Diversity 101

The house my parents bought the year before I was born had a dirt-floored basement, usually called a cellar. Many houses were like that at the time. I think it must’ve been 1956 when we had it concreted. I tend to remember that I was 9. It was summer time.

The man hired to do the work was African American, though that term would come into use decades later. The polite term then was Negro. The derogatory corruption of that word was used by some, though not in our family.

This man brought his son, who was about my age, with him. At first — I don’t remember if it was part/most of one day or parts of two days — the kid just hung around while his father worked. An afternoon rain changed that.

There was a garage-sized space under our front porch. Perhaps it was intended as a garage-without-doors, though we never used it as such. The door into the basement with within that space. Even with our junk, there was plenty of room for the boy to stay reasonably comfortable while sheltered from the rain.

Yet, up in our living room, watching TV with one or more neighborhood friends, my sister and I concluded it was ridiculous for the workman’s son to be under the porch, probably bored out of his mind. She went out and invited him in — with his dad’s permission — to watch TV with us.

He was pretty quiet, but I think there was a little interaction around whatever we were watching. The next day, as my friends and I played, we included him. It was a good fit.

One play-time activity popular with boys my age at that time was to reenact scenes such as those we saw in movies and TV shows about World War II. Armed with toy weapons, we would sometimes track and fight an imaginary enemy. Just as often, we’d divide up into Americans and Germans. One specific memory I have of playing with our visitor was an afternoon in which he and I were on one side versus two boys from the neighborhood.

At first, he and I were the Americans. Later, we switched up, and he and I were the Germans. None of the four of us thought about — and maybe weren’t aware of — the reality that a white soldier and a black soldier would not have been in the same platoon in the U.S. Army in WWII. And we were completely oblivious to the irony of his joining me in portraying German troops. We were just a bunch of typical 7- to 9-year-old boys in the USA, mid-’50s.

At the same time, my parents were having a new, modern tub put in the bathroom. The old one was in the yard awaiting removal. My friends and I had a great time crowding in and pretending it was a boat. Our visitor joined us in this activity as well.

A few days after the concrete job was finished, the workman came back by to make sure all was OK. This time he brought not only his son, but also his wife. I was in the “boat” with one or two other boys when they drove up. Their son hopped out of the car and ran toward us, shouting “Wait for me!” We made room for him to climb in. His parents seemed amused. In the short time his dad was inspecting his work, we kids were zipping along the water in a speed boat.

This was, as I said, 1956. Black people and white people lived in different parts of town. We went to different schools and churches. Opportunities for personal interaction were limited by the way society was structured. Taking advantage of that particular opportunity seemed and proved to be the right thing to do.

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