Growing Up Black in Marietta

by Simone Adams

 

I grew up in Marietta, Georgia in the eighties. I was about five years old the day my father and I drove through the Marietta Square and I saw the white men in white robes and tall white hats. I didn't know at the time that their outfits were traditionally accompanied by hoods as well—these men wore none, they did not hide their faces. They stood in the road with buckets in their hands, soliciting in traffic for donations, the way the Shriner or firefighters or pee-wee football teams do on a weekend morning. To my innocent eyes, they looked like performers. I fidgeted in my seat, excited by their presence. I turned to ask my dad who the men were but held the question to myself when I saw the tension on his face. His hands gripped the steering wheel and the veins in his neck were pronounced. Back then, kids still sat in the front seat and the height of our van put us eye level with the men in the white. I can still recall passing through the intersection and staring in the face of several white men who locked eyes with me but never returned my smile.

 

When we got home I ran up to my mother, eager to share with my news with someone in a better mood than my father. "We saw men in dunce caps!" I yelled as I jumped up into her arms for a hug. My mother looked at my dad for an explanation. My dad kept his lips in a thin line and told her to listen to what I was saying. My mother put me down and I enunciated each word for her. "We saw men in dunce caps." Her face still questioned mine for a moment, then she took a step back and looked at my father with an expression I couldn't understand. Now, as a mother myself, I can only imagine the heartache and confusion they shared in that moment—how do you explain the Klu Klux Klan to a child? Moreover, how do you protect your child from the Klu Klux Klan? My parents sent me to my room while they spoke in somber and hushed tones. Later, they sat me down and began what would become the first of many lessons on racism and intolerance. That was my Marietta. 

 

Racism was as much a part of my life as chasing after the ice cream truck on my bike, playing in the creek in my backyard, or buying Jolly Ranchers and Slush Puppies at the corner grocery store. As an adult, I understand racism when I see it—despite its many subtleties. As a child, I didn't understand racism outside the pictures I had seen of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. I didn't recognize that when Ms. Petty, my first-grade teacher at Hollydale Elementary School, would have me stand in the corner while she took the class to recess, turned off the lights, and shut the door on the way out, that was her way of letting me know I wasn't deserving of the privileges the other children received. I would sit in the dark, waiting for the class to come back—never once questioning that she never made any other child sit in the dark room during recess. Nor did I ever tell my parents. To the contrary, I was grateful Ms. Petty didn't tell my parents. As a child, I assumed that if an adult told me to stand in the corner, in the dark, I deserved the punishment.

 

Ms. Petty constantly pointed out my mistakes—once giving me a failing grade on an assignment to make something out of Play-Doh. By her standards, my green Christmas tree wasn't acceptable. During first grade, the bright spot of my Monday, Wednesday and Friday, was the hour spent in music class with Ms. Henderson. She insisted on using the French pronunciation of my name: See-moan. She made me feel regal. I still remember her: she was a tall, dark haired woman who wore crisp white shirts with the collar turned up and high heels. She was much more elegant than the other suburban teachers in the school and yet, our music curriculum echoed the southern country-bumpkin feel of Marietta. Each year, we would spend a month out of the school year learning to square dance—to do-see-do our partner round. And we learned folk songs that we practiced repeatedly for the entire class period, over several days. The songs would lodge themselves in my head and I would find myself singing them at home. I still remember the words for some of those songs today. We learned Home on the Range, Kookaburra sits in the Old Gum Tree, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (which, as a child, I enjoyed singing in rounds).

 

One day I came home singing a song we had learned when my mother froze and her eyes widened. "What did you say?" Her voice was so shrill that she had to assure me I wasn't in trouble before I repeated the lyrics.

 

Oh my soul, gonna pick a bale of cotton

Oh my soul, gonna pick a bale a day

Oh my soul, gonna pick a bale of cotton

Oh my soul, gonna pick a bale a day

 

Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton

Pick a bale a day

 

I've looked the song up online and found that schools are still forcing young African-American children to learn this song—a song sung by African slaves to get them through the work day, a song slaves were sometimes forced to sing because the slave master thought that slaves who sang would be happier and less likely to rebel. My mother made me repeat the song for my dad when he got home that evening, and by then I had begun to sense the shame in the song. Again, my parents had to find the words that would help me—a child in the first grade—understand why the song was inappropriate. I remember apologizing and my mother telling me that it wasn't my fault, it was Ms. Henderson's fault for teaching me the song. I was crushed that my favorite teacher, the one who had made me feel like a girl with a French name instead of just a black girl, made me sing something that my parents explained was degrading. I made up my mind that I wouldn't sing in class the next day. My mom never told me that she called the school, but I do know that the next day in class we learned a new song and we never sang about picking cotton again.

 

My family was one of the first blacks to move into our neighborhood. We lived in Horseshoe Bend, where about 200 new homes had been built as an annex to a much older section of the neighborhood. All the black families lived in the older section and most of them were related. Southern Adams 4 families never strayed far from the matriarch and patriarch of the family, but my family was from the North and my grandparents still lived in New York. With no sisters or cousins to play with, my brother (who was three years younger than me) became my best friend. Our neighbors, the white families across the street, the kids who played with me and my brother most often. We played stick ball in the cul-de-sac and hide-and-go seek across several yards. It's only as an adult that I realize that we didn't play in each other's houses. My brother and I were never invited to play in Amy and Griff's pool, we weren't supposed to jump on Brian's trampoline, we never spent the night with each other. Around the corner, where the black families lived, we had other friends. My best friend was Katrina and my brother played next door with her cousin MJ. I would spend the night with Katrina and her parents treated me like another daughter. She would come to my house and my mom would set a place at the table for her. At school my brother and I would try to balance our identities with both sets of friends, but if we hung out with one group we were ostracized from the other.

 

I recall the first time I felt racism for myself, not something that my parents explained to me. My dad had taken us to Laurel Park in deep Marietta. He was on the basketball court while my we played on the playground. Two blonde girls, sisters about the same ages as me and my brother, approached us. My brother was about five, I was highly protective of him but on that day, I discovered that I couldn't protect him from some threats. It's a lesson I've learned again in present day as a mother—wanting to, but unable to, protect my son from similar threats. The older girl didn't want us to play in the area where we were, or maybe she wanted to play there instead of us. But I remember clearly what she called us: niggers. She said the word with all the authority of an adult, someone who knew just how and when to use the word. At no more than eight years old, she knew the sting that the word would leave on us. I stammered, tripping over my words. I called them soda crackers, something I heard on TV once but I didn't quite know how to wield the words as an insult. On any other day I had an inordinate amount of stubbornness and would not have budged, but on that day, I grabbed my brother by the hand and we went by the lake Adams 5 where I sulked. I was too ashamed to tell my dad that I couldn't protect my little brother from the assault of some blonde girl and her baby sister. I never shared that incident with anyone till now—but more than thirty years later the shame of it still sings. I still haven't found a way to process what happened and my inability to protect those I love most.

 

My brother and I were still close when I entered middle school. I doted on him like a mother, but we shared secrets and adventures like best friends. He explains to me now that he had grown to idolize me—whatever I did, he wanted to do. During those awkward pre-teen years, I had developed a quirky sense of style and had taken to wearing a short-brimmed hat like Duckie on Pretty in Pink. One fall day, my brother wore my hat while we walked up the street of our neighborhood to the store. As we turned the corner towards the store, a gust of wind came and picked the hat up, right off my brother's head, and blew it down the street. At that moment, a rusty sports car barreled down the street, the passenger side door opened, a teenaged white boy leaned out the car and scooped up my hat. Before we had a chance to register that he wasn't there to help us, the boy threw the hat back out of the car and yelled something indecipherable at us. My brother ran up the street and retrieved the hat, embarrassed that he had lost it. A much deeper shame shadowed his face when he showed me what was inside of the hat—a large gelatinous glob of spit.

 

I have never forgotten that moment, but it began to haunt me again when my own son was at an age when I knew he would begin to experience the world with that same child-like innocence I remember on my brother's face that day. I don't have to close my eyes to remember how crushed my brother looked, or how helpless I felt. I don't want my son to experience those feelings, and yet—even as an adult—I am powerless to protect my son from racism. That day with my brother, I did my best to be a big sister and I marched my brother to a payphone where we called 9-1-1. I reported the incident to the operator but her questions made me realize how ill-prepared I was for the call. I didn't get the license plate number, I didn't know the make or model of the car, I couldn't describe the boys other than to say a "white boy with dark Adams 6 hair," and no, operator... no one was hurt. The police never came. My hands shook I was so upset but I didn't know what to do with my anger. And, like the incident with the two blonde girls on the playground, I was ashamed. I wonder, now, how much of that shame was because I couldn’t protect my brother and how much of that shame was because I was beginning to wonder if being black did make me inferior.

 

Racist events repeated themselves in my life, like the morning I saw the charred remains of a cross that had been burned through the night in front of a small black church or the time my family went camping and we woke up to our tires slashed. As a child, I was unable to find the words to reject what was happening, unable to comprehend the nature of hate and why I was the subject of it. As an adult, I still struggle to understand racism and I hate to admit that I have simply come to accept it as a part of life. In a sense, I've surrendered. I've accepted that I can't protect anyone from racism, I can only prepare for it. For a long time, I thought black people everywhere experienced the cruel type of racism my brother and I endured. It was only when I got older that I realized, while racism does exist on a broad scale, the blatant racism we encountered was in part because of where we lived—Marietta.

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