We Were Allowed to be Kids

May 6, 2020

I grew up in the South, in Selma, Alabama, which at the time was extremely segregated. And this was a predominantly African American neighborhood. And it was quite a dichotomy between what I read as a description of the place at my experience. The description, when I went searching for a photograph, was that it was “a project for impoverished African Americans,” which of course being me being me led me on a search for the different definitions of impoverished.

The dichotomy comes in the definition of a place and the purpose of the place that I grew up in. That it was that it was for poor people.

My experience I’ve it was, this was a village. There were maybe four or five of these buildings and the school was at the end of the block, so when you went to school, you had to basically walk through the entire neighborhood. If you got in trouble at school, everybody on the block would be telling you, “Now you know your mama didn’t raise you like that.”

All of the kids would play together. Back in the day, we’re talking about 1953-55, we played softball, we played marbles. We played jacks. We built our own little scooters, the little scooters the kids are playing on. Somebody would have a roller skate and it would break and we would put it together.

But I was really thankful for this neighborhood. It is where I learned about how you care for your neighbors. You come out the back door and you see Miss Susan. You’d say, “Oh Miss Susan, do you have this?” “Oh Miss Susan, do you have that?”

Around the porch, I remember planting beans every year and they never amount to much because of course after the excitement of planting them I was done.

As you can see, looking at the picture, there are poles that we would use for hanging laundry. It was almost as if every family had their own little laundry day. It was a great neighborhood, but it just reminds me of how labels can be put on a place, and it might not be the reality that the people who live there are living through.

I didn’t realize we were poor until I was in my teens when I realized that we did not have a lot of material things, but we had the things of substance that mattered. We had caring neighbors. We had caring teachers. We had a village. Everybody looked out for each other, so it just strikes me that I need to be careful in my use of labels.

We never really had to worry about who was going to watch us, because the neighborhood watched out for you. If you needed a cup of sugar. If you needed this. In terms of clothes, say my sister and I. My sister who is younger than me is bigger than me. She would get her clothes from somebody, then once I’m done, I’d send it off. So you’d learn to take care of your stuff.

And since all of us in the neighborhood were–we were broke, we weren’t poor but we didn’t have money. It was really a matter of sharing. What’s striking to me is there was a commonality of values. You respected your elders and that included the teenagers. It just went up the line. And there was just this cocoon and it almost had to be a cocoon because once you left the confines of this particular physical area, it was hostile territory because of the degree of segregation.

And when I tell you about the degree of segregation, we seldom went downtown because we had “for coloreds” and we had “for whites” and my mother was not going to allow us to be inundated or bombarded with that kind of feeling. In the neighborhood, we never grew up with the feeling that we were second class because basically the adults went and did what they had to do in the outside world and we were allowed to be kids.