Black History Feed

Child's Play: An Eight-Year-Old's Introduction to Racism

Child's play phone

I stood at our living room window, peering out at the empty street, hoping for a break in the rain. A sudden storm had roared into southeast Texas from the Gulf, hurling huge peppering flurries of swirling raindrops in every direction. 

My friends and I, when the first few sprinkles started to fall, had tried to continue our daily after school ritual of attempting to demolish each other’s spinning tops in a game we called “googie.” But the ensuing downpour, accompanied by booming thunder and crackling lightening, sent us all scrambling for the safety of our homes. 

The storm didn’t look like it was going to let up anytime soon so I turned on the television and plopped into my father’s big chair. 

Life just didn’t seem fair. It was the middle of September 1958, and trying to get used to being cooped up all day in a third grade classroom after a carefree summer was bad enough without Mother Nature washing away a chance to enjoy some free time. 

The sound of the phone ringing in the hallway ended my pity party.  

My mother, busy preparing supper, told me to take the call. 

I dashed to the phone and picked up the receiver. 

The girl on the other end said, "Hi, my name is Gail, what’s your name?”

I told her my name and we ended up talking for several minutes.  

By the end of our conversation, I had a new friend.  She was nine years old, and seemed okay, for a girl. 

Following our chance meeting, Gail called me after school at about the same time over the next few days. 

My neighborhood crew found it hard to believe that I would rather talk to a girl than play googie or shoot marbles. 

Gail and I talked about a lot of kid stuff:  favorite TV shows, games, foods, teachers, friends, what we wanted to be when we grew up. And even though she had never heard of my school, and I didn’t have a clue about hers, we found that we liked and disliked a lot of the same things. 

Our friendship blossomed as we provided each other with daily accounts of our ups and downs. 

And then Gail made a fateful request.  She said that if I really liked her, we should take turns calling each other, instead of her having to always call me. 

I agreed.

The next day, as soon as I got home from school, I dialed Gail's number. 

An adult female answered. 

“May I speak to Gail, please?” 

“Hold on,” said the woman.  After a brief pause, she spoke again.  “Who is this?” 

I told her my name. 

“How old are you?” 

“Eight,” I said. 

“And what school do you go to?”  

I will never forget the anger in the woman’s voice when I told her the name of the all black elementary school I attended. 

“You’re a nigger?” she screamed. 

My whole body started to tremble.  “ Uh... no, ma’am,” I stammered.  “I’m colored.” 

“You black son-of-a-bitch!  How did you get this number?”  The woman’s anger boiled into full-blown rage! 

“Gail told me to call her.  I… I…”  The words just wouldn’t come.

“Gail!  Get yourself in here right now!”  Her voice was clearly audible even though I held the receiver several inches from my head.  “Did you give this little nigger our phone number?” 

I wanted to hang up, but couldn’t.  Gail’s voice in the background made me press the receiver to my ear.

“I didn’t know he was a nigger, mom!  I swear!  I called his number by accident one day, and we just started talking.”  Gail started to sob uncontrollably.  “I swear, mom, I swear I didn’t know!” 

“You stupid girl,” the woman growled.  “Go get my strap!  I’m gonna teach you a lesson about talking to niggers!” 

My heart thumped and bumped violently in my chest!  A fine mist of cold sweat dampened my forehead.  But I couldn’t hang up. 

The woman again focused her rage on me.  “You stinking nigger bastard!” she hissed.  “Don’t you ever call this number again!  Do you understand me?  If you do, I will have your black ass put in jail, or shot, or hung from a tree!  You got that?” 

Before I could answer, the line went dead.  I replaced the receiver and stood near the phone, frozen. 

“Are you finished?  I need to call your sister.”  My mother’s voice startled me.  “What’s the matter with you?” She seemed to always know when something wasn’t right. 

I didn’t know where to begin. 

Mom placed her palm over my forehead.  “Are you feeling sick?” 

Somehow I managed to recount my harrowing experience with the woman on the phone. 

My mother, a mild mannered, good natured woman until someone or something threatened her family, became visibly angry as I told her what had just happened.  She was aware of my daily talks with Gail, but assumed the girl was black. 

“Did you know she was white?” 

“We never talked about color. I thought she talked kind of funny, but she said the same thing about me.” 

Mom started to pace.  “How could a grown woman talk to a child like that?  Did you tell her Gail’s been calling you?” 

“Gail told her.  But she said she didn’t know I was a nigger.” 

Mom snatched the receiver from its cradle.  “Nobody’s gonna talk to my child like that and get away with it.  What is Gail’s number?” 

“Please, mom, please don’t. You’ll only make things worse.  The lady is crazy.  I promise I won’t talk to Gail again, ever.” 

After a few deep breaths, my mother regained her composure.  “Maybe you’re right.  God knows we don’t need any trouble with these stupid peckerwoods.  But let this be a lesson to you.  Unless you want to end up like Emmett Till, don’t get involved with white girls!  Don’t talk to them!  Don’t even look at them!  You hear me?” 

I promised. 

That night, after hearing the details about my brief friendship with Gail, my father repeated my mother’s warning about white girls.  They're nothing but trouble, he said. 

Again, I vowed to stay clear of white females. 

For the next few weeks, fearing repercussions over my fling with Gail, my dad drove me to school and picked me up.  And he told me to keep my mouth shut about the whole incident. 

The telephone encounter with Gail’s mother brought an abrupt end to my relationship with a curious, adventurous girl.  We never spoke to each other again. 

And, while I’ve often wondered what happened to her, I'm pretty sure I will never find out.

© 2014 Paul Howard Nicholas


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