When the schools were finally forced to desegregate here, I got to witness the adults behave like a mob from a Shirley Jackson story, although it was years before I read her descriptions of that insular ugliness that periodically breaks out in Americans like the obstructive clap they have to break up with a rubber mallet. The local whites seemed genuinely afraid of some retribution that was never headed their way to begin with. The blacks were well enough aware that the big perps were either dead or living in the suburbs of DC and Raleigh, certainly not in Northern Durham, where blacks, whites and Indians had commingled for decades either slaving or starving to death in the shadow of a couple of brutal Scots-Irish microaristocracies, and then being picked apart and pitted against one another by the Yankees the Dukes invited down to run their tobacco empire.
I’d been to school with black children already, through some deal worked out between the Durham Public Schools and local planters who had either been shamed into providing a half day of school for the children of their tenants, or were no longer willing to risk perpetuating the fiction they were educating them themselves. Only a couple. Mack and Hattie.
Mack must have been fifteen years old when he sat in our third grade classroom for half a day. He was already a big man, pork fed and silent for the couple of hours he sat listening before he left midday to prime tobacco into midsummer. When he turned sixteen in October, he had no more need of an education.
Hattie was a thin girl. I don’t remember much about her except she occasionally joined some of the poor white farmer’s kids singing gospel tunes, or what must have been some locally popular country music. My wife and I found a station that played “black country” out of Warrenton NC, one day when we were taking dogs to the vet. The DJ was a hilarious woman who spun, among other bizarre stuff, the anthem “Don’t Ride My Pony Like A Horse”.
That’s at least the spirit of what these kids were singing. The teacher, newly transplanted from Florida, had no idea what they were singing about.
My folks prepped me for integration by telling me I’d get to be a few shades darker, and more ominously, that I was an unfortunate who would miss the 666666666666666 (edit courtesy Skinny) education my older brother and sister had. My first day at my new school-which used to be the black high school-I was so terrified of the physically imposing black teacher, Mrs. Stroud, I was afraid to ask her to be excused to go to the bathroom. It was an excruciating day, but I managed to hold my urine until I got off the bus. A few minutes later, trying not to jostle too much as I walked home, I pissed my pants.
After I got to know Mrs. Stroud (and the teacher’s aide, Mrs. Evans) a little better, It occurred to me that my folks were the scary ones, if not outright insufferably pig-ignorant bastards for whom there can never be any excuse.
Integration represented a marked improvement in the public schools for me. The stupid regimentation for regimentation’s sake was gone, and the library still had some high school reading level books. Mrs. Stroud’s disciplinary method was of the time honored “if looks could kill” variety, and it worked. I also got to be friends with the black kids. It was the first time I’d ever seen an outie. My friend Lizzie showed me hers and said her mother told it bulged that way because she never shut up screaming as an infant. This puzzled me, because I’d heard similar stories about my own person, and I had an innie.
Anita was another one of my friends. Periodically, she’d tell me to “break it!” or “tighten up”, and I’d comply by trying to swing my hips in a suggestive manner. She would shake with laughter and tug at her hair. I can only imagine how much of a spazz I looked like, but I savored being an entertainer.