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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Thoughts on attending the recent pow wow

When I lived in Ohio the fact that my grandfather was an Indian was not relevant. Nobody in Ohio seemed to care about who your ancestors were. When I moved to NC in 2003 one of the first things that happened to let me know I was not in Ohio anymore was that people began to quiz me on my heritage.

I told the questioners that I was black, period. That, however, some of them were not willing to accept. When they found out my mother had been born in Hollister, NC, in Halifax County they all had “aha” moments and said triumphantly, ” You are part Indian ( actually they said Native).”  I explained that yes, my grandfather had been an Indian, but that he died when my mother was three, so I had not been raised with any knowledge of the culture. I am pretty sure I have at least as much white blood as Indian blood and I am certainly not white.

That did not sit too well with my Indian colleagues and friends. They seemed to consider my failure to mention or acknowledge my Indian heritage as evidence I was ashamed of it. I was puzzled. To me people who try to attach themselves to groups they do not belong to are culture vultures. True, my uncle and aunt used to wear regalia and dance at pow wows, but that was them.

Today, at the pow wow, one of the food vendors was named Mills. My aunt Tempe’s maiden name was Mills. When she waited on me I asked where she was from and she said ” Hollister”  I did not know whether to mention my aunt  or not. I did not want her to think I was claiming to be related to her.

So, it is very confusing. In my opinion American Indians are the only group to have been treated worse than black people in America, yet we treat them in many ways in our society like magical, mythical beings. One of the frustrations I see in some Indian folks is the fact that they are often ignored, even in discussions of diversity. It is also problematic that a lot of people who identify as Indian do not look like the stereotypical Indian, e.g. a plains Indian or western Indian. Most of the people  I know who identify as Indian could be either black or white, depending on their hair, their skin tone and their features. I have probably met fewer than five people that I would have picked out of a crowd as an Indian. That does not make them any less Indian, it just illustrates one of the difficulties of being Indian.

Besides my cultural ambiguity today the thing that struck me was that even though they have been historically the targets of genocide and still are the objects of much oppression, they have managed to keep a lot of their culture, something that was denied blacks. As I watched the dancing and listened to the drumming I tried to imagine what it would be like to be raised in a culture where you had songs and dances that you knew your ancestors generations ago had sung and danced.

Blacks were stripped of all that through slavery. You were “cured” which meant made less African and you were forced to give up any tribal customs, language, religion, music, etc. As a result black American culture can be said to have started only in 1619 with the arrival of the first blacks in America, our connection to the African continent, although frequently written on our faces, was cut like an umbilical cord and our individual cultures bled out somewhere in the Middle Passage.

White people too have lost culture. Except in some enclaves in big cities and with remnants in music and recipes, white cultures have been subsumed in the larger and much less interesting phenomenon known as white American culture. White immigrants, if they wanted to be considered white, had to leave the customs and tongues of their mother lands behind.

If they were not WASPs then it was even more difficult to get to be white. The Irish and the Italians and the Germans and the Eastern Europeans all had to struggle, change their names, lose their accents, give up their customs in order to gain the rank of “white.”

So with all the advantages America has, she has been a hard task mistress on culture. Perhaps my Indian friends have held on to more than I once thought. I, however, am still black.

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Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Xenia Tales: I am integrated Part II

I finished my glorious career at Central Junior High on a high note. Not only had I done well on the French scholarship test of achievement, my grades were sufficiently high to inspire the administration to present me with my school letter, tastefully done in real red chenille. I am  not sure how many of my fellow students received such an honor but my memory reports that it was far from a rare occurrence.

As the great day of graduation approached–yes we had a graduation ceremony for having completed junior high, small town school districts are big on pomp and circumstance, we had to go shopping for the appropriate attire. Girls were to wear white dresses boys were to wear black pants and white shirts. Suits were okay for the boys but not mandated, I am not sure about ties. Because this was a de facto admission to high school status, even though 9th graders were technically freshmen, since we were at Central Jr. Hi we were not viewed as high school students, it was understood that we needed to look like young adults at this ceremony.

That meant the females were expected to wear heels. If not required by the school dress code it was definitely required by the standards set by your peers, a much more stringent coda than anything the school could pronounce, of course.

I had worn high heels a time or two, to church functions and the occasional fancy dance, but this was different. The ceremony was held at the Field House next to Xenia High School. This venerable edifice was where we played basketball games, had the occasional other sporting or social event. It was a big deal. Most of us had been going to something or other at the Field House for a long time. The plan for the ceremony was that we would all be seated in chairs set up on the floor, our parents, other relatives  and friends would be seated in the stands.

We had assigned seats, I do not remember if we were arranged alphabetically or by height. Anyway, your row would be led out by a faculty usher and you would go on stage, one at a time to receive your diploma ( certificate) and any other awards you might have won–this is actually when I was presented with my certificate for the French test and with my vaunted chenille Central “C” and be applauded by the crowd for your achievement(s).

This sounds relatively easy, until one considers that in order to go on the stage we were not to go through the usual egress route, doors to the left and right of the stage. No, for some reason, lost in the misty mists of time, it was decided that we needed to go up some temporary stair placed on the right  side of the stage and down another temporary stair placed on the left side These wooden stairs, which definitely smacked of a relatively rudimentary shop project, had no banisters, no sides at all and they did not seem to be of a uniform height.

As a result during our practice sessions a lot of people had difficulty navigating them. I was one of the ones having difficulty. I have always been very near-sighted and not being particularly athletic I always wanted to look down at the stairs while attempting to climb them. This meant that I was prone to not see the next step coming up and therefore I would stumble. I stumbled in the first rehearsal I stumbled in the second rehearsal and I almost fell off the stairs completely  at the third rehearsal where we ( the girls only)had been encouraged to “wear the shoes you plan on wearing to graduation.”

As graduation day approached I was a nervous wreck. Here it was my first official public appearance as a newly integrated member of the CJS student body and I, a black girl, was going to fall off the stairs at the ceremony, I just knew it! What would them mostly white crowd think? What would they do?? Laugh, yell things, snicker, pity me?I would not only be facing personal embarrassment, I would be letting down the entire black student body, recent and not always so welcome immigrants from the East End.

The day of graduation dawned sunny and bright, nothing like my mood, and the entire family piled into the car to go to graduation. I had on my new white dress and my new white heels which looked very good but which I was unsure I could trust not  to betray me during my integrated public debut.

We arrived at the Field House and I bid my family adieu to take my seat with the rest of my classmates. Music was played, speeches were made and then the moment of truth arrived. A teacher appeared at the end of my row, it was our turn to go on stage!

I gritted my teeth, stuck out my chin and marched towards the treacherous stairs, wobbling a little even on the flat in my unfamiliar footwear. I made it to the foot of the stairs and on the signal of the faculty member stationed at the foot of the stairs, began the climb. There were no more than six steps, but to me it seemed like Everest.  I made it up the stairs without incident, and when, having received my awards, I made it down the other side uneventfully, a small round of cheers and applause went up from quite a few of my classmates.

My mother commented on the small outburst after the ceremony.   She thought it meant I was massively popular,  and considering I had not been at CJS but one year and that some of the apparent accolades had obviously come from my white classmates she was very impressed. Actually, of course,  they were expressing their relief that their ceremony would not be interrupted by the arrival of an emergency crew in an ambulance summoned to tend to me as I lay broken at the bottom of the rickety stairs.

I have chosen to let her believe this 40 plus years that I was, indeed massively popular with both my black and white classmates.  I learned a long time ago never to correct folks who give you more credit than you are due. There are always far more who  are willing to  give you less than you are due.  Just take the compliment, try to live up to it, and consider it necessary for the balance of the universe.

 
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Posted by on March 13, 2011 in Childhood, Education, Race, Xenia

 

Tales of Xenia: Getting integrated, phase I

I was integrated in the 9th grade. After having lived next door to East/Lincoln all my life I was suddenly confronted with having to walk 4 blocks down and one block over to a brand new school that was going to be peopled with a kind of human that I had only seen in passing before and had never had a person experience with before. Except, of course, with Ms. Mary Langan who was the district school nurse who showed up periodically to give us vaccinations of various sorts.

My mother seemed to imply, during our discussions of the logistics of changing schools, that I needed to be very careful of the white kids and she stated unequivocally that I should absolutely, positively not trust them. As far as the white teachers were concerned that I would encounter for the first time her primary advice was to make certain I told her or my father if they said or did anything questionable.

Despite my mother’s caveats my primary fear was not that the white kids would be mean to me or trick me, even then I had an inkling that I would probably have quite a bit in common with kids my own age, no matter what color they might be. My primary fear was that I would not be able to tell them apart. I had never known a white person my own age and it seemed to me from casual observance that there were so many of them and that a lot of them looked alike! I wondered how humiliating it would be to make a friend and then not be able to pick them out of the crowd of other white kids. As ridiculous as that sounds now, you have to realize that in 1962 Xenia, Ohio, my exposure to white people was sporadic and impersonal and, although I definitely realized they were human beings, I did not necessarily think of them as the same kind of human beings as we were for a variety of reasons.

We only had about four television channels and the shows for kids were very limited, mainly the Mickey Mouse Club, Bozo the Clown, etc. I could surely pick out Annette Funicello from Darlene another Mouseketeer, but then I had no belief that the white kids who went to Central Jr. Hi would look like a television star.

Within the first day of my classes that fall of 1962 my fears were allayed. The white kids were just as distinctive looking as the black kids and came in the very same varieties;nice/mean,cute/plain,loud/quiet,smart/stupid,funny/serious,popular/picked on.  As a matter of fact, once I made friends with a few of the girls I totally forgot they were white most of the time. Only when something happened at school that involved race, like when a teacher said something that singled out a black student, did I remember that my friend Mary Beth, Sue, Jennifer,  was white.

When I say we made friends I mean for school and school activities only. I never went to a white friend’s house or invited one of them to mine. My mother was very clear that she would not be comfortable with white kids in the house. One of my white, male classmates came to pick me up for a meeting for a planning committee we were serving on together when I was a junior in high school. I had forgotten to warn my mother that David B., my classmate who was coming to pick me up was white. Truth be told I did not think of him as a white boy, I thought of him as David.

My mother answered the door and immediately shut it in his face. By that time I had come out of my room having heard the door open and presuming it was David coming to pick me up. My mother whirled around and said to me “Why is there a white boy on the porch asking for you?” The way she said it implied that why ever he was there it was for a bad reason.

I explained who he was and that he was giving me a ride to the meeting. Slightly mollified she still gave me all kinds of instructions about what to do if he attacked me. I had to stifle a grin since David was one of the most reserved, polite boys in my class. I could no more imagine him attacking me than I could imagine my mother inviting him in for a coke. Finally, she agreed I could go and cracked open the door to find poor, patient David still standing on the porch. I slipped out of the partially open door–I was slimmer in those days, and made my escape.

Central Jr. Hi the site of my integration was a cool building, lots of marble and a truly imposing front double staircase. The teaching staff was relatively young for the most part. I had Mr. Stroop, who would later for some reason become a bus driver, for English, Mrs. Boli for French and Ms. Dickerson for Algebra I. Ms. Dickerson was a very masculine specimen, from her walk to her voice to her demeanor.

Because we were new to Central the white kids filled us in on the teachers, sometimes pulling our legs. What I was told by one white boy was that Ms. Dickerson used to be a professional wrestler–she was terribly bow-legged and walked like Popeye–and that she had retired to teach math at Central. If I had asked my brother, who was nine years older, he could have told me that she had taught him Algebra and that the same rumor had been going around back then.

Mrs. Boli, a red-haired woman, was fragile. A good teacher she never managed to detach herself from her students’ performance. She would go down the rows checking homework, a very tense time, because if she found that a number of students had not done their homework she would burst into tears and tell us we had disappointed her and that she tried to be a good teacher. I am convinced it was not a strategy, but true heartfelt concern and engagement with her students, but it surely worked as a deterrent to skipping your homework.

I was on the French Scholarship Team in 9th grade since I was a very good French student. I rather believe in DNA memory since I could read French almost as soon as I picked up the book and could not explain the ease with which I mastered the language any other way. I decided one of my white ancestors must have been French–of course, when we learned about the race of the Dumas’ I discovered it did not have to be one of my white ancestors who was French, it could have been one of my black ancestors.

Anyway, after the first six week grading period Mrs. Boli, in order to encourage me to work harder, decided that I would not receive an “A” if my average was 95. I had to earn a 97 average to get an “A.” Her rationale was that I would not push myself if the lower score would rate me the best grade. To tell you how different the times were, I had no thought that she was being unfair. She was my teacher and she wanted the best for me, and I accepted her rule in that vein.

So, she put me on the French Scholarship Team to compete with other Ohio students on the state achievement test. Early in the year we met after school in our classroom, but as the test drew nearer Mrs. Boli had the three of us, Sally, Sharon and me, come to her house for the study sessions. She lived on Edison Avenue, right across from the Field House. Her neighbors two doors down, the Gs, were the owners of a restaurant in town where they would not serve black people, although black people cooked there, which always struck me as odd.

One afternoon when I was on my way into the Boli house for one of our meetings, Mrs. G happened to be in her yard. She watched me walk across the street, up the sidewalk and to the door of the Boli house where I rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Boli came to the door I was staring back at Mrs. G–rather rudely for a teenager probably. Mrs. Boli was puzzled and stuck her head out of the door to see what I was looking at. I turned my head to greet her and told her, without thinking,” Mrs. G is staring at me. She probably thinks I am coming to clean your house.”  Mrs. Boli melted. She began to sob and fell into a chair near the front door, devastated that I would have that reaction. I tried to assure her that I was kidding ( I had only been partially kidding) and that everything was fine, but she was still a mess. Finally she mopped her tears up, went and washed her face and then, taking my arm, she marched me over to her neighbor, who was still outside and loudly introduced me, “This is Melva Mann, she is my BEST French student and is coming to my house to study for the Scholastic Test of Achievement as part of our academic team.”

She then marched me back to her house and we calmly began to review the subjunctive tense of irregular verbs.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tales of Xenia: Xenia High Sports

When I was in high school at first  the coach’s name was Bill Kaylor. Mr. Kaylor did not think that playing more than two black people at the time was a good idea. It did not make any difference how good they were, how tall they were or how productive they were, he would not start a team with more than two black players. Occasionally he might put three in during a road game, and on rare occasions he played three at home, but he generally stuck to his “two is enough rule.”

I know a lot of younger folks who do not really know the racial history of Xenia will find it amazing that even in sports racism reared its ugly head frequently, but it did. I have already written about how we called the league we were in, the WOL, the White Only League, since virtually none of the other high schools we played had any black students. Springfield South was virtually the only exception.

I remember going to football games in high school where black boys would carry the football down to the one or two yard line and the coach would then give the ball to a white boy to carry it into the end zone on the next play. That way the white boys, like Beals would get the stats, even though they were not nearly the athletes some of the black boys were who were doing the lion’s share of the work.

The black people grumbled and complained, but it was part of the way things were. White folks were going to do what white folks did and it was going to advantage white folks. Not much we could do about it but acknowledge it to each other and commiserate.

But, I digress, back to basketball–after all my Tarheels are playing those nasty Dukies tonight. I was in the stands at the Field House, for all the home games while I was in high school and probably most of them for years afterward . The Field House was a venerable and quite impressive facility, at least I always thought so.

So I was at the game the night the entire East End was holding its collective breath. Old Coach Kaylor finally retired, I think it was before my senior year and  the new coach was named Rollie Barton. Rollie  did not share Kaylor’s racist attitudes and played the boys he thought were the best players.

Shortly after I graduated in 1966 the rumor ran through the East End like a whirlwind that, having both the Byrd boys, Mike and Ray, Rollie was going to start five black guys, the first time that would have happened at XHS.

My husband and I always bought season tickets and were virtually the only black folks in our reserved section. We arrived at the game early, making our way down to our seats which were in the third row from the floor on the left hand side of the facility, not far from the stage. My son, Michael, who would later be a star three sports athlete at Xenia High, was two or three years old and with us for the game.He was learning to count by twos by keeping score of baskets. He was obsessed with sports even then and the easiest way to make something academic relevant to him was to link it to sports.

The horn sounded for the game to start and the visiting team was announced first. When it came time to announce the Xenia team virtually all of the people older than 12 in the audience were on the edge of their seats. The rumor about Rollie starting five black boys was not confined to the East End.

First player is announced, he is black, second player is announced, a Garner, and although he is bi-racial and could pass for white, he is to us and identifies as, black, the third player is announced, black, the fourth player is announced, black  player, by now anyone who has any knowledge of Xenia basketball knows that the only person left to be announced is one of our best players, Ray Byrd, unless Rollie is punishing him or afraid to break the taboo, this is going to be an historic night.

The announcer, I swear, hesitates when announcing  ” for Xenia, starting at guard……. Ray Bird.” The traditional black section of the Field House, that nearest the front door, goes wild. I am sure the people we were playing, I do not remember who the opponent was, wondered what all the hoopla was about. Then again it being the WOL, perhaps their own eyes provided all they needed to know.

Black people in the late sixties, early seventies did not have a lot of victories to celebrate in Xenia. We were rarely hired for city jobs, the police force, the fire department, the banks, they law offices, as store clerks, as teachers, but for one night at least, at the venerable Field House we were part of history.

Oh, and we won the game too.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Athletes, Race