Living in This World

My Little Brother’s Birthday Party

My little brother is 45 today. Let’s not talk about how old that makes a bird feel.

What’s on my mind is another of his birthdays, the one in 1968. Our dad was in the U.S. Senate, and we lived in a suburban neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, and a few days before my little brother’s birthday party my parents decided it might be wiser to have it in the backyard than in a public park, as planned.

I was nearly 7, and I could tell something was wrong, that we were not simply changing our minds about the best venue for a party to suit five-year-old boys. I’m sure I asked my mother, more than once, why the plans had changed. I was a big girl, a first-grader, wise to the ways of the world, or so I thought, imagining myself as more of a colleague to my mother than her child.

Persistence paid off, and my mother, worn down, told me that she was afraid to go to the park. People are angry she said, because a man has been killed, a man people cared about, and there are riots going on, and people are setting buildings on fire. It’s better for us to stay at home, she said.

What strikes me most about this memory is that there was no judgment against those who might be rioting, and no indication that race had anything to do with the troubles.

I lived in an idealized world.

 My little brother’s birthday party took place in our fenced backyard on Belle Haven Road. It would be hard to imagine a more safe-feeling place outside a gated community. I went back to the neighborhood with Pure Luck several years ago, to show him where I had once lived. We stopped across the street from 2209, a house I dreamed about as recently as last week, and before we had been there two minutes, someone stopped to ask if we were lost? I guess we looked like we didn’t belong there.

I never knew I lived in a place where some people didn’t belong, and that is perhaps nearly as bad as believing people don’t belong in the first place.

Ruby, my childhood
friend, had some similar experiences. In our nearly apartheid-like
hometown, Jane Austen’s Village, we grew up in homes where we did not
internalize the prejudice many of our peers did, but that did not
prepare us for the real world.

I’m not sure how long it took for me to realize that Dr. King had been killed because he was a person of color.

I can’t even remember hearing my parents say "Negro," but wasn’t that
the word then? I remember being 8 or so and hearing "Afro-American" for
the first time and wondering why these words even mattered?

I fear there is such a thing as being too sheltered.

I understand now why my mother felt frightened. My father had received his own death threats for his political positions, and there were more to come. The world felt too big and too uncertain to her. I’m not sure what she thought of Dr. King then; she didn’t say.  She was busy overseeing the play of little white boys who came to a birthday party in plaid jackets and bow ties.

But I have a vivid memory of sitting with her in the Bubble Room at the Children’s Museum in Jane Austen’s Village, many years later, watching #1 Son interact with the other children, the first place in my hometown where I ever white and African-American children playing together, the first place in my hometown I saw a hint of Dr. King’s dream.

15 thoughts on “My Little Brother’s Birthday Party”

  1. I found this post fascinating, possibly because I am largely ignorant of American history (I appreciated the wikipedia link!). The intersection of significant events and your personal perception of them is really interesting.

  2. I’m older than you are, but I think I share many of the same experiences with regard to living in a very segregated world but not internalizing (or even being aware of) the racism around me. It was an idealized world in some ways.
    I’ve always given my parents a lot of credit because we never heard a bigoted remark at home, never heard the ‘n’ word, never were taught that people of color should be discriminated again. Later my mother told me how hard it was for her when many of her friends started taking their kids out of public schools to avoid desegregation and she thought that was so wrong.
    That’s not to say that my parents weren’t complicit with the racism of the era, but they did the best they could, I think, not to pass it on.

  3. When I was growing up racist southeast Texas, in an all-white middle-class subdivision with Southern Baptist Sunday-school-teacher parents, I didn’t hear anything at all about Dr. King’s murder. And I was nearly 9 when it happened. My parents said not a word, and I heard nothing about it in my all-white elementary school. My grandparents routinely used the “N” word. My parents didn’t, but they were quite bigoted, even to the point of not allowing me to receive phone calls from a young Asian man that I had met and was interesting in dating when I was a live-at-home college student. I am so glad that my children’s world is very different.

  4. All I remember from that time period is the day that my mother carried our little television from the living room into the kitchen and set it on the counter so that she could watch it while she was doing dishes, folding laundry, etc. She had never done such a thing before — she rarely watched television. That day, she washed dishes and stared at the television. And she was crying.
    I don’t think I’d ever seen her cry before.
    I don’t remember any of the conversations about it — although I’m sure there must have been some. I just remember thinking that something really terrible had happened, something too big for my parents to fix.

  5. Ah, yes. 1968. My father voted for George Wallace for president later that year. Mom said, later, that she voted for Nixon, but I don’t know if I believe it.
    And that’s all you need to know, really, about my childhood.

  6. Well written, as always. Thanks for consistently pushing me to think, examine, reflect and most importantly open my heard and mind.

  7. Baby Sister was four that week. I was seven and a half. I remember thinking that things were awfully somber. I remember Mom keeping the tv on non-stop and asking her hard questions while she did the ironing.
    Thank you for a touching post.

  8. wow. powerful post, songbird. i didn’t come into the world until a few years later. but the older i get and the more i teach school, the more deeply i feel this man, his work, and his loss. thank you for this.

  9. I was older when Dr. King was killed but I remember being similarly oblivious to pervasive racism when I was younger. We lived for two years in the Peach State when I was 8 and 9. I remember noticing but not really understanding the separate water fountains, and we had a black maid–the only time we ever had domestic help–because labor was cheaper there. Think about it. My parents taught us the right lessons about equality and racism, but still they took advantage of that. Today I wonder what obvious signs of injustice I might be missing (and failing to act on) because that’s just how it is.

  10. I appreciate all your stories.
    WideningCircles, my parents employed a maid, too, when I was very small, and when my mother died in 1993, I found a desk drawer full of old papers including Catherine’s Social Security paperwork. While I was expressing shock at how little she was paid, my dad told me it was unusual for white people to take that trouble for their employees. Ruby has a story about this, too, which perhaps she will tell sometime.

  11. What a insightful story. I too was sheltered. I was too young to remember anything about that time. I also lived in a part of the country where it was not uncommon for whole towns to be only white.
    One of my friends that works at Wayland Baptist University recently blogged about a brochure that was found at their University. They listed two good reasons why parents should send their children to Wayland…..1) no gambling halls and 2) no negros.

  12. Oh, Songbird, it’s so painful to think of the world we grew up in. So much of it was so wrong.
    In a Q&A after a presentation I gave a couple of years ago, an audience member expressed great anger over modern America’s loss of family values. He said that American had lost the moral compass he had relied on since childhood.
    I asked, “Do you think we were a more moral nation 50 years ago?”
    He nodded assent, and I answered my own question, “Not for Black people. There was nothing moral about Jim Crow.”
    You could have heard a pin drop.

  13. I grew up in what people proudly called and “all white county”. Nevermind that there were Asian Americans who were the town doctors. What people meant when they said that was that there were no “black” people in my county.
    I regularly heard the “n” word in reference to the county next one over, where my dad worked. I met my first African American person in college. In. College.
    I was sheltered from diversity, but not from prejudice.

  14. Excellent reflective post. And wonderful consequent conversation.
    I went to an elementary school where over 80 languages were spoken and all different skin tones surrounded me. My high school was 45% white, 45% black, 10% “other”. But… tracking had a fascinating effect. It became apparent to me in sixth grade when our teacher sat our classroom by reading groups- two groups, one on one side of the room, the other on the other side of the room. One side of the room was black, with two exceptions. One side of the room was white, with two exceptions. By the time I got to high school all my classes looked like my reading group in sixth grade. I didn’t know most of the African Americans in my school. I was surrounded by diversity, sensitive to racial injustices, but… yet… not as engaged in relationships across race lines as I could have been.
    Middle school was an exception as my closest friends then were the two exceptions in my reading group, but as they entered high school they sought the company of other people of color. I think this makes some sense. But it was sad at the time.
    I went to a mostly white private college and we spent the first semester in our first year seminar talking about race and everyone was convinced they were not racists. Most of them did not know any people of color and never had. I wasn’t so sure about myself. I knew it horrified me to think that I could be, but I was aware of the burden of my privilege.
    Thanks songbird, for this. And for being the first to share my joy over my way.

  15. Wonderful reflection. I don’t have living memory of this time, but I know my own family did not care to be politically correct. As a teenager I would push against their use of the “n” word and bigotry. While they would run commentary on the news when a black person committed a crime, I would run my own commentary when a white person committed a crime.
    In years later, they would push to get a rise out of me, but there was a time when push came to shove when they used the “n” word in front of my children. “Joke over: do not speak that way in front of my children – it’s just plain wrong.”

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