Other Side of the Lake
The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place. It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to. People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day. No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included. (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker. My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)
Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate. There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard. These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools. In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas. Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.
My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas. They were loud and wild and splashed a lot. Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed. The boys always greeted my dad with respect. They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family. The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them. She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand. They certainly didn’t know what to make of me. Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me. They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves. As in: “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”
The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.
“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)
“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me. “This lake is fresh water. Sharks only live in salt water.”
They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.
The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys. He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.” His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression. So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none. Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.
It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University. My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously. But it was more than that. By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert. In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.
Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood. They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did. Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach. If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved. That meant trouble. As Dad would ultimately write:
‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black. There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.” But rigid segregation prevailed. And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us. It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same. Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …
If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets. If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’
Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went. He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them. What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.
I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed. I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids. I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear. Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher. Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman. We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade. No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.
Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.
 From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.
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