I was a little girl in the south who didn’t know anybody who didn’t look like me, but not on purpose.
I was taught that I need only be afraid of bad people and shouldn’t hate anybody, and I would know the bad people by what they did. “Monsters don’t always look like monsters, baby.” I liked other kids or didn’t, because they were nice or they weren’t; and I didn’t hate anybody, except maybe Marybeth Harper in the third grade, because she wasn’t.
I sat on the porch shelling butter beans until my thumbs were raw and snacked on fried-out fatback while Mama fixed supper. I went to Vacation Bible School and memorized all sixty-six books of the Bible, because I knew she would frame the certificate. I also knew “because I said so” was a pretty good reason and was sent to cut a switch when I forgot.
I played outside on sweltering summer afternoons spinning upside down bike wheels, and in the cool of the night, catching fireflies in mason jars. I dressed in front of an open oven door in the winter and wore socks for gloves when it snowed so I could make snow angels and pack snow in stainless steel bowls so Mama could make snow cream.
I was a little girl in the south who didn’t know anybody who didn’t look like me, but not on purpose. Then somewhere in the middle of being a little girl, I became a little white girl and the world went crazy around me and I didn’t know why.
Somehow, now, I was a little white girl – privileged and spoiled, and selfish. Except Mama was still rolling pennies to pay for a tank of oil and then whispering to the oilman, “…take half of it to the lady down the street – she’s got five young-uns.” Daddy was still working two jobs and Mama was still canning tomatoes and okra to get us through the winter.
I couldn’t go to my school any more, and the people on the news said I ought to be ashamed because my school was better, and that’s why I was a good reader. I went to a new school but the teachers there didn’t like little white girls very much so I stopped raising my hand, or reading out loud.
Daddy was a police officer, a civil servant, and in those days, he was required to list his address and telephone number in the phone book so people could get in touch with him if they needed help. Back then, you could call the police station, or if you knew a policeman’s name, you could look up the number directly. I heard him on the phone a lot, making peace between neighbors mad about their fence lines or calming down the two widowed sisters who called regularly because they were convinced communist spies were trying to infiltrate their house. He gave directions to the bus station, first aid advice for skinned knees and chigger bites, and the occasional dressing-down of a surly teenager whose mother called at her wit’s end.
But during that long hot summer, other people started calling and for a long time after that, I couldn’t remember my own phone number anymore. That was the first time anyone ever called me “little white girl” and the first time it seemed like it wasn’t just something I was, it was something I did. Something bad. So Daddy changed our number over and over and over.
I was a little girl who cried when someone shot the president, and then his brother, and then that preacher in Memphis. But then the riots came, and curfews, and Mama was scared because people were throwing things at Daddy, and they might shoot him too. I heard the screams when homemade explosives, wrapped in tinfoil and left on our front porch, nearly cost Mama her sight. And my own screams one Sunday afternoon, when we came home from church and found our dog, the little runt we’d picked out from a neighbor’s litter, dead in the backyard. The smell of burning flesh mixed with Old Spice as Daddy scooped me up and tried to hide my face so I wouldn’t see the blistered skin where the scalding grease had been poured.
He wasn’t fast enough and I cried myself to sleep that night, only to wake in a cold sweat with the acrid smell of burning flesh filling my nostrils. I stopped playing outside and the bike wheels rusted in the yard. Every evening, the fireflies blinked on and off, on and off, through the safety of double-paned window glass.
With my face pressed against the glass, I realized that all this was my fault, that my people had caused this. Except, until that moment, I hadn’t known I had any people. And it was then, in the knowing, that I learned what I had never been taught – to be afraid and to be ashamed. But mostly to be angry.
Anger is easier when you don’t know how to fix it, or undo it, or say you’re sorry, because you don’t know what you’ve done. Except be a little white girl.