I had black friends in school up until 5th grade. I hung from the rusty monkey bars upside down giggling with Ronetta as she shouted insults and pried off the fingers of the whiney boys who told us it was their turn to play. I tried to outrun Toneshia in my Zips tennis shoes across the playground, the grass all crunchy yellow. The commercial for Zips told me they would make me faster, but they didn’t. Even though she would allow me a head start, Toneshia would always beat me to the finish line with her big toothy grin and super long legs while sticking her tongue out and laughing as she raced past me. I admired Lawanda’s colorful earrings, painted fingernails and hair elastics with the colorful glittery plastic balls I wasn't allow to wear while she taught me rhymes about bubble gum and fairy princesses getting kisses.
My parents grew up in a time when blacks and whites didn’t go to school together. They sat in separate areas of the movie theater and drank from fountains labeled “whites only”. They were taught to be cautious of blacks, blacks and whites were too different to be friends and above all; never have a romantic relationship with one. This way of thinking was bound to cascade over to their children eventually. I was a slow learner.
I rarely invited school friends over to play. I mostly played with kids that lived in my upper class neighborhood, either outside in the woods or at their house. Where I lived with the manicured lawns and big houses with hot tubs and sports cars in the driveways, there were no black families. My parents would have moved if a black family were to buy a house there. As it were, my mother looked at new homes being built, picking apart each family and why they shouldn’t be able to live in our prestigious neighborhood; “How did they have enough money to build that?”, “That house doesn’t fit in here, it’s too small for god’s sakes” or “You know they had a trial separation, I heard he had an affair with his secretary”.... and she hated them, the newcomers.
Past our neighborhood down a dirt road in old shacks lived a few black families. We were told to never go down there. We would ride our bikes to the end of the paved road just close enough to see by squinting our eyes to get a better look down the dusty path. The houses were grey from old wood and peeling paint, old cars our parents would never drive, toddlers barefoot in diapers. We watched the black kids playing on their bikes with deep curiosity. They would look at us too, but wouldn’t come across the line that separated our neighborhoods.
The only black person allowed in our home was our old maid, Martha. She would make our beds, clean our rooms, do the laundry, dishes, mop the floors, make dinner, whatever needed to be done sighing heavy sighs while my mother sat in her room or ran errands. Her husband James would come pick her up at 5pm in his old rust spotted Cadillac DeVille. He wouldn’t honk the horn or come to the door, but would wait for her in the car as long as it took. I thought he must be a very patient man. Sometimes he had their grandchildren with him, they were well behaved and sat in the back seat with the windows down and nothing to do. They never asked to ride one of the many bikes or big wheels, play basketball with the official sized goal or swing on the hammock in our yard. They just sat quiet like little mice afraid to make a sound.
My parents gave James a job painting our 2 story house. It was a big job for one man. I worried about James up there, high on that ladder. I was discouraged from talking to him and was never sent out to take him a glass of water or Country Time instant lemonade like I did for the white boys that mowed the lawn. I should have, but I didn’t. My parents ended up firing James and hiring someone else to paint the house. My mother said it was because he was a drunk.
Martha kept us kids, me and my two younger siblings, when my parents went out of town. Her hands were always shiny like she had put olive oil on them. Her hair was black with flecks of gray and the tiniest little curls. It was so short I thought for certain she never needed to brush it. My mother often shared Martha with friends as if she was a possession. “Oh, you have company coming? I’ll send over Martha or one of her daughters.” I look back and I feel bad that I let Martha change the sheets to my bed when I should have done it myself. I sat and watched Brady Bunch re-runs and Tom and Jerry while she made her way up two flights of stairs from the basement where the laundry room was carrying loads of clothing and towels several times a day. I feel bad that I expected her to wait on me and fix me dinner and I didn’t appreciate her. I feel bad that I didn’t help her, or at least make her job easier. Many of the kids from the Country Club had black maids; the majority of mothers didn’t work. Martha stayed with my family for most of the 80’s until my mother got a white cleaning lady. I thought it odd Martha was called the maid and the white woman, a cleaning lady.
While watching Phil Donahue, my mother had the great idea of hosting a sleepover in our basement for all the girls in my 5th grade class. Twenty five squealing girls and most of them I didn’t even like, did not sound like a good time to me. Maybe my mother was trying to get me to fit in, figure out who were the good girls for me to hang out with. My father wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but allowed it. In preparation, my mother bought huge coolers of coke in the glass bottles and went to my father’s convenience store and filled two giant sized black trash bags of salty yellow popcorn from the popper like they have in the movie theaters. She went to his pizza restaurant and pre-ordered well over a dozen pizzas. She had me make out a list of each of the girls in my class so she could get enough invitations. When I showed her the list, she told me some of the girls wouldn’t be invited, the black girls.
“Patience, black and white people don’t go to parties together, they aren’t like us. I don’t think they would enjoy coming to our house. Why you would even suggest it is beyond me. I highly doubt their parent’s would even let them. It’s inappropriate and besides, I bet they don’t even own a sleeping bag.” This was the best explanation I got and I still didn’t understand, but that was the way it was.
When I went to school and passed out the invitations. I tried to do it secretly, but they found out. Ronetta, Toneshia and Lawanda didn’t confront me, they stopped playing with me and I didn’t understand. I was sure since my mother knew the rule their mothers must have known it too; black and white girls didn’t do slumber parties together. I didn’t want to be divided into black and white. I wanted us all to be friends, but these were the rules right?
The girls came over one by one, each mother dropping off her child looking at my mother as if to say, “have you lost your mind?" Everyone found a place to unroll their sleeping bags on the carpeted basement floor. Mine had an Indian design that I had picked out, but most were; unicorns, Holly Hobby, flowers and Smurfs. There were pillow fights that got too rough, one girl threw up, too many screams and ghost stories, yelling because some couldn’t hear the Rick Springfield music video on Night Tracks and one girl began spitting up chewed popcorn onto the walls…. on purpose. I went upstairs and slept. The next day I was happy to see them all leave, my mother was angry from lack of sleep and that the girls had made such a mess. She sent me to the basement to clean up. I’m still mad at Mindy Mooney for spitting that popcorn on the walls.
I was labeled prejudice when I returned to school after the horrible slumber party. I had to look up the word in the big dictionary kept on the pedestal in the school library. I was more popular with the County Club girls now and the black girls ignored me on a good day. Other days, they made fun of me; picking on the way I walked, my intelligence level, to even calling me a horse face. Sometimes they pretended they were going to hit me when they passed my desk and they would cut in front of me in the lunch line and dare me to say anything about it, I didn’t. I became one of those compliant white people that began to have a fear of black people. I wouldn’t make eye contact, would move out of the way first if our paths were to cross and I smiled awkwardly when one of them spoke to me. I hung out with the girls that accepted me and I became cautious of the black girls.
I had another party in 9th grade. This one was my idea. It was Christmas and I wanted to invite all 15 cheerleaders to my house for a gift exchange and sleepover. I was really excited about this one. I decorated the basement, put sodas, candy and bags of chips on the bar and dining table. I even had a little tree to put the gifts under. There were three black girls on the squad. I was inviting them no matter what the rules were. I got everyone’s address from our cheerleading coach and gave the invitations to my mother to mail at the post office.
The day of the party finally came; I hadn’t been awake long when I received a phone call. I answered it on my mother’s bedroom phone, she was still in bed.
“Hello Patience, This is Dawn.” Dawn was on the cheerleading squad, one of the sweetest girls I knew. She and I got along well. Her smile was always warm and she had the prettiest mocha skin.
“Oh, Hi Dawn!” I said excitedly. “Are you coming to the par…..” I was interrupted when someone took the phone from Dawn.
“This is Dawn’s Auntie! Who the hell do you think you are? I’ll tell you who you are you white prejudice little bitch, not inviting my niece to your little white girl party! You better hope I don’t see you because I will kick your white girl ass, you little rich bitch!”
I quickly put the phone back on the receiver. I began to sob uncontrollably. I had sent Dawn an invitation; it was with all the other ones my mother mailed, why hadn’t she gotten it? Maybe I had the wrong address. I felt terrible, I hadn’t wanted to exclude anyone.
My mother called the cheerleading coach. She knew Dawn’s aunt and told my mother she had always been a troublemaker, but this didn’t make me feel any better. I asked the coach to please call Dawn and let her know she was invited and I wanted her to come. I wasn’t about to call and risk having to talk to Auntie again. My mother told the coach she wanted Dawn thrown off the cheerleading squad.
Later that night, the girls started to arrive, not all though. Dawn didn’t come and neither did the other black girls from the squad. The party wasn’t so special anymore and I was still the prejudice bitch.Disclaimer: You the reader are reading this blog at your own risk. At no time has the writer contacted the reader without their permission in reference to this blog site. If you find the content of this blog offensive you have the right to never visit this site again. The people, location and events have been changed to protect the innocent; any similarities to any persons either living or dead are purely coincidental.