I grew up in a small town, predominantly filled with Caucasians. I’d never encountered an African American until I started school. But even at that young age, I saw no major differences in us, really, besides those that were on the surface. My mother had grown up outside of Detroit in the late 60s, a different time and place, and carried a lot of baggage back South with her when she and my father moved back to Virginia after they married in 1969.
My very first new best friend in kindergarten was a little boy named Stevie. I attempted to let three other little girls be my new best friends first, but things went horribly awry in each situation (I have a story written about it somewhere, which is actually quite humorous). Stevie wanted to sit beside me at lunchtime, so I shared my pizza with him from my Hollie Hobbie lunch box. He wanted to put his rug beside mine at naptime, so I acquiesced. Then he asked if he could feel my hair because it was long and straight and pretty; I didn’t understand but felt like it would be rude not to ask the same of him. So, we lay there in the semi-darkness of the kindergarten trailer during those thirty minutes, letting our fingers run through and caress each other’s hair. It was a thing of great magic to me, and I presume, probably to him, too. When I got home, my mom was at the bus stop, waiting to walk me back across the road, where we lived with my grandparents, in their doublewide trailer. Her first question had been, “Did you make any new friends today?”
“Yep,” I answered, smiling up at her with a goofy grin, swinging my lunchbox back and forth.
“What’s her name?”
“Oh, it’s a boy. His name is Stevie.” Tazewell was a small town.
Mom only knew one family with his surname and proceeded with caution. “What did he look like?”
“He’s about as tall as I am. Brown eyes. Black hair. He likes to color and shared his crayons with me from the table beside ours because the little girl beside me wouldn’t share hers. We did everything together today. We watched Sesame Street together. We ate lunch together. We even laid our rugs beside each other at naptime.”
Her smile turned to a straight line across her face. “Was Mrs. Brown okay with that?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t she be? We were quiet.” I paused only a moment before announcing, “He did ask if he could feel my hair, so I told him, sure, if I could feel his, too.”
At this, she burst out laughing. Which I found a completely undignified reaction to the situation. She tried to cover her laughter and asked, “Well, what did it feel like?” It was not the last time, but it was one of the first times that I recall thinking that my mother must not have lived life at all if she had to ask me such questions in order to learn something. I actually remember being barely five years old and rolling my eyes at her as I walked past her, thinking how ignorant she was, not knowing the answer for herself at the age of twenty-five, if I now knew at five. I huffed a little at the beginning for emphasis, “Cotton, dipped in Vaseline!” And I walked on back to the doublewide to tell Papaw about my first day of kindergarten, sure that he would ask better questions about it and about Stevie than Mom had.
Stevie and I would remain friends all through school. He introduced me as his girlfriend to a group of his friends who wouldn’t let me play on the merry-go-round at the public park one day in about second grade, and magically, they lifted me up onto the merry-go-round and pushed and we all had a great time the rest of the afternoon. Because I was no longer an outsider. When Stevie arrived, it didn’t matter that I was a white kid at the park on a day when all the black kids’ mommies had pre-arranged for their kids to be there, so they got a chance to ride everything for a change – I’d missed the socially unspoken memo. Then Stevie showed up, and my color card was no longer checked at the merry-go-round. I was just another kid. I had a friend and was invited and accepted into the club with no further questions asked.
In high school, there was a football player who took notice of me. He and I struck up a friendship in tenth grade. And before long, he was walking me to and from classes; I even wore his size 14 class ring – he was a year ahead of me in school. Mom talked to him on the phone some nights when he called me. I was so relieved that she hadn’t picked up on anything talking to him. All she cared about was that he was tall, dark, handsome, and most of all, that he played on the football team. Until someone at school gave her the secret of who “John” really was. And she nearly killed me for “shaming” my family name that way. She hit me all night, shook me until I shook all on my own. She called me names I’d never heard. But worst of all, she told me I could never talk to him again, and that I had to tell him that as soon as I got to school the next morning, that she had people watching who would tell her if things continued (and in Tazewell, I had no doubts that there were plenty of willing spies at her beck and call).
To this day, it remains one of the worst days of my life, looking him in the eyes and telling him what I had to tell him, but that it was my Mom’s wishes, not mine. Then him asking me, “But you’re going to do what she told you to do, aren’t you?” Almost an accusation of my follow-through actions being an extension of her mandate. And having no answer to respond when he said it. No way of explaining that I was bound by her rules, no matter what my heart said. It wounded me. It still does. How does a fifteen-year-old have a voice to make such a choice? Fifty-one-year-old me is still stumped; fifty-one-year-old me still resents that my mother put me in that situation, simply because John’s skin color was darker than my own. I’ve often wondered if it crossed his mind over the years, if he still held it against me, or if it ultimately mattered at all to him. It’s a lot to think about for thirty-six years and counting… It’s a lot to wonder what I could have done differently without incurring further abuse from my mother. It was a no-win situation, so far as I could see. Either way, someone had to hurt, emotionally at the very least. Either way, a wonderful friendship ended, and I always wished it hadn’t had to, for any reason, least of all because of my mother’s racism.