For Colored Only by Mary Penrice

“Don’t be afraid of anyone unless they have hair between their teeth.” These were my father’s favorite words. It was those words that prepared me to deal with racial hatred, as a child then, and as a black woman today. In the 1950’s segregation was prevalent while racial tensions continued. Colored folks, or niggers, as we were called experienced unnecessary beatings, and murdered for no reason. For example, Emmett till at the age of 14 was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The killings of colored folks sparked the civil rights movement; the development of nonviolent protests, and the transformation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our family lived in the rural area of Pattison, Texas. It appeared to be a bottomless pit, because of the struggles people had to endure as families, a community, and the pain of going through segregation to desegregation.

Although our family was very large, I never realized how poor we were, or how much our parents went through being colored folks at this time.  For instance, our old wooden house was in the back woods where trees, weeds, and cotton fields grew all around us. The house was   small with a big kitchen, and a long brown table in the center of the room. This was the family favorite spot. In the evening our father would sit at the head of the table with us, as our mother prepared the meal. It was hard times, but we ate what we had: we laughed, told stories, and our father would always said, “Kids, don’t be afraid of anyone unless they have hair between their teeth.”  Of course, I did not understand the meaning of his words, so as a child I began to look for people who had hair between their teeth. It wasn’t until later I understood what he was saying to us.

Our community was very quiet because the white’s did not live around us. Everyone was aquatinted with each other in our community. In fact, most of our neighbors lived about a mile apart from each other. It was fun walking, and running down the dirt road going to our school or from house to house.  People in the community received low wages as they picked cotton, hauled hay, and did what every the landowners told they to do. After all, everyone was a tenant on the white man’s land. Nevertheless, it was fun when everyone get together on Sunday evening after church. We learned to pull together; if one family had food, clothes, or supplies they shared with those that was without, and I felt safe as a child.

As time went by, people began to talk about segregation and desegregation. I did not understand what it meant; however, life was not the same for any of us anymore. The white’s stopped calling us colored folks, and began calling us niggers. The laws started changing, and so did people. My parents and the other people in our community knew they were not slaves. Regardless, in those days the colored people knew their place because we had no power, just hope. Our father and the others looked forward to one day leaving this bottomless pit, for a better life. The ideal of self-improvement, and advancement for colored people did not sit well with the white’s. This new change over time brought about unpredictability, for the white landowners. As the struggle against racism, and desegregation entered the mainstream of America through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, we received a sense of proud, as the whole community watch news on our first black and white TV. The killings, beating, and abuse that our black people were going through in Alabama as well as Mississippi was over whelming to all of us.

The landowners, and the whites in our nearest town informed the black people that this particular town was not based on laws, but rather it was based on practice. Therefore, large signs were posted on ever business that said, “FOR COLORED ONLY” with bold black and white letters on it. Because of these signs it became a dangerous situation, and limitation for all blacks. One sign said, “NIGGERS, READ AND RUN” The police, and other official did not say a word as black people were being shot, beaten, spit on or disrespected. My father had no fear of the whites or the authority because this was our nearest town to get supplies.  He got slapped around, and it was challenging at times as the police tried to provoke him in more conflicts.  As I got older, and began thinking about my father’s words, “Don’t be afraid.” I finally understood it. He was preparing all the children for a life of rhetoric such as, hatred, discrimination and intimidation in this place we call the world.

Today, we are concerned about the killings of black males and females. When we see local or national news of television, or read the paper there are killings of unarmed black males being reported weekly. For instance, according to reports, more than 100 unarmed black people were killed by police in 2014. States such as, Baltimore, Md., Chicago, Alexander City, Al, Baytown, Texas, and the list go on. Killings are still taking place in small towns, and big cities like Los Angeles, Owings Mills, Md., and Strong, Ark. Most occurred in the South, where blacks are more heavily concentrated, with five shootings occurring in Florida alone. The shooting of Kris Jackson, 22, has also been shrouded in silence. Authorities in the resort town of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., have been so tight lipped about the case that at first they wouldn’t respond to questions from Jackson’s mother. After Michael Brown’s fatal shooting, unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire. It is estimated that 585 people have been shot and killed by police.

In response to my father’s words, “Don’t be afraid,” I say: Fear is a choice. However, I have learned the color of my black skin is permanent, and there will always be struggles because of that.

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For Colored Only by Mary Penrice

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