Wednesday, November 05, 2008

For Janice, wherever she might be


(OK, this post will have some rough language. And it will use the N-word. A lot. But to tell this story -- and to be true to the times I'm recalling -- it has to be done. Reader discretion is advised.)

* * *

I wrote this post more than a decade ago, and a version of it first appeared on this blog Dec. 16, 2006. It seems to me to be appropriate to run it again after the historic night we just experienced, a night when we learned Barack Obama, a black man, will be president and America's original sin seemed less onerous and more redeemable than it did a day ago.

Last night was for Janice Grigsby. This post is, too. God bless her, wherever she might be.

* * *

Joe's Barber Shop smelled of witch hazel, hot shaving cream and talcum powder. Of old magazines, the newsprint of strewn-about State-Times and Morning Advocates, and of sweat and cigarette smoke.

WHEN YOU OPENED the front door onto Scenic Highway, Mr. Joe's place might smell of complex hydrocarbons, too. The front gate of the Humble Oil and Refining Co.'s Baton Rouge complex sat slap-dab across the street.

One summer day in 1970, though, Mr. Joe's just smelled.

"My boy ain't goin' to school with no goddamn niggers," this fellow said from up in one of Mr. Joe's three barber chairs -- under the placard that proclaimed the establishment a proud "Union Shop" -- to expressions of sympathy from Mr. Joe, my old man and the rest. Fearing his son's life might be in mortal danger, the man was popping off about having his kid pack heat.

Blame it on the Feds. A federal judge had just ruled against East Baton Rouge Parish's grade-at-a-time "freedom of choice" school desegregation plan, which had taken effect in 1963, started with the 12th grade and worked its way down to the sixth grade. Starting in the fall, a "neighborhood school" plan would take over, coupled with voluntary majority-to-minority transfers. For the first time, all students in a school's attendance area -- black and white -- would go to the same school.

Not a popular concept in the all-white, working-class world of Joe's Barber Shop.

I was 9 years old.

Summer gave way to fall in 1970 -- to the surprise of many white folks (including, I imagine, the guy planning to arm his son), the world did not end -- and school opened, "integrated" under the neighborhood schools scheme.

"Integrated" Capitol High School was supposed to have 230 white students and 1,363 blacks. Five whites showed up for classes. And "integrated" McKinley High was supposed to have 81 whites and 1,051 black students. No whites showed up.

THAT FALL, I returned to suburban Red Oaks Elementary School, a sprawling, brick-and-concrete 1950s monument to homogeneity and bad taste that assaulted the eyes with its covered walkways and copious amounts of puke-green paint. My parents saw no need to place a snub-nose .38 in my book sack; there was little chance I'd face assault by some snarling black menace from "Bucktown."

Chances were much better that I'd be assaulted by gangs of snarling white menaces from North Red Oaks.

In the fall of 1970, I was starting fourth grade, and for the past three years I had hated all-white, de jure-segregated Red Oaks Elementary. The only thing worse than Red Oaks, I imagined, must be having to go to "the nigger school," which, I was assured, just might happen if I messed up bad enough.

In the fall of 1970, Janice Grigsby was starting fourth grade at Red Oaks, too. She hadn't had the opportunity to work up a good hate for the place; this was the first year she and her little brother could attend.

Janice was black, and though her family had lived just a few blocks from the school since before there was a school there -- before there was a neighborhood, even -- she had been barred from Red Oaks by force of law, relegated to "the nigger school."

I remember that Janice had skin the color of a Hershey bar, a pair of pigtails and a big smile. She was the first black person my own age I'd ever known. And despite almost a decade of racial indoctrination -- with warnings about "nigger music," "nigger rigs" and "nigger lovers," deliveries from "the drugstore nigger" and subtropical heat that left you "sweatin' like a nigger preacher" -- despite growing up with Jim Crow as the crazy uncle in the attic, I liked Janice. She was in Mrs. Anderson's class with me, and I found that I didn't care whether she was black, white, purple or green.

She was a friend.

I REMEMBER that Janice and I used to play together at recess. I'd pull her pigtails, she'd chase me, and we'd both have a grand time.

My folks had no real problem with this. Poor Southern kids during the Great Depression, they grew up around black folks. And the only difference between them and "the niggers" was a society and a legal system that placed blacks at the bottom of the pecking order and "white trash" a little bit above.

So, for some white folks, there was nothing overly unusual about playing with black kids. Or about being friendly -- not friends -- with blacks as an adult, so long as everyone remembered that God Almighty ordained that whites were the superior race.

On the other hand, you had problems if black folks got "uppity." Uppity included such concepts as sitting in the front of buses, voting and using the same restrooms as whites. Or going to school with whites.

I guess that, by 1970 standards, my parents were something less than white-supremacy hardliners. I know they weren't hot on the idea of racial integration, not by a long shot. But I suppose they figured that if the Feds were letting the "coloreds" (what polite white folks called blacks in 1970) into "white" schools, there was no use being mean to them, or in keeping your kid from playing with Janice Grigsby.

The powers-that-be at Red Oaks Elementary, however, didn't see things the same way.

MORE THAN three decades later, I remember one day when Janice and I were playing at recess, following the standard rituals of 9-year-old boys and girls. Soon enough, Mrs. Anderson got my attention, took me aside by a red-brick wing of classrooms and gave me a good talking to.

Maybe I ought not be playing with Janice, she gravely advised me. It didn't look right, she was worried about it, the Red Oaks administration was worried about it, and white boys hanging around with colored girls wasn't wise. In 1970, it seems, certain white adults were worried about miscegenation, even among the playground crowd.

Janice Grigsby, one of two lonely black children among hundreds of white faces at Red Oaks Elementary, was to be isolated. Blackness was akin to the mumps, and the authorities were worried about infection.

At day's end, I walked across the playground, then over the foot bridge of heavy timbers and the pungent smell of creosote, then across Darryl Drive and down the sidewalk to home. My mother was waiting, and I told her I couldn't play with Janice anymore.

She was outraged. To this day, I'm not sure where that outrage came from -- perhaps it was that defiant suspicion of authority bred into a class of white folk raised dirt poor and accustomed to being beaten down by the powers-that-be. Maybe it was a subconscious compulsion to do the right thing despite her own prejudices and enculturation. Maybe it was the invisible hand of God determined to see that such blatant injustice, such cruelty directed toward a 9-year-old girl, not pass unnoticed.

Whatever it was, it caused my mother to go straight to the phone book, look up the number of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pick up the telephone and give whomever answered at the NAACP an earful about the shenanigans going on at Red Oaks Elementary School.

IN AN OLD MOVIE, the outrage of the righteous would have come down foursquare upon the heads of Mrs. Anderson and her partners in crime, and Janice Grigsby would have lived happily ever after. But old movies are just that, and morality plays were long out of fashion by the dawn of the '70s.

Life did not get easier for Janice. Her black face stood out like a bulls eye in Red Oaks' lily-white world, and she took her shots from Mrs. Anderson, a surly, tanklike woman who had about as much business in the classroom as Pol Pot would have had on Amnesty International's board of directors.

No, for Janice, ridicule at Mrs. Anderson's beefy hands became a daily ritual.

For instance, every Monday was lunch-money day, and the proper procedure for paying for the week's meals involved paying separately for your lunch and for your milk -- or something like that. One Monday, Janice did something horrible. She brought a single check from home to pay for everything.

You would have thought Janice had just set fire to the classroom.

"What am I supposed to do with this!" Mrs. Anderson thundered. "Cut it in half?!?"

The classroom erupted with the laughter of small minds. The cruelty of a middle-aged teacher toward a little girl is really funny when you're 9, I guess.

But Janice just sat there. She just took it.

I am not sure why this is the incident that sticks in my mind after all these years and all these miles away from Baton Rouge. There were others, many others. But as the years have passed, those incidents have subsided into the fog of memory. All that remains is the surety of Mrs. Anderson's withering remarks, the hoots of my classmates and Janice just sitting there.

Taking it.

And I remember that I hated Mrs. Anderson. I really did, and I don't know that I'm sorry I hated her.

I left Red Oaks Elementary after the fall semester of 1970. Like Janice, I was the butt of many jokes and much abuse -- at the hands of Mrs. Anderson and little rednecks with littler minds. I didn't fit in, probably was too smart by half when being smart was a one-way ticket to Adolescent Hell, and I rebelled mightily.

I ended up at the next school over, Villa del Rey Elementary. It was a much better school, though I still had my problems.

My new fourth-grade teacher was Mrs. Hawkins. She was black, talented and a sweet soul amid a sea of, on average, slightly more affluent little rednecks. I spent a while catching up on my studies, thanks to the curricular deficiencies Mrs. Anderson brought to the classroom along with her sunny disposition.

In many ways, it was Mrs. Hawkins who caught hell at the hands of her students. More than once, students might be heard to mutter "nigger" under their breath after being disciplined. I know she had to have heard, but I don't remember her ever saying anything.

And I am ashamed to admit to being among those who muttered the N-word. Like they say, racism isn't congenital; it's learned. And oftentimes we learned all the wrong lessons.

I DIDN'T SEE Janice Grigsby again until seventh grade at Broadmoor Junior High, where there was just a small handful of black kids. We didn't hang out together anymore, but I did notice one thing about her -- it seemed that her smile wasn't so big anymore. At least not often.

The dresses she once wore, I recall, had given way to a denim jacket and pants. It was fitting; she seemed to me at the time as this James Deanlike loner amid the junior-high hustlin' mob. I don't think we spoke much, if at all, during those years. But then again, the black kids had their world, and we whites had ours. The teen-age rednecks and thugs ruled supreme -- and perhaps the Mrs. Andersons of the world had won our hearts and minds.

Too, somewhere along the way at Broadmoor, Janice had to repeat a grade. I wonder whether maybe she, at some point along the line, had bought into the subtext of Mrs. Anderson's daily barrage: Niggers are stupid. Niggers don't belong. You're stupid, Janice. You don't belong.

From time to time, I wonder whatever became of Janice. Did she graduate? Is she happy? Did she ever come to terms with how that old battle axe treated her?

Is she married now? Does she have kids of her own? Grandkids?

Is Janice alive?

Of one thing I am sure: Janice Grigsby was a real little girl who suffered in very real ways due to the aftershocks of America's Original Sins -- slavery and bigotry. One's dead and buried; the other's still alive, burrowed deep into the American psyche like a mutant gene unleashing deadly cancers.

Yes, I'd like to think things weren't as bleak as my 9-year-old eyes viewed them; at least I would like to think my memories of Red Oaks, and Janice, have been darkened, have been fogged over, by the jadedness of adulthood.

But I don't think so.

And I don't think things are as changed as lots of people -- lots of people white like me -- would have us all believe. Better, yes.

Good? Probably not.

It was four decades ago, now, that Martin Luther King Jr., died. He was a great man.

And somebody shot him dead. Shot him dead for his greatness.

Somebody'd probably shoot him dead today, too.

God help us. Lord, have mercy.

2 comments:

John said...

Thanks for the reminder of where we've come from, from a fellow Omahan.

I was feeling a bit depressed over the Obama win, but this puts some things in perspective.

patricia said...

Amazing...thanks for taking the time to remember and remind the rest of us what life was like, is like, for many....