Awareness of Race

I was probably six or seven years old, 1966 or ’67. Summers were untethered for me in Racine, everyday, all day, at the Park & Rec program at Island Park in the beautiful old pavilion where I looked up to the teenage playground leaders. We bounced big red rubber balls loudly on the concrete or even louder on the echoing wood floors.

In Island Park I loved riding my little bike around the circle of concrete that, before my time, contained a wading pool. The park was a beautiful, unending expanse of green surrounded by the dirty Root River, a good place to catch crawfish with a piece of chicken liver on a string.

After dinner we’d run back there to watch the square dance clubs in their silly country dresses, or watch a good softball game if someone we knew was on the team.

One of my favorite days at the playground included a talent show. I did the hula in a grass skirt my brother brought back for me from his travels in the Navy. Three sisters from the other side of the park sang and performed along with a recording of the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again”. I was in awe. They were so cool.

The park was a dividing line of sorts. My dad cautioned us to stay in the park and not venture over to Parkview St. We knew why. The ever-present fear of them vs. us. We also knew that the old man didn’t really know much about the other side of the park. Ok. It wasn’t totally safe. Many of the kids were angry, but I could usually tell which ones.

One day I was inside the pavilion looking for something to do. A playground leader, a tall confident Black girl with big natural hair said she’d play checkers with me. I was a little shy, only seven year old, and didn’t know her name, but was happy to be asked. As we sat down she joked and laughed loudly with her fellow playground leaders as a transistor radio played in the background. I was hanging around the big kids. I was nervous and it was great.

She dumped the checkers onto the board and began to sort them. She asked, “Do you want to be red or black?” Then, without hesitating she said, “I should be black ’cause it’s like me” and she held the black checker against her dark forearm next to my small white one. For reasons I did not understand, my lip began to quiver and I started to cry big fat tears. She quickly said, “Oh, honey am I scaring you? I’m sorry.” The memory ends there.

Sometime the next spring, if I remember the timing correctly, for a few days my friends and I were told not to go further from the house than the alley in the back. My mom said there was a curfew because there was a “race riot” at the school. It seemed both dangerous and exciting at the time. I knew, we all knew, there was loudness everywhere that would last for a while.

–Racine, Wisconsin

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