The Defining Generation
When Worlds Collide
I was seven years old when our family moved from Colorado to Alabama. In my youth I just wanted friends to play with; the color of their skin was not a consideration. I was fortunate to grow up with parents who were not racially prejudiced and spent my early life in integrated neighborhoods. Initially, in my naiveté, I never really noticed the friction between blacks and whites that was growing around me in Alabama.
In my early teens my closest friend was Betty, the girl who lived next door. Betty was Black, but in my young eyes that didn't make her different. Quickly, and sometimes comically, I learned that we came from two different worlds.
The first time I visited Betty's house I noticed an unusual vase in the corner by the easy chair. I went over to look at it quizzically while Betty grinned and said: "That’s just my mom’s spittoon. Haven’t you seen a spittoon before"? I told her that I hadn’t and she proceeded to explain its use to me.
We hung out together and often spent the night at each other’s house. Betty had a garden in her backyard where she grew collard greens, okra, and black-eyed peas. The first time she fried up okra (after dipping it in cornmeal) I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever tasted. It had a sweet taste. I never did care for collard greens or black-eyed peas, although to this day, I still love okra.
On one of the nights when I was sleeping over, Betty was watching television and told me to help myself to anything in the refrigerator. I saw what looked like a bowl of vanilla pudding, got a spoon out of her drawer and put it into the bowl taking a huge bite. I immediately went to the sink and spat the disgusting food out. I asked Betty, "What was THAT?"
Betty looked at me strangely and said, "That’s lard. Why?"
I explained that I had thought it was vanilla pudding and had taken a bite of it. She laughed and explained to me what lard was and how it was used.
Many times Betty’s uncle would bring a huge box of comic books to her house. We felt suddenly rich, and would spend days reading the comic books together. In so many ways we were exactly alike. Other times Betty would tease me good-naturedly about our differences, especially when she was trying to teach me how to dance. I was shy and never could seem to move as fluently and provocatively as she did. She would laugh good-naturedly and say, "White people ain’t got no soul."
My youthful naiveté changed when we moved across the highway. At first I didn't realize that all of my neighbors were white. I just figured I hadn’t met any of the Black neighbors yet.
Despite the move, I continued to walk to Betty’s house to spend time with her. After about a week, when we had pretty well settled in, I invited her to my new home. "Are you sure that’s ok?" She asked. I was puzzled why she would even ask such a question. She had been to my old house on numerous occasions. Why would she think she wouldn’t be welcome at my new house as well?
We walked the couple of miles to my house and, as we did, I began to notice that Betty was very uncomfortable. When we got to my house we went inside to play together. Later, when dad came home from work, he drove Betty home. As far as I could see, nothing had really changed with our move across the highway.
As quickly as Betty departed, my new next-door neighbor, a white girl named Debbie, came outside to yell at me. "How dare you bring that NIGGER into our neighborhood!" she screamed. It caught me completely off guard.
"She’s not a nigger, she’s black," I countered. "And she’s my best friend!"
"Then you’re nothing but WHITE TRASH", Debbie yelled back at me.
I didn’t know what "white trash" was, but I knew from the expression on her face and the tone of her voice that it couldn’t be good. And thus began my first real glimpse of racial prejudice, and the collision of two worlds…Black America and White America.
In the months that followed I started to notice more and more the racial tension that plagued our city. As I moved up in the grades, I saw it becoming worse and worse in my school. One of the biggest issues at the time was "bussing", a practice that united us all in one manner. Both Black and White students hated it. For all of us, our young minds just didn't understand why we couldn’t go to the school in our own neighborhoods. Instead we were all, whether Black or White, forced to ride buses great distances for from forty-five minutes to an hour, to attend the school that had been selected for us.
Bussing was the government’s way of leveling the playing field and addressing the inequalities in education that resulted from segregated schools. The concept was that, in order for all kids to have access to an equal education, youths should be bussed to schools that needed more kids of either the White or Black race in order to achieve racial balance.
When I moved on up to Junior High School (what we now call Middle School), I was lucky in that I only had to be bussed three miles to attend classes. During this same period I also quickly realized that the tension between the races seemed to grow as we became older. Often when I would walk down the halls on my way to a class, a group of black students would push me down the incline causing me to lose my balance. If I lost my grip and dropped my books, these same kids kicked them down the hall and laughed at me as I tried to gather them up. I was both confused and humiliated. Very often I just sat down and cried.
One girl in particular seemed to enjoy picking on the White students that she felt were particularly vulnerable. Quiet and shy, I numbered among this group, and she told me I was to wear my hair a certain way, or wear certain clothes. She further advised that if I didn't do as she said, she would beat me.
I tried to explain to her, as well as other black students, that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I asked why they hated me. They told me it was because I was white.
I asked why they hated me because of the color of my skin. They said it was because white people made black people slaves.
I told them I had never made anyone a slave, nor did any of my family. How could we have had slaves? We were from Colorado!
My feeble defense didn’t seem to matter. To them, I was the enemy.
In the middle and late sixties, the tension and violence in our city reached dangerous levels. My parents heard reports of black kids stabbing and cutting people with the metal picks, worn in their Afros. A few white teachers had been killed. Every day mom and dad sent me to school with the admonition, "If anything looks wrong, or you are fearful for your life, you leave the school immediately and come home."
One day I was walking down the hall to my next class when a teacher grabbed me and threw me into her classroom, slamming the door behind us. I explained to her that this was not my class. She yelled, "Stay here!" I looked out the window in the door and saw about fifteen Black kids with picks held above their heads running down the same hallway I had just been in.
A few days later the school principal called for my attention in the hallway. He told me, as well as several other students nearby, to go home immediately. The urgency in his voice let us know that we were not to question him. I ran home shaking. Later I learned that a riot had broken out in our school and several students were badly hurt.
Mom and Dad watched the news every night, and I remember seeing pictures of race riots and marches. Once I asked mom what the marches were about, and she explained that these people were marching so that Black Americans would have the same rights as White Americans. She explained how the schools in Black neighborhoods were old and in poor repair, so that Black kids didn't have the opportunity for the same education as White kids. That, she told me, was why I had to ride the bus so far to school. She admitted that there were still a lot of problems, but also told me that many Americans were trying to correct them. From that point on I watched the news with a little more interest.
One day my friend Betty told me there was going to be a demonstration and that she might go to it. I asked my mom if I could go too. After all, I was for fair treatment for everyone. Mom was fearful of the violence that often occurred at the demonstrations, and refused to let me go. Later I learned that Betty's mother felt the same way, and had similarly kept my best friend at home as well.
Since I couldn’t march in protest, I did the only thing I knew to do--I voiced my feelings on paper. In one essay, I wrote that I wish everyone were blind. If everyone were blind, there would be no prejudice. No one would be judged on the color of his or her skin. They would only be judged by what kind of a person they were.
I came to Alabama as an innocent child free of prejudice. After living in the South for nine years during the turbulent sixties, I unwittingly developed some. I never changed my belief that people should be treated equally regardless of the color of their skin. It was just that these experiences made me more fearful of Black people. If I was walking down the street by myself and a couple of Black kids were on the other side of the street, I would start to tremble. I would also look quickly around to find another route while praying that they would not hurt me.
Eventually we moved back to Colorado. A few days after we arrived I saw my first Black person. He was a kid about my age.
I felt the same fear rising up in me as he crossed the street to stand in front of me. "You’re new here, aren’t you," he inquired.
I replied that I was.
He smiled and said, "Welcome to the neighborhood."
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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