The Day I Learned About Race

By J. e Franklin

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Miss Austin is Colored, like all of us here. That is her offense.

 
The day the constable came into our school and took Miss Austin away was the day I learned race was a crime. When we saw our teacher in handcuffs, we were frantic with fear.

But she didn’t go quietly. As she was being led past the open door of each classroom, she shouted her defiance: “Keep studying, children! Study! So that one day you can stand and fight with me!”

Teachers tried to hold us back, shield us from the scene, but we leapt from our seats and pressed through the doors until we were all in the hallway.

An emergency assembly was announced over the PA, and we were ushered into the auditorium, which fell to a hush when the principal appeared.

“Children,” Dr. Pendleton began, “Miss Austin has been taken from us. She needs our help. You’ll each be given a note to take home to your parents on what we can do to bring her back. Meanwhile, how many of you have family members, or other grown-ups who’ve talked to you about race?”

My hand was the first to be recognized. “My big brother told me about race,” I offered. “He said the best races was the 220, the 440, the 880, and the 100-yard dash!”

A roar of laughter rose from the back of the auditorium. It was those upper-grade kids, always laughing at us little kids. The only races I knew were the ones I ran with my big brothers on the road that stretched past our house, from the corner of Market and Schweikhart, in a half-mile stretch without intersections, all the way to the railroad tracks. On those glorious nights when there was no traffic, our parents let us turn the road into a court filled with rollerskaters, scooters, and street-races.

I would race my brothers on that warm, smooth blacktop during early nights lit only by the moon and stars. Me, running barefoot, inhaling the smells of citrus and mosquito smoke and wiener-roasting among the sound of happy crickets.                                          

When the principal finally restored order, he did his best to help us wrap our young minds around the mystery of the “race crime” our teacher had committed.

“Children,” he said, “Miss Austin is Colored, like all of us here. That is her offense. Like many of us in this community, some of us have a color that’s white, but we have been assigned to the Colored race. The law states that, despite the white color, such a person must be separated from the White race. Everything we do and have, even the books we touch and read, must be separate. When Miss Austin borrowed books from the library and returned them after they’d been touched by some of you, she violated the race laws….”

The more the principal tried to explain, the more confusing things became.

I hurried home with the note I’d been given, and saw that children were already going door to door to collect money for our teacher. I was so eager to join them, I barely noticed that my mother had company when I entered the house. She took the note as if she already knew what was coming.

“Look-a here, y’all, at what this girl done brought….” she said, showing it to the other women in the room.

“I see you got one, too,” one of the women said. “I told you Addie was gonna have one-a them dev’lish notes!”

“Ain’t no use-a you asking me can you go with them people, Addie, ‘cause you ain’t going…!” my mother said.

“But, Mama…!” I protested.

“Don’t you ‘But, Mama’ me! And don’t be telling me about whose chil’lun’s mamas is letting them go. They mamas ain’t got no children in my house. Your Daddy just got home from work, and he say all on his job they questioning him ‘cause they know you go to that school. He don’t want you mixed up in this mess. Did you have your hands on them books?”

“No ma’am.”

“You bet’not let your Daddy find out you had your hands on them devlish books. That teacher gonna have to pay for every book y’all touched. Now you see why I tell you chil’lun to keep your hands off other people’s things? We ain’t got no money to be paying for no books! You can cry all you want to. You better dry up ‘fore I give you something to cry for. Get your tail on in that room, get out-a them good clothes, and go on outside and play.”

I thought my heart would break. I wanted to explain that Miss Austin had never let us touch the books, for fear we’d have peanut butter and jelly or mayonnaise and mustard on our fingers.  Some of the words were too hard to understand. Nevertheless, we would sit before her on the floor and scoot as close as we could to the book as Miss Austin carefully turned the pages.

It was on our account that Miss Austin had borrowed the books in the first place. Our school library didn’t have the ones she wanted to read to us.

The headlines of the White newspapers said one thing: “Imposter Passes for White at Town Library.”

While the Colored newspapers said another: “Colored Teacher Arrested for Using Library.”

The Colored newspapers called Miss Austin “brave… courageous… hero.”

The White newspapers called her a “wolf in sheep’s clothing… invisible Negro… leopard without spots… communist… trouble-maker.”

But we children were the ones to blame. It was on our account that Miss Austin had borrowed the books in the first place. Our school library didn’t have the ones she wanted to read to us.

She would drive to the town’s only library, which was on the White side of town. She would bring the books to our school, read them to us, and return them when the last page had been read. We loved her for it.

One day, though, she was followed from the library into the Colored ward where she lived, and her true identity was reported.

I didn’t understand the charges: “Impersonating a White person, with full knowledge that Negro blood was running through her veins…” and  “Contaminating and defiling White property…” and “Endangering the welfare of the White race, by contaminating White property…”                                                                                    

At the trial, everyone said Miss Austin defended herself majestically.

“I didn’t claim to be White!” she insisted. “If the librarian had asked me my racial identity, I would have told her, but she didn’t ask. The record will show that I returned the books in the same condition in which I borrowed them.”

But the charges stood. And, before she could be released, she was ordered to pay for every book she had checked out.   

These White folks is just double-headed when it come to this race-mess!

I changed from my school clothes but I refused to go outside. Instead, I hid under my bed, determined to hear what I could, to learn more about this kind of race which was not a running-race.

“Don’t Miss Austin belong to that N-Double-A-CP?” my mother was asking.

“That’s what they tells me!” a woman responded.                                                                

“This could be one-a their test cases,” said another.

“These White folks is just double-headed when it come to this race-mess!” 

“Girl, ain’t they?! Now, we be all in they homes, cooking they food… touching everything they got. So, why they scared-a us touching they books?”

“Listen…” one of the women said. “Did I tell y’all ‘bout this? You know I works for this White woman. One day, her husband comes home early and sees me folding his drawers. He just stands there, with his mouth hung open in surprise, like he asking, “What you doing folding my drawers?” Girl, it must-a just hit him that I’m the one been washing his dirty drawers all this time! Now, who the hell else did he think had been washing ‘em? His lazy-ass wife!? Then, all of a sudden, next thing I know, he was vamping on me! Getting all smoochy…”

“Ooo, girl, naw, he didn’t!”

“If I’m lying, I’m flying! Come trying to guide my hand down to his… Oops! Where your child at, Katherine?  She still in the room?”

When I heard my mother’s feet coming, I froze—afraid to even breathe.

“She bet’ not be in there! I done told her ‘bout trying to listen to grown’ folk’s business.”

“You-Addie-you!” my mother called out as she entered the room.

“Well, I don’t see her. I reckon she went outside.”

“Ain’t Miss Austin’s daddy White?” the women continued. “How come he don’t get her out-a this mess?”

“I don’t reckon he claim her…”

“Probably don’t. Just like the rest-a these White mens…‘round here preaching against this ‘miss-a’ cenna’ nation… missa… ever’what they calls it….”

 “… trying to brain wash the White woman’s ass.”

“They needs to brain-wash they own ass. They still mucking ‘round with Colored womens.”

“You telling me!”

“This White man shore is lucky he ain’t put his hands on my dark-mother and sired me ‘cause I would tell everybody what he done and who he done it with.”

“You and me both, sugar. I’d get me one-a them bullhorns.”

“I wonder how they fixes it in they mind, to be mucking ‘round with Colored womens but get all spooked when we touch they books.”

“They done burnt the books and still making the lady pay for ‘em.” 

“Ain’t that low-down-dirty?”

“And Miss Austin ain’t got but a drop-a Colored blood in her, and even that little drop must-a dropped down to her feets ‘cause can’t nobody find it!” 

“How much whiter they want her to be? She got that fly-hair and them blue-green eyes….”

“Yeah, but the law say ‘one drop’ make her Colored.”

“Now, what they think that one, little drop gonna do to them?”

“I reckon they scared it’s gonna turn ‘em Colored.”

“Well, it damn shore did turn her Colored, now, didn’t it?”

“Girl, you ain’t never lied!”                                                  

The room exploded with laughter, and the joking continued until the visit ended.

I know why the constable took you away. ‘Cause what you got inside you is so powerful—just one little drop can turn a White person Colored!

That night, I couldn’t sleep. The scene kept replaying itself in my dreams: the constable leading Miss Austin through the long hallway, her hands cuffed… her words of defiance: Keep on studying, children! Study! So that one day you can fight with me!

I didn’t know if I was woke or dreaming, but there she was, phantom-like, standing at the foot of my bed!

“Keep studying, Addie. Don’t let me down.”

“No-ma’am, Miss Austin. I won’t let you down. And Miss Austin… guess what? I know why the constable took you away. ‘Cause what you got inside you is so powerful—just one little drop can turn a White person Colored!” 

And then, to let me know I had gotten it correct, she gave her special winking-sign, when one of us was at the blackboard, and got our arithmetic or grammar correct.

“Fight with me, Addie.” the phantom was saying. “Stand with me, and fight with me, until all our people are free.”

“Yes-ma’am, Miss Austin. I promise I will. Just come back. Please, come back!”

That’s when my mother stuck her head into the room.

“Girl, who you in here talking to? Get your tail out that bed. You know you gotta get ready for school.”

That morning I ran all the way to school and was the first one there. Other children filled the schoolyard, all of them looking for Miss Austin’s car. When she had not arrived by the ringing of the bell, I knew she wouldn’t come that day. Each day, I hurried to the school and waited at the edge of the yard. I wanted to be the first one to see her.

But she didn’t come. Still, each day, I waited. Waited until I was no longer a pupil at the Atherton Colored Elementary School.

 

 

J. e FranklinJ. e Franklin is the author of the acclaimed Off-Broadway play Black Girl, which won a New York Drama Desk Award. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and reviews, including The Ponder Review, The Best American Short Plays, and Perrine’s Literature. Her awards have included a Rockefeller Fellowship, Eugene O’Neill Fellowship, and John F. Kennedy New American Play Award.

Header photo by maroke, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of J. e Franklin by M. Merritt.

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