Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Story From Segregation

The popular phrase used now to define the community structure needed to sustain and protect our children is "It takes a village."

Well, where I grew up in Frederick, Maryland, we didn't need a catchy phrase to know that as children, there were plenty of adult folks looking out for us. Sometimes we thought there were too many! We couldn't get a way with anything without someone calling home to tell our parents (yes I said parents in the plural) or to give us a good tongue-lashing about questionable behavior.

One of those folks was Warren Dorsey. Mr. Dorsey, who is turning 90 years old this year, had been a principal at Carroll Manor elementary school in the county, and is close friend of my parents. Mr. Dorsey is always writing - he loves the written word. He sent this story to me recently, and I share it with you now. As with all of Mr. Dorsey's writings, there is plenty of food for thought, and this one is no different. The story is based on an event in Mr. Dorsey's life.

DUNK THE NIGGER, by Warren Dorsey

I grew up in a small rural town in the southern part of Carroll County, Maryland. The years spanned the presidency of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and F.D.R. The community numbered about 1500 people, with about fifty being African American. Segregation was absolute with only incidental interaction between the races. Minorities lived on the edge of survival as a reality of daily life. The only opportunities for employment were as domestics for women and menial day labor for men. Most of life was a struggle to keep body and soul together.

Our world was defined by a boundary that included the shack-like house we lived in, the church we attended and the one-room school established just prior to the First World War. For many members of our community, an entire life could be spent without leaving the boundaries of the home-church-school enclave. I was born in this world I describe 90 years ago.

The people of my rural community established a volunteer fire company as protection against fire loss. Funds to buy equipment, and for operations, were raised mainly by an annual carnival. This annual event was the one time persons from the African American enclave were permitted to attend an area where the majority group assembled. Even then we were only permitted to access a limited few attractions and only then on a strictly segregated basis.

There was one booth that attracted droves of the people of the community. I don’t recall the exact designation above the booth, but it featured a large tank of water with a seat above the center that was connected to a triggering lever that could be activated by thrown baseballs. A person was perched on the seat and if a baseball was thrown against the tripping lever hard enough, the seated person was sent splashing in the tank of water. The person on the perch was an African American. Throngs of the majority community would stand in line awaiting a chance to get a shot of throwing baseballs hoping to trip the activating lever. The actual name of the attraction is completely lost in my memory and is replaced by a chant of those in line – “Dunk the Nigger.” The clamor to succeed in sending the man on the perch into the tank of water was surreal.

Every time the man on the perch was sent splashing in the tank of water he would scramble out of the tank, position the seat and the trip lever, and climb back onto the perch with the satisfaction he had survived the onslaught.

I awoke from a dream recently and I had an eerie feeling I was again on the carnival grounds of my youth. There was a vast crowd assembled under a banner that read “America the Beautiful” and everyone was shouting, “Yes, We Can.” Euphoria abounds. And suddenly the scene changed. Only a line of people leading to the tank of water remained. Perched above the tank on a seat attached to a tripping lever is an African American with a sash across his chest that read, “Yes, We Can.” The people in line all wore a button bearing the word, “No.” The line of people was made up of a vast array of groups and individuals. There were: 1. “Talking Heads” from the print and electronic media. 2. “Suits” from federal, state and municipal governments, 3. “Birthers” of every description, 4. “Town Hall” loud mouths, 5. “Extremists” from all walks of life, 6. “Baggers” and a conglomeration of countless others. This was a diverse group of people, but they all chanted one refrain – “Dunk the Nigger.” They all eagerly awaited a chance to toss baseballs with the hope to see the man on the perch splash into the tank of water.

Only a few of those in line were successful in hitting the trip lever, however they seemed to get a measure of satisfaction out of taking their shot.

After each splash down, the man on the perch would scramble from the tank of water, reorient the seat, reset the trip lever and climb back to his perch. The episode was repeated until the last one in line took his shot. At the end, the victim of this repeated ordeal returned to his perch, but this time there was a group of multi-ethnic singers gathered around him. They draped his shoulders with a “Coat of Many Colors.” A sight challenged man was seated at a piano singing and leading the group of singers in a rousing rendition of “America.” Above the din of the singing, I heard a cultured voice intone the phrase, “The Dream Lives On”.

The dream sequence seemed so surreal. I found myself reaching to the heavens, as my mother often did when she was steering me and my siblings through the maze of a segregated life. I kept repeating, “Father, help your children, lest they fall by the side of the road.”

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