I’m not a neurolinguist, but as the expression goes, “some of my best friends are.” They like to remind us that the human brain is an organizer. As marvelous as the brain is, it cannot manage random, disassociated data; therefore, our brains are crafted to sort, classify, categorize, and relate. “STORIES” exist in all human cultures because human brains use this format to organize the events of our existence, and give structure and meaning to our lives. For each of us, our lives become stories linking and defining who and why we are. With no particular organizational structure, I share a collection of my stories:
OUTHOUSES AND EQUALITY
Some of my earliest memories involve the outhouse behind my parents’ home in Red River Parish, Louisiana. The size, shape, color, and even smell are only vaguely recalled; but the fun – the joyous fun – is stamped indelibly into my memory. My Daddy would take me on the trek to the outhouse, and along the way we reviewed the story of the Three Little Pigs. Perched on the wooden seat inside the little building, I became the little pigs. Daddy, the wolf on the outside, would knock loudly and call, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” And I would respond bravely, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” Over time, we mastered the entire dialogue, and sometimes improvised. My favorite part was always the huffing and puffing. Even an outhouse is wonderful when a parent takes the time to relate to their child.
Of course, there were other outhouses, actually many of them. During my pre-school years, which overlapped with World War II, my Daddy was charged with replacing the local Veterinarians, who were called to military service. His background as a chemistry teacher and science major, and upbringing as a “farm boy” made him eligible for this alternative service, and he carried me along on his visits to farms of Red River and Natchitoches Parishes. When we drove up to a farmhouse, we always checked the location of the outhouse. Daddy said that you could know if the residents were ignorant or lazy by the placements of the outhouse and the well. He had a special frown and shake of the head for people who placed the well and the outhouse too close to one another.
These farm travels were the most exciting part of my early childhood. Once when Daddy was called to check on a sick cow, the animal staggered about making indescribable, pitiful sounds through her nose. She was suffering from tetanus (lockjaw) and had to be put down. Daddy made certain I understood the relationships between sharp rusty objects, shots, and lockjaw. On another outing, a mule had been bitten by a rabid dog, and was foaming at the mouth, and charging, with a wobbly gait, at anything that moved. As much as I love animals, to this day, I always observe their behavior before approaching. If only I had learned to do the same with human beings?
It was on these travels that I first became aware of race. My discovery was that Black children were generally nicer than white children. I was never ignored on the Black farms, and generally enjoyed special treatment. At the white farms, it was hit or miss, depending on the age, gender, and “manners” of the children. When children weren’t friendly, I stayed close to Daddy, and listened and watched his exchanges with the men. I learned some interesting words.
Watching and listening ended my adventures. One day a farmer noticed me, and saw a young girl instead of a child. He must have opened Daddy’s eyes because the next day, Daddy told me I couldn’t go with him. I was dumped; abandoned, discarded; and to add insult to injury, Daddy asked my little brother to accompany him. Till this day, 70 years later, I still feel the pain and the anger. Gender was clearly the issue. Boys and girls were not treated equally. Boys could go places and do things that were forbidden girls. In my little mind, there was “fair” and “unfair,” and I knew what unfair felt like. I experienced discrimination, and didn’t like it one bit. The attitude that led me into the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s (in Louisiana) and the Equal Rights Movement in the 1970’s (in New York City), and mediates my political views today was set before I started first grade.