When we exit the womb, we are at our purest. As we grow, our values and beliefs are formed through our contacts with our parents, relatives, and peers. These early role models have a tremendous effect on the people we become.
Prejudice is a learned behavior. I had several teachers in the inner-city neighborhood of my childhood. Their words and actions taught me that if I were to become a part of my neighborhood, I would have to conform to its established norms. Unfortunately, conformity comes at a price. I paid that price with Brenda.
Brenda and my friendship was built around our mutual love of our “babies,” our dolls that we would proudly wheel up and down the neighborhood street like all good future mothers. I don’t remember how our bond formed, both of us being around six years old at the time we met, but I do remember that I would anxiously look out of my fourth-floor bedroom window in hopes that I would see my friend waiting for me on the corner across the street from my apartment building. Once spotted, I would grab my “baby,” my coach carriage, and make my way down the four flights of stairs to be by her side.
After looking both ways to cross the street as my father had taught me, I would run to the corner to join my best friend. What I was oblivious to at the time was that my friendship with Brenda was under the scrutiny of some “well intentioned parents” of the other children in my building. You see, Brenda lived in the “colored” house, one block away, beyond the line of garages that separated my building from hers. As an innocent child, I didn’t know the word “prejudice,” but in the years to follow, its meaning would increasingly rear its ugly head.
I have little recollection as to Brenda’s physical appearance, somehow that never seemed important to our relationship. We didn’t see the differences between us, only the similarities. Together we were a team, sharing in the magical, imaginary world of childhood. She was my best friend. Now, as a grandmother of two young children, I am constantly reminded about how influential a good friend is upon early childhood development.
Brenda never invited me to her house. It was as if an unspoken rule existed between us. We could be “street friends,” but not “house friends.” As a curious and uninhibited child however, I once entered into the “colored house” to call for Brenda. As I walked through its hallways, apprehension came over me and I quickly turned and ran out of her building. I never shared the story of my little excursion with her. I somehow must have felt that I had crossed an imaginary line in our friendship.
As a former teacher of young children, I have seen first hand how important it is for a child to be accepted by his/her peers. Oftentimes, the need for acceptance is at the expense of someone else being rejected. I speak from experience. It was a lesson I learned at a very young age. My need for acceptance resulted in my rejection of Brenda.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances surrounding the end of our friendship. Did I no longer look towards the corner to see if she was waiting for me? Did I run the other way when I saw her? Did I go out of my way to avoid her? I really have no recollection. I do know, however the reason behind it; my insecure self’s need to belong.
I like to think that I was raised without prejudice, but that’s probably what I’d like to believe. Everyone has some degree of bias. I never heard my parents denigrate the “negroes” in my neighborhood. We were in no position to snub our noses at anyone. My father’s friend Pratt, an African-American attendant at one of the many garages around the corner from our building, was often my dad’s lunch and drinking buddy. In retrospect, his regular visits to our apartment were probably a cause for concern to many of our neighbors, but I was oblivious to gossip; that is until my day of reckoning, a day that taught me one of life’s cruelest lessons.
I may not remember when or how my friendship with Brenda ended, but I vividly recall when my friendship with Sharon began.
Sharon was the popular girl in our apartment building. I remember looking longingly at how her long brown hair cascading into ringlets down her back while I, on the other hand, had stringy, dirty-blond hair that fell haphazardly in front of my eyes. Sharon was a friend-magnet. Her vivacious manner and her self-assuredness made her a born leader and me her ardent admirer. My adoration of her increasingly consumed me as I enviously watched her interact with neighborhood children. The day Sharon invited me into her world of friendships was the day I gave away more than I received.
Our apartment building had its very own system of communication between parents and children; ring the downstairs doorbell then yell up to your mother whose head would emerge through an open window. We’d yell out for money for ice cream, which would be wrapped in a tissue then tossed down to the street. We’d call out for permission to go to a friend’s apartment to play. Parents would call down to their children when it was time for dinner or time to come inside for the night. Windows were our precursor to today’s telecommunication systems.
Since Sharon’s apartment was located on the ground floor, her mother was able to keep careful watch over her daughter’s outdoor play. I can on remember times when Sharon would call into her mother’s window to ask her mother if she could play with me, while I stood mute by Sharon’s side. Sometimes her mother would say “yes” and I’d become elated over the prospect of jumping rope or playing “Jacks” with Sharon, but I can also recall times when her mother would say “no’ citing some transgression on my part, again with me standing by her side. That simple “No” had the power to reduce me to tears, especially since I rarely understood its reason.
I remember many things about Sharon’s mother, but the one thing that stands out most was the day Sharon told me she couldn’t play with me because her mother saw me playing with “that colored girl” who lived up the street. I remember a feeling of sadness overcoming me. I wish I could say I was sad because Sharon’s mother saw color over substance, but in reality, I felt sad over the fact that I was not able to play with Sharon because of Brenda. I believe it was after that day when I made the decision to end my friendship with Brenda.
Age is a great teacher. We can either heed the lessons age offers or we can remain stagnant. We can either examine our conscience or convince ourselves that our conscience needs no modification. We can either walk in the shoes of another or we can continue to place our feet in the tired, tight-fitting shoes of our past. In my youth I never gave thought to what Brenda experienced as a black person. Now, decades later, I wonder how she felt when her best friend stopped being her best friend. I wonder and feel sad.