Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Finally, I'm a belonger
My husband and I made the journey up to Washington, and stood in the cold for about five hours to witness the inauguration of "MY" President. We had few of the glitches that have been reported by many travelers to the event. It was an exhilarating day. It was good to be there with the masses of people who braved the cold for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
From the time we entered the Metro at around 7:30 AM and all through the day, the mood was high. Voices broke out singing America the Beautiful, even on the train. Even with the over-crowding and lack of direction, there were few signs of frustration, rather a thankfulness at having the opportunity to be there.
I experienced moments of overwhelming joy, with tears freezing on my face. And I thought back to the time when I first learned what it meant to be black in this country.
I was born in Petersburg, Virginia, in the segregated, Jim-Crow south. I wrote of that day in my memoir.
We lived in the rectory next to the church, and I was born there. The rectory was bound on one side by the church, the Gem Movie Theater on the other, and the Wiss scissors factory on the back. Across the street was a store that sold groceries, and next to it was a place that sold beer. This was the Negro business district, and it was a busy street. By the time I was four or five, I would ride my tricycle up and down Halifax Street in front of the church. At first Daddy would watch me, then he gave me instructions that I could only go to the left as far as the corner to Owens’ Cleaners. I wasn't supposed to go to the right past the Gem Theater, because depending on the time of day there might be crowds of people waiting for the movie, or going in to buy a hot dog for ten cents at the snack bar inside. Eventually Daddy left me to ride on my own. I would ride, pedaling as hard and fast as I could, and I didn’t notice I had passed the corner and was heading down another street. At first I panicked, but I kept riding. Since it was a short city block, I soon discovered I was back on Halifax Street where I started.
After that first time I became more adventurous, and would ride around the block whenever nobody was watching. I didn’t have to cross a street, so I felt safe, but still very grown up. I remember the exhilaration I felt at making the wheels turn faster than I could walk. Even then I was independent and a loner, who didn’t want to have someone watching me all the time. One day when I was riding, I passed a house with a picket fence, and there was a little girl sitting on the porch. I stopped riding and spoke to her, and we talked a little bit about riding my tricycle. Then it became a regular part of my ride around the block, and I would stop and talk to the little girl on the porch.
One day while we were talking, the little girl’s mother came out and scolded me for talking to the little girl. “You don’t belong on this street.” I rode away frightened and crying. When I got home, I didn’t want to tell Daddy I had been off Halifax Street, but he could see that I was crying and I told him about that mean old lady that scared me away. He asked if she was white. I hadn’t noticed before, but she was. Daddy explained, “They don’t want us on that street, so you should stay on Halifax Street like you were told.”
My mother taught her seven children to be the best in spite of the system that would keep us back, to refuse to accept second-class, and second-hand. But still throughout my life there continued the nagging sense that I didn't belong. Even as I reached an executive level position in my professional life, I felt the need to identify those whose thought I did not belong. I thought my quiet defiance could brace me against the potential day when I might be ejected from a place that someone thought I didn't belong.
I heard that term "belonger" when we visited Grand Turks in December. Our guide, who was Jamaican told us that there were certain privileges, such as land ownership, reserved for those who were born in Turks and Caicos. He said that since he was not a "belonger" he would have to marry a native before he could buy a house.
On Tuesday, I thought of how long my people have been in this country. I can't trace my ancestry back to a village in Africa, but I can go back five generations to a county in Georgia, over 150 years ago. All those years of not belonging here. Somehow the weight of those ancestors was lifted on Tuesday. In the faces of the young and old, black and white, Christian, Muslim, and otherwise, there shined a hope and a dream and a uniting force for our country. And it suddenly came to me, I belong.