Yesterday I was thinking about where my mind was when I was a kid, and how my perceptions of the world were all based on my limited experiences growing up in podiddly Florence, SC. For example, all of the black people I’d ever seen lived in one story houses. All the two story houses I ever saw in Florence were in white neighboorhoods. Therefore, all black people lived in one-story houses, and all white people lived in two-story houses. The execptions to this were the Cosbys, my uncle Charles, and our family friends the Hams, but they were different because because they were in “big cities” (New York, Baltimore, and Charlotte, respectively.) I did know some black people who had stairs or at least steps inside their houses, so this is why I still have a fervent desire to live in a split level home or one with a recessed living room. When our neighboors on the street behind our house added a second story to their home, it only reaffirmed my belief that black people, at least in Florence, couldn’t live in a house that was originally a two-story. The best we could hope for was to be able to add on. And I was ashamed, because that was about as bad as having an above-ground pool.
So, black people for some reason could not be “rich,” or at least not as rich as white people. I thought that all white people–and I’m really serious– were fantastically rich like the people on soap operas, and they lived soap opera lives in their two-story houses. Black people could only be “kinda rich”. I figured the richest black people in Florence had to be the Curtis Mathis man, my neighboors the Jetts, and my assistant principal and her family because her daughter wore ribbons in her hair on regular school days. White girls wore ribbons, and black girls wore those big balls or the elastic pony-o’s. I tried in vain on several occassions to tie my hair in ribbons but I couldn’t; this was obviously because I was not rich and therefore had to leave ribbons alone. The Jetts had a gigantic satellite dish in their back yard, and you had to get a pass from the government to do that because a person with a satellite could talk to astronauts the way my grandfather could talk to truckers with the CB radio in his van. The Curtis Mathis man was pretty much like a president or something, because he owned a TV store that sold big screen TVs. When I saw his name refrenced in a Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary book I was floored: this man must be famous. Why is he in Florence? I was thirteen before I realized that the man who owned the store was not Curtis Mathis, and this was after I’d been in his daughter’s wedding and developed a deep distant crush on his grandson. I give myself a bye on that one.
I also remember the day it finally struck me that the Cracker Barrel was not so named because only white people ate there. I was in the fourth grade.
Looking back, it seems really stupid, but when you put it all together, how does a kid know anything different than what she grows up with? Just going by TV and my daily life, I had the wonkiest, most screwed up view of what my life was going to be like, and if I hadn’t been such a voracious reader, I don’t know how I would have turned out. Eventually through books and magazines and anything else I could get my hands on, I realized that I wasn’t really poor at all, that black people could live anywhere they wanted to, that no one really lived like the Forresters on As the World Turns, and that I wasn’t doomed to be troubled teen on Geraldo simply because I grew up without a dad. I learned that there was a great big world beyond Florence that wasn’t inaccessible to me, that Charlotte wasn’t the most far-off place in the world, and that maybe someday I’d be able to go to New York, because there weren’t really huge rats like Splinter roaming around.
I live in a two story house in Charlotte and I’ve never been close to going on Jenny Jones. I wear ribbons in my hair whenever I want to, and the Cracker Barrel has some really good food. Satellite TV has nothing on digital cable, although satellite radio is pretty sweet, and everyone knows I’ll hop a train, plane or taxicab to anywhere– even New York– whether someone’s coming with me or not. I even braved Harlem alone at night to go to Amateur Night at the Apollo. I’ve been to Disney World and held my grandfather’s hand while we walked through the Epcot Ball that his line made the joists for, and done all kinds of seemingly small things that I truly never thought I’d be able to do, because I was just a black girl in Florence. So for every kid in every city, town, farm, and ghetto… dream big. You just might make it all the way to Charlotte after all.