Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives PART I: CHILD'S VIEW
A CUP OF WHITE SUGAR
In the fifties, in my town, on my street, segregation was a word we didn't know. At least in my house. Not me: my mother would send me to the neighbor’s for a loaf of bread, some lard, a cup of white flour or sugar, weekly if not more. Mrs. Gatlin
(Florence I would come to know later) was gentle and kind, offering me on every visit a piece of ribbon candy: swirling colors—red, yellow, green—against white— that satiny sweetness, stretched, then swirled back onto themselves over and over again.
Her house, like she, was neat and dark and smelled of pork hocks and greens, cornbread in iron skillets. Her daughter a princess in pink chiffon and white lace-trimmed anklets with shiny black Mary Janes. Her sons like shadowy
twins to my brothers. We children of the same block of unpaved streets and ditches filled with weeds and empty liquor bottles played side by side until one dark boy and I joined in a game of Cowboys and Indians. Mrs. Gatlin saw us –
him patting me down to check for six-shooters or knives, as I lay prone in the grass, felled by an imaginary bullet: a scenario played out every Saturday of our young lives on the TV westerns all we children watched where white gunmen shot the bad guys,
Mexicans outlaws, or the ubiquitous Indians. She must have told my mother. Duane and I never played together again. I couldn't understand. All the while I rode my old, blind horse past thin-walled shanties at the end of the street far from ours,
(the only white house on Pennsylvania) where the tarred road met Knox and rutted yards of skinny children played in the mud, stopping only to squeal and point at me. And my father brought deer meat—road-killed, processed, and wrapped in thick white paper—to people
happy to get it. Unrest burned holes in the summer nights miles from there, and my mother spoke of a somber darkness outside the back door of the diner she and my father had run up on Grand, where our very neighbors would wait in the shadows for their orders. Not coming in
so as “not to shame you, Mizz Ericson.” Soon enough I would stand, impatient, oblivious child, in that clean, dim living room while Mrs. Gatlin fetched a cup of white sugar from her fragrant kitchen and placed in my pale, open hand that bright, twisted candy.
Back when everything was black and white and even crayons had a voice of politics and race, art class should have been our favorite, spoiled only by a teacher we students loathed: her built-up shoe and leg brace emblems of survival, her crutch a weapon in her private war against expression by children who wished to defy her demand:
“Make the heads the size of a grapefruit!” Resulting in hydrocephalic figures crowded together on rough sheets of cheap art paper, their bodies floating below those cranial balloons like kite tails made from arms and legs and skeletal torsos.
Households of folks with similar inflated features, schoolyards of distended skulls at play, toting along their appendages like afterthoughts or unwanted offspring, all colored from the same 48-crayon Crayola box, all colored the same color: Flesh.
Even by the polite colored children and the Garza’s, whose eyes were bright Black, whose warm skin was close to Indian Red; the only Indians we knew were in TV westerns on Saturday night and Saturday morning Andy’s Gang jungle flicks, portrayed in light and dark tones of gray by actors in pancake makeup; even African tribesmen carrying their fearsome spears and shields were played by white men.
The Swede children—Anderson, Ericson, Johnson, and Swanson—chose Periwinkle or Cornflower for their eyes; the German’s, David and Anne, Prussian Blue or simple Brown. The teacher frowned, her horn rims’ glass glaring at children who dared to choose Burnt Sienna or Sepia to color the faces and arms and hands of their bulging-mugged families.
When we were finished small fingers smelled of paraffin and the waxy colors were replaced side-by-side back inside their boxes. All around the chalk-dusted classroom rectangles floated, taped against blackboards, crowded with over-sized noggins, their superfluous, atrophied bodies, and even a school kid could see that things were terribly out of proportion.
What social reality, race or poverty, most defines the world described in Lovin's poems? For her? Her neighbors? What do the children see that the adults do not? What do the adults see that the children do not?
AUTHOR'S COMMENTARY A Cup of White Sugar
I grew up in a neighborhood that, although it had been mostly white
families, was mixed by the time I was growing up in the 1950's. Our
house was right on the dividing line. I remember my mother sending me
to the neighbor's home for bread, flour, sugar, and so on, as most
neighbors did back then. I thought nothing of it--there was absolutely
no prejudicial vibe in my home that I recall. In fact, when I was in
high school and the talk about integration was heating up, I honestly
did not understand the issues. As an adult, however, I can look back
and see that the people at the far end of my street were pretty
impoverished and that, compared to them I probably seemed rich. At some
point, someone had hauled in old army barracks and, without much
renovation, moved in families to live in them. My father really did
take food to those people. The story about the neighbors being
unwilling to enter my parents eating establishment was also a true
story, but happened long before I was born. I wanted to pay some homage
to Mrs. Gatlin and the other families on my street, who were so much a
part of my [oblivious] childhood. g time ago (nearly fifty years now).
Writing about my own ignorance and inability as a child to see what was
right in front of my eyes has helped me understand the real issues of
segregation. Coming from the North (Illinois), where segregation was
not supposed to be as bad I guess we might be inclined to feel somehow
superior to our southern neighbors; when, in fact, we were as culpable
as they. At least now my students can discuss prejudice and racism openly in class. Something that was unheard of when I was a student .
If I could go back and change something, I think I would like to see
Mrs. Gatlin in our house. I don't recall that ever happening. Her sons
were close to my brothers and would show up at cook-outs, but I would
love for that dear lady to feel free to knock on our door and come into
our kitchen and have a cup of coffee with my mother. She would have
been welcomed. But just as in the situation where her family waited in
the dark outside the diner, the limitations she experienced were
self-inflicted, at least where our family was concerned.
I've been working on a manuscript about growing up in the 1950's and
60's, so my thoughts have been going back to those years when I was a
child. At that time, the art teachers came every few weeks and went
from class to class in each school. The teacher that came to our school
was the same for all six years of elementary school. She had been
crippled with polio, which also seemed to make her very mean.
Seriously, she hit children with her crutch if they misbehaved! And if
a child tried to "color outside the lines" by not following her
instructions, she would become livid. "Make the heads the size of a
grapefruit," is a demand we heard during every art session.
Also, one of the scents that children of that era could never forget is
that of the crayons. In the mid-1950's some of the more controversial
colors (Indian Red, Prussian Blue, and Flesh) were still available
under those names. All those memories of learning about Native
Americans and Christopher Columbus's quest for India came flooding back
into my mind, along with the old Saturday morning cowboy and jungle
My end of town had families from many ethnicities, but also many
nationalities, including many Swedes, Germans, Italians, Hispanics, and
some Eastern Europeans as well. All these parts of my schooldays
insisted on being stirred together in this poem. I
now have many students of color (and from different countries including
Spain, Taiwan, France, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cameroon),
so I am happy to say I am still in class with students with a variety
of backgrounds and skin tones. Also, my daughter married a man from
Mexico, who is of Spanish and Aztec descent. Their children, a
three-year-old boy and five-month-old twin girls have the most luscious
coloring imaginable. It makes me want to find that old box of crayons
and change the names to "Mocha Latte," "Caramel Cream," and (for those
deep, dark brown eyes) "Double Espresso."
Unfortunately, there are still issues of racism on the college campus
where I teach. One of my beautiful black students, who is a French
citizen, was recently barred from entering an off-campus party with the
remark, "No blacks allowed tonight." I was stunned to learn that this
sort of thing remains, particularly when it involves those who are our
Writing "Flesh" helped me see, from an adult viewpoint, how insidiously
prejudices can be instilled in children. Of course, as a child I was
pretty unaware. Things were just the way they were and, in my family, I
never heard any prejudicial remarks that I recall. At school, we were
all in class together, and everyone took part. Looking back, however, I
recall that there were no black or Asian or Hispanic people at my
church, or where I shopped. I just couldn't see it then. I ran across a
group photo of my fifth grade class recently, however. I was shocked to
see that the photos of all the black children were grouped together at
the bottom of the page, something I would not have noticed as a child,
something that stuns me now.
I would love for all of us (then and now) to have complete artistic
freedom. I wish all children, of any and every color, could have
crayons that read "Sam's Skin," or "Chun Wei's Skin," "Aracely's Skin."
Most of all, I would give all children the freedom to be taught only by
people who truly care about them.
CHRISTINA LOVIN is the author of What We Burned for Warmth and Little Fires.
An award-winning writer, her work has been widely published. Most
recently, she was the recipient of the AWP (Association of Writers and
Writing Programs) WC&C Poetry Scholarship Award and was named
Emerging Poet by 2007 Southern Women Writers’ Conference, she has been
residency fellow at Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts, and Footpaths House in the Azores. Her work has been
recognized by Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council.