THE LITTLE REDBONE – The Beginning

BABY ME

As a child, reading was EVERYTHING to me. It was my life. It gave me life. It helped me escape the confines of my limited existence in Paterson, New Jersey. I traveled to far away places and did really exciting things through reading. My earliest memories are of the hundreds of books that stuffed our small house in tall bookcases lining the walls of the living room…encyclopedias and biographies and anthologies that were my first exposure to fiction and short stories and poetry and famous people who did amazing things and wrote amazing things. My room was also full of books as well – my worn out copies of Louisa May Alcott novels and Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries taking up space alongside copies of Dr. Seuss and my worn out copy of “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”.

ME AGE SEVEN

Alongside our house was a small black shed that covered the space where our garden tools and our garbage cans were stored. It was right next to the back gate of our house. Even though our house had a big porch that ran across the full length of the house, the shed was my favorite spot to read, especially in the summertime when I was out of school. I loved hot weather. I loved feeling the sun lying across my skin while I read books for hours on end. At some point every day during summer break I would take a stack of books, pack them into my blue and white polka dot suitcase along with a blanket, and I would march outside to lie out on the shed and read. It was a little slice of heaven to me, but it never lasted as long as I wanted it to. Why? Because my parents would insist I come in the house to “get out of the sun”.

 

It always seemed that just when Nancy Drew was unraveling the meaning of the  latest clue she discovered, or just when the Hardy boys were piecing together all the information they had uncovered, I would hear my mother yelling through the house, “Tula? Tula!” Just as I was savoring the sweetest line of Nikki Giovanni’s poetry, or just when I was clutching my rapidly beating heart as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” wound its way to its awful conclusion, I would hear my dad say, “is that baby outside? If she is, make her come inside!” And shortly after my mom would come to the back porch and call out to me, “Tula! Come in the house and get out of that sun! You don’t want to get dark, do you?

BABY TULA 3

My parents first started admonishing me this way I was a very small child, say 6 or 7 years old. I didn’t understand what they meant, and since this took place during the era of children not asking parents to explain themselves, I knew better than to challenge them. Plus I was a pretty obedient child, and I wasn’t going to challenge their authority at that age. But I wondered why they were so concerned about my complexion changing. As I got a bit older I thought they were worried about me getting sunburned, though I never did. (To this day I don’t burn no matter how long I’m out in the sun.) Yes, I would get brown during the summer because I spent hours outside. Yes, my parents would mention my browner skin tones from time to time during my vacation from school. But when the cold temperatures set in, the summertime tan would always slowly fade away, so I never thought much about the change in my complexion because it was always temporary. I always came promptly into the house when they called me, but I didn’t understand the urgency in their voices.

As I got older I spent less time outside reading and more time outside with my friends playing and socializing. (This was back when kids stayed outside for hours playing and could wander as far away from home as they could get as long as they returned by the time the street lights came on.) We would travel through the neighborhood in a harmless pack of mostly girls, stopping along the way to play games of jacks, freeze tag, double dutch, kick the can and red light green light with whatever kids we encountered along the way. We would go to the corner store and get handfuls of penny candy, potato chips, and juice in small plastic jugs. We would go to the neighborhood playground to swing and slide and watch the older kids play basketball and softball and dance to music played on huge boom boxes. This took me away from my parents’ direct supervision for hours at a time, and meant I was out in the sun for hours at a time. I always came home when I was supposed to, but now I browned more quickly. Now the dark caramel coloring it used to take me until August to achieve happened by the fourth of July. My parents began lamenting the more rapid change in my complexion more openly and frequently.

baby tula 2

I was still oblivious.

My parents then did the unthinkable. They asked me to invite my friends over to play at our house. Like…in our house. They would say, “Tula, instead of going out in that hot sun why don’t Heather and Margie and Kathleen come over here and play instead of wandering around all day?” This was unprecedented in those days, because parents discouraged their kids from being in the house during the summer for any reason. You couldn’t just “run in and out the house letting out the cool air”, or you would run the risk of being made to stay in the house as punishment. If you voluntarily went into your house during the summer, it was assumed that you were suffering from heat stroke or something equally deadly. But my parents actually wanted my friends to play in the house. I mean…come into the house. I thought it was weird, so for the longest time I didn’t mention it to my friends.

tula black and white

Then they took it a step further. My dad had a room in our house dedicated to his artistic endeavors – my dad was a commercial artist (you would call him a graphic designer now) and he would often sketch, draw and paint in his leisure, so he had his paints, easels, drafting tables and other art supplies in this room. It was right by the back porch and near our guest bathroom, so my dad would often take his easel onto the porch to sketch. It also had a refrigerator in it where he kept snacks and drinks. But my parents moved his art stuff into their bedroom and took most of my big toys – my doll houses, big dolls, my rocking horse, my oversized stuffed animals, my bicycle and other larger toys I had and put them into this room. They put my board games into this room. They moved one of my bookcases into this room. They basically put my most awesome toys into this room. They put my little table and chairs into this room. And by the time they finished moving my best everything into this new space, my “playroom”, as my parents called it, was born.

I really felt weird now. I didn’t know anyone who had a room for their toys specifically for playing. But as soon as my friends knocked on my door to ask me to come out and play, my mom invited them in to see my playroom and spend their time there with me. Of course they loved it, and we spent hours upon hours having a good time in there. Now that I look back, I guess you could say my parents were ahead of their time – they created supervised play dates long before they became a thing. And most importantly, it kept me out of the sun!

tula middle school

The novelty of the playroom was a good deterrent from outdoor activities for a long time, but I still wanted to go out and play. At those times my mom would try to discourage me, reminding me of the fabulousness of my playroom. Often I would head out into the bright sunshine in spite of her best efforts. She never completely forbade me from going outside, but she made her displeasure known, and occasionally I did give into it and I would stay in the house. But I guess the goal was achieved – I was out in the sun much less, especially since my friends always wanted to spend at least a few hours in the playroom. So I didn’t get as dark as fast as I had previously. They took it as a victory I suppose.

Time passed. I got older. I started getting teased at school about my complexion a great deal. Plus I was a geek who got good grades in everything, read lots of books, and spoke standard English with great fluency. AND I had started writing, and earned great praise from my teachers for my essays and poetry. I was every teacher’s pet, which also made me every bully’s target. In fact, one of my best friends when I was a little girl turned against me as we got older and became one of my greatest tormentors. My parents often had to come to school to deal with bullies. For a period of time my mom would meet me at school to escort me home because she didn’t trust that I would get home unharmed if I walked alone or with friends. I got beat up, spit on, chased away from lots of places by small groups of angry kids who called me, “Oreo cookie”, “paleface”, “Whitey”, “Cracker”, “White Nigger”, as they ran after me, hoping to catch me so they could beat me up and further torture me up close and personal, which usually included threats to cut off my hair. (This actually started my interest in track, because I learned to run fast enough to get away from all of them.) As I became more aware of how concerned everyone around me was about my light skin, I began to ask my parents more direct and pointed questions about the motivations behind their concern about me “getting dark” during the summer. I asked about why everyone seemed to hate my complexion in general. My dad would make vague comments I didn’t understand about everyone being jealous of me. For what? Why? What did it mean?

YOUNG TULA 2

The pieces were slowly coming together. And the picture that was forming was really troubling.

To be continued…

 

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