Growing Up Black: What Do You Recall From Your Childhood (And How Has It Shaped Your ‘Now?’)

*I’ve had the opportunity to live in several cities and I must admit, each of them hold fond memories. Let’s see: I was born and lived in New York — Brooklyn’s (now gentrified) Bed-Stuy area — when I was but a wee child. I don’t really remember much of it. But somehow, my strongest memory is the time I was frightened out of my mind as I ran up the stone steps of our Brownstone. Neighborhood children were chasing me with a “toy” that was a stick with a fake worm wrapped around it.

I tripped on the way up those stairs and knocked my front tooth loose. 

OK. Maybe Bed-Stuy is not a fond memory.

Then there was the Bronx. Here, my dad was the building manager (at the time the title was the “Super”) and we lived in a spacious apartment underground. We literally went downstairs through a gate, below the surface of the sidewalk. That’s where we lived.

Let’s see: I recall a woman, a white woman, got drunk and somehow ended up on the roof of our six-story building; where she fell off…right onto my dad’s car on the street below — shattering his front window and denting the hood. I can still hear the barrage of expletives he commanded on that day. Showing no sympathy whatsoever for the poor girl.   But I also remember pleasant things from that “Little Italy”  neighborhood in the Bronx. The parties my family had; where we played the music loud and danced with our mother! The GREAT tasting pizza from MacArthur Avenue! The 3rd Avenue El  train. The street festivals! Divo Giovanni (That’s a story for another day!); the big bells ringing from Mount Carmel Catholic church at the same time every day and Carmela Pitrelli; the 80-something Italian lady who was like a grandma to me; leaning out of her top floor window next door, and shaping her hands in a secret-language that let me know I should bring up a pot because she had an Italian dish to share!

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Then there was Norfolk, Virginia. Whenever I see the film, Crooklyn, I think of it because it so exemplifies our travel from New York to Virginia every summer; where my sister and I got to spend time with our grandma, auntie, uncle and cousin.

But it was also a time when segregation was at its height and we attended an all-Black school. At that time, teachers were “allowed” to hit students in the palm of the hand with a ruler as a form of punishment. I recall some particular stinging cases of this. Another memory, a strong one, was the long waits for the bus on extremely cold and snowy days. One time in particular, I recall my little hands literally froze and I cried. A white man passing by as we stood at the bus stop came over and asked what was wrong. With my fingers curled up like claws I told him. I still remember his act of kindness: He took my sister and I into the nearby restaurant and bought us a cup of hot chocolate.

I also remember just about every Black person in our neighborhood had their own business. One of my uncles owned a general store; family friends often made and sold pies and cakes from home; a lot of women did hair in their kitchens (I can still smell the grease! Once my bangs were straightened so “good” they flew off once I got outside. No lie!).

Sidebar: Remember sitting ‘tween mama’s legs so she could do your hair every day? I hated it by the way!

Their were seamstresses, and a host of other businesses.

Proof that we were once (and can be again) unified, capable, profitable business owners, with supportive customers!

I have since visited all of the places I mentioned. Now I find it amazing how small everything appears. Almost doll-like. Though I haven’t visited Virginia in a while, when I did years ago, I recalled thinking how the unpaved narrow, pebbled streets — where the rocks would always get in my shoe and hurt my feet — and some shrubbery that offered a poor excuse for trees were the only separators of the Black homes from the concrete apartment buildings where the whites resided. I don’t recall ever yearning to live in those buildings (that we would now, quite frankly, look down upon). But the segregation was so embedded that no “Whites Only” signs were necessary. We just knew to stay on our side of the street.

I remember standing on my grandma’s porch thinking” When I grow up I’m going to move to California and drive a red jeep!”

…and guess what? I did.

…and so much more!

What do YOU recall about growing up Black, and how has it shaped your NOW?

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