— Pam Grier
(b. May 26, 1949)
Times of the year have always evoked memories from my childhood — some good, some bad ... but most of them good.
April conjures up images from some great backyard Easter egg hunts of my early days, especially on the occasions when I stumbled upon the golden egg filled with prizes like candy, a couple of quarters or even a dollar when the household economy was strong.
August forever reminds me of hot afternoons in high school when our Latin teacher, Mr. (James) Cowan, taught with windows wide open because many public schools in our district in the early ’70s didn’t have air conditioning.
November always brings smiles from my youth of Thanksgiving tables laden with turkey and cornbread dressing, and homemade delights like banana pudding and peach cobbler made by the world’s greatest cooks — Mom and both grandmoms.
December warms the heart with reflections on colorful cedars decorated by tiny hands and a modest assortment of wrapped gifts spread beneath the lowest branches; as well as sandlot football games played by little ruffians in the outdoor cold or of an indoor pre-Christmas dinner at a cousin’s crowded house.
Over the past several years, February has taken on new meaning as well — and not because of all things pink. It is Black History Month, an observance that returns me to the days of Collierville High, a small 1-A member of the Shelby County Schools System. At least, it was small at the time. Back then, the home of the “... mighty, mighty Dragons” was still a good 20-minute drive from Memphis, the giant metropolitan neighbor to our west.
As I am told, all that has now changed. I’ve not visited Collierville in a few decades, but folks tell me my old stomping grounds are now pretty much a part of the Bluff City. And what used to be a tiny school is now big.
I’ve previously written of my high school years so some of the names, and incidents, will be familiar to regular readers. But every February I think back on those days because Black History Month reminds me of some close and dear friendships made during a time when race relations teetered on ... tolerance, nothing more and sometimes everything less.
The movie “Remember the Titans” is probably the best analogy to describe the overall mood. Like in districts across America, several predominately black schools in the Memphis area were being closed. Court-ordered desegregation meant black kids were being bused to white schools.
It meant white kids and black kids were sharing the same classroom ... and for many, it was the first time in their lives.
It gave new meaning to the term “melting pot.” And it served as a fuse for potential implosion.
But these were the days of the early ’70s, a time when the violence and resentment of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement continued to stir emotions in households across the South. Persistent division within communities and among parents always threatened to escalate into the hallways of public schools.
Back in those days, I wasn’t an avid reader of the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s front page. I didn’t generally make it beyond the Sports Section. But had I paid attention, I probably would have seen headline after headline after headline of racial disharmony within the schools of Memphis and Shelby County.
But kids did what kids had to do.
They were told to learn together. And they did.
They were told to eat lunch together. And they did.
They were told to assemble together in crowded auditoriums and stuffy gymnasiums. And they did.
They were told to share bathrooms and to line up for the same water fountains together. And they did.
They were told to compete on the same athletic teams together. And they did.
They were told to practice self-discipline together. And they did.
I don’t remember if we were ever told to like each other. And by the way, that’s not a reference to Facebook. Back in the day, to “like” someone meant to ... well, like someone.
It wasn’t easy. Change never is. And when you toss race into the fray, it’s a stick of dynamite just waiting for a lit match in the hands of the wrong person.
But we survived.
And in the end, many became friends. In some cases, we became close friends. Our lives remained a world of black and white, but we learned tolerance and we embraced the good of the whole.
Even as we graduated in ’73, all wasn’t perfect. Racial preference often created the same divide as that which governed the ’60s.
But life was getting better. And it was all because of a first step called Civil Rights.
Communities were torn and parents were split. So the kids had to make it happen.
And they did.
And somewhere, sometime during all the drama they learned a whole new appreciation for difference and for all the good that diverse shades of skin can bring.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll pay tribute to Black History Month by looking back on a couple of dear friends from my youth.
One was black. One was white.
One was a guy. One was a girl.
And both taught me so much about the beauty of life, the power of love and the invigorating influence of color.