It’s Black History Month, a time to reflect on the history of black folks, including mine. I was born a dark-skinned Negro. My complexion assured me and everyone else that I was “colored.” I became a Black American, an Afro-American and am now an African-American.
When I was in kindergarten – before Black History Month existed, I attended a “colored” (segregated) school in my little hometown in New Jersey. This was before the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that school segregation was unconstitutional, thereby overturning the “separate but equal” philosophy.
My Negro school (Negroes being the only significant and recognizable population of color in my hometown) went from kindergarten through eighth grade. After eighth grade, Negro students went to the only high school in town, thus making the high school an integrated school (so to speak).
My hometown was too small to have public transportation, so all students walked to their “neighborhood school” unless driven by car. When the elementary grades were integrated, the Negro children walked to their newly assigned schools. Since Negroes lived in pockets throughout my hometown, there were only some Negroes who had actually walked to a “neighborhood school.”
From first through third grades, I walked to an integrated school that was much closer to my home than the “colored” school had been. In an effort to continue distributing Negro students throughout town, some Negro students attended different schools different years. This was the case for me. I was transferred to a school much further away from home for fourth through sixth grades.
One day, a little white friend and I got into a spat on the playground and I slapped her face. She thought I was calling her “out of her name” when I told her she “look(ed) like Red Skelton” because of the funny faces she was making.
She retorted, “And you’re a black skeleton.”
“Black” was not beautiful at that time. Calling Negroes “black” in an angry tone was like calling Negroes the “n-word.” So … I slapped her face. My friend started crying, ran into school and reported me to our fourth-grade teacher.
Our teacher made me come inside and tell my side of the story. I didn’t know what to expect since our teacher was white. In fact, I never had an African-American teacher after leaving the “colored” school, although a couple of the Negro teachers from the colored school were incorporated into the integrated school system.
After hearing our stories, our teacher assured us that we had both been in error because we did not understand the impact of what we said to each other. She explained to my friend that Red Skelton was a comedian; that I was not calling her a bad name. She explained to me that my friend had called me a name because she thought I had called her a bad name. She told both of us that it was never okay to call people names that hurt. She went on to talk about how much we had liked each other and what good friends we had been, regardless of color, until this unfortunate event occurred; that we should not let this misunderstanding spoil our friendship.
“Isn’t that right?” she asked as she looked back and forth at us. We sheepishly nodded our embarrassed heads in agreement.
“So what do you want to do now?” she asked. My friend and I looked at each other and said, “Go outside and play!”
We went outside together and remained friends for years, even after we were separated in sixth grade, when her family moved across the country to Washington State.