Friday, September 07, 2012

How and When Did You First Learn the Difference Between Black and White?

I was every day of six years old before I knew the difference between black and white. Before that my world was divided into men and women, children and adults, family and everybody else. People at church and people at school. People I knew and people I didn't. People I loved, because on some deep intrinsic level we were of the Race that Knows Joseph and people I liked but weren't apart of that circle. People I knew but didn't quite know their names, but who knew mine - these were mostly always adults and these people drove me crazy and I think I always slightly distrusted them because they always expected me to know them and I didn't. I'd just have to pretend. But merely because of their strange familiarity, they were loved and liked in their turn.

There were people I liked and didn't like. People who liked and didn't like me. But all the same, they were a part of my world, never separated by skin color.

But when my Uncle Joseph came to visit that changed all due to a chance, slightly embarrassed comment from my mother.

My Uncle Joseph was coming to visit! Boy was I excited! I'd gone to stay with Grandmama and Grandaddy in Memphis, Tennessee and I was familiar with their idiosyncrasies that left my mother shaking her head and years later saying, "I know, I was crazy to send you to them but they loved having you there and I couldn't explain it to you. You just had to live there." And she was right. It made all the difference. Only by living with them could I possibly know how she could simultaneously love them to pieces and still want to move all the way to Ohio just to get away from them.

I'd also met Uncle Solomon there, who had been married a couple of times and, one summer, brought yet another wife home who had two daughters and was carrying a third child. Solomon would be my savior while I was in Memphis- a flighty, undependable, handsome, crazy, savior- rescuing me from Grandmama's attempts to take child rearing back to the 1800's - summers she filled with sewing, piano lessons and failed attempts to teach me to do dishes and dust he turned into movies spotted with his visits from his girlfriends children, rides in his car and once to an amusement park. He always brought fun and laughter in the house as well as his trademark phrase: "Mama, you got a dollar?" His timing was uncanny. He never failed to ask that question  jsut when she was teaching me to count change from coins she had saved in a jar. The amount was rarely under a dollar-five and even if he hadn't been in the house for days, the sound of the change jar called him home without fail, ending my lesson. He rescued me from the boredom in between Grandmama's failed attempts at teaching basic housekeeping, womanly graces and counting change; of watching TV all day, grazing from enormous, delicious bowls of grapes and eating pickle loaf sandwiches loaded with cheese and sandwich spread that I only ever at in Memphis and came to believe, with a gullibility specific to childhood, were delicacies specific to that location.

I'd never met him, but I knew vaguely about Uncle Joseph. I'd seen his room, still lovingly kept pretty much as he'd left it, as all three children's rooms were at 1040 South Wellington. I'd talked to him on the phone but he'd never come to Cincinnati and he'd never been to Memphis when I was there although he was a school teacher and could have come summers. I'd seen his pictures and so I knew he was brown skinned where the rest of us were light skinned, making him a favorite of our Harvey kin who were deep brown. Even knowing this did not make me more aware of color the way I came to understand it later. I could, understand the appeal, of loving people who looked exactly like you because, even at five, I knew that my mother loved me because I looked so much like her but yet, I also looked like my Dad whom she loved dearly.

I sat waiting on the balcony of our apartment. Uncle Joseph was due to arrive that day and I could see every single car that pulled up and every single person who walked across the bridge from the parking lot to the building. She had explained to me that he was her brother, which somehow, made him my Uncle, and so I knew I was looking for a man because brothers were boys and he was all grown up.

So every man that walked in and out of the building generated the same question from me.

"Mama, is that Uncle Joseph?"

And each man smiled and shook his head and mama patiently said, "No, Deborah, that's not Uncle Joseph."

One man, with very light skin and brown hair and a beard walked into the building and I inevitably asked again, "Mama, is that Uncle Joseph?

And she looked up, and looked at the man, who only smiled a little tight smile and walked on, and she said, "No Deborah." And only after the briefest of pauses, but while the bearded man was still in earshot, she said with a measure of wry amusement and patient instruction - a tone that said she didn't want to tell me but she felt that maybe I should know by now - that maybe she shouldn't have to tell me - was I so clueless that I hadn't figured it out already? How had I gotten to the ripe old age of seven and not been told? Not been called nigger? Not been shown that it was not them, but me who was different?

But the world is what is and I should know- had she really not told me this already? Maybe she shouldn't say it, but then again, life's lessons come as they do and today was as good a day as any for this one lesson to be learned. Besides, Uncle Joseph was coming and it really wouldn't do to have a seven year old child not know - after all they'd grown up in a house only a few blocks from the Lorraine hotel and had bullet holes in the house that Grandaddy wouldn't have patched so they would never forget, as if they ever would, those horrible nights of lying on the floor during the riots so as not to be shot through the walls of their own home.

Maybe that's what Dr. King meant. That someday children wouldn't even know there was a difference.  But that day wasn't today.

 "Your Uncle's not a white man."

And then I knew that some people were White and some people were Black. And that no matter how light skinned we were, we were Black. Somehow I'd always known I was Black. I just hadn't known that they were White.

And somewhere it made a difference important enough that my mother had to make sure I knew enough not to confuse a white man as my Uncle.

So I sat and waited for Uncle Joseph in silence, waiting for a brown-skinned man who looked like the little boy I'd seen in the picture at Grandmama's but all grown up to arrive. And I realized that on some level I'd known those other men weren't Uncle Joseph, even the bearded white man.

When he finally came, I knew when it was Uncle Joseph without asking. I felt that familiar pull in my spirit that said he was home. He was family.

I hadn't seen Uncle Joseph for years. He came to visit this summer and I walked right past him in the bus station, but then I felt that pull again and turned around and there he was - with my Grandmother's fierce expression a mask on his own face and again, felt that same familiar pull - the love of ties that bind.

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