Letters to My Tweenage Son (Part IV)
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
Nikki Giovanni once wrote that, “childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re black” and when they write your story about your childhood they will never realize that in the midst of the struggle you were quite happy.* I have come to believe, as I tell myself my childhood stories, that my memories are both real and imagined. I feel like I have to preface every statement with a disclaimer that everything that I remember is real, whether it happened or not. My memories and experiences have shaped and molded me. I have found that these two things are separate because both the way that something happens and the way that I interpret and remember something happening to me are pieces of me. I make no apologies, not anymore, not like before.
My earliest memories are of my father sharing his stories about his childhood spent growing up in rural South Carolina; about his adventures in the military and during the Civil Rights Movement; and, about him and my Mom falling in love with each other long before they had been introduced. At night, while some kids were getting a bedtime story about green eggs and ham, I received a history lesson about life before Brown v. Board. I remember thinking that he was just saying these things to scare me and to make me straighten up and fly right. On Saturday nights, my father would make me and my siblings hot chocolate with marshmallows. We would lay on the floor in our sleeping bags and he would sit in his easy chair and talk. We did not have a television so we would watch our father.
Our gifted and animated Griot who made the Movement come alive. I felt like I was with him when he used to walk past all of the white schools to get to his all-black one-room classroom. I used to feel the heat when he would describe the big black cast iron stove that set in the middle of the classroom burning wood throughout the winter to keep the room warm. I used to squint when he would talk about how everyone had to move to one side of the classroom in the afternoon so that they could use the sunlight to see their books. I used to shiver when he would talk about how he only had one coat and two pair of shoes—one for everyday and one pair for Sunday church. He used to wear his shoes until he got holes in the bottom and then put in cardboard and wear them until the cardboard ran down. He told us how he used to wake up hungry and spend the day thinking about food. There was just enough food to keep him from starving but not enough to make him feel full. My father shared stories about his life and how difficult it was growing up black and poor and male in the South. He believed, as did my grandmother, that the only thing that could save him from a lifetime of poverty and malnutrition was either a good education or the military. My father chose education and would study every night while making promises to himself, “If I get an A on the chemistry test, then I’m going to buy myself a honey bun.” He kept a secret ledger with a balance sheet and every time he made an “A,” he would pay himself a quarter. He would pay himself when he had to clean the outhouse or when he gave his sister the last slice of bread or when he had to pick cotton or sweep the sand out of the house. It became a game of how much could he pay himself not to complain or cry out or just stop believing that life would ever change. He promised himself that as soon as he made it, the first thing he was going to do was take his money and get everything he always dreamed about in his ledger.
My favorite story, and the only one that my parents would tell together, is about how they met and fell in love. They used to finish each other sentences and laugh out loud, as the details started to change once they got older. My father fell in love with my mother when he was 13 years old. Their churches used to host a joint picnic where all of the families would come together and worship. My mother was a city girl. Her mother was one of the first black nurses in South Carolina and her father worked for the railway. They used to come to the picnic in a car, one of the few families that owned one. There were eight of them, my father remembers because he counted all the kids as they got out. My mother was the last one out and he said that he knows because she swung her legs out first and he thought it was odd that her knees were shining. He said that he remembered that they day was slightly overcast because he heard it was going to rain and he thought about not coming. “She smiled,” he used to say as he eyes looked away for just a moment, “and it was like the sun had come out.” That summer my father had finally saved enough money to buy a white suit. He had worked everyday after school and had saved every single penny. He felt like a man on the day he bought the suit home in a paper bag.
My mother said she saw him out the corner of her eye. He fascinated her because she had never seen a black boy in an oversized starch white suit with the cuffs and the sleeves rolled up. She remembers that he had on white shoes and white socks as well. “He did not sit with the other kids,” she said, “he sat with the men and he talked to them like he was one of them.” My mother sat with her sisters; close enough to pretend as if she was not listening. She thought he was smart and wanted to say something to him but good girls never spoke to boys first. My father did not speak either. He just watched her whenever she laughed or walked around. He said his heart dropped when all eight kids piled back into the car. Their father did not say a word, he just got up and all of the started to move. He said they looked happy and healthy, like they ate one day at a time never worrying about whether they would eat tomorrow.
He did not see her for an entire year. On the eve of the annual picnic, he took his suit out of the back of the closest—he had hid it there so that he would not be tempted to wear it—and laid it across his chair. It fit him this summer and like before, he spent the whole afternoon sitting with the men and watching her whenever she moved. She spent the day trying to figure out whether my father was wearing a new suit or the same suit. And if it was the same suit, why was it so white? It looked like he had not worn it at all. He did not. The summer before (after he met her), he had decided that he wanted to have one nice thing for the picnic so he saved the suit. When my mom was getting ready to leave, he walked over to and introduced himself. She said he did not smile though he said he could not remember doing anything but smile.
When she saw him the next summer, she said her heart leaped. The white suit, the one that he had worn both times she saw him, was now a little too small. She could see his wrists and his ankles. He was 16 and she was 14. He talked to her this time and they sat together at the picnic. He was not thinking of marriage or commitment. He just wanted to talk to the pretty brown girl with the shiny knees. They do not remember what they talked about it, something about the future, schoolwork, traveling, and their parents. They both wanted out of South Carolina and had dreams of going to school up North. My father joined the military at 18 and though he never saw my mother at another picnic, he said he used to dream about her and tell all of his bunkmates that when he got home, he was going to find her and marry her. When he arrived at the door, my mother was shocked that he had found her and that he had been looking for her. She was 20 years old and was dating a law student from Boston. My father was ready to get married and he was ready to be married to my mother. They never told me how he won her heart (some secrets really should be just between lovers) just that he did and they were married within the year. He told that he would take her away from all of this—the racism, the South, the struggle—and they would start over with a clean slate.
They settled in Washington, DC and my father worked at a gas station during the day and attended college at night. I know that he worked and went to school when I was child but I do not have any memory that does not include him. He was always there, every trip or family night or parent teacher Conference. He showed up each and every time. I remember once when my teacher started talking to me at a parent teacher Conference. My mother had stepped out to check on my sister and I was standing there by myself. My teacher looked down at me and started telling me everything that I needed to change to be a better student. I remember that my hands started shaking, as they usually do when I get upset, and right before I said anything my father suddenly appeared, took my hand, and begin to answer the teacher in my defense. He told me that night that he was my first line of defense, when I am wrong he would be the first person to correct me and when I was right, he would be the first to defend me. He was like a superhero to me, like I had my own special bat signal that I could use whenever I felt afraid or alone. (Little girls need their fathers to be superheroes, catchers in the rye.) My father worked hard so that my childhood memories would not be a drag. I remember that I was never hungry, I never thought about food, or wore shoes lined with cardboard. I never used an outhouse or had to boil water to take a shower. I never had a ledger because I had my daddy. I remember summer vacations, hot chocolate, and stories about the Movement. I remember laying on my daddy’s shoulder and always feeling like it was put there just for me.
I often wonder how my father changed his economic situation. I now believe that it was a combination of things. The first is that he enlisted in the military and by doing so, he received a monthly income, healthcare, and a housing allowance, which allowed him to save a large portion of his pay. Next, my father is educated and was committed to receiving a college degree. He later earned both his Master’s Degree and his Doctorate of Ministry so it was easy for him to transition from blue-collar to white-collar jobs. Additionally, my mother supported my father’s dreams and though she could not “see” them, she believed that they were real and attainable. She was a stay at home mom and she did everything she could to ensure that our home was a place of peace and love and stability. Next, and often overlooked, is that my father had opportunities to be successful. He had an uncanny ability to predict those moments when opportunity and talent would coalesce. He calls it luck, I call it being attuned to your talents and always being ready to use them. Finally, my father has grit, which is hard to describe and even harder to quantify. He has that unique ability to focus on a goal and finish it. He can will himself to the finish line despite whatever obstacles might be in his path. He is amazing. He has told me and has shown me how important it is to have your history be a stepping-stone for your destiny. It should not hold you back rather it should be seen as a necessary step that will propel you to the next level.**
My father has carved out a path for me to follow and has left both his footprints and breadcrumbs to guide me through. He has told me that the path that has been carved was designed just for me; therefore, I am not in a race. Everything that is for me is for me alone. It is a journey and though there are times that I feel that I have been walking for a long time, I am still on the path and am a long way from home. My memories, both real and imagined, are my guideposts that I am using (just like my daddy’s footprints and breadcrumbs) to guide me back home. My father, your grandfather, has trained me well so I understand that as I make my way through I need to step hard and leave large breadcrumbs for you.
*Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki-Rosa.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177827
**I am grateful to my students in my F’2013 CM330 Stereotypes course (especially Katlyn) who finally helped me to put some text around this idea. I have been wrestling for years with trying to figure out what is needed to help a person move from one income level to the next –in the words of my students it’s “the little extras.”