Today an article came across my desk about raising race conscious children. I clicked on it because my six-year-old grandson is sitting across from me playing video games. As a grandmother, I am committed to him being equipped to live in a diverse and complex world. As I read through tips and stories, advice and commentaries, I paused to think about my own socialization around race. It influences who I am today.
“No one is better than you.” Those words were branded on my young mind as one of my earliest memories about race. My parents never said White people will try to make you feel they are superior, but it was what they meant. Around the dinner table or while ease dropping, I heard adults talk about Dr. King with sheer adoration mixed with sadness, always fearing for his life. My conversations with my father stand out vividly because he always seemed like it was urgent for me to get certain lessons from him. From the age of seven to eleven, I worked with him to earn extra spending money above my allowance. He cleaned an office building on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles. While I emptied ash trays and dusted the desks, he vacuumed the floors and emptied the trash cans, always exhorting over his shoulder some lesson for that day.
He drilled me on what ifs. “What if someone stole your wallet, what would you have left? “My education” was the proper answer. He cherished education and migrated his small family to Los Angeles so that I would avoid a Jim Crow life in Montgomery. Later in life I learned I was one of 3.5 million African Americans who left the South between WWII and 1970. It was 1957 and I was almost five when we settled in our new land of opportunity—the place where education was free.
He would tell me that most people were good, including White people but he quickly followed up that there were “some mighty bad White people, too.” He urged me to treat people well and to become a citizen of the world. He told me White people respected education and I needed to get all I could.
He sought out opportunities for me to be with White people because there were none in our neighborhood around Central Avenue (the Black Hollywood of LA) and 23rd Street. The only differences I saw were the Mexicans who sold buckets of oranges from door to door for fifty cents a bucket. My mother was always ready to accept a bucket and hand over a fifty-cent piece. There was little eye contact from either party, just genuine politeness. The Japanese people did not live in our neighborhood but were there every day trimming hedges and manicuring lawns. As kids, we thought that’s what they do. I did not know all had lost homes and businesses during WWII, during the internment period. Eddie and Tony, the Koreans, owned the small grocery store on 25th Street where I bought comic books and the magazines with all of the pop song lyrics. They called me “Little Girl.” Frank drove the Helm’s Bakery truck a few days a week and he was the only White man I would see regularly in person other than on television and in stores.
Television was a trip. If a Black person appeared on television the phones blew up with: “Hurry! There’s a colored person on channel 2.” You knew to call all friends and neighbors. It showed how invisible we were and how powerful the medium was. To see ourselves on television was nothing short of a miracle. It dominated the playground news for the next day.
I first came face to face with differences when my father sent me to the Hollywoodland Camp for Girls. There was a sea of blonde hair, freckles, and braces. I don’t remember feeling different until it was time for bed and all the girls where brushing their flowing hair and I as putting mine up in pink sponge rollers. They asked if it hurt and I said no. I asked if the braces hurt, and they said sometimes. Many had acne and pimples and spent a ritualistic evening with Noxzema and Clearasil. I had clear smooth skin that they seemed to admire. I made some friends for just the week we were there. Once we came back to the real world, I never heard from them or thought of them again. I think we instinctively knew we were in an artificial land at camp.
Hair was an issue, though. I wanted to swim every day and was good at it. Back home the summer was not complete without a daily trip to Twenty Second Street Playground where there was a nice size pool. When I left for camp, my mother’s parting words were probably: “You better not get your hair wet.” Once coarse black hair was wet, nothing could tame it but a hot straightening comb. I was not of the age to use one and was totally dependent on my mother to tame my wooly and unruly hair once it was wet. I often wondered what it would feel like to a Breck Girl who could get her hair wet and shake it off.
I am grateful I grew up with race pride that did not have to demean another group for me to feel worthy. My parents dreamed of a world where my friends would represent the real world. If only they could see me now.
*Years later when my husband and I bought our first home from a Korean family, we discovered a covenant in the documents: illegal to sell to Negroes and Indians.
To be continued…