When Did I Become Black ? USA Version

I read Karl’s Daley’s compelling essay on the February home page of Jamaicans.Com. I am sure that it stirred childhood memories in more people than myself. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee through the turbulent 50’s, 60’s ,70’s and beyond was no small task.

My mother, and extended family of Grandmother and Uncle, systematically conspired to keep the ugliness of my world reality from me. Blacks (let’s see we were Colored then right?), were not allowed at the Memphis Zoo, swimming pools, or state parks on any day except Thursday. As a little girl, if I asked to go swimming on an off day, my mother would fall on the bed grabbing her forehead and feigning a headache. A sensitive and pliable child, I would retract my request. My mother would continue to have the headache until Thursday, at which time she would suddenly be “cured” and ask if I would like to go to the pool, zoo, etc. I never put two and two together and realized that all of my outings were on Thursday. It did not matter to me, as long as I got to go.

My mother never was crass or cruel enough to say “GUHL YOU KNOW NEGROES AIN’T ALLOWED AT THE POOL ON NO SATIIDY. NOW GO PLAY AND STOP BOTHERING ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Her diplomatic handling of this and all racial situations left me clueless that I was different from anyone else.

My father was catholic, and as such, I had to be reared in that religion in order for my parents to marry. Along with Catholic Church came catholic school. All of the Nuns and priest were White. My mother was one of two lay teachers, both of whom were Black. The students population was 100% Black. At the time, I did not know Black from White, but I was soon to learn.

One of my neighborhood playmate’s Mom taught at the local public elementary school. One day there ensued an argument between us that went something like “my school is better than your school.” I of course was ready to defend my school to the death, as most kids will do. Suddenly my friend got this look on her face that let me know she was ready to deliver the winning argument point. With the nastiest, meanest look I have ever seen on her she delivered “Well anyway…….all of your teachers are WHITE, so there.”

Before I knew it, I had punched her in the jaw and we hit the driveway concrete fighting. Bonnie’s mother yelled for my mother and my Mom came flying across the street. She pulled me off of Bonnie and said, “Here, here, what’s this all about?”

“She called my teacher WHITE ,” I yelled. “Tell her my teacher isn’t WHITE.” I did not know what “White” meant, all I know is that Bonnie said it like it was something real nasty, and I would have nothing nasty said about Sister Mary Whoever she was.

Quietly, my mother said, “Marilyn, your teacher is White.” How could this be? My mother was siding with Bonnie, against me!!!!! My world crumbled.

My mother took me home, and quietly explained White and Black. From this day on, my world would never be the same. Suddenly, those signs over the water fountains at Goldsmiths made sense. It wasn’t just that my mother would steer me to the one that said “Colored ONLY”, and tell me that the water in that one was cleaner.

People were no longer just people, and Thursday was now “Colored Day.” I would remember this day when my childless Aunt in New York sent me off to an exclusive girl’s summer camp and the little white girl asked me to raise my gown and show her my tail, because her mother told her all “Niaga rows” had tails.. I’d remember this day when the raw eggs hit me at Poplar and Highland when I was marching to desegregate Lowensteins department store. I’d remember it the day I sat right behind Dr. King at Mason Temple the night he gave the “Mountaintop” speech, and a few days later when I was inhaling tear gas after the march on Memphis turned violent.

There had to come a time when I found out I was Black. It happens in America too.

About the author