Separate but (not treated) Equal

After Isaac puts the Pontiac in neutral and maneuvers it out on the driveway, he asks me to hand him a screwdriver. He tightens some do-ma-hickey then replaces the battery with the one he picked up at the local auto part’s store.

“You sure know a lot about a lot of things, Isaac Ford,” I tell him. “And don’t dare say anything stupid like, ‘so you think I’m smarter than the average colored boy.’”

“I read a lot. And my mama teaches at my school. The Academy for Black Youth in case you’re wondering.”

“We don’t have any Negros in my school. Not because they can’t come but because most of them live across town.”

“Separate but Equal,” he says, shaking his head.

I think of my summer reading assignment — A Separate Peace.

“Thing is, Chicken Coop. I want to make something of myself. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how. I can’t play music, I don’t want to be a preacher—”

“Then do something else. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be whatever you want.”

“Okay. I’ll be a surgeon. After they let me in a university because of my a-Maze-ing chemistry and biology grades, I graduate. Then, I look for a job that will hire a colored surgeon. And, if I’m lucky enough to land that job, white folks will say, ‘I don’t want some colored boy operating on me.’ Then, I’m back where I started. Without a job.”

“You’re so cynical, Isaac.”

“Cynical?” He points a finger at my chest. “You know nothing. Nothing! What do I have to be cheery-faced about? Huh? That I can fix a goddam car? Tell Olvie it’s ready. She can drive it in the garage her own damn self. I’m going home.”

From my WIP about forging friendships during the Civil Rights Movement (1963)

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The guest of a Fruitcake

I had eaten my Swanson’s TV dinner on top of the TV tray and watched and listened to what I could on TV. Even Dr. Kildare, who usually makes me foolishly swoon, looked more like Barney Fife. I’m going bonkers. I know it.

But bedtime was bliss.

The “TSR”, the Temporary stay room,” as Olvie calls it, could be a lot worse than it is. Although the dresser and the headboard on the twin bed are stained puke green, the room itself is at the front of the house. I have one window that looks out to the street. The window on the side gives me a view of the neighbor’s trashcans lined up against their pink brick house.

I had discovered that the window locks are easy peezy. One twist and I could be home free. I know where our spare house key is hidden. How hard would it be to go home, at least for a few hours? Crank up my record player. Listen to Booker T. or the Isley Brothers on Mom and Dad’s new Magnavox player. Or, with the money Mom gave me for “emergencies,” I could go someplace else. Like, for days.

 

Current Work in Progress, a novel set in 1963 during segregation.

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A plea for humanity — Will you join me at the river?

It wasn’t a Sunday morning. It was a Thursday evening.

I sat on a wooden pew where, beneath my feet in the 1800’s, slaves had congregated to worship in a hole made of dirt. On April 27th, at that same location, I was inside the Simpson Methodist Church erected in the 1930’s.

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I haven’t been a church-goer in a long while. I was not there to worship. Yet, inside, a hymn came to me – “Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river.

In my past, I’ve held workshops on tolerance and celebrating diversity. I taught my early childhood staff how to teach bias-free education to our young children. I paired kindergarteners from east Austin to the kindergarteners from west and gathered the 800 or so children together at Burger Center to enjoy the music of Kinderman.

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I’ve done many things to teach tolerance and acceptance of others and each one has made me proud. Yet, each time we step out of our “comfort zone,” we learn something new. This meeting was no exception.

We were not there to worship. Nor were we there to hear a lecture. We were there for the unfolding of a “warm” conversation on diversity and equality.

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Reverend Robert Waddle was strong in appearance and gentle in manner. He led the group – around 15 warm souls- in prayer. Then, our local president of the NAACP, Nelson Linder and Dr. Guner Arslan, a Muslim from Turkey and director of the Dialogue Initiative Austin, began the discussion.

Here is a bit of what I learned, re-learned and processed:

We, as human beings, have always strived for identity — both within ourselves and within a group (or tribe). Identity is core to our “humanness.”

But here’s the problem–

When we don’t attempt to understand or appreciate “different” identities, an “us vs. them” scenario is created. So imagine how having 4200 religions around the world could easily contribute to this unfortunate scenario.

As we struggle to understand ourselves, and who and what we identify with, we often reject the identities of others.

Unless we expand our awareness.

Have you been integrated as a person? Who are the folks you struggle with?

Nelson Mandela once said, “Everyone has a seat at the table.”

How round is your table?

“Love is the absence of judgment” – Dali Lama

How much do you love?

What are you fearful of?

Try being comfortable being uncomfortable.

Mr. Linder and Dr. Arslan told us, “Find excuses to bring people of ‘differences’ together to discover commonalities.”

So, the small group at Simpson Methodist Church became our small group. We had metaphorically gathered at the river, “the beautiful, the beautiful, river“.

 

Folks, this river is wide. And there is plenty of room for everyone. Yes, let’s gather at that river. Or any other place where thoughtful hearts are shared.

I was not there to worship, but I did. There are many ways to worship Great Love for Humanity.

Please join us at this round table for a warm discussion on diversity, acceptance and love. I will bring the water for your parched throats but there will be no need for food. Our hunger will be satiated by the breaking of bread in our open and honest dialogue.

I hope you choose to be part of the discussion.  Because, if you do, and as the song says, “Soon our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace.

I would be most grateful if you would leave a response, a personal experience, even a link to similar posts or articles related to this topic.

See you at the table.

Snake panic, friend panic

 

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Tanner finally stops. He looks around but doesn’t see me. He settles on a hefty rock and lights a cigarette. “Tanner,” I say quietly so I don’t scare him out of his railroad pants.

He flinches but recovers quickly.  “What?”

“I have two things to say. The first is a question. What was in Olvie’s freezer?”

“Creepy mannequin parts,” he says staring at the creek. “Arms, legs, a couple of heads.”

Jeez! Why would she keep them in an unplugged freezer? Oh, never mind. Plastic doesn’t need to be preserved in the cold.

“Next?” he says, still not looking my direction.

I take a few steps forward and settle on the ground a good ten feet away. “I think Austin’s different from where you live. You know, maybe not as bad.”

“Maybe. But Clarksville is surrounded by whites. I don’t understand why he didn’t move to east Austin with the other coloreds. There, I could go in any restaurant, pee where I want, go to the park or to the movies and not feel threatened. I wouldn’t have to watch everything I do or say. Like in my own neighborhood in Fairfield.”

“Yeah, well your uncle and the residents in Clarksville worked hard to stay where they are. They like their houses so why should they leave?” I don’t say more because I see it. Coiled. “Be still, Tanner. There’s a rattler to your left, about ten feet away.”

He turns his head slowly. When he spots, he heaves his body off the rock and runs toward me. “Come on! Run!”

I laugh through my panting at his Panicked voice.

He stops by the street curb, his hands shaking. “What’s so damn funny?”

“Two things. You’re scared of snakes and you always wear those hickory striped pants.” I point to his denim trousers.

“They’re railroad pants. No other word for them. And, I’ll have you know, I own more than one pair. Ever heard of the Underground Railroad?

“Sure,” I say, more indignant than necessary. “It was a way to help slaves escape to safe places during the Civil War.”

“I wear these pants to remind me. I intend to drive my own life-train and not let anyone take it from me.” His eyes are focused, determined and serious.

“It wasn’t a real train with real tracks,” I say.

“Still, for me, it’s symbolic.”

“I have one for you,” I say. “Every heard the expression ‘you can catch more flies with honey’?”

“So?”

“Try being nice.”

“You want me to cow-down to the white man. Let him treat me like shit because of the color of my skin.”

“You do that anyway, don’t you? In Alabama? Maybe it’s time to stop cowing down and stand up for yourself.”

Tanner spits beside his Converse’s.

“That was mean. Just when I think you might be decent enough to talk to, you end up showing your stupidity. You don’t know me at all. And,” he points a finger at my chest, “you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”

Tanner doesn’t understand me either. The meanest thing I’ve ever done was kicking Donna in the ass and chasing her with a stick because she didn’t keep her promise. We’d made a deal. She was supposed to help me clean up after making brownies. As Dad would say, “deal breakers chap my ass.”

I just wanted him to know that having me as a friend might be worth fighting for. When Tanner stomps off, I don’t follow.

My WIP, set in 1963

 

Haters

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I can’t see anything out of the ordinary, only Olvie’s backyard. But I hear it. Words my mother has heard slammed in her direction.

“<N…> lover!” the boys chant.

Five of them emerge from the backyard bushes and run towards the front yard.

I grab a frying pan and head for the front door.

“Cooking out tonight?” Olvie says.

I ignore her and run outside.

Boys scramble in the cab and the back of the pick-up truck and shoot me the bird. Kent, the last one in, glares at me. “Beam that Fry pan over your own head, Grace. You’re not thinking straight.”

They peel off. Hearing the frying pan slam the sidewalk gives me a bit of satisfaction. But not enough.

“Chicken Coop?”

Olvie stands on the porch, her eyes pinched and curious. “Somebody got shot?”

 

The damp cloth feels good on my forehead, but I could forego Gladys’ positioned arm against mine.

“Want me to call that imbecile Garvey?” Olvie says sitting next to me on the leopard skin couch.

I shake my head. “He couldn’t do anything anyway. Name-calling’s not against the law.”

“So, who were those ragamuffins?”

“I only know one of them. They called me a <n….> lover.”

“Next time,” she says, “Don’t be so stupid. Pull out the cast iron skillet instead of that cheap enamel one. No, never mind that. You’re too scrawny to lift it. Be best if you grab the baseball bat under my bed. But if you swing it, don’t miss.

“I don’t want to be violent,” I say, trying to sound like my parents.

“You hear what I said? Don’t miss.”

 

 

The unenlightened neighbor

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Olvie pours herself another cup of Folgers while I start the pancake mix. “I think that was the door, Olvie.”

“Come in, Wise-Guy,” Olvie yells.

“Well, that was pleasant,” Tanner says, wearing a clean pair of “underground” railroad pants.

I pour circles of batter into the hot skillet. “What?”

“Man came charging toward me from across the street. Said I didn’t have any business being here. Guess he doesn’t like Negros.”

“Asshole,” Olvie mumbles.“That’s because he doesn’t like himself, that stupid son of a bitch.”

Pondering her words, I wonder if Olvie is really smarter than the rest of us. Mom and Dad told me people are often scared of things they don’t understand. And instead of trying to figure out what they’re afraid of, they resist anything new, anything different. Mr. Roberts must not have any Negro friends. If he did, he wouldn’t be afraid of a teenage boy.

“What did you tell him?” I ask.

“Nothing. I ignored him.”

“Why’d you do a thing like that?” Olvie says. “Should have told him off.”

“And why would I do that?” he says. “I don’t want trouble.”

Olvie huffs. “You sound like your uncle. ‘Don’t wants to cause any trouble, ma’am. Yes’m, anything you want, ma’am. Ain’t no good stirring the pot, you see.’ Ugh.”

“You think Uncle Elias should stand up for himself? Like I told Chicken Coop, he’s old school. He’s still afraid of the white man’s world.”

“Oh, and you’re not?” Olvie says.

“Oh, yes’m, I is alright,” he says in dialect. “Jes’ try nots to show it.”

Olvie stops in mid Chuckle. “Elias still thinks garlic hanging over a bed will cure a cold. If you tell him otherwise, he won’t listen. Speaking of, how’s that finger, Wise Guy. Need me to chop it off? You hung those tools up real nice in the utility room. I can find my saw easy now.”

Tanner squeezes his hand. “No thanks. Think I’ll hold on to it for a while.”

This makes Olvie laugh. She has a good laugh, one I’d like to hear more often.

Excerpt from my work in progress set in 1963.

 

NOTE: The photo is of Emmett Till who reminds me of my character, Tanner Ford. This novel will be in honor and memory of Emmett.

Out of his comfort zone (until the movie comes on)

 

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“Well, well, well,” says asshole pimply-faced Kent behind the glass window. “Thought you were leaving for the summer.”

How could the tolerant Mr. Pryor hire this racist?

“Two tickets.” I thrust the money in the hole.

“Two? Where’s your friend?”

I don’t want to get Tanner in trouble. I also want to stand my ground. “He’s behind me.”

Kent squints at Tanner. “Now you’re friends with a …” He looks behind him. Mr. Pryor faces toward us. He’s chatting with an older lady with bluish hair. “Friends with a colored? He your boyfriend?”

“Let’s go, Chicken Coop,” Tanner whispers behind me. “Ain’t worth it.”

“My friend and me came to watch a movie. Now, sell us the goddamn tickets, Kent.”

There is that look of anger and there is a look of hatred. Kent’s wearing both. He hands me the ticket.“Next,” he says through clinched teeth.

Tanner finds a place to sit in the back of the theater. I go for popcorn and cokes. When I return, he asks if we can put a couple of seats between us.

From my Work in Progress about a biracial friendship in 1963.

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