When I was 9 years old I used to draw lots with two of my sisters to see who got to choose which TV program we'd watch on a given night. That Thursday evening, it was my choice, and one of my first selections was Bob Barker's Truth or Consequences show. A news flash interrupted the program just as Beulah-the-Buzzer sounded. Gypped again, I thought, I'm missing the punchline of the joke. An announcer appeared on the screen, delivered his message and, after a moment's pause, he repeated it. I ran quickly upstairs to my parents' bedroom where they were watching TV, too, but they hadn't heard the news bulletin yet.
"You're running up those stairs like you ain't got good sense, boy," my father said.
"Ma, they shot him," I hollered. "Mama, they shot him and he's dead."
"Who, Gregory?" she asked. "Who is they and who'd they shoot?"
"The FBI, they shot him, Ma, they shot Martin Luther King!"
"Oh, my Lord, Guy," she said to my father.
"Ain't that good, Ma? They shot Martin Luther King 'cause he was a spy."
I don't remember how my parents explained King to me or, even less, where I got the notion that he was a spy the FBI had succeeded in killing. (Nine-years-olds must have such fantastic imaginations.) News of his death meant nothing to me; it was just another name. it didn't cause me grief or shock. If anything, the news brought for me a sense of self-importance because it gave me the chance to tell my parents news that they hadn't yet heard.
Today, at age 19, King's life is no longer a mystery to me. In an age when there are supposed to be none, he is my hero. Factually, I know more about his life now than I did 10 years ago but, even more fundamental to my understanding of his life's dream, is the realization that I am merely an extension of that dream. Indirectly, King has probably exerted the single greatest influence on my life.
Through his philosophy of racial integration and equality of opportunity for all, he helped students like me - who had been limited by a lack of social and economic mobility - to catapult from Anacostia where I grew up, to Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College.
But in 1968 my world had only just begun to become larger than my neighborbood in Anacostia. It was in that year that I first began to have any real understanding for the difficulties and complexities of race.
Mine was a pleasant neighborhood despite what you may have heard or read about Anacostia. Row houses and smallish detached homes lined our streets. Garden plots, while small, were lovely to admire and if not lovely they were, at least, neat. "The Last of Six Kids"
Like my parents, our neighbors were mostly an older, stable, black working-class people. Many of them held government jobs or well-paying blue-collar jobs. My mother and father worked, respectively, as an examiner at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and as a truck driver at the Washington Gas Light Company. Most of the people in my neighborhood were homeowners who had lived in their homes for years while rearing a family. I was the last of six kids born to my parents and at the time of Martin Luther King's death I lived with my parents and two of my sisters in a row house my family had occupied for more than 26 years.
"My world existed just a few blocks beyond my door up until the year I turned 9. I knew my way to Good Hope Road from my house because there was a public library, a five-and-dime store and a movie theater on that street. Beyond that point, I could find my way past Anacostia Senior High to Fairlawn Park where, beside the Anacostia River, the neighborhood gang sometimes picnicked. I knew the way south to Frederick Douglass Jr. High because all of my brothers and sisters attended school there.
I could get to Sears on Alabama Avenue by going past Fort Stanton Park, where we used to play softball, basketball, swim at the public pool there, or search the caves in the woods. My western border extended along Nicholas Avenue. The barbershop I went to was located there, as was a small corner market where we kids went to buy candy.
One of my earliest sources of information about white people came from television and it provided only a positive image of them. I regarded as neutral the occasional white repairman or salesman I saw and the teacher who taught us French in morning lessons when I was in third grade. These were white people who merely passed through my life and I thought of them only as people doing a job.
Stories my parents told me recounted mainly negative experiences they had with white people. My father felt a deep and bitter prejudice against whites, but he was usually able to contain it. He said he had been discriminated against by whites, first when he was a boy growing up in Anacostia and later as a man trying to provide for his family.
My mother would sometimes tell me of incidents as recent as the early 1960s when "Negroes still didn't go in certain downtown stores for fear of discrimination.
'It was safer not to even try buying at some places because we knew before we hit the door that we weren't welcome," she said.
I attended Lucy Ellen Moten Elementary School up the hill from my house until the fall of 1967, when I was 9 and was bused from Anacostia to a new school. Moten was becoming overcrowded and parents of third-and fourth-graders were given the option of transferring their children to smaller, less crowded schools outside Anacostia. Opportunity Was the Key
Opportunity was the key word my oldest brother Guy, then 24, had stressed in convincing my parents that I should go. It was the first time I remember hearing the word opportunity and having it register for me. I took it to mean separation. In leaving Moten, I was taking advantage of this opportunity to detach myself from the stuff that made up the first sense of self I had developed in relation to home and other familiar places.
Also, I knew that in transferring to another school, I would for the first time deal with white people. I didn't feel intimidated by them. I was curious, as any kid is, to investigate a new find. More than anything else, I wanted this new relationship between me and white kids to succeed.
I boarded the school bus one fall morning. From the first time I and the other Moten kids pulled the bell chord to the fourth time the driver yelled at us to stop, we knew that the bus was ours. It was our vehicle to opportunity.
We crossed the Anacostia River on the South Capitol Street Bridge. I had never paid much attention to the river below but, in time, it became a daily point of focus choppy or undulant, I watched for it through the graping iron mesh of the bridge floor. It came to represent a transition area, a border state that existed, or the first time in my life, between my attachments to home and my affiliations at school.
I saw Margaret G. Amidon Elementary School for the first time as the bus moved onto Eye Street Southwest. It appeared small and neat. Once inside the school building, I was assigned to a room off the dark center hall where a middle-aged woman was standing in the doorway, smiling. I smiled back. Her name was Mrs. Kelly and she was my teacher. She was white. She ushered us into the classroom where we were met by curious black faces, scrutinizing us. I was disappointed not to see more than four or five white faces. I felt I'd been denied my chance to meet lots of white students. Classes Smaller
Classes were smaller than at Moten where more than 45 fourth-and fifth-graders had met in the school's cafeteria. At Amidton, we were introduced to the theater by an acting troupe from nearby Arena Stage and I was permitted to join a small group of maybe seven or eight student writers.
I was allowed to take my reading lessons in another class because I read with greater ease than the children in my own class. I had my first dealings with white children my age in this other class, which had a majority of white students. We could not talk easily to one another during lessons but since we knew one another's names I hoped this meant that we could get together later on the playground. No such luck.
Timothy was one of the white kids in my reading group and he was the first white I attempted to befriend. But when I talked to him on the playground about something we'd read in class, he mumbled something about, "No, not right now," and walked off with a friend, another white. The incident startled me because it was the first situation I'd ever been in that could be defined however remotely as racial. Yet, nothing at all had happened.
Later, something else happened that bewildered me. Eric, a friend who had come to Amidon from Moten with me, got into a fight with Mrs. Kelly. The argument began one afternoon when we were working math problems on the blackboard.
"Eric, why don't you work problem six on the board?" Mrs. Kelly adked.
"I don't feel good, Mrs. Kelly," he replied.
"Then why don't you see the nurse?"
"I'll be all right. Just leave me alone. I ain't bothering nobody."
"Listen to me, young man, you'll do as I say. Now either you work problem six or you get out."
"I don't have to if I don't want to." "Don't Touch Me, White Lady'
Next she tried grabbing him by the shirt sleeves but he snapped at her, "Don't touch me, white lady. You don't have no right to be grabbing on me."
Mrs. Kelly left the room. When she returned, Miss Anderson, a black teacher's aide was with her.
"What seems to be the problem here, Eric?" Miss Anderson asked.
"Ain't nothing wrong with me. It's that white lady."
"Eric, I believe you owe Mrs. Kelly an apology."
"I ain't apologizing for nothing. She's the one that started it. I told her not to lay her white hands on me, the white bitch. She don't make Gregory do what he don't want to. That's cause he's her pet, that black sucker."
Next, Mrs. Kelly lunged at Eric. He scrambled to his feet, knocking his desk and chair to the floor. A short wrestling match ensued as Mrs. Kelly and Miss Anderson tried to subdue Eric. In the end, Mrs. Kelly half-kneeled and sat on Eric's back while he lay on the floor, sprawled and crying.
Eric's comment left my ears ringing. The unexpected blow stunned me as much as it confused me. I felt guilty, first, for being singled out as the source of his frustration and, second, because I didn't know if in deriding me for sidling up to this white woman, hence, calling me on oreo.
Mrs. Kelly and I had gotten along well from the srart. She had given me books to read and one time she had allowed me and two or three other students who had finished assignments early to attend an assembly program from which the rest of the class was etcluded. "Was I A Traitor?"
Eric clearly had resented the way Mrs. Kelly had treated me. Was I a traitor because I had learned in every instance to take advantage of the opportunities she provided me? Or, by fighting her, was Eric setting himself up as a model for dealing with white people?
I was confused.
We were dismissed from school for the Easter holidays on the Thursday before Easter Sunday that year. I was especially looking forward to spending time with friends from my neighborhood who had said that lately I was beginning to change - acting, they said, like I didn't want to be around them. Whenever we talked about Amidon, the inevitable question was, "How do you like going to school with thosee white kids?" I would say "okay" and then we would begin talking in the high nasal voices that we used to mimic whites. We would repeat phrases like, "Golly gee, man"; "Gee, that's really neat"; "Far out"; or "That's really groovy man." Terror Came on Thursday
The terror came that Thursday evening after we got out of school. At first, the news flash announcing the death of King, then bulletins and updates flooded radio and television. The whole time I thought I was being gypped out of "Truth and Consequences" and my night's choice of programs.
Then, scenes danced furiously across the television screen of uncontrolled black looters tossing stolen goods to waiting compatriots from inside of burning stores. A coat or skirt leaped through smoke-filled air to outstretched arms as two men wheeled past a television set and another ran by clutching two electric guitars to his chest. Walls of armed policemen advanced under a fusillade of bricks thrown by the looters in defense. Tear gas cannisters exploded in mid-air or admidst the stunned plunderers, who writhed in blind agony or ran away grimacing in pain.
Later, I would learn that there had been some rioting in Anacostia, but several blocks from where I lived. The worst of the violence, however, was across the river and the news made me feel that the riots were a remote danger in another area of the city.
The only immediate effect of the riots on me that I recall was the nightly curfew hour that Mayor Walter Washington imposed in order to restrict the number of people out on the street after dark. It meant that I couldn't stay long at a friend's house during the Easter vacation and, on at least one occasion, we were forced to cut short a game of kickball we used to play in the alley behind our houses.
the seiousness of the riots did not strike a chord in me until I drove with my family through the most ravaged section of town. Battered shells of buildings on 14th Street N.W. and on H Street NE towered desolately above the debris of fallen brick and shattered glass that covered the ground. Whole city blocks of razed on fire-gutted guildings lined the empty streets. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before or would have believed if heard. Cities devastated by bombings in war pictures was the nearest thing I could imagine to the sight of this complete destruction. Yet, this was real. It was something right before me: I could see, touch, smell and fear.
I first noticed the fear that same afternoon when we were driving around viewing the spectacle and we stopped at a traffic light. A group of young boys who were standing on the sidewalk neared our car.I became frightened as they peered at us and mumbled among themselves. I'd heard of people being dragged from their cars and being beaten, so I crouched in the back seat. Then they began laughing and pointing at the sign my father had taped on the car window, which read, "100 Soul."
One of the boys said, "Well, I'm 150% Soul," and another said, "If you're 150% Soul, then I'm 200%." We all laughed. AS the light changed to gren my frather raised his fist and gave them the Sign. The Black Power Sign meant little to me except that it had helped to ease the tension we all felt after the riots.
I knew fear a second time when the school bus lumbered across the South Capitol Street Bridge after the East holidays. I was surprised to see an endless line of National Guardsmen standing on either side of the road divider. They were all dressed in fatigues, bayoneted rifles rested at their sides, and they stood with their arms askimbo. They reminded me of a cutout of paper dolls, all designed from the same pattern and strewn mirror-like along the highway.
The kids on the bus thought it was a sure sign that we would be mobbed by rioters that doy. We told our tacheres what we'd seen when we arrived at school.
Mrs. Kelly seemed more visibly shaken by the news than we were. She was paler than usual and her vocie fluttered nervously. She asked us to make signs that afternoon to post in her car windows as protection against would-be attackers who, seeing the signs, might accept it as proof that she was one of the few enlightened, white soul sisters. She wanted signs, she said, like the ones she'd seen displayed in storefronts, which read, "Soul Power" or "Black is Beautiful." A Chinese restaurant on Good Hope Road, my sister told me, had a sign on its door saying, "Even though we are Chinese, We are Soul Brothers, too."
We all panicked when the school bus arrived late for the afternoon pick-up because we could see a dark mass in the distance, approaching us. We scuttled in and out of the building to warn others of the coming rioters. My brother, Guy, lived in a nearby apartment building. He'd told me to go there and wait if anything should happen while I was at school. Just moments before I set to run to the apartment house, the approaching group came near enough for us to identify them. They were a class of other Amidon students, returning from a walk with their teacher.
Again the fear subsided, but we'd all been its victims. There was no escaping it. That was the real terror or the riots; the fear that someone, somewhere might be waiting to hurt you. "We Remained . . . Isolated"
At Amidon, no real change in the relationship between black and white students occured as a result of the riots. We kept the same as before: separated. Nonchalance best characterized the relationship between us. We remained in isolated groups even on the playground.
I was confused that year by the contradictions that race relations presented. Timothy's aloofness had disappointed me. Eric's outburst had embarrassed and stunned me because it raised unperceived divisions and tugged at my loyalties. And, when I came to realize that, in the riots, blacks in their anger at whites had burned homes and stores and belonged to other black people, that, too, baffled me.
The secrets to these puzzles eluded me for years until much later I found some clues in the life of Martin Luther King. He had attemoted to change people's attitudes toward one another in a peaceful revolution. IN freedom marches and peace demonstrations he had appealed to a dream of an ethnically diverse American society.
Now 10 years after his death I share his dream and have learned to accept the anxiety that is borne of opportunity. Call it opportunity cost.