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The Black Girl


John A. Wilson

I never actually saw my father wearing a white robe and a hood, but, looking back, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that he had one tucked away in a drawer somewhere or in the trunk of the car. Like any little boy, I looked up to my father and listened to every word that he said. He taught me things that he didn’t even
realize that he taught me. 

I grew up firmly believing in the old stereotype of blacks. It was what I had been
taught; I didn’t know anything else to believe. My father’s attitude and beliefs about the blacks in our town was not at all unique at that time. We attended segregated schools because that is what most people in our region believed was the only proper way to teach their children. We children just agreed with our parents because obedience to our parents also meant believing as they did. 

Every day I rode the bus to town and back home again that afternoon. We passed right by “that other school” going each way. We didn’t see anything wrong or strange about it. It was just “the way things were done” in the Deep South in the 1960’s.

For nine years I attended an all-white school in a district that was almost sixty percent black. My ninth-grade
year, 1968-69, brought about what we were sure were changes that would bring about the end of life as we knew it. The courts ordered us to desegregate.

During the last week of my eighth-grade year every student in my school, and presumably every student in “that other school," were given a sheet of mimeograph paper that asked us which school we wanted to attend
next fall. Of course every single white kid chose to stay in our school. We assumed that the black kids would all want to stay at their school. We were shocked when several dozen black students showed up for classes at our school the first day of the next year. They even went to the same classes as we did.

That evening I had to talk to Daddy about it, he just said to be patient, they wouldn’t stay around for long. I asked Daddy what he meant and he just quoted what I’d heard so many other white parents say, “Blacks can never go to school with white kids. They simply aren’t smart enough to keep up.” But somehow I knew that there was more behind his smile than he was saying.

I knew that Daddy would somehow take care of everything, so I wasn’t at all surprised by the fact that every day there were fewer and fewer blacks at school. I mentioned that to Daddy one evening. He didn’t say a word, he just sort of smiled and went out and drove away in the car. Daddy was not home by the time I went
to bed that night, but the next day all of the black students except two had decided to go elsewhere. The two that stayed were both girls, one of them was in my class; the other was a year younger.

I don’t know if the girl in my class had even been there before that day, but I will never forget the look on her face when she walked into the school building that day. She looked scared but determined. We assumed that these two wouldn’t be around for long either, but we were wrong. They stayed. I didn’t pay much attention to the black girl except during lunch. We all made it a point to see where she was sitting in the cafeteria. No one would dare sit at the same table as the black girl. We had all been taught that blacks were dirty and carried all kinds of germs that whites were not immune to, so the idea of eating at the same table as a black girl frightened us to death. We were even afraid to eat at the table after she left. As soon as she got up from the table one of the cafeteria people would go to the table and spray it with disinfectant. One of the lunchroom attendants made it a point to do it where the black girl could see it. She never acknowledged it if
she noticed.

She never seemed to notice when white students harassed her or made fun of her. One day I was with a group of my friends outside of the school building when she walked by. One of the boys started making fun of her by imitating her large lips and flat nose. She never even looked at us. She just kept her head up and her
eyes on the door that she was heading for. I laughed along with the other kids, but from the back of my mind a small but insistent voice came breaking through, “You know that’s not really funny. Not really funny at all.”

Suddenly my mind was filled with images of my older brother picking on me and making fun of me just like my friend had done to the black girl. I thought about how much it hurt my feelings even though I always tried not to show it. I knew right away that even though she seemed to ignore us, it had to hurt her too.

Later that day in class, I caught myself stealing glances at the lonely black girl and thinking about the things that my friend had said about her. Apparently he had never really looked at her before. She did not have large lips or a flat nose. Her eyes were clear and bright and her hair was clean and neatly combed. The dress
she wore was clean and fit her trim figure perfectly. I recognized a few things about the dress that indicated to me that it was made at home, probably by her mother’s hands. I knew those subtle signs because my mother made all of my sister’s dresses at home. 

I took a hard look at the black girl and decided that when you really got down to it, she was really rather pretty. We just never noticed that because we were too busy trying to make sure that she knew that she wasn’t welcome in “our school." Suddenly my father’s face was floating before my eyes. He had that look of shocked anger that only my father could have. It was the look he got on
his face just before his belt came off. Blinking hard, I looked back down at the book on my desk and Daddy’s face disappeared. Fear paralysed my mind for a few moments as a chill ran up my spine. I knew that if Daddy ever knew that such a thought had crossed my mind, he would beat me senseless.

In November, my father died. I missed almost a whole week of school. When I came back to school, my friends didn’t seem to know what to say to me so they just sort of avoided me. I felt utterly alone. I don’t think I heard a single word that any of my teachers said that morning. What I heard mostly was the deafening
silence of all of my friends just when I needed someone to show me at least a little sympathy. Not long before fourth period ended I was vaguely aware that the black girl had gotten out of her seat to go sharpen her pencil. As she walked by my desk she quietly slipped a piece of paper under my math book without looking
at me or breaking her stride. 

I was shocked. The black girl had passed me a note. I looked around as discreetly as I could. I was horrified that someone may have seen me get a note from the black girl. No one was looking at me, so I felt confident that no one had seen it. I slowly pulled the note from under my book and unfolded it. Even more surprising than the fact that she had passed me a note were the few words that she had written.

I know what you are feeling. My father passed away two years ago. If you want to talk about it I will be out behind the music building during lunch.

Was she really serious? Did she really think that I would risk my friends seeing me talking to her? The bell rang and she walked out of the room without a single glance in my direction. I walked slowly toward the cafeteria, my grief and loneliness making my steps slow and plodding. A group of my friends caught up with me. A couple of them looked toward me, but not into my eyes. They all mumbled hello and moved away.

I sat down to eat in the cafeteria. Only after I was seated did I realize that I had chosen a seat where I was looking directly across at the table where the black girl always ate. She was staring intently at the plate in front of her like she always did. I was beginning to realize that the way that she seemed to not notice others
around her was not oblivion, but a studied and forced method of preventing others from seeing her true feelings. Suddenly I knew that she did hear and see the other kids making fun of her and harassing her and that it really did hurt, she just refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing her pain and anger.

The black girl got up from her table and left. I watched her leave and then realized that I had not eaten a thing. I nibbled a few bites and knew that I just could not eat today. I looked around myself and noticed that today there was a huge open space around me just like the black girl had around her every day. No one
wanted to sit near me either, as if my father’s death could be contagious, spending too much time near me could cause other people’s fathers to suddenly die. I now understood the loneliness and isolation that the black girl had to withstand every day. I stood up and dragged myself out of the cafeteria.

I slowly walked across the campus. As I did, my feeling of isolation just deepened as I saw people that I thought were my friends look away from me as they saw me coming toward them. Confused and hurt, I just wandered aimlessly around the school building. Without even realizing it, I had come to the music building. The music building was a small building a few dozen yards from the main high school building where piano students were given private lessons and recitals were held. It was at the edge of the school property. A few feet behind the building a large hedge marked the boundary. I walked down the side of the building and
leaned against the wall near the rear corner. I stayed there for a minute, staring straight ahead, but my eyes were taking in everything that I could see. I wanted to be sure that no one was looking my way. 

Meanwhile my mind was a confused mix of emotions. I couldn’t believe that I was actually considering stepping behind this building to meet with the black girl, but another part of my mind kept telling me that she was the only one that would understand what I was feeling. I couldn’t decide just what to do. What if
someone saw me talking to her, I would be labelled a “nigger lover” and would be just as outcast as she was.

Worse, the story of what I did would get home before I did and my father would probably kill me. No, wait, my father was dead, what could he do? But there was the rest of my family to worry about. But what about me? I was the one that was hurting here; didn’t I have the right to have someone show me a little sympathy?
None of the white kids seemed interested, or were too embarrassed by the fact that they had no idea what to say to me. I quietly stepped around the corner of the building.

The black girl was sitting gracefully on the grass between the building and the hedge. Her hands were folded in her lap and her simple cotton dress was pulled demurely over her knees. She looked every inch a Southern Lady, not some black slut as we had tried to make her out to be. With a nod of her head she indicated a
place on the ground near her for me to sit. I slowly sank to the ground with my legs crossed Indian style. I was still not sure whether or not to trust her. Then she spoke the first words that she had ever said to me, “Tell me about your father.”

She never said another word, but looked into my eyes. We had never made eye contact before. I saw for the first time the caring compassion in those big soulful brown eyes. I didn’t know where to start. How could I possibly tell her all about my father? The words suddenly started to pour out of me. To this day I don’t know
what all I told her. But along with telling her about my father I also told her how much I had loved him and how much I missed him. I’m sure that somewhere along the way I expressed how scared I was to have to face life without him now. 

She never said anything, just let me ramble on. The black girl seemed to know that
this was just what I needed, to just get it all out. Her eyes never left mine. She listened patiently until I started to run out of something to say. She reached out and patted my hand gently and reminded me that the bell was going to ring soon, I’d better go because I didn’t want anyone to see me coming from behind that building with her. As I stood up to leave she turned her eyes to the ground the way she always did when dealing with white kids and said, “I come here every day after I eat lunch. Any time you need to talk, feel free to come see me.”

Feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders I slipped around the corner of the building, made sure that no one saw me, and walked away. For the rest of the day my mind was a jumbled morass of emotions. The black girl, whom we all hated for being so uppity that she was going to school with white kids,
had shown more compassion and understanding than any of my so-called friends. 

The next day my friends seemed to be a little more relaxed around me. They would talk to me, but seemed to be studiously avoiding any subject that might bring up the subject of my father’s death. By lunchtime I just wanted to get away from them and I now knew just the place to do that. Over the next few weeks I managed to slip behind the music building and talk to the black girl once or twice a week. We talked about a lot of different things and I slowly came to realize that this black girl was nothing like what I had been taught that all black people were like. 

Had Daddy been wrong all along? The fact that my mind even posed such a question made me ashamed that I’d ever talked to the black girl at all. My talks with this person was making me question everything that my father had ever taught me and slowly my visits behind the music building tapered off and finally stopped.

In March excitement began to build in my class. The first Friday in April every year the ninth-grade class had a dance. This year we were the ninth-graders, so the dance was just for us. Everyone in the ninth-grade was automatically invited. The dance was to be held in the teen center just outside of town. There would be
music, dancing and refreshments. For many of us, myself included, this would be the first time that we would ever dance with a member of the opposite sex. 

The night of the dance finally arrived. I was dressed in my Sunday best as I arrived at the teen center. All of my friends were there. Nobody actually had a date, we just all showed up. Very few of the parents in our town would even consider letting a 14 or 15-year-old date, but we could go to this dance and have fun with our friends. 

We were all just starting to get used to the idea that we were supposed to mix together and dance when the door opened and the black girl walked in. All conversation stopped. The few couples on the dance floor stopped and everyone just stared at her. Everyone in the ninth grade was invited to the dance, we just never expected the black girl to show up. Her eyes, as usual, were downcast, but there was a determined set to her jaw. She knew that she had every right to be here and she was here to show these white kids that she had every intention of taking advantage of that right.

Slowly people started talking, just muttering at first but slowly increasing in volume. The crowd of white kids was beginning to get a bit hostile. There were several parents in the crowd serving as chaperones, but they didn’t seem to know just what to do yet. Things were about to get ugly and I acted without even thinking about it. I squared my shoulders and stepped in front of the black girl. I took a quick look around at my friends and then back at her. My heart was racing and my knees were unsteady but my voice came out surprisingly clear as, loudly enough for everyone in the building to hear, I said to the black girl, “Cathy, will
you dance with me?”

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