I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Race and money made for an easy roadmap in 1978 Atlanta. It was orderly. The white and black communities knew where to go and not to go. Each knew where to eat, where to shop, where to live, and where to send their kids to school.
Against this backdrop, controversy brewed when my classmate, Raquel, delivered invitations to her birthday party. The parents of my classmates focused on the trivial at first for Raquel had delivered her invitations on Monday, which was her first faux pas. It was only five days before her birthday party.
Atlanta society required at least two-weeks’ notice. Raquel’s second error was more subtle: she was the only African American member of my second-grade class. By the late 1970s, Atlanta had made strides in race relations, but the upper-class white gentry still remained uneasy when their kids interacted too closely with the black children who attended the stable of private schools, including the prestigious Catholic school I attended. The invitations proved incendiary. They were handwritten and delivered on white-lined paper rather than Laura Ashley stationery or blazoned with traditional cartoon characters like Snoopy, Scooby-Doo, or the Super Friends.
My mother had little time to review the invitation, which I had jammed in my Incredible Hulk folder, when she received the first call. “Did Chris show you the invitation?” my friend’s mother said in a drawl that reminded one of pecan pie and okra. “It’s from the black girl who stands in the doorway. This has to be a joke. There’s no way I’m sending Hunter. It’ll be way too dangerous. And we have plans anyway.”
For Raquel, entering class was a daily struggle. She would stand in the doorway well after the bell had rung, I presumed out of either shyness, terror, or a combination of both, but she did not move. It took cajoling from our teacher, the principal and sometimes other faculty to convince Raquel to join her class for the day’s lessons.
The school taught us core values and provided its students a moral compass at a young age. But Raquel saw something different. She saw white kids. Most of our families ignored the black community unless we needed something. We were separate and definitely not equal.
By the time I reached second grade, my family and I had lived in Atlanta for only a year. Our Southern experiment would prove a short one as we would move back to Connecticut before I turned eight. It was a difficult transition for my parents, who were born and raised in Yonkers, a lower-middle-class suburb of New York City. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, they had the experience of different cultures. Poverty is a great equalizer and both of my parents, especially my father, grew up poor.
My father was by no means a champion of the black cause, but he believed in fairness above everything else. He was egalitarian in his approach to life: everyone was a threat until they proved otherwise. He had a hard edge, sharpened by being the youngest of seven children and raised in a tenement by his five sisters and, less frequently, by his absent alcoholic father.
My father began his career on Wall Street after serving in the Vietnam War. He was an Army grunt who spoke little of his experience but was apt to show approval when meeting someone else who had served in combat. A testament to the American Dream, he was recruited by Shearson Lehman in their fledgling Atlanta office after working his way up the Wall Street ladder. Mostly, they wanted him to bring his New York swagger to toughen up a trading floor occupied by Southern gentlemen who wore white bucks and madras shirts and who were boosters of universities with big-time football programs.
My mother’s experience in Atlanta was characterized by a far more compelling force: loneliness. She recognized that while her neighbors and members of the P.T.O. dined with her, gossiped with her and traded recipes, she too was an outcast. She could never be their true friend. They could be her acquaintance, but never a true confidant like the Italian, Cuban, and Ukrainian friends my mother had grown to respect while being raised in New York.
My maternal grandparents lived in an apartment in the same neighborhood of Yonkers where they had raised my mother and her older sister, and where my father had courted my mother as high school sweethearts. Yonkers was chaotic. It was dirty and had crime. And when you’re poor and trying to survive, you reach a common understanding and tolerance. You fight, bicker, pick yourself up, and move on.
More than anyone, my mother understood how Raquel felt every day. Leaving the familiarity of home in pursuit of opportunity offers the prospect of hope and joy but that goal is distant and the journey is paved with profound loneliness. My mother had made her decision before she received the second call from another worried parent. And while the dads tried to convince my father I should “sit this one out”, he did not want to be told how to raise his child by the Southern gentry. He objected at first, citing safety concerns, but ultimately came around to joining my mother in her mission. I would be attending the party. Short notice be damned.
Raquel’s house was a small post-war saltbox in the neighborhood of Kirkwood. In the 1960s, Kirkwood transitioned from a white neighborhood to a primarily working-class black one. As we entered Kirkwood, my father’s reservations emerged. He ordered me to roll up my windows, a curious request considering that he was going to turn me over soon to the environs he now feared even while rolling through stop signs in our new Ford Thunderbird.
My father was typically punctual but he tried to buy me some time. I was fashionably late to the party. My father awkwardly hung around the house before leaving. Like a soldier on a mission with a job to do, he wanted the party to go quickly and without casualty. He wanted me back in one piece.
By the time I arrived, the house was packed with family, friends, and neighbors. But it was clear that the white parents’ sabotage had been successful. Only three other members of my class were there. Wes had been the first to arrive. He was tall and lanky and looked like a science beaker. I did not play with him much, but when I did, the game of choice was Star Wars. He was C-3PO, and I played the role of R2D2. He found his way to the party because his parents were still hippies and sending Wes to the party was a way to stick it to the establishment. Wes had actually gotten there so early that his parents had helped set up before Raquel’s family assured them that they had everything under control.
The second member of our breakaway clan was Monica, whose parents were away that week but who were staunch advocates of Monica’s attendance. The significance of the invitation never dawned on her grandparents, who jumped at the opportunity to rid themselves of their battery-charged granddaughter for a couple of hours.
Whatever angst I had was put at ease when I saw my best friend Paul. Paul’s family had moved from Chicago a few years before. Our parents bonded quickly as they both shared a skepticism about the Southern way of life. Paul and I were forced to hang around each other, and it helped that we both suffered from the same hairstyle – the salad bowl cut made popular by such icons as John Denver and Dorothy Hamill. Paul was short and scrawny and had a brilliant mind. He would spend his days doing accelerated Math and helping our teacher explain difficult concepts. This made him self-conscious, a disposition made worse by a condition that made walking a challenge.
By the age of seven, Paul realized he’d have a difficult time keeping up with his counterparts, so he pondered ways to conserve energy and maximize his limited physical resources. Each of our games was methodically planned out and contemplated so that the action was efficient but intense. Paul and I would spend countless hours at each other’s house, spying on neighbors with our walkie talkies, playing with our Adventure People, trading football and baseball cards, and often acting out highlights of the latest sporting event. Paul was also the manager of our school’s football team, of which I was the team’s Running Back. Our annual goal was to beat our rival Methodist school, a goal so important that the Monsignor would attend games. At seven years old, Paul would roam the sidelines next to Coach Perini and take notes. After the game, we would dine on hot dogs at The Varsity while he regurgitated statistics from the game. Honesty was his best trait.
After surveying the situation at the party, the four of us made our way to the back yard, which we deemed a safe haven. Monica quickly became unhinged as the sight of the modest houses of the surrounding neighborhood started to sink in. Paul was scared and opted to sit down with his legs crossed and pick at blades of grass, which were hard to find in the barren, rocky yard. If the pit bull next door escaped from his leash, Paul knew he would be the first to go. For once in his early life, Paul didn’t have an answer.
Wes and I opted to be men of action and launched into our Star Wars reenactment. This entailed me putting my shoulders tightly together, and Wes to adopt a British accent like that of C3PO. It was a sad sight as a Southern boy with an afro and bad British accent made stiff jerky moves like a member of Devo while chasing a short kid with a bad haircut who shuffled around the back yard with his shoulders taut. And, for the first time, our Star Wars theatre had background music as it was accompanied by the sweet sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire and Marvin Gaye that emanated from Raquel’s house. A group of men on a patio watched us while barbecuing and enjoying the strange show that was now before them.
This only bought us so much time. As we struggled to avoid being noticed, the party in the house was reaching a fever-pitch. “Let’s Groove Tonight” blared on the stereo as smells of food we had never experienced wafted over to our young naïve noses. We could see inside the house as the screen door opened and the party emptied to the patio. Raquel, to our shock, was not the shy girl who never spoke. She was loud and happy while celebrating her birthday like every kid should. Her passion about being one-year older was genuine. We wanted to be reborn and join, but we could only watch, too uncomfortable to engage.
During a break in the revelry with her family and neighbors, Raquel saw us huddled in the middle of the yard and gestured to join her inside. The fear in our eyes registered in hers. We were guests in her house, but we felt awkward amidst these new customs. When none of us moved, she ran outside, and grabbed my hand. I grabbed Monica’s. She grabbed Paul’s and Wes followed. We were four frightened white kids tethered to a joyous little girl no longer burdened by insecurity and fear. She led and we graciously followed.
The transition was an easy one. We soon found ourselves laughing and drinking flavors of soda I never knew existed which would give me a sugar high that would keep me up all night. I tried the soul food and hated most of it, something I would later outgrow. I loved the music and would demand a Kool & the Gang record for Christmas.
Raquel first opened the presents we had brought. She politely embraced the Snoopy blanket, the Scooby-Doo lunch box, and Holly Hobbie doll set. The party reached a climax when Raquel’s family brought out a mutt that she hugged as if it were a long-lost sister. We had given her presents. Her family had given her life. As I watched Raquel embrace her new friend, Raquel’s grandmother grabbed me and hugged me as if I were her own puppy. She brought me into her chest and started muttering in a sharp cadence that made me think I was in trouble.
“Oh crap,” I thought, “this is where it goes down. This is what my friends had warned me about.” But I was soon comforted by the rhythmic “Praises” and “Childs” that emanated from her lips over-and-over again for what seemed like an eternity. “Thank you, my child. Thank you. You didn’t have to, but you did. You didn’t have to, but you did…” the grandmother repeated. In a small house in Kirkwood, I felt at home in Atlanta for the first time.
As the party wound down, one of Raquel’s uncles told me that my father was outside. “He’s been out there awhile,” he said.
After I said my goodbyes and gathered my belongings I exited to find my father under the hood of a car with three other African American men looking on. My father finished up his diagnosis, shook hands and said farewell. He had arrived at the party an hour before to pull me out, witnessed my enjoyment and backed away only to discover that he too was looking for something more than what we had in our posh neighborhood.
What he initially deemed threatening he now deemed comforting. Hope in an inner-city that was more familiar to him than the well-heeled segregated suburbs. He missed the city life where you were judged by what you did and who you were, and not where you came from. “Jerome was in ‘Nam,” he said approvingly as he looked me up and down and made sure I was still in one-piece. On our way home, I assumed control of the radio and changed the dial to the R&B station.
When we returned to school the following Monday, I ran to my seat and opened my Mead organizer. I nodded to Wes, Paul, and Monica. I felt superior to everyone else. I looked for Raquel but did not see her. After a few minutes, I noticed that she was in the classroom doorway, cowering as she had done on most mornings of our young school careers. While each of us sat in our seats, Raquel was the same scared second grader as the one who started school on Friday. I was devastated that the party had not washed away those feelings of insecurity. Didn’t she realize that she belonged and that at least a few of us cared about her? I thought our small strike force team had washed away racial injustice at least in the mind of one girl.
As Raquel stalled in the doorway and we opened our books for the day, our teacher, Mrs. Conroy, began the daily ritual of prodding Raquel to join us. I still remember Mrs. Conroy as an amazing woman who taught us tolerance and compassion. But she knew best that those were just words and solving a century of racial tension was above her pay grade. After fifteen minutes, there remained no progress as we were told to open our books and read while Mrs. Conroy continued to coax Raquel, who remained frightened and uncomfortable.
Of the twenty-six children she had invited to attend her party, only four had shown up. None of the other students had an acceptance rate so low for their own parties. It was the “short notice” many parents would later claim. “Hunter would have gone but darn, we just had other plans.” And now, at school, there was no Earth, Wind & Fire playing in the background, the comforting embrace of her grandmother, or any other sights, sounds, or smells that eased her discomfort. Instead, she looked at the faces of twenty-six white kids, twenty-two of whom had declined her invitations for reasons varying from fear and ignorance to sheer disdain.
As we shuffled awkwardly in our seats waiting for the stand-off to end, Mrs. Conroy asked us to stay seated as she was going to get our principal, Sister Jean. Then Paul did what all of us from the party wanted to do and Mrs. Conroy could not. Paul mustered up his energy, arose, and limped over to Raquel with a determined gait.
He was motivated less by MLK’s dream and more by an answer – a simple one – and he was not going to be denied. He grabbed Raquel’s hand and held it purposefully. He then led her to her seat in the classroom. Raquel followed, sat down and opened her book to begin the day with the rest of her classmates. Paul went back to reading his workbook. He said nothing. Nor did I. Nor did Wes and Monica. I heard Raquel say, “thank you” but she didn’t have to.
Previously Published on memoirist.org