My family moved to a “mixed” community north of Chicago just before I started kindergarten. At about the same time, in a concerted effort at desegregation, the school district started bussing African-American children to our local elementary school. “There will be colored kids in your class, and I want you to treat them like everyone else,” my mom said. “What are colored people?” I asked.
I soon found out. The cruel kids in my all-white neighborhood had invented an extremely offensive game called “Gravy Train,” which involved climbing onto the playground equipment when the bus of dark-skinned classmates pulled up, lest “white” feet touched the ground as the bussed children debarked.
My mom failed to see the humor, and two years later, when she heard of an opportunity to bus white children to an experimental school in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, she jumped at the chance. I have been grateful for that amazing educational experience ever since.
Before my first day at “Laboratory School” my mom reminded me, “Be sure to make friends with some ‘colored’ kids. Just go up and talk to them.” So, as a compliant child, I did.
I reported that afternoon that I had befriended a girl named Tanya and her younger sister Barbara. A few months later, I was among three or four girls who attended Tanya’s birthday party, held at the pancake restaurant where her dad worked as a cook.
I soon added Tammy, who “ironed” her gorgeous dark hair, to my roster of new friends. She slept at my house several times, as I recall. At recess, I often played hopscotch or jump rope with Patricia; I was impressed that her mom occasionally delivered McDonald’s food for lunch (and I’ll never forget the day she threw up her strawberry milkshake on the playground). A dark-skinned boy in my homeroom, Rodney, shared my last name, so we joked to classmates that we were cousins. (The photo is a detail from my class picture.)
The integration experiment seemed to be working.
However, by the time I reached fifth grade, I no longer counted any African-Americans among my friends. I’m not sure what happened. I have always wondered if kids naturally become less color-blind as they age, or if external factors contributed to the unofficial re-segregation of my school.
I spoke with my mother about this recently, and she suggested that the shift was probably due to cultural issues. Not long after James Earl Ray committed his heinous murder and Stokely Carmichael announced, “White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night,” our school was renamed “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King District 65 Laboratory School” (“King Lab” for short).
Race riots ensued in Chicago and elsewhere, Malcolm X gained notoreity, the Black Panthers made headlines and filmmakers conceived the “Blacksploitation” genre, with hits such as Shaft. The “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful” movements picked up steam, and the sweet images of black and white schoolchildren coloring together no longer touched hearts.
At that time, I had to cycle back into my neighborhood for middle school, and I didn’t know any of my classmates. On the first day, when my teacher told everyone to choose a locker partner, I was at a loss. Those who were friends from elementary school quickly paired up. I looked around and found one option remaining; a very dark young lady wearing a six-inch tall “afro” (or “natural,” as she called it) wig. Because of my King Lab experience, I felt comfortable asking Hattie to be my partner, and we smiled at each other tentatively.
However, Hattie and my friendship did not extend much beyond our shared space. We didn’t attend the same sleepovers parties, and didn’t sit at the same lunch table. With very few exceptions, the school seemed as segregated as my kindergarten classroom had been.
At our local high school, which then counted 4,500 students – approximately a third of which were African-American – black-white friendships remained rare. I passed Hattie and friends from King Lab in the hallway from time to time, but we barely acknowledged each other. My honors and AP classes counted only a smattering of black students. Aside from the track team – where whites like me were the minority – I rarely interacted with African-Americans.
My church youth group was lily-white. The YMCA swim team? Only whites. At my first job (scooping ice cream), I had only white colleagues. My supposedly integrated life in a progressive university town didn’t involve many African-Americans.
I often think about the life I now model for my kids, in a Seattle suburb with very few African-Americans residents. I wonder if I am providing the exposure and coping mechanisms to deal with different kinds of people in the “real” world?
However, I realize that I do have close friends of many colors, including Korean, Persian, Japanese, Pakistani and Bolivian. I have acquaintances from Israel, Vietnam, Yemen, India and Brazil. Our community – approximately 25 percent Asian – offers its own kind of blending.
So, while we don’t enjoy the idealized integration of the 1960s, and – at least in my town – black-white unity seems a long way off, we do live in a time where we can model friendships and exchange ideas with people representing diverse cultures. It isn’t ideal, but it’s a start.
– Linda Williams Rorem, 12 Sept. 2011