Monday, January 16, 2012

Days of 1964 in Bloomington, Indiana: A Poem in Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Elm Heights School Building.
It is now Harmony School.

I am usually reluctant to say that events recounted in my poems really happened, but this is a true story. In 1957, state law barred school segregation. Nonetheless, as my childhood experience attests, de facto segregation was still in force in the 60s.  In 1966, when we moved into our home in Heritage Woods, a Bloomington suburb, my father tells me that covenants were still on the books that banned African-Americans and Jews from living there. Such covenants were illegal by then, and it is indicative of the cultural climate that even in an enlightened university town, the covenants had not been removed. 

Days of 1964 in Bloomington, Indiana

With kids I was so shy I couldn’t speak.
“Turn around and quit staring,” they commanded.
My father told me I was beautiful
and they ridiculed my looks: “Your nose is big.”
My mother loved my long hair and they asked
if she used it as a mop. I threw away

the sack lunch my grandmother had packed after
they said our food was gross. I couldn’t hide
my Greek family, though Mom’s proper English
was fluent. When children came to my house,
they twanged, “Whad yer mother say? She tawks funny.”
“You got a pin?” meant “Do you have a pen?”

They’d been taught a grammar other than ours.
Brenda and I talked, though. We walked to school
and back, then played together until dark.
Her dad showed us how our hands could create
animal shadows on the wall. A seagull
flew into the night the ceiling held.

Little Bunny Foo Foo bopped the field mice.
The fairy warned him three times to behave—
isn’t that right?—his goon face loomed! We yelled
the moral, “Hare today and goon tomorrow!”
Our third grade teacher was Mrs. McMillan.
She was pretty, her beautiful blond hair

teased in a French twist. She never had art
when she grew up, so we got something new
each week—finger paints, oil pastels, collage.
Homework was write a poem about the way
a color feels, and I wrote “Blue Is Greece.”
Safe places were her classroom, the library,

and home. Late afternoons we filed downstairs
to pick our books. The librarian’s helper
had earned a reward for good citizenship.
The chosen boy proudly stamped the due dates.
He had crewcut hair—ugly style, I thought.
“I won’t check out a book for any nigger.”

A grown-up supervised. I can’t be certain
if she admonished the boy, “Do your job right.”
What I remember most is Brenda’s plaintive
question: “I’m not a nigger, am I, Kiki?
I guess she had been spared the word till then,
and I had not yet witnessed it. I answered,

“No, you’re not,” helpless. Who could free my friend
Brenda from her unchosen role? The only
black child at Elm Heights School. Some say, reflecting
back on those days, “I was ashamed,” as if
obliged, as if our color bound us. Brenda
and I stood close, allies. Seeing her hurt,

I felt afraid, more foreign, not shame.
Our friendship was an invisible castle.
Our guests flew in on falling maple leaves.
We divided people into mean and kind.
That boy raised cruel came from the other side
and spoke the language we’d already vowed

never to understand, never to speak.
We held hands in line, waiting to be dismissed.
I can still feel her skin. Our hands were dry
from late autumn. We walked home with no thought
of history, that we’d taken our places,
citizens in the Great Society.

Brenda’s mom was fast with grilled cheese sandwiches.
We squeezed on too much ketchup, ate them right up.
Then we kneeled before the window. The sill
was our own stage; the afternoon, our floods.
Our shadowed hands held figurines whom we
moved in a play we made up as we went.

—Aliki Barnstone, from Bright Body (White Pine, 2011)



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  2. This is such a wonderful poem, Aliki!!!! Thank you for posting it on FB, too. Love, LaWanda

  3. This is such a wonderful poem, Aliki!!!! Thank you for posting it on FB, too. Love, LaWanda

  4. Hi, LaWanda - Thanks! I'm going to try to revise that FB post into a blogpost. I haven't posted in a long time, and I want to get back to it. For now, I'm painting, though...