I was born in Miami, Florida, which is so far South that it’s not The South – it’s more like the Caribbean. But I spent a few extremely formative years in the mid-70’s living in Gainesville, Florida, a city that is far enough North in Florida to be part of the American South, and carry with it all of the burdens and prejudices that entails.
As a child I was blissfully ignorant of the racial divide. My best friend in kindergarten, Rodney, was black – something I later learned was shocking at the time. And I had no historical comprehension of what it meant when we rented a big house on a plantation, and became the first white folks who lived there to ever talk to the black family of caretakers who lived in what used to be the slave quarters on the property.
All of that is backstory for the main story, which takes place when I was 7: at a party with my parents. The adults were all inside, and we kids, 6 or 7 of us, ages 5 to 10, all white, were playing out in the street, looking for adventure.
In Gainesville in the 70’s there used to be a decommissioned fighter jet-turned play-structure out front of the military base. It was AWESOME. I knew right where it was, and thanks to the great sense of direction I’ve had all of my life: I was sure I knew exactly how to get there.
It didn’t take much work on my part to get the other kids on board with my plan, and soon we were off: a gaggle of kids happily making our way through the neighborhood streets of Gainesville towards a happy destination.
We made our way easily enough, me happy to be leading and blissfully ignorant as the neighborhood started to turn. I didn’t have an eye for the subtle change as we quickly became the minority. As we started to stand out, as we became the only white faces for blocks in any direction.
The other kids started to get nervous, and a couple of them even turned around and headed back to the party. I assured the rest of them that there was nothing to be worried about: I knew right where I was going, and we were close, we were almost there. A few more blocks, and then we had to be close.
When the neighborhood kids started to follow us, the rest of my group wanted to turn around, even though I still didn’t see a reason to, but by then it was too late.
“What are you doing here, whitey?” they yelled.
“Why you in our neighborhood? You stupid? Don’t you know this is our ‘hood? Looking to get beat up?” They shouted as they quickly surrounded us, and started moving in.
Nobody had been hit yet, but it didn’t look good. I started to understand that I had made a huge mistake, but I still didn’t know how.
I refused to get scared, I couldn’t believe anything bad was really going to happen to us: these were kids, just like us, after all. And all we had done was try to walk through their neighborhood – it made no sense.
My remaining friends were scared, though, and one even started to cry. I was trying to talk rationally and reasonably to the gathered group, which wasn’t helping. And then a woman’s voice rang out above the crowd, “What you bunch of little punks doing, ganging up on these kids?!?” as a grandmotherly black woman grabbed me and my friends and pulled us into her living room.
“What on earth are you doing here,” the stern but kindly old woman asked, “are you lost or just trying to get yourselffs killed?” I tried to explain, calmly and rationally that we were just trying to walk to the jet, but she wasn’t having it. “You have no idea what you have walked in to, do you boy? They will tear you apart out there, they will beat you to death you ever come back in here like this. Where are your parents, do you have a phone number?”
I didn’t. I hadn’t even told my parents where I was going or what my plan was. And neither of my blubbering friends did either.
“We got to get you out of here,” the old lady said, “before things get worse. Can you find your way back to where your parents are?” I could. “Then when I tell you three to run, you run all the way back to yo mommas and yo pappas, and don’t you ever come back here agin.”
And with that, she yelled at the mingling group in the street that she had called the po-lice, and they best be gettin’ back to their homes if they knew what was good for them. And when the coast was clear, she set us to running as quickly as we could back to our safe, white side of the world. It was only a few blocks until we were clear of the ‘hood, and a few more before we found our parents, frantically coming to find us. The few who had turned back had told them where we were headed.
Our parent’s relief at finding us trumped their anger at us for leaving unannounced, and we were all unharmed. On the outside, anyway.
Although I was never able to see the world the same again. I had never doubted where I was in Gainesville that afternoon, but I learned that what I was was different. Different in a way that had nothing to do with who I was or how I treated people, different in a way that could inspire hatred and violence from children who had never met me before. And learning that lesson caused me to lose a part of my innocence I could never get back.