said, "Be patient, our people's turn will come, You'll see. Your lifetime will be different from mine. I might not live to see the changes, but you will....Oh, yes, my child, you will."
But as time passed without significant changes in my life, I was becoming increasingly anxious waiting for Ethiopia to stretch forth her wings. In my diary I wrote:What if Grandma is wrong? -- what if God can't fix things. What if the white people are always gonna be in charge. God, now, please give me some sign you are there and you are gonna do something to change my life. Please hurry!
-- Melba Pattillo, age eight, a Sunday school student
Copyright © 1995 by Melba Beals