To this point, I’ve tried to recall as much as I can about my life from the time of my birth to six years old. In this piece, I’m going to attempt to share some memories about the period of six years old through seven. As I’ve gone through this exercise, I’ve used not only my mental capacity to remember, but also smells, and even emotions. You might wonder why depend on things other than mental imagery. Speaking for myself, and you might experience the same, whenever I think of times gone by, my memory is often triggered by feelings. For example, the year I turned sixteen, held a certain amount of excitement that went hand in hand with things like learning how to drive and getting my driver’s license. The year I turned sixteen was more than just a matter of chronology, it was a year of several milestones, defining moments, that transitioned me to memorable points in my life.
I started elementary school at Childress Elementary in Wynne, Arkansas in the Fall of 1956. Wynne was, at that time, a small town of about 4,000. Situated between two geological features, the Arkansas Delta and Crowley’s Ridge. In 1956, the town had only one traffic signal at the junction of Highway One and I believe what’s now Hamilton Avenue. (Anyone who reads this and remembers differently, I will not be offended by a correction.) In the 1950’s, Wynne was distinctly segregated. I believe there were four wards or sections that divided the town. Two railroad tracks, one running East and West and the other North and South, formed the outlines of the wards. The ward consisting of the Northwest quadrant of town was all Black. Black folks referred to it as across the tracks. At six years old, I had little consciousness of the segregated environment in which I lived. There were colored and white degrees of separation everywhere: public water fountains, medical clinics, interstate passenger buses. Black folks customarily went to the back doors of white folks houses if they had business to conduct. There were social lines of demarcation that created a Black and white world, and the two hues never overlapped.
To reiterate what I mentioned earlier about my memory being assisted by senses of emotion, I distinctly remember being nervous on my first day of school. I don’t remember how my mom and I got there, but I do remember feeling like I had been dropped off somewhere that definitely wasn’t home, with a bunch of kids and adults I didn’t know or trust. Of course, that predicament corrected itself over time. Many of those kids are still around as adults, some still reside in Wynne and others are living their lives on some portion of God’s green earth miles away from that tiny hamlet called the city with a smile.
Looking back on my experiences in the first grade, I remember reading about Dick and Jane and other prime-reader characters, who didn’t look like me, and had no relevance to the life experience of a poor Black kid living in Cross County, 1950’s Arkansas. I do, for some reason, remember the little white characters we read about seemingly jumping off the pages, coming alive and bringing joy to the little Black boy living in a piece of world carved out for him by nonsensical laws.
I slightly remember the excitement I and the other kids in my class had about being promoted to the second grade. I also remember how my advancement through the second grade was hamper at some point midway through the year. I was sick with one illness after the other, which caused me to miss a large portion of the second grade. It came as quite a shock to me when school officials told my mom that I had to remain in the second grade for another year. Seeing others with whom I started my elementary-school journey leaving me behind was emotionally troubling to say the least. For some reason, it still tweaks my emotions sixty-four years later. Isn’t it funny how long-term memories can influence you as if they just happened? They still produce sounds, smells, and images.
I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.