By Ernie McCray
INTRODUCTION: AARP is commemorating the civil rights movement on the 50th Anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision by gathering firsthand accounts from that era. Oh, I could write a book, but they wanted but a few words, so in 500 words or less I sent them the following.
Some time ago I spent time with a delightfully insightful class of high schoolers who wrote scenes based on black history stories I shared with them from my life of 65 years.
As I talked about a trip my mother and I took to Detroit to visit a cousin back in the summer of ‘49 when I was eleven years old, these young people were with me all the way. They grasped why I was relieved that we weren’t travelling down south when I painted pictures in their minds of “Colored Only” water fountain signs and of sitting at the back of the bus and of making sure I stepped into the gutter if I dared to pass a white person on the street. They sensed how such injustices make people feel. And they understood why I was also relieved that we weren’t visiting states that were nearly barren of African Americans like South or North Dakota where people would stare at me as though I was one of the wonders of the world. They could see how I thought the trip to Detroit would be a treat because the word out on the street was that up north, back east, black people were doing great.
But then we stepped from the cab onto the sidewalk in front of our cousin’s house and when I saw all the bold hateful “Nigger, go home!” graffitti on the ground I was ready to turn my little black self around and run to anywhere that was faraway from there. And then a few days later the house was set on fire - with us in it. And I didn’t want to stay in the Motor City another minute.
Oh, that was one scary vacation. And when the students put the story into dramatic pieces to be read, their words brought tears to my eyes. They heard everything I said, and wrote their impressions in a wonderful spirit of empathy and love.
They wrote of pieces of concrete that spoke to each other, one so ashamed it exclaims: “Well, at least in this dark no one can see this horrible...horrible word on me.”
One scene caught the very essence of me pleading with my mother: “Please, let’s get out of here,” and she teaches me a lesson of life with: “Sometimes when things are rough, that’s when people need you the most.”
A house, a soulful house, speaking metaphorically as me, says: “Oh, why would someone do this to me? I am such a young house. I have never done any wrong. What is the meaning of this?” And a bird answers this question in another scene when she says to another bird: “It just doesn’t make sense.”
But with their keen abilities to understand, and in their eloquence, the students made nothing but sense. By taking concepts from another day and giving them meaning today, they give honor to the civil rights era by generating hope that there will be a better day.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: The young people mentioned in this piece are students at Bonita Vista High who were writing under the guidance of the Playwrights Project, an organization that sponsors an annual playwrighting contest for teenagers and produces the winning plays at the Old Globe’s Cassius Centre Stage.