Not Good Enough
We can forgive, but we must never forget. Dr. Jack Brauns
I was five years old—going on six when I learned about bigotry. I lived in a small town at the southern tip of Illinois above my father’s grocery store (I would later choose to call it a supermarket, which I suppose it was). I didn’t think much about living above the store. Our apartment was large and comfortable. It didn’t bother me that most of the kids I knew lived in free-standing houses. Not then.
I had a few friends—not many. I didn’t particularly enjoy the company of kids my own age. I preferred to hang out in my aunt’s variety story bumming cokes from the clerk who worked behind the soda fountain and matching thread to material. I know it sounds like an odd pastime for a five-year old, but I thought it was great to help people who bought “yard” goods find just the right color of thread to sew the fabric into dresses. I got to be so good at it that my aunt always had customers to bring their cloth to me for matching thread.
I did have one special friend. His name was Jackie. He lived around the corner from my dad’s store, and his parents bought groceries from my dad. Like many of the families who “traded” at Lewis Brothers, they bought on credit and paid, if they could, at the end of the month. If they couldn’t, well, my dad carried them until they could.
As I said, Jackie and I were friends—I thought. We played ball, we went to matinees at the Uptown Movie Theater, and we went to kindergarten together. We saw each other every day—until the day we entered first grade. At the end of the first day of school, I waited for Jackie outside the store, as I always had. He didn’t come—not that day or the next, or the next. Finally, I marched around the corner to his house and knocked on the door. When Jackie answered I asked why he didn’t come over to play any more. He looked at me and answered, “My parents said you aren’t good enough for me to play with.”
Not good enough! Why? Was it where I lived? Was it the ugly red cardigan sweater that I always wore? Was it my dark, curly hair (other girls in our class had blonde hair wound into banana ringlets)? What? Then I got it. It was my heritage. I was different. My dad had immigrated to this country from Lebanon. My mother’s parents were both Lebanese. My grandmother spoke only Arabic. Different.
I tore off the red sweater as though it were a red badge of shame. I wanted to go to my father and tell him not to give Jackie’s parents credit any more (even at five, I knew how they paid—or didn’t pay). Of course, my father would never have done that. So I got even with Jackie in the only way I could. I outsmarted him. I took his chair in class every time he misspelled a word. (The teacher’s way of making us learn to spell was to seat us in a semi-circle at the front of the room. If you got a word wrong, you lost your chair to the kid next to you. The one who made it to the end seat first won a gold star.) I piled up a lot of gold stars, Jackie didn’t. Same with numbers. We were timed to see who could write from 1 to 100 the fastest. Prize—another gold star. I clobbered him. When he was dumb enough to ask me for help, I deliberately gave him wrong answers. On the playground when we had footraces I left him in the dust. I’d like to say revenge was sweet. It wasn’t. I kept hearing his words, “My parents said you aren’t good enough for me to play with.” That cuts deep at any age, but especially when you are five and lack the wherewithal to understand and reason past bigotry. Eventually, Jackie moved away, and I spent much of the rest of my life trying to prove I was good enough.
A lot of years went by. I earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, and I got a position there directing a federally funded treacher-training initiative that grew out of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Programs. We trained teachers to work in inner city schools and in juvenile corrections facilities, devising curricula and strategies that would motivate students to stay in school and to prevent incidences of recidivism. We also enlisted the participation of community organizations to help future teachers understand and meet the needs of socially and culturally disadvantaged students. It was working pretty well until one summer in the mid-seventies when I went to Huntsville, Alabama.
My friend Mae, a brilliant woman of African American descent, was my counterpart in Huntsville. She arranged for a group of college professors and local teachers to participate in a seminar focusing on strategies for teaching about free expression, equal opportunity, civil rights, and racial equality. In the lecture hall, I found myself in a very unfriendly environment. Nobody wanted to discuss the efficacy of busing, the difference between desegregation and integration, or ways of bringing about meaningful change in teacher training institutions. I worked through it. When I asked for questions, there were none; and people rushed out. Not the reception I had anticipated.
That evening, Mae and her colleagues, a group of earnest young activists, held a reception at a local motel for university personnel, elementary and secondary school teachers, and community leaders. They set out a lavish spread: cold meats, salads, relishes, fruit, breads, and pastries. We waited and waited. Nobody came. As the evening wore on, it became clear, nobody would.
Sadly, they packed away the food and left. Mae took me aside and said, “Shirley, lock your door and put on the chain. I’ll stay and watch you do it.” I didn’t know why she was so adamant, but I complied—locking and chaining both sitting and bedroom doors while she stood outside and looked on. Then, I undressed and went to bed.
At three o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by the sound of a door slamming. I turned on the light and saw the chain on my bedroom door swinging. Someone had been in my room. I called the front office and reported what had happened. The desk clerk laughed and said it wasn’t possible. I asked that someone come around immediately and check both rooms. The clerk agreed to come. Then I asked what he would be wearing. I wanted to be sure with whom I was dealing. When the clerk came, he searched both rooms, and, with a smirk on his face, told me it was all my imagination. Imagination my foot! I knew what I heard, and I knew what I saw. I told him I wanted to leave. He said checkout time was six o’clock. I replied I didn’t care what time checkout was, I wanted out of there IMMEDIATELY! He was only too happy to be rid of me.
Mae came to pick me up. “I was afraid this would happen,” she said. “That’s why I put you in a hotel instead of my house. I knew they would not come to the house, but I thought they would come here.” She went on to say she hoped the climate of racism had changed, and it had; but apparently not enough. She also said that many of the faculty resented the fact that I was a woman. A woman talking about racial equality in the South. They weren't ready—yet.
Two months later, I was invited to speak at the University of Maine Law School. The reception couldn’t have been more different. The professors were enthusiastic. The students were anxious to participate. The whole community turned out for a lobster boil held at the home of one of the professors that evening. It should have been enough. It wasn’t. All I could remember was the smirk on that clerk’s face in Alabama and the chain swinging from the door.
Once, riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there,
That’s all that I remember.
"Incident" by Countee Cullen
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times