March forward girl, p.1

March Forward, Girl, page 1


March Forward, Girl

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March Forward, Girl


  * * *

  Title Page





  I’ll Figure It Out Later

  When Fear Comes Home

  Black Is an Inconvenient Color

  A Head Full of Questions

  A Church Full of Angels

  Rules of My Survival

  Dimming the Light of My Dream

  Into the Real World Outside

  I’m Not Alone

  Becoming a Real Student

  The World Is My Birthday Gift

  Hope That the World Can Be Mine


  Santa Is in Town

  Television and Bomb Shelters

  Finding My Piece of the Pie

  Angel in a White Sheet

  Who Is Jim Crow?

  My Life Forges Ahead

  Marching Forward


  Note to Readers


  Middle Grade Mania!

  About the Author

  About the Illustrator

  Connect with HMH on Social Media

  Text copyright © 2018 by Melba Pattillo Beals

  Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Frank Morrison

  All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

  Photo credits:

  Melba Pattillo Beals: ix, 2, 8, 18, 28, 77, 105, 132, 157, 158, 178, 183, 190, 199, 212, cover (foreground)

  Bettmann Archive: viii, 202, 203

  Jim Bowen: cover (background)

  Buyenlarge: 206

  Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos: 205

  William Lovelace: vii, cover (center)

  MPI: 201

  Joyce Naltchayan/AFP: 207

  Joel Rennich/UPI: 210

  United States Mint: 209

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file.

  ISBN: 978-1-328-88212-7

  eISBN 978-1-328-91915-1


  To all the members of the Little Rock Nine, who marched with me in pursuit of my dream of equality in education for all: Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts, the late Jefferson Thomas, Thelma Mothershed Wair, and especially Carlotta Walls LaNier who stood by me through all these years and through my journey back to the past


  Black folks aren’t born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you are teething and says, “Here’s how you must behave as a second-class citizen.” Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of segregation creep over you, slowly stealing a teaspoonful of your self-esteem each day.

  —Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals

  (Simon & Schuster, 1994)

  During the three months that it took to write and ponder the paragraph above, I often wondered what it would take to explain this process to someone who hadn’t lived it. Many of the national reviewers who wrote their opinions of Warriors Don’t Cry mentioned this paragraph as being significant, beautifully written, and haunting. It has always stood out to me as the kernel of words that totally reflects how I feel about the life experience of an African-American.

  I am writing this book in the hope of enlightening readers about the journey an African-American takes in having to grow up and live under the laws and traditions of oppression. It is an experience that indelibly imprints certain behaviors on one’s brain that never, ever quite go away.

  Although the experience in the South has been chronicled as being much more detrimental than that of living in the North, the bottom line is all of it hurts deeply, and all of it leaves grave impressions, which must be overcome if one is to develop self-esteem and a life purpose. In order to accomplish any goal, one must feel worthy of achieving what one seeks.

  Signs like this one surrounded me during my youth. I felt smothered and choked by them.

  As a child, to have white people tell me both in words and by their actions that they did not feel I was good enough to be in their presence, ride their buses, go to their schools, go to their theaters, or drink from their water fountains made me begin to ask at age three, “Why?” At first I pondered it myself, and then I asked my parents. Their answer was this was a temporary condition that would go away.

  However, my question of “Why?” got bigger and bigger as I saw the way they behaved in the presence of white people. Their facial expressions changed to humble, their words were apologetic, and their demeanor lacked confidence. They were obviously quite nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing. Everything they did or said was to gain the approval of the white people with whom they interacted. They behaved in a way that defines a word I would learn later—kowtow.

  After a while, I decided they were afraid and that they could give no answers to my questions because they didn’t really know the answers. I would learn later that segregation and oppression were not simply traditions passed down through hundreds of years, but that permission to treat us as though we were less than was actually defined in laws called Jim Crow.

  It was signs like this that usurped my self-esteem and my hope.

  It seemed to me in the beginning that none of the white people around us had any desire or reason to change. It was what had always been acceptable. Treating us as unequals was a privilege granted them by the laws of our land.

  As I grew and experienced these interactions with the adults in my community and with whites outside my community, I realized that a teaspoon of my self-esteem was being extracted day by day as I struggled to survive the risky lifestyle I had to embrace in order to be safe. I came to expect this demeaning process. I didn’t know how, where, why, or when it would occur, but the expectation of it boiled the fear inside me until it was overwhelming, and I realized if I didn’t control it, it would eat me alive.

  Here at fourteen, I was filled up to the brim with the rules that governed what my people could and could not do.

  This book is about my experiences as a black child growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1940s and ’50s under the umbrella of the rules and traditions of my oppressors. We as black people were compelled to learn these rules in order to stay alive. They were rules that were not written down but instead handed down through the spoken word from generation to generation by black folks absolutely committed to passing them on so that they and their descendants would live to one day become free and equal, to experience the freedom and justice for all in the Constitution.


  I’ll Figure It Out Later

  THE FIRST THING I REMEMBER about being a person living in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the 1940s is the gut-wrenching fear in my heart and in my tummy that I was in danger. I didn’t know why exactly, but clouds of dread engulfed me every evening when day turned to night. I sensed from the very first moment of consciousness that I was living in a place where I was not welcome. By age three, I realized the culture of this small town in the Deep South was such that the color of my skin framed the entire scope of my life. It brought with it many ground rules designed to imprison and control everyone who was not white.

  Of the eighty-eight thousand residents, sixty-six thousand were white, while twenty-two thousand were black. The white people and the black people lived in separate worlds that seemed to intersect only when absolutely necessary. My big questions from the beginning were “Who set up my community that way and why?” and “Why do white
s get more privileges than we do—more houses, more books, more pets, and more food, more merchandise in all the downtown stores, all the police officers and firefighters, and all the transportation?” Even the city buses belonged to them.

  When I felt frightened and overwhelmed, which was often, I would clench my fists so hard that my knuckles would hurt. Then I would press my open hands into my sides as hard as I could. I would let go and do it again and again until I felt in control of the terror bubbling inside me.

  How could I know at this age that I wouldn’t have the advantage of living life to the best of my ability?

  In order to feel safe, I always wanted to stay at home with my mother, Lois; my grandma, India; my papa, Will; and my baby brother, Conrad. Sometimes I stayed in my own room with my Raggedy Ann doll, who I called Mellie, my other stuffed animals, and my books. It was the only place I felt totally safe, as if I belonged; there was love and good in that small world for me. There was nobody there to be mean to me and call me nigger.

  Our home was welcoming and cozy. There were always aromas of tasty dishes, flowers cut from our backyard in vases, doilies that Grandma India crocheted on tables, and squares of tapestry she had made on the walls. Tattered but freshly swept carpets covered the highly polished hardwood floors, and the rooms were filled with antique velvet-covered chairs inherited from my great-grandma. Grandma always hummed as she baked, especially when she prepared gingerbread men or coconut cake. I always felt loved, protected, and wanted by all the adults in my life.

  On most days, my brother and I stayed in the house, pretending we were other people by dressing up or playing with paper dolls, puzzles, and blocks. When Grandma was outside, we followed her into the gated backyard, where we rolled around with our big red wagon and helped her water all the plants.

  Come four o’clock in the afternoon, Grandma would let me go with her to the garden in the rear of the backyard to water what she called her four-o’clock plants. Often, I would stand beside her and wrap my hand in her freshly starched housedress as the water sprayed in my face. I never knew why she called them four-o’clocks; still I would remember for the rest of my life that this was the best time of my day. I waited for that watering all day because I could often have Grandma to myself. I felt the most akin to her because I resembled her more than I did my mother. She stood tall, with a medium body, and black curls about her shoulders. Her complexion was the same golden brown as mine. She made it okay for me when other people called me “big for my age” or said, “She’s very dark skinned compared to her mother.”

  Garden time was a time when I could tell Grandma all the things—even the secret things—I was thinking about that I could not tell other people. I could ask her about what I didn’t understand in the world. It was a time I could ask her where God lived. People were always talking of God, and I wanted to know where exactly He was. I wanted to go visit Him in heaven to ask Him what was going on and why we had to be treated so badly by white people. When would it end? I could ask Grandma questions like “Who is God? I don’t really see Him. Is God stronger than the white people? Could He teach them to share with us?”

  She would always end our talks in the garden with “That’s enough for today. A wee one like you doesn’t have space in her head for more deep thoughts. I don’t understand why you choose to talk about all these topics. You have too much worrying in your head, baby. You’re like a baby warrior! What about the joy of being a baby—about dolls and teddy bears? Let’s think about other things. How about helping me with dinner, young lady?”

  I would hold my breath, unclench my fists, and wait for tomorrow. She was my very best friend and someone who always filled me with hope.

  Sometimes later in the afternoon, we would listen to classical music, and Papa Will would sit on the big green velvet chair in the living room. I’d sit on his lap, and he would read to me, teach me my multiplication tables, or put together a puzzle. Often he would tell me about his sisters and brother and their life on a farm. His father was a minister, as were his uncles and many cousins. My Uncle Ben was a traveling minister.

  I always felt safe when I was with Papa because to me he was as tall as the sky. He had broad shoulders and dark golden brown skin that was much like mine, as well as wavy black hair. No one was as big and protective as he was; no one ever made me feel safer than he did.

  Mother Lois would come home by five every afternoon from her job at Baptist College. Some nights she would gather her books, take the chicken or peanut butter sandwich that Grandma handed her, and head out to the University of Arkansas, where she was taking classes for a bigger, higher degree—something called a master’s degree. I didn’t know what it really meant but figured it must be huge because she had so many heavy books. She said she would get a better teaching job and earn more money with that degree.

  If Mother was studying at the kitchen table, with its chrome top and red leather chairs, I would sit at the table with her and turn the pages to look for words that I knew and pictures, which were most often not there. She would pick out a word and tell me what it meant—words like pedagogy and phenomenon. I would always giggle because I thought, Now I know something that none of my friends know.

  “Dinner is served,” Grandma would call. “Melba Joy, sit down, fold your hands, and let’s say our prayers to thank God for the food we have!”

  My favorite time of day was always dinner, when each of us was around the wooden table in the dining room, with warm aromas escaping from the hot dishes in the center. Grandma usually made fresh biscuits and vegetables for us even when we were only having a tiny speck of meat. Blessings, lemonade and milk, and laughter surrounded us in a joyful bubble.

  On Sundays, we would have a new roast chicken for dinner. The meal would also include potatoes and a vegetable. By Thursday nights, the Sunday chicken that Grandma had roasted was down to a few threads in the soup we would eat. Yes, it was the same chicken we’d had all week, but with all the spices she added, she could make the soup smell and taste like something new and draw me to the kitchen. On Friday nights, we would have fish, and then on Saturday, we would have tuna fish casserole with green peas. We would all sit together laughing and talking and loving each other across the table. It was during these times that the world seemed perfect to me.

  Although Conrad was young enough to have his self-esteem and hope, I was already sad about being trapped in oppression.

  I just wished the white people would disappear in a puff of smoke somewhere forever.

  Next was the family cleanup and a lesson of one kind or another—the alphabet, math, poems, or memorizing the sequence of the presidents of the United States in the order they served.

  After study time, Grandma would say, “Find your pajamas and get a washbasin and take it to the bathroom. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Start from the top down. Wash down as far as possible and then wash possible.”

  As Conrad got a little older, he would race me to the washbasin in the sink. If I lost, that meant I had to go get the washbowl off the back porch. Then we could bathe in our one bathroom as long as we had our backs to each other and kept the door open. We had only the one bathroom, but I was grateful that it was indoors. Some of my friends did not have that privilege, and had to go outside to use the bathroom, no matter what the weather was.

  If we had finished our baths and were ready for bed well before eight, it was story time, but we had to be in bed by eight o’clock. One of the three adults would read to us. My mother told me she had read to me when I was in the womb before I was born. By age four, I was overjoyed every night to be cuddling on the bed and listening silently. When Conrad was old enough to join me, it was even better.

  After story time, though, huge fears took me over. The Ku Klux Klan was a group of people responsible for much of my evening dread. Just after reading time ended, either on weekends or when we got word of trouble, Mother and Grandma would begin the ritual I watched for my entire childhood. They would close the windows, dr
aw all the curtains and cover them with black cloth, dim the lights, and silence the radio. It brought a terror to my body that descended like a cloud and stalled anything I might otherwise do. It made me run and hide in closets, cry, and hold my breath.

  “God is everywhere, and we all belong to God. He is the world,” Grandma would reassure me. “He is stronger than the Ku Klux Klan. He loves us. Nothing happens to us that He doesn’t want to happen.”

  That would always leave questions hanging in the air for me, though. “Does he want all this bad stuff to happen to brown people? Why? What have we done to deserve this treatment?”

  There also came a time that when I laid my head on the pillow, I had extra worries even on top of the Klan, because I’d noticed that Mother and Papa Will were not as friendly toward each other as they had once been. They did not laugh together, hold hands, or tell jokes to each other as they had done before. The last thing I wanted was what had happened to some of my friends’ families: a divorce. It worried me, and I tried to figure out what to do. When I talked to Grandma about it, she said, “Pray.”

  We lived on a corner of Cross Street in a four-bedroom house. Cross Street was paved, lined with small pretty white houses and many colored shutters. Sometimes working white men in their uniforms or their navy striped suits drove up and down the gravel road that ran alongside our yard, making the dust and small rocks grind under their wheels. It was a thriving thoroughfare, but if white strangers doing business came along the road during daylight, we were warned not to speak to them. It made me sad when Mexican farm workers were transported along that same road, like cattle packed in the backs of trucks, calling out to us to please marry them and rescue them.

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