Some things happened to me between first and eighth grade over which my parents and family had little control. I have written elsewhere about my exit from heterosexuality. As daunting as that process was for my parents and me, its most obvious manifestations, its bumpiest ride, happened in adolescence and young adulthood. But in many ways, bigger departures happened in the previous 15 years.
These other big social changes were happening for me, my parents, and my three siblings. Not only was I headed for grade school completion and high school graduation, my brother and sisters had paved the way. This was not the case for my parents or their generation. Because of my father’s position as his birth family’s eldest and of my position as my family’s youngest, I had uncles and aunts who were the age of my oldest sister. I have nephews and nieces who are older than many of my cousins. In the midst of these 80 close relatives, I am the first to go to college and the only one with an advanced degree. No one in my parent’s generation had done either. Some did not complete high school.
As we moved from the mid-1950s into the early-1960s, my peers and I also started to have a growing sense of owning our own bodies. As infants we had been visited at home by public health nurses and made trips to free clinics for immunizations. We were also treated by neighbors and our parents for infections that would send many to emergency rooms today. I recall two of my peers and several older relatives who had open wounds stitched together by a parent. I was once hit by a car, only to be carried home and put into a hot bath, then swathed in cold wet towels by way of treatment. The common treatment for influenza at any age – even in infancy – was a tonic of bourbon, lemon juice, and honey. By the time I was in eighth grade, however, it would have been peculiar to have these same experiences with home remedies. I have wondered over the years if polio and the fears of it had prompted this change.
But this shift in some degree of ownership of my body included more than home remedies. At age five I was publicly beaten for well over 10 minutes for crossing the street without permission. While the humiliation of this episode was stuck with me over the years, it has always been a story about the duration of the violence, not the fact of it. Bruises, welts, swelling — none of these were uncommon in my neighborhood where a misspoken word, a side glance, or a moment’s tardiness could be followed by violence. The most brutal of the parents were merely described as strict. From the perspective of this context, I took away no questions about why aid was not forthcoming for my childhood beatings — violence against children was commonplace. During these outbursts it always seemed that parents were as afraid as they were angry. They even said they were beating common sense into us.
My family also moved geographically away from people who were in many ways vastly different from us — different in religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, language, education — toward people who were in many ways also different, but also more clearly intending to reach middle class status. My kindergarten class had children in it who did not speak English. Many of my neighbors did not, either. For some, their recent departure from migrant farm work, left them in Milwaukee following the harvest of summer crops. For others, their immigration prior to World War II put them to work in shops before they were schooled in the language common in their new homeland.
For a long time I consolidated these memories of language, physical harm, education, and other things into variables unique to my family. Later, after earning an undergraduate degree, I consolidated them into a larger narrative about my family’s movement into the middle class. We moved from my first family home to the last one I was to share with my parents. From age 10 to 18, it is the place I called home, but it was in a neighborhood that felt foreign to me. Today I recognize it as a solid working-class neighborhood in Milwaukee. But then, it felt somewhat fancy. There were gardens and lawn ornaments. There were holiday decorations and garages. Everyone went to school. There were three elementary schools within four blocks of my home. English was universally spoken by everyone under 65.
I have also recognized this period as the time when my family moved in some very pronounced ways from our previous primary goal of survival. For my parents, survival had not been assured. One was the oldest of 10 and the other was orphaned in adolescence. Married at 18 and parents by 20, they worked hard. When my oldest sibling moved away to start families of their own, resources were freed up and, though nothing was comfortable, our survival was more secure. My own move to a friary at age 13, also made life easier. By the time I was 18, I recognized that my vocation was not so much a move to serve God as it was a move to avoid neighborhood violence and expand my opportunities.
We were not in that tier of society that was directly benefitting from government programs that provided loans for housing and suburban life. Prior to age 10, I was not experiencing the improvements in education seen through much of the US. But that move in third grade to a new neighborhood, made everything different nonetheless. Very uncomfortably different. We didn’t talk right or dress quite right. Our furniture wasn’t quite right, nor were our relatives.
I have assumed for decades that our family behaviors were out of step because of our economic class differences when we moved to the middle class. We were viewed as common. But we didn’t only move out of poverty and the lower rungs of the working class.
We moved into whiteness. And I recall not liking it.
Thank you, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for these memories.