Everyone has a story to tell. This is part of my story. I grew up in rural South Carolina in the 50’s,and I have precious memories of that time. It was a time when colored people planted flower gardens and swept their yards clean to keep the snakes away. My mother’s flower garden was bright and beautiful. I remember the light blue and deep purple morning glories that closed their blossoms before noon and the red four o’clocks, that opened their blossoms in the afternoon.
There were rows of brilliant red and golden yellow marigolds and orange zinnias. The big smiling face sun flowers were at the back of the garden and the twinkling black-eyed susies were sprinkled across the fields. The sweet fragrances of honey suckle vines and lilac bushes were soothing and comforting.
I remember sugar cane and molasses, blackberry patches, fig trees, apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, the cherry tree and the mulberry tree. I remember the taste of fresh green beans, corn, cabbage, beets, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, and okra from the garden. I remember the healing power of peppermint tea for stomach aches, and the vinegary smell of the warm cornmeal poultice for most any sprain, ache or pain. I remember the sweet milk freshly squeezed from the cow’s tits and the same day churned fresh butter.
I remember pound cakes and fried apple pies, stickies and bread pudding with lemon sauce and the comforting smell of warm, ginger bread. I remember bon fires and toasted marshmallows. My playground was the wide open field, the streams and bubbling brooks, the woods, the mountains, the hills, the caves and canyons of my grandfather’s land…all 100+ acres. My brothers and I lived close to nature, in an enchanted world where there was always something new to explore.
But even in this enchanted world I was aware of a more serious part of life, because I listened intently to grown up conversations and I asked many questions because so much of that world made no sense to me. For instance, there was much talk about “colored people” and “white people” and for awhile I thought I would never learn the difference, but I did. I learned the difference when my mother quickly snatched me away from the clean, white water fountain one day when we were in town and told me that we had to drink from the “colored” fountain. I remember noticing that it wasn’t quite as clean and sparkly.
I learned the difference when I was not allowed to sit in the comfortable stuffed chairs in the doctor’s office, but was instead directed to the hard wooden chairs on the other side. The other side was the “colored” waiting room. I learned the difference when the “colored” side of the doctor’s waiting room could only be served after the “white” side was empty.
I learned the difference when my mother gave in to my insistent plea for ice cream from the restaurant in town, not from the store on the way home. We couldn’t go inside, but had to order from the window. I suddenly lost my taste for ice cream when the clerk, with all of the rudeness she could muster, slung my ice cream cup out the window to me. I refused to eat it and I was quiet all the way home. I couldn’t have been more that four or at most five years old and this experience was deeply troubling to my young mind.
For Christmas I asked for a “colored” doll and was so disappointed when I got a “white” doll instead that I went back to bed, covered my head up and refused to get up and play. My brothers could not understand what in the world was wrong with me. After much coaxing from my mom and dad, I finally crawled out and accepted their explanations. They had really wanted to buy me a “colored” doll, but there were simply no “colored” dolls to be found anywhere in the small town where we lived. So by the time I was five years old, I knew there was a difference, between colored and white. I knew because I watched and I listened. Here’s one story that I heard over and over. It’s about my grandfather buying his first new car:
I’ll never forget the time I bought my first new car. I was still sharecropping then, back in 1927. That year I had a good cotton crop, my best year ever. We ginned over 20 bales of cotton. I decided to buy myself a new car and pay cash for it, too. I went to the car lot and picked me out a Model A Ford. They told me that one was just for the show room. They would have to order me one, but if I didn’t want to wait, they had some nice used cars I could take a look at. I told them to order me the new car. I could tell from the way they talked, them white people didn’t want me to have a new car.
I went on outside like I was leaving, but I didn’t leave. I stood outside the door and eavesdropped. I heard the owner say to one of the salesmen, ‘I want you to get one of them used cars and clean it up real good and take it out there to John Love’s house and sell it to him. Now make sure you clean it up real good, cause if you take him something that’s not clean, he’s gonna buy a new car and we don’t want him to have it.’
When I heard this I went on home, made up my mind right then that I would have nothing less than a new car. Well, just a couple of hours after I got home, the salesman drove up with this used car, said he wanted me to try it out. I told him to take it right on back ’cause I was not interested. They never thought I had the money for a new car. The next week I went right in and bought one, paid cash, too!”
Because I grew up with stories like this, I became socially conscious at quite a young age. By the time I was in the third grade the Civil Rights workers were my heroes. When the freedom riders came through South Carolina and were arrested and taken to the York County jail, I thought they had done something quite wonderful. The people in church talked about it, sang about it, and prayed about it. After church everyone went to the jail house to visit the college students. They took fried chicken, potato salad, pound cake and I don’t know what all to the students. I was sooo disappointed when we got there and I found out that I could not go in, but had to stay in the car with my brothers while my parents went in for the visit.
I couldn’t wait to grow up, go off to college and get arrested for protesting some unjust law, what a great story that would be, I thought. It didn’t happen quite like that, I never went to jail, but I did go off to college and I did become a social pioneer, among the first to integrate the local high school as well as the predominantly white student body of the University of South Carolina. My interest in people and societies led me to a major in sociology.
During my years of community cultural work I developed an abiding interest in learning more about the stories that people, and especially African American people, live by….the stories that we tell ourselves and then live out. These scripts are our sacred stories. My quest to understand them took me on a journey I never expected to take and ultimately landed me here at this point in time, committed to excavating the stories that shape us, connect us and tell us who we are.