In this heart-stoppingly honest and beautiful account of four generations of challenge, resilience, and generosity, Arline Lorraine Piper, who will turn seventy-five this year, takes us back to the time of the Great Depression, when she was just beginning first grade at a mostly white school in Boston, Massachusetts.
"From my very first engagement with white people when I went to first grade," she says, "I came to understand that to be black in America was to live in two worlds, to experience two selves, to play two sets of roles, and to struggle to preserve sanity and surety when those two realities collided. When I left home for school the first day I was excited and expectant because...in my world I was somebody. But when I went to school and faced the prejudice, the contempt, and the downright meanness of which others are capable when they do not see you as human in the way that they are, I was made to feel as if I was nobody. And in every encounter with white people since, I have had to strive to establish and sustain the true experience and expression of my worth."
Looking back on her life, Arline sees herself as a resourceful person, persistent and resolute in whatever she has done. She started college in the late 1940s, but, unable to finish because she was poor and had the responsibility of raising five daughters, she finally received her degree in elementary education at the age of sixty-four.
Despite her impressive accomplishments, however, Arline insists that she is "an ordinary black woman." So often when we hear about those who have overcome incredible hardship or impossible odds, she says, we think of them as somehow different, outside the bounds of normal life. "If I am at all extraordinary," she tells you, her readers, "it is in my willingness to expose my truth to myself, so that my truth can also be accessible to you. But this effort on my part to be ruthlessly honest with myself will only have full significance for you if it empowers you to the same honesty with yourself, and if that honesty finds its expression in your gifts, and your giving to others."
Surely the following story about the importance of giving -- even in the midst of extreme poverty -- is a gift itself, from Arline Lorraine Piper.
My nine-year-old grandson is asking the question that echoes in my memory. He tells me that he and his mother, my daughter, had been driving along the streets near their home in Los Angeles when she spotted a man lying on the sidewalk. Other people had been passing by on that sidewalk, hurrying to their important wherevers; in fact, my daughter and grandson were, themselves, a little late to somewhere. But she pulled over and got out of her car and helped the older white man up on his feet and over to a nearby bench. She had my grandson flag down a passing police cruiser, and before they returned to their car, she left her card with the old man and assured him that he would get help.
"Mom," my grandson asked her, "why did you stop for that guy? Wasn't he just drunk?"
"No, son," his mother replied. "Although I guess that's what everybody figured as they were passing him by. I think that he was lost and disoriented. Anyway, even if he was drunk, I would still have wanted to help him."
"Because he needed my help. He was partway into the street and he could have gotten hit. He needed help."
"But why should we help him, Mom? He wasn't none of ours." A small smile skittered across my daughter's face. "Why don't you ask Grandmother? You know how she can always explain stuff like this."
This child is so like his mother, was my first thought. My daughter is a psychological anthropologist specializing in the inner representations of racism, sexism, and classism in America. As an African-American intellectual who has degrees in the study of the history of our people in America, she knows intimately the contradictions and complications, the inconsistencies and indiscretions, that plague race relations in this country. She is deliberately and unfailingly African-American in her thinking, her behavior, and her approach to life.
My grandson's questions reflect his understanding of this. At nine years old, he cannot fathom why his educated, scholarly, and often radical mother would stoop to help a fallen white man in the street. And I, too, was at first a little curious until I remembered that once in her childhood -- I think she must have been very close to the age my grandson is now -- she had asked me why I had helped an old white man who had become lost in our neighborhood. She could not understand either, back then in the 1960s, why I would do that, until I told her about Mumma. Perhaps this bit of my childhood would also help my grandson....
I am the first grandchild of my maternal grandparents. In those days it was not uncommon for young girls to marry in their teens, and because of this I was born while my grandparents were still having their children. Consequently, I have eight aunts and uncles who are younger than I am. My grandmother, Mumma, as her children and grandchildren called her, was a quiet woman who gave birth to more than twenty children. She was always at home when I was growing up. Although she was a devout Christian, she didn't go to church much because she was always pregnant and felt more than a little awkward about it. But even that was not so unusual in those days.
Our house was on Murdock Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There were not many black families in that area during the early 1930s, but we lived in a fairly mixed neighborhood. There were four other black families, along with five or six white families, on our street. Because there were so many of us, there was always something going on at our house. There was always someone to play with, always someone interested in whatever you wanted to do. I guess that's why it didn't strike me as odd that I almost never went farther than two doors down from our house on either side. My parents and grandparents were careful to keep us all close to home; it was not safe for us beyond our street because the white people then were somehow dangerous to us. It's hard for me to say how I knew about race and race relations by the time I was four or five years old, but I did.
Some of my clues came from how whites acted around us in Boston. On the rare occasion that my mother would take me downtown to buy something for me, I would get the great treat of riding the bus. I would wait at the bus stop, my hand in my mother's hand, dancing around beside her, impatient for the ride. When the bus pulled up, I could sometimes hear people talking to each other through the open windows. But when we got on the bus, it would grow silent in a menacing and eerie sort of way. Some people would stare at us soundlessly; others would look beyond us, acting like we were not there. They would refuse to make eye contact. They did not speak to us.
My mother bore these terrible acts of rudeness with no outward sign of displeasure or disquiet. She treated these breaches of human civility as if they were normal. Somehow that frightened me all the more, and I would press even closer to her as I walked down the aisle to our seat, squeezing my eyes shut against the contemptuous, invasive silence. We would find a seat, and soon I would be in another world, happily peering out the window.
My mother and I never talked about those rides on those buses, or the behavior of the white people on board, but I wondered...and feared.
Some of my ideas about race relations in those days came from the way my parents and other adults acted around white people. When black people congregated at church socials and backyard get-togethers, oh, what a time we all had! There was always plenty of food, but there was something else too -- fun! Such clowning and joking around as you never did see anywhere else. It was pure joy to see the adults whooping and hollering and laughing like us kids. It made me want to clap my hands together and laugh for the sheer happiness of laughing. Even the more straitlaced, sober-faced, citified adults -- most of whom were women -- could be seduced into a smile, coaxed into a laugh by the determined jokesters -- most of whom were men.
But around white people, even the most perpetually crazy black folks grew withdrawn and subdued. Even when they were thrown together socially they did not mingle freely and easily. When black people were with white people they could laugh, but it was like they could not get it all out. They could smile, but the truth of their cautious difference peered out of their shuttered eyes. Something about white people shrouded the natural sunlight of black people's dispositions. White people were dangerous, and I knew it, even at five.
There was even more frightening evidence of danger from whites. One day I overheard my mother tell her family that the white man who owned the mattress factory where she worked had tried to "get fresh" with her. I could not be certain what this meant, but I knew to the marrow of my being that my mother had been in deadly danger among all those fluffy mattresses. I believe she stopped working there soon after that.
I really learned firsthand about race relations from my own experiences at school. On my first day of school I was so excited. My uncle Ernest -- the one that is only four months younger than I am -- and I were going to school together. We had all new clothes on and eager hearts, bouncing along the sidewalk on either side of my mother. We were too young to realize that we were going to be part of a very small and unpopular minority that day, but we began to get nervous when we grasped that the school was farther than we were allowed to travel on our own. Our apprehension grew with each step away from our neighborhood.
We streamed into the school with all the white children and their parents. I had never before had to stay in a place where black people were not in the majority. We found my room and waited for the first-grade teacher to finish with some children who were ahead of us. She was welcoming all the parents and children individually. She bent down to speak to the little ones and reassured their nervous parents, but when she saw me and my mother her greeting changed. Her smile was gone and she did not bend down to talk to me. She didn't really look at me at all. She looked through me, as if I were a specter instead of a flesh-and-blood child.
Moving away from my mother, I took the last seat in the back of the room, which the teacher had pointed out for me. It seemed like every step I took carried me farther away from my family and the world of black people and deeper into white people's distrust and distaste, aversion and insensitivity. I was too young to understand that my mother would have to leave me there. And by the time I did realize it, it was too late. I would have run screaming from that seat in the back of the room if I had not been too terrified to move. That whole first day -- in fact, the first week -- I moved in a kind of frightened fog, from one look of suspicious repugnance to another. I was no one, a nonperson, in that place. In time, the total immobility went away, but the certainty of my teachers' disfavor and disregard never did. In their behavior and their words, they made it clear that little black children were not of any real value to them.
Even the children made their view of race relations clear to me. One day in that first school year, I was standing near the fence next to a little white classmate at recess. We had played together before and, in the way of all children, we had become instant friends. I was shyly delighted to have a school friend, and I approached her to see what we might play.
An acquaintance of hers passed by on the other side of the fence, and they struck up a conversation. The one on the outside looked over at me and declared that Negroes certainly did look different.
"Well, she's got pretty eyelashes," she said, as if she had to search every inch of my entire body to find an acceptable feature.
"Yes, she does," replied my classmate. "But I'm glad I don't have anything else about her."
"Me either," the outside one confirmed.
In that moment I knew that, as far as they were concerned, I was the only true outsider.
There were always two worlds -- home with black people and out there with white people -- and I adapted my behavior and attitudes to these two worlds, which never mixed. Even when they collided, as they sometimes did on the front steps of my house, they swirled around one another like oil and water and then oozed back into their own separate streams.
Because we had so much family, all kinds of kids came to our front steps. The white kids sat down and joined us, recounting raucous stories and laughing at the stories of others, and they seemed to enjoy themselves, but there was no bond. They would stay and talk and laugh with the others, but then it was like they went back to being white. We never lingered on their front porches. We weren't invited to eat in their homes. When we passed their houses, we hurried to pay our respects and leave.
White people never came into our house through the front door. They never came and sat in the parlor and sipped tea or hot milk. They never socialized in our big kitchen like family and friends. So you cannot imagine my shock when I dashed into the kitchen one day during my first summer vacation from school and saw Mumma dishing up food for a white man who was eating at our table! I stood stock still, my suddenly soundless mouth wide open. I couldn't believe it. it felt like the universe had just split open and trapped me in a place that made no sense. Before I could rudely blurt out the surprise that was evident all over me, Mumma looked up and saw me.
"Lorraine," she said, "you go on back outside and play till I call you."
"Yes, ma'am," I replied without question. In those days polite obedience was immediate, instantaneous.
I turned around and went outside. But the puzzled confusion and utter bafflement stayed with me. What was that white man doing in the house? Eating at the table. With Mumma. I asked the other children, but they didn't know any more than I did. Mumma had shooed them out too, and like the restless, happy-go-lucky little people we were, we soon got back to the business of shouting, running, and screaming around the neighborhood.
But I never forgot that incident, and I started keeping my eyes open, so to speak -- becoming aware, for the first time, really, of what was going on around my house. I started noticing that from time to time during that summer of 1929, several white men ate at our house. I never saw anyone of them more than once, and I was convinced that none of us had ever seen them before. Where did they come from? What were they doing here? I was too young to know about the Great Depression. I had overheard some adults talking about it, but its effect on us didn't seem to be too great. I did not know then that we were so poor already that we didn't really feel the significance of the crash. All I knew was that these white men were getting into our house somehow, and I was determined to figure out how -- and why.
It didn't take long to determine that they were coming in the back door; if they had come through the front everybody would have seen them. I started playing in the back more regularly, engineering little games with my aunts and uncles so that I could keep a vigilant eye on the door.
One day I noticed a white man coming down the alley. He was dressed casually, in clothes that had once been fine for that era, though by then they looked a little worn. All in all, he looked respectable, which is what made me watch him carefully. He did not belong in the back alley. I stayed in my hiding place around the corner of the house until the man walked up to our back door and opened it -- it was never locked -- and then I rushed stealthily in behind him.
Our back door, like the back door to all the houses on our street, was at ground level, but the kitchens was up a flight, so you had to feel your way up the dimly lit back stairs and knock on the door upstairs to get in. I followed the white man up the stairs; I stopped when I heard him knock on the kitchen door. The door opened and Mumma stood there, calm and serene, wiping her hands on her apron.
The man had taken off his hat when he had come in the downstairs door. Now, looking down at it, he spoke respectfully to Mumma.
"Good afternoon, ma'am."
"Good afternoon, sir." Mumma's quiet voice floated down the stairs like a soprano saxophone, her West Indian accent a colorful counterpoint to the man's baritone.
"It sure is nice weather we're having."
"Yes." She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. I could have spent the whole afternoon listening to my grandmother's sighs. "But it is uncommon warm this summer."
The man looked up. It seemed a matter of honor, a mark of respect shown to my grandmother, that he should not be servile and groveling. His courage made it possible for her to refuse him if she had to, with a dignity equal to his own. "Ma'am, I am mighty hungry. Could you spare me a little supper?"
I was beyond movement and speech. I crouched in the lower hallway and watched this human drama unfolding before me as if I were in a theater. It was so remarkable to me that I could hardly take it all in. The white man had just asked a black woman, with at least ten dependent children, to feed him. I could not comprehend it.
Mumma pulled the door open a little wider. "Of course," she replied. "Come right in and sit down at the table. Supper will be ready in a few minutes." She shut the door after he came in, but I scooted up the stairs and pushed it back open just a hair so that I could see.
We didn't have a lot of furniture in our kitchen, just the table and chairs and some basins for washing up. The white man sat down and waited patiently. They didn't talk much, he and Mumma, but the silence wasn't hard or sharp. It flowed in and out of the kitchen like a breeze. It was a peaceful, composed silence, like a well-trained child who knew how to behave himself in public.
Soon the food was ready, and Mumma dished it onto a plate. The man ate greedily, but he used good table manners. A couple of the children burst into the room, but Mumma ran them right back out again, just as she had done to me. The white man had put his fork down when the children entered, but when he realized that they weren't staying, he took up eating again as if it were his religion. At one point he complimented Mumma on one of the dishes, probably her peas and rice, which really was something. He finished the meal, thanked Mumma profusely, and turned to leave. I flew back down the stairs and around the corner, and I watched him come out the back door, close it carefully, and continue down the alley.
Over and over again that summer I snuck up the stairs to watch my grandmother feed hungry white men. Hungry black folks came sometimes too, but they came in the front door and ate with the family. The white men always came to the back. I don't know why they chose our door. Maybe they passed the word around that Mumma had food and a willingness to share it -- I don't know. I don't even know how it is that we always had some kind of food. I only know that Mumma never turned any of them away. White men came to the house, they would ask politely for food, and they were grateful for anything they got. They acted toward this black woman the way that blacks were expected to act toward whites -- respectful and considerate, courteous and mannerly. They thanked her profusely and they left.
Mumma never explained why she did what she did. She was a woman who rarely gave explanations as answers. In those days we children rarely asked questions. Those summer evenings during the end of the Depression, when white men walked down the small alley between our house and the next and knocked on our back door asking for food, we never asked why we should feed them. My grandmother would not have added the impoliteness of us staring at them to the humiliation of having to beg for food, so she would not often allow us to remain in the kitchen while they ate. She just fed those men and we took it as a natural routine.
In my childhood, like my daughter in hers and now my grandson in his, I wondered how black people could exhibit such trust and gracious hospitality in the midst of devastating racial oppression. Even as a small child, I knew to be careful because white people were "different." I knew that they could be dangerous, that they might hate us and act on their hatred with impunity. We were taught to be warily silent, to be carefully courteous in the presence of these people.
But my grandmother's kindness did not stem from her sense of danger. She fed white men food that had to be shared with her ten children because of something entirely different from fear or wariness. Her legacy became my mother's, and mine, and my daughter's, and now my grandson's. My mother went on to continue to perform what I consider to be acts of unusual generosity. One time she allowed a homeless white woman and her daughter to share our house for three weeks.
She tried to explain her philosophy about this to me, but her explanation seemed short and inadequate to the circumstances. I asked my mother why she let that white woman come into our house. Her only answer was, "Everybody's got to expect some trials if you want to get through this life." But that didn't make sense to me then.
I am fascinated by how this tradition, so important to my family, has been passed down through four generations without us really talking much about it. We learned kindness to strangers through the acts of my grandmother and my mother -- acts that were not considered extraordinary or remarkable. It was something that you just did because it was part of you, normal because it was right. We were taught by example that you were obliged to those less fortunate than you, no matter how temporary the misfortune. We were taught that this responsibility and our willingness to assume it was what made us human in our own eyes, even if we were somehow less than human in the eyes of others. Our oppression became a unique perspective from which to view the oppression of others.
My grandmother fed those men, my mother housed that woman, I helped that sick man, and my daughter lifted that transient off the street because we understand hunger and need in the eyes and heart as well as in the stomach, and we minister to those needs because we see ourselves as most fully human when we are most humane.
My daughter and my grandson have asked me the question, "Why?" but there really is no answer, I do not help people for a specific reason; I just do it. It is part of the natural contours of my being, and I am proud to know that my daughter and her son have inherited the legacy of my mother and grandmother. I know that I can care, even in the context of being uncared for. I can learn compassion for people who are not always compassionate. I know that because my kindness is normal for me and not dependent on another person's response.
It is important to know that life reaches beyond the black and white categories we have created for it. There will always be inconsistencies and complexities in our lives. I know now that it is within these paradoxes and contradictions that we learn to see ourselves as whole people.
Copyright © 1999 by Laurel Holliday
Our Own Stories Growing Up Black in America
Children of the Dream
Our Own Stories Growing Up Black in America
-- Amitiyah Elayne Hyman
Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of a day when black children were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. His eloquent charge became the single greatest inspiration for the achievement of racial justice in America. In her powerful fourth book in the Children of Conflict series, Laurel Holliday explores how far we have come as she presents thirty-eight African-Americans who share their experiences as Children of the Dream.
"I was brought up with white Barbie dolls of impossible proportions and long silky blonde hair -- neither of which I possessed. As a child I believed what I was taught, and I wasn't taught to love myself for who I am -- an African-American."
-- Charisse Nesbit
The unforgettable people we hear from are young and old, rich and poor, from inner cities, suburbia, and rural America. In chronicles that are highly personal, funny, tragic, and triumphant, the contributors tell us what it is like coming of age stigmatized by the color of their skin, yet proud of their heritage and culture.
Their voices, their courage, their resilience -- and their understanding -- offer hope for us all.
- Atria Books |
- 448 pages |
- ISBN 9781476775340 |
- February 2014