julie: on birthdays

June 12, 1967 was a Monday.  And while I don’t think I know anyone who was born on June 12, 1967, or June 12th of any year for that matter, that date will be forever and inextricably be one that I think of when I think of birthdays.

June 12, 1967 is the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision on Loving v. Virginia.  Although some states kept their laws on the books, and the exact meaning of it is still a point of debate, this ruling once and for all told every person in this country that the idea that it was illegal for a White person to marry a non-White person was not ever again to be called “Constitutional.”  It isn’t something they teach in many classrooms, but they should.  It mattered.

Waiting for this decision added to the already chaotic world that was my mother’s kitchen.  As with everything, everyone had an opinion: what would it be and what would it mean;  if it went the right way, would it change anything and if it did, in what way; how would those on each side of the question respond  and how would the other respond to their response. There was always planning for something, and this was full of all kinds of possibilities to be planned for.

One of the many lessons I learned in that small space was that simply changing a law, because something became legal or illegal,  didn’t necessarily mean that anything would really be different the next day.

When the calls started coming that any plan had gone the way they hoped, a bus had arrived safely, a march had gone well, a speech had been wonderful, anything had gone well, there was a sigh of relief and the atmosphere went from tense anticipation and readiness for bad news to instant delight.  And then it was right back to more planning.  But really big wins, things like a Supreme Court decision or the President signing a Bill, those turned all that tension into a huge and wonderful celebration.  No decision of any kind ever ended anything, but a big enough victory would slow things down for a minute, there would be a period of regrouping for the losing side.  And though every other wrong was still waiting to be righted, there was just enough time to have a really big party.

Among the things that big things were going to do was “change the social fabric of this country.”  When I finally asked someone what that meant I was pleased when hear that the picture I had of the world in my mother’s sewing machine was not that far off.  A lot of the people in my mother’s kitchen seemed to enjoy teaching me about the rights and wrongs of the world and I listened to all of them.  But there was only one person I wanted to tell me about Loving v. Virginia because there was only one person who knew just how the social fabric of my world felt to me.

June is many things, but in grammar school, it is mostly the end of the school year.  For me, that year, one of most important things that finally was over was  birthday parties for my classmates.  The school I went to had  lots of extra social fabric, but just like any other grammar school, birthday parties were an important part.  If you were lucky enough to have been born in the spring, your guest list could be updated with all the changes that had taken  place during the school year.

I didn’t have many friends at school.  I got along with everyone, it wasn’t a case of “nobody liked me,” it was just that my friends lived upstairs or downstairs or across the yard or down the alley and none of them went to the same school. But I had some “birthday party and occasional other activities” friends, they invited me and I invited them.  By that age most parents let their kids choose who they wanted to come, but there were still a few whose mothers made them hand an invitation to everyone.  The other thing about those birthday lists at the end of the year is that they are a way to publicly announce who is and who is not still your friend and who you will and will not be hanging out with  over the summer and, unless something “tragic” happens over the summer, who you will and won’t be friends with on the first day next year.

“I don’t have an invitation for you, Julie.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t you want to know why?”

“No, not really.”

“And I’m not coming to your party either.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t you want to know why, Julie?”

The truth was that I really didn’t care.  I only invited her because my mother thought I should invite people from school.

“Because you’re dirty and nasty and your house is dirty and nasty.”

It took me by surprise and I didn’t say I wasn’t, and it wasn’t, and  I didn’t care what she thought anyway, fast enough.

“And your mother is dirty and nasty.  She’s a Nigger lover and so are you.”

I froze.  I could feel tears coming to my eyes and I put my head down.

“You live with a Nigger and you and your mother are nasty Nigger lovers.’

I couldn’t really tell anymore which of the three girls was talking.  They were all laughing.  We were in the middle of the playground and it was almost time to go in and I was a student of non-violent protest and I slammed my fist into face of the first one who said something about my mother.

I don’t know what they told their parents or anyone else.  I got in a lot of trouble at school and they didn’t.  I don’t know what their parents said to them.  My mother was really angry that I would let someone saying “something” about her get me into that kind of fight.  All I wanted was for the short time before summer vacation to hurry up and be over.

The only person I told exactly what had happened was my step father.  He said a lot of things that I have drawn on many, many times in my life.   And so it was that when  Loving v. Virginia  was announced, that’s who I needed to ask.

“Will it matter?”

“Yes.”

“Will things change?”

“Not much.”

That was one of the best things about my step father, he always told me the truth.  And he was right. Not much changed right then, but just enough.

My birthday is in October, right at the start of the school year.  Two of the three girls didn’t come back, they moved to the suburbs.  The other one and I were in different rooms and never said a word to each other the whole year.  I had a pretty  good birthday that year.

In one of those strange coincidences, I ran into an old friend of my mom’s this week while I was thinking about this post.  We talked about their trips to Selma and Washington and other places.  We talked about some of the people from my mother’s kitchen and where they are now.  And we talked about how things have and have not changed.

“It all really did matter, didn’t it?”

“Of course it did, Julie!”

“Do you think things will ever really change?”

“Someday.”

I hope that’s true.  I really hope that the day is coming when all people have the legal right to marry whomever they choose.  And even more, I hope the day is coming when not just the laws, but the hearts that make up the “social fabric of this country” change as well.  But no matter what, no matter what changes, I will always think of Loving v. Virginia when I think of birthdays.

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