You put your right foot in; you put your right foot out; you put your right foot in, and you shake it all about. You do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!
I was in elementary school, I think 3rd grade, the first time I clearly remember being treated negatively because of my skin color. My friend Kristy was having her birthday party at the Castle Skating Rink. The announcer called for everyone to come out on the floor for the “Hokey Pokey.” I excitedly skated to the center of the floor among the sea of blond and brunette children. We were instructed to hold hands to make the perfect circle; but when I reached for the hand of the little girl next to me, she snatched away, aggressively wiping her hand up and down her pants screaming: “Does it rub off?” Although the rest of my little friends, who looked nothing like me, crowded around to console me, all I wanted was to be home in my safe space.
“You have no control over anyone else’s actions, only your own,” you said. You reminded me that life isn’t always fair and sometimes people do mean, unconscionable things. You told me my power was in my response. You said, “Love God, work hard, and do what’s right.”
The seventh of 14 children growing up the Jim Crow South, you and your siblings overcame adversities many people couldn’t even imagine. One of my clearest childhood memories is traveling south to visit your family. It amazed me how all of the children in my southern cousin’s neighborhood looked and acted just like they did, while in my middle-class, northern neighborhood, none of the kids looked or acted anything like me. Unlike any play I’d experienced in my own neighborhood – we played hard in the south. We raced up sandy dirt roads, lit firecrackers wherever we pleased, and said hello to strangers. We danced in the front yard and would walk a mile to the town store just for a piece of liver pudding or souse meat. I recall pouting when not allowed to go along with my cousins and farm for the day. They would return from what seemed to my naïve mind an adventure of which I was forbidden to participate.
You and your sisters would sit on the screened in porch, heavy boisterous laughter escaping from your bellies, as you reminisced about your childhood: missing school for weeks at a time to harvest the crop, your mom’s annual winter work pilgrimage deeper south, and, most perplexing to my young mind hiding under the house to escape the wrath of your father. You laughed like it was just a story, something that hadn’t really happened. Laughed like Mr. Johnny didn’t cheat you out of your sharecropping wages. Laughed at the ignorance you encountered on a consistent basis. Laughed at things my developing mind could not understand.
I struggled to understand how you and your sisters could find humor in memories that not only terrified my young ears, but would have driven a weak mind mad. How through the struggle each of you were able to achieve some form of greatness. How through the struggle you made a commitment that your children would have the opportunity for more no matter what the conditions of our society suggest.
Like George Washington Carver you believe that “education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
Therefore there was no such thing as a sick day, I can’t, or it’s too hard. Even when maneuvering through a life path full of microaggressions and at times out-right discrimination you demanded that I press on. You demanded that I walk with integrity even if those around me did not. You taught me to lift as I climb. I played by the rules and for the sake of appearances, I won – a good family, education, career, home. I achieved the American Dream.
And while I am so grateful for my lived experiences, I must admit deep within me lives a nagging fear as my consciousness understands that none of these achievements will prevent my beautifully black baby boys from their own “Hokey Pokey” experiences. Regardless of how they dress, talk, or act my children are being raised in a world that is reckless with young black bodies. As I navigate the magnificent task of parenthood I hope that I am as skilled at loving God, working hard, and doing what’s right as you have demonstrated through your life. I hope that, as you have taught me, I am able to teach my boys to sharpen their oyster knife even when it’s hard.
For My Mother,