Monday, February 22, 2016
Between the Tracks
I've recently been considering where to put my writing skills to work. Do I continue to write romances few people read? Do I pen vignettes from my childhood? Where, oh, where do I wield my sword? I don't know.
But it occurs to me, little is written (possibly even nothing is written) about segregation from the the white viewpoint of someone on the outside, looking in. My early childhood was spent in rural Arizona. I could count all the black folks I'd ever seen on one hand. Then when I was ten, we moved to a small town outside Gary, Indiana. Even back then, there was a high black population. I was fascinated. I had so many questions, questions that turned out to have no answers in 'polite' society.
I wanted to know how they got their hair so kinky. And if their dark skin felt the same as mine. How DID they get such dark skin, anyway? Did they stay out in the sun longer? What kind of lives did they live? Where did they live? It never occurred to me they were people just like me. And then Ora came to work for us.
My mother had died, leaving four motherless children. My grandmother worked as a school teacher so she wasn't available to 'do' for us. So they hired Ora to clean and cook and do laundry and keep a wary eye on us. Sitting in the kitchen, watching her bake cookies or make dinner, I asked her all the questions that bubbled up within me, never imagining the incredible rudeness I was inflicting on her. I will say this. She never failed me. She allowed me to touch her hair. And tried to explain why the palms of her hand were pink when the rest of her was so dark. She told me about the little house and the neighborhood where she and her friends lived.
Summer came and my grandmother was at home so the chats with Ora became a thing of the past. Naturally, my brothers and I played more outdoors and so it was we discovered the Red Train.
That's exactly how we pronounced it, with awe and a little anticipation in our voices. The red train was an abandoned section of passenger cars, rusty and barren, but we thought it was the most fabulous discovery. It sat on a derelict section of track a couple blocks behind the house where we lived. I suppose I should explain our town was a strange spot where about twenty tracks all came together. We lived south of the tracks. Town which included the schools, churches, stores, etc., was north of the tracks. Anytime we went to an event in town, we always had to plan an extra twenty to thirty minutes travel time in case a train was crossing Main Street. That was a frequent occurrence.
Anyway, one day when we were playing in the train, I met Bobbie Jo. Now Bobbie Jo was...a girl, a black girl, my age. We immediately hit it off because we both liked to read and had vivid imaginations. She invited me to her house--and that was the beginning of a wonderful few weeks for me. Her family lived in a small house between the tracks. I thought it was the most fabulous thing I'd ever seen and at once I began trying to think of a way my family could also have a house between the tracks. Her daddy worked for the railroad and her mama had just had a baby.
I was enchanted when her mama entrusted me with Bobbie Jo's baby brother. She actually allowed me to hold him while I sat in the rocking chair. Life was complete. At every chance, Bobbie Jo and I found time to play and read and talk about the strange world we lived in. We speculated about all the things young girls discuss when they're on the edge of womanhood. And never dreamed our friendship would ever end.
Now my daddy was the preacher at the Baptist Church. And the deacons summoned him to a meeting one day where they informed him he would need to deal with severing my friendship with the little black girl. Our church was considered quite progressive because it allowed the children in Bobbie Jo's family to attend the Sunday School. But. Bobbie Jo and I had crossed a line because we actually dared to be friends. That was something the deacons and church board wanted nipped in the bud at once.
To that end, our family moved to a house way out in the country, far from the temptations and delights of Bobbie Jo's family. And I was informed by the head deacon if I persisted in the friendship, my father would lose his position as preacher. From the perspective of adulthood, I'm pretty sure my dad didn't know about the little meeting between the head deacon and me. But the consequences were clear.
I wept many bitter tears over the loss of my friend. And that was when I lost a deal of innocence, too, because until then, it never even crossed my mind that such hatred and bigotry existed, masked behind the sorrowful smiles of religion. And my heart still hurts for the loss of Bobbie Jo.
Author's note: This story takes place in the very early sixties...