BUFFALO, NY, 1960s. I’m seven or eight years old, the fourth of five children in my family, three girls, two boys. We live on a busy street in a wood-structure, single-family house in a white neighborhood.
At the end of the block is the Catholic elementary school I attend. I have no black classmates. I don’t know any black people.
Next door to us is a two-family. The Millers move in on the second floor flat, with three boys, the youngest, Paul, a year older than me. He is bigger than me, harder, more worldly. He goes to the public school. He has a dog.
I’m sitting on the concrete stoop with Paul and his dog. Right in front of us on the sidewalk an old woman walks past dragging a two-wheel shopping cart. The dog goes berserk, barking and leaping at the woman. Paul holds the animal by the collar. I shrink back.
The woman hurries past as fast as she could, which isn’t fast. I see the alarmed expression on her face.
Paul is laughing. He says, “I trained him to do that.”
“Bark at niggers.” [This is the one and only time I will write that word, although the word slid off a lot of white tongues in those days, but not in my family’s household. More on the usage of this word.]
I don’t think it even registered on me the woman was black, only that she was old. I was looking to see what was in her grocery bags. If I had noticed her race, I’m not sure I noticed the difference, or that she was someone a dog might be trained to bark at.
But now I’ve learned something.
There is no talk of race in our school: God, math, and grammar—that’s what the nuns focus on. There isn’t much talk about race or racism from my parents, either. They had five children in less than seven years; they are very busy. They aren’t communicators.
The black neighborhood had encroached to four or five blocks away from where we live. Encroached is the appropriate word here: the black population is extending its geographic boundaries into historically white neighborhoods. The two worlds come together at Delaware Park and the Buffalo zoo. It’s where I make my first black friends, and enemies.
The oldest Miller brother, Harry, has a crush on my oldest sister, Susan. He doesn’t have a chance. But he hangs around us and sometimes he puts my little sister, Nancy, on the handlebars of his bike and I ride my shiny red stingray and we ride in the zoo or the park.
One day in the zoo a group of black boys on bikes spots us. Some of them are doubled-up too. Harry says to get pedaling, and immediately I’m scared. The boys are in pursuit. We peddle hard, out of the zoo, through the park. I can’t keep up with Harry who reaches the busy intersection of Parkside and Amherst Streets just before the light changes and whizzes across.
I’m stuck, less than a block from my house, as cars fill the intersection. The black boys on bikes catch up to me. They surround me. I’m eight-years-old and have a cast on my left arm from when I broke it over the summer. I’m already crying. I’m begging them not to hurt me. They are older, bigger, numerous. Dark.
Their leader says, “We don’t hurt you if you give us your bike. I’ll count to three.”
When he reaches two I’m off my bike. True to their word, they don’t hurt me, but they ride off with my new bike.
Now I’ve learned something else, with more to come. I will have a lot of unlearning to do.