I’ll begin with this: I cannot remember a time in my life when I couldn’t read and write. There must’ve been a time, but I certainly do not remember it. I remember reading bible verses in Sunday school and writing letters to my aunts and cousins, all before first grade. Then I remember helping Mrs. Cooke, my first grade teacher at Bluford, with other students with their first reading lessons. See Dick run with Spot and all that.
I should also mention that everything described here took place in Greensboro, NC, mainly in the Dudley Heights community. On Sundays we’d take road trips to see my father’s family folks in the Jackson community of Brown Summit, NC, just a few miles up US 29, or to see my mom’s folks in Draper, NC, a few more miles up US 29. Our whole lives existed within that one hour radius.
I remember weekly trips with my Dad, my sister, Sheila, and I to Carnegie Library to check out books. I developed an early love for the library and for librarians. Then Daddy bought me the 24-in-1 electronics kit (Norelco) where you could build projects on a peg board. That was third grade. (Just checked and that kit is still available on Ebay in the original box. Amazing!) I fell in love with building electronics stuff, radios, musical keyboards, light and moisture detectors, etc., which was probably the point! Also in the third grade I began playing viola and did that right up through 8th grade jayvee football.
It was the 4th grade when I started reading whole books. I don’t mean kiddie books, but what would now be considered young adult fiction. There was the book about the puff snake, and the book about the time-traveling boy who came back for a baseball game. That year I also started with the classics: I, Juan de Pareja; A Wrinkle in Time; Shadow of a Bull; and my favorite, cover to cover, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In the fifth grade I discovered the black classics, no doubt assisted by my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Lillian Jeffries Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy and my father grew up together out in Brown Summit, just 16 miles away. I always suspected something had gone on between them back in the day. She brought me dog-eared copies of the Richard Wright novels, Black Boy and Native Son. I didn’t understand everything i read, but plowed through it nonetheless. Then she kept us for the 6th grade, she said she loved us so much, and graduated me to Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and all the James Baldwin paperbacks at the time, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Notes to a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time (the mother of a gal pal who was also a teacher would later introduce me to Giovanni’s Room and Blues for Mr. Charlie. I read though both with a more mature relish). And poetry. Mrs. Kennedy taught us poetry that we would memorize, and monologues from plays and famous speeches and writings like the Declaration of Independence. And there was viola twice a week and private lessons with Mr. Scott and practicing at home.
Meanwhile, on the weekends, I would go with Daddy on electrical jobs. I’d be the one to crawl into attics and underground crawl spaces and between walls and pull the wires. Daddy would say “Don’t be scared now,” but truth be told, I was often terrified in some of those dark and damp spaces. Terrified. But I told myself I could do it and I wanted to help my dad and be a real electrician’s helper! Then after we were done, he’d take me fishing out in the country (most of the jobs were in rural areas in Guilford County) and that made it all worthwhile.
At some point we, that is, the boys in our block, Kenny, Pete, Rodney, Larry and me discovered the wonder of riding our bikes down to Buffalo Creek to catch tadpoles and guppies and the occasional salamander. Then we’d transfer the tadpoles to a big tub in the backyard and watch everyday as they turned into little frogs and escaped. One day we discovered that the stream at the end of our street was just a runoff tributary to the real Buffalo Creek. As we walked along the side of the stream, all of a sudden the grass got higher and the water got deeper and we got scareder and scareder and begin to backtrack to safety. When I told my father about it, he drove me out to a bridge out Willow Road that crossed the real Buffalo Creek and showed me how water moccasins skimmed the surface and copperheads hung out on the shore. Never again would we “discover” Buffalo Creek tributaries!
t was also the 6th grade when I joined the Boy Scouts. It was Camp Wenasa every summer and sometimes twice a summer. (Note: Camp Wenasa had just integrated and black troops were allowed to participate. Occasionally, my troop alone, Troop #442 sponsored by Grace Lutheran Church, would go to Camp Carlson, an old abandoned camp where black troops could go on weekend camping trips before integration. End note.) I would lug books with me for reading between camping and hiking and campsite projects and merit badge meetings. Every merit badge dealing with nature and conservation, and every one related to electronics, radio and computers was on my sash, along with a few of the required ones. And Camp Wenasa had the best blueberry pancakes for breakfast in the dining hall.
I think this was the same summer that I got three yards to cut during the summer. Mr. Foster on Lincoln Street and Mr. Speight on Benbow Road had their own lawnmowers and I just had to show up and push. And there were always nice snacks. For Mrs. Whitehead on Lincoln Street I had to bring the lawnmower from home, but it was just a block away. And paid a bit better. And no snacks! It could have been an every summer gig had I stuck with it, but in the 7th grade I chose to go out and got a summer job with an outfit called the Neighborhood Youth Corp (or something like that) where I started out with library work at Gillespie School and finished the summer doing windows and janitorial work at UNC-G. This would have been around 1968, and the UNC-G counterculture was at its height – bookshops, used record stores, funky restaurants. I remember buying my first John Coltrane album, Sunship, and I discovered in a bookshop on Tate Street the Franz Fanon’s trio, The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin White Masks, and A Dying Colonialism. Heady reading for a rising 8th grader.
I was headed to Eagle when time ran out. I quit Scouting and the viola in exchange for 8th grade football. Not sure why but at the time it was one or the other. I “went out” for Lincoln’s jayvee team and survived summer training. Coach Kanoy made me jayvee captain and I played offense and defense and every special team. We only had five games but we went undefeated and unscored upon. I knew I had a future in the NFL! We’ll come back to that in a subsequent post.
We learned all our sex education from the older girls and guys at weekly Jr. Usher Board meetings. They really should not have left us without adult supervision in that church! I often wondered if they had the same fun in the junior choir. I somehow doubt it.
And always, beginning in the fourth grade, fleeting little crushes. Marian, and Pearlita, and Linda, and Karen, and then in junior high, Denise, and Janice, and Sylvia. Innocent, fun, special.
The Carnegie Library moved from Bennett College to the new Southeast branch after integration. Hanging out with the big boys, Reggie, Skip, Rodney and Bobby, we biked downtown to get library cards when integration came. I didn’t tell my parents until we got back. I got in a bit of trouble for that. The librarians all transferred from the Carnegie Library to the Southeast branch of Greensboro Public Library so we already knew them and they knew us. We’d go every afternoon for homework and flirting with girls who went to different schools, evenings during football season.
Kenny and I took over the newspaper route in the summer between my 6th and 7th grade year. We had about 100 customers across Dudley Heights. Kenny did Pichard and Dunbar Streets and I covered Lincoln and Hook Streets. The 4 or 5 dollars a week we cleared after paying the weekly paper bill kept us in comic books, a summer that began with innocently enough with Superman and Batman and the Fantastic Four and ended with Daredevil, Spiderman, and, wait for it, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes (the Vietnam influence). And the occasional movie at the National Theatre (where blacks still had to sit in the balcony), and french fries from a downtown Greensboro bar where we should not have been going.
And the reading never stopped. Not that I understood everything I read, but a lot of it was beginning to make sense. I especially loved reading the steamy stuff in the coming of age books, Manchild in the Promised Land, Down These Mean Streets, and The Learning Tree. We passed that stuff around like it was pornography. For us it was pornography.
It was the summer between 8th and 9th grade when I met the Baha’i people and the Black Muslims, folks going door-to-door proselytizing. It was the same summer that I got my first summer reading list for Woodberry Forest and chose to read The Greening of America, Future Shock, Silent Spring, and Soul on Ice. Soul on Ice was, frankly, a tough read for a 14 year old! Thus armed, I packed my belongings in a trunk and made the trip to Woodberry Forest.