Tidal Basin Review, Spring 2011

Page 122

LIGHTS IN THE DARKNESS

Claude Clayton Smith

THE first time I ever saw an African American (or Negro as one would have said then) I was five years old. I had gone shopping with my grandmother at Paradise Green in Stratford, Connecticut, and as we walked along the sidewalk hand in hand a large black woman suddenly stepped from one of the stores, literally stopping me in my tracks. My grandmother tugged my arm, but I continued to stand and stare, my response one of total curiosity. Then my grandmother tugged me a second time and I sensed that something was seriously wrong. But the black woman smiled broadly, then came over to us and said (I remember her words exactly): That‘s all right—the little boy knows, the little boy knows. It took me a while to realize that the people my Great Aunt Vera (my grandfather‘s sister) called niggers (They smell, she said) were what my father called Darkies and included the colored woman (my grandmother‘s term) that I had seen. A second ―close encounter‖ came on a fishing trip a few years later, when my father, grandfather, older brother and I were waiting on shore for a party of men to return a rented rowboat so we could use it in turn. My grandfather was drunk (he was always drunk when we went fishing) and so was one of the blacks in the returning boat, a black man so old that his hair was white. He was singing loudly, and as the boat crunched ashore on the gravel bank, my grandfather did a little jig in time to the old black man‘s singing. There was laughter, a clumsy exchange of fishing gear, and (this time, at least) no tug on the arm. There were no blacks in the grammar schools I attended, but there were blacks in town, several dozen families confined to ―the project,‖ a group of apartments and duplexes by the regional airport in the south end, almost in Bridgeport. But when I was in junior high, a black family moved into our neighborhood—just four houses away—the only black family for miles around. I had a paper route at the time and passed their home daily, hearing neighbors talk in hushed tones about selling out before ―the area goes downhill.‖ A few FOR SALE signs did, in fact, go up, but no one, finally, moved away.

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