Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Sticks and Stones
As the cold steel doors to the coal bin were heaved open we watched in awe. Most of us gathered around the twice a week ritual like morbid curiosity seekers surrounding a satanic ritual, simultaneously frightened and fascinated. The well-known sound of the coal laden dump truck rumbling closer was an invitation for me to edge my way through the other children up to the front of the crowd.
To us this was not about heating. Our young minds conjured up images of untold evils taking place in the bowels of our apartment building, led by …the coal men. Blackened with coal dust, they scurried about the underground corridors filling us with unfounded fear whenever they approached. Nearing the front row of the mob, my nose caught the faint but familiar odor of the black dust mingling with their sweat. Looking up, I stopped. Behind a boy half my size, I was now close enough to reach out and graze the shovel in one of the coal men’s hands. I took comfort in the fact that however small, that little boy was a barrier between me and the soot covered workers as they unhooked the chains and began raising the truck bed.
We covered our ears during the thunderous roar of the rusty truck bestowing its gift of gleaming, ebony rocks. Within seconds the gaping mouth of the coal bin had swallowed every last morsel, save a few scattered crumbs, which one of the men quickly shoveled into the opening. As the doors were sealed the empty truck seemed to heave a sigh of relief as it left. The other children raced back to their interrupted playing and I ran to reclaim my throne atop the coal bin doors, whereupon I had ruled my kingdom prior to the invasion of the coal men.
It was then that I was overtaken by a boy obviously intent upon overthrowing my reign. Beaten to the throne, I indignantly demanded that he get up, after all I had been there first. At which point he began chanting something about moving feet and losing seats.
“Shut up!” I interrupted
“Make me!” he dared.
“I don’t make trash, I burn it.” I retorted
“No wonder you’re so black!” he yelled, “At least the coal men can wash off the black.”
“I’m not black,” I gasped, insulted at the thought of being compared to the much maligned coal men.
“You’re colored.” He challenged, holding his pale white hand up to mine in contrast. With those words his coup was complete as I ran crying home to Mama.
It was ironic that my first conscious encounter with prejudice happened in the midst of my own unconscious bias, arising out of my fear and ignorance of the coal men. Wrapped up in the rude awakening that I was different from so many of the children in our military complex were lessons in the pain of bigotry, the acceptance of self and others regardless of our differences and in the futility of the childhood adage “Sticks and stones will break my bones…” you know the rest.