An excerpt from Marginal Eyes, Chapter Five:
Despite ridicule coming so frequently, few incidents presented a choice as stark as one did during my sixth-grade year. On a Saturday afternoon, the nearby elementary school hosted a youth basketball game, and I attended it with a boy whom I’d befriended in the bowling league. Like most kids at such events, we were there to be there, perhaps to be seen, perhaps to see, and hardly to watch the game. As we stood at one end of the court, the kid pointed toward the bleachers.
“Hey, look at that old Black lady,” he whispered insistently.
In my previous world, there would have been nothing strange about seeing an “old Black lady” anywhere, but in Chesterton, this was curious. I wasn’t really sure what to expect if I looked or who it could possibly be. Sure, my mother lived in Chesterton, but she wasn’t old to me. In fact, she has always, by most accounts, appeared much younger than she is. Yet, when I looked to see where he was pointing, about halfway down the bleachers, my mother sat watching the game. She was wearing the same thrifty blue winter coat she always wore to work at the steel mill.
And I froze when I saw her.
What do I do? I thought frantically. Should I tell my new companion the “old Black lady,” someone he clearly found to be an undesirable anomaly, was my mother? Could I accept the possibility of losing my only friend over this? Or, could I just stay quiet and let this blow over?
“Yeah, look at that,” I replied flatly, pretending to turn my attention back to the game. Something about ignoring such a comment or question once—as if it were only a blip on someone’s radar, a flicker of meaningless mental activity that would disappear if I just let it go—helped me navigate incidents such as this. After all, if I had to fight every battle placed before me, I would have been in trouble long ago with my own father, not to mention these new peers. Not until my later teen years did I start to stand up for myself when someone made a comment that seemed to target me or my ethnicity.
I didn’t take either my young friend’s comment or my one-time dismissal of my own mother too seriously, and I managed to get through the rest of the game without incident. Even though it was a crisp fall day, my friend and I headed to downtown Chesterton to walk around after the game. We were wandering on the side of Main Street nearest the park and gazebo when he nudged me with his elbow and motioned furtively across the street.
“There’s that old Black lady again,” he said.
Mom was walking down the sidewalk toward the Ben Franklin ten-cent store, with her back to us. I knew if I were to run to catch up with her, as was my instinct, I might never see my friend again. But the guilt I would feel for repeatedly disavowing my own mother would be gut-wrenching. Avoiding the situation at the basketball game felt like a reasonable choice to me, but what now? It was a split-second decision.
“That’s my mom. See you later!” I said, as I looked both ways and sprinted across the street. I didn’t turn back to see the expression on his face. I didn’t want to.
The only time I recall seeing that boy again was in passing as he walked by with a group of kids in a hallway at school. He looked at me with some sort of remorseful wince on his face, but he didn’t acknowledge my presence. I had lost a rare social connection, but perhaps I had saved my soul for a day. In any case, I was as torn as ever about what to do with my social life in this place.
An article on the legacy of segregation: