Orange Skin

June 29th, 2017

Orange Skin

One brilliant summer weekday morning, when I was about 7 years old, my mother and I set out for a trip to the Chicago Loop.

Leaving the house, we walked the few blocks to the bus station, just the other side of the commuter railroad tracks.  The bus stood at the curb.  A typical squat, city bus, painted dark yellow, the destination sign in front read “Chicago Loop”; on the return journey, it would read, “Des Plaines.”  We clambered aboard the bus, where I got to drop our change in the collection machine, where the coins rang and clanked down first one chute, then another, till they lay at the bottom trap door.  We took our seats in the middle of the bus. It smelled of old naugahyde, diesel fumes, the acrid smell of sweat and perfumes of workers and old ladies, accumulated over the years, and and the tangy smell of the metal railings on top of the seat backs.

Excitedly, I looked outside, to see the center of town, then around the inside of the bus, where I saw a man sitting a few rows back.

“Mommy!”  I exclaimed in my high piping voice, “That man is black!”

“Shh,” said my mother, embarassed.  Sotto voce,  she said, “That man’s skin is black just like yours is white.”

I looked down at my bare arm.  “My skin isn’t white!  It’s ORANGE!”

That line used to get a big laugh, “It’s orange,”  every time she told it.  But when she did, I think it was with some unease. She was, I believe, embarrassed by our  privilege — by our family’s living in so white a community, by the fact that I’d never seen a black man before.

When she was young, before she got married, my mother after graduating from Wellesley lived at home with her mother (her father had died when she was in her teens), but did some social work in Chicago; whe spent some time at Hull House, on the South Side, and with other agencies.  This was in the ‘30’s, well into the Great Migration.

Later, when I was in my teens, Mom would talk about those times: how poor the people were, what tragedies they went through.  She was perplexed, though, by one thing.

“It was so peculiar,” she would say, “there were so many parks nearby, within just a few blocks, and the lake was within walking distance.  But,” Mom wondered, “there were kids there who had never been to a park, there were adults who had never seen the lake!”

I guess she didn’t appreciate the problems of being part of an oppressed community who were fearful, fearing walking through unknown neighborhoods, white neighborhoods — of being found in a place where they “didn’t belong.”

But never, in the many times she talked about her work with those poor people, did she mention the color of their skin.
After living in the South for ten years, I’m just getting a glimmer of that, myself.

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