Recollections of Racial Identity, by Jackie Cissell

I recently completed a sociology class in which we covered a section on how communities are identified by race, class and other factors.

During the class, we discussed our earliest recollection of racial identity, and the benefits and struggles associated with those childhood recollections.

My earliest recollection of my racial identity was at the age of eight. The time was the mid-1960s. I clearly remember my parents and other members of the NAACP poring over maps, discussing certain areas of the city where blacks could not live. It was during this time I realized that blacks could not live anywhere they wished in Kokomo, Indiana.

A well-meaning classmate said he could understand why blacks were trying to move out of our all-black neighborhood: because of all the killings and drugs. But my parents and others were not trying to escape the neighborhood. They felt that blacks had the right to move and live anywhere they wished.

My classmate’s ignorance compelled me to tell him how wonderful our neighborhood was while growing up there. It was a warm and wonderful place. We knew we were black because our parents made sure we knew it, but there was pride associated with our culture.

In Sunday School classes at our all-black church, we were taught about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and certainly about Martin Luther King. Church was not only for religious instruction — it was the place where the whole community gathered.

In most churches, entire families were members. This gave us the opportunity to visit with our extended family. It was at church that you learned who was born, who died, who was getting married and who was going to the military or college.

We walked to school. It was four or five blocks to James Whitcomb Riley Elementary School. There was no busing order yet. Each morning we stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and had a morning prayer. After the day’s instruction, most of us walked home. When we reached a certain street, there was a sense of peace and security because we had reached our neighborhood.

All the grandmothers at home knew what time school was dismissed and expected to see their grandchildren and everybody else’s children coming down the street at a certain time. If all of them were not accounted for, my grandmother wanted to know where they were. This was conducted with the blessing of all the neighbors.

There was no such thing as a “safe house.” All the homes on our block were safe houses. There were too many eyes and ears for it to be any other way. We never heard of occurrences of child molesting. Teen-age pregnancies were few and far between. The neighborhood would not permit it. A girl who was unwed and pregnant in our neighborhood went away for a long time.

Summers were especially fun. We would get old mason jars and catch lightning bugs late into the night while our grandparents and parents would sit on the porch and converse. We had some programs at the Carver Community Center, but one ball could be used for a neighborhood kickball game, four-square or dodge ball.

There were no Sony Play Stations or Sega video games at that time. We had mindless activities like spending hours looking for four-leaf clovers and trying to figure out the shapes of clouds.

In the fall, we spent lots of time canning fruits and vegetables for the hard Indiana winters. It was a wonderful time of bonding with my grandmother as she taught me how she stored food until spring.

One activity I especially loved was when the older women would have quilting bees. They would gather pieces of our old clothing and make beautiful patterns with them. The ladies would then put the quilting apparatus together, with each taking a section and sewing the little design onto a larger piece of fabric with cotton on the inside. I relished the conversations. They would talk about their experiences and always end the story with how God brought them through it all.

In times of death or tragedy, the entire community would come together. Everyone would converge on the home of the bereaved with food enough to feed the grieving family for at least a week.

We also had wonderful role models. Along with working-class blacks, we had our own black judge and doctor living right in the same neighborhood.

Yes, we had problems, but they were overshadowed by the warmth of the community. Black neighborhoods back then created precious memories and stability in the children in that era.

(Jackie Cissell is an associate with the Indiana Family Institute in Indianapolis, and a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21.)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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