Excerpt from the fourth chapter.
You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You
by Sherie Labedis
Thursday, June 23, 1965, Charleston, South Carolina
I know the black child is here as I awake. I’ve sensed her presence each morning when the sunshine peeks between the curtains fashioned from scraps of cloth lovingly and repeatedly stitched together.
Her hand strokes my hair hesitantly. I choose not to interrupt her exploration and I keep my eyes closed so as not to frighten her away. The touch strengthens as she combs my tresses with her fingers and gathers some into a small hand-sized ball. Collecting another fistful, she presses her palms together, her fingers tangling into a knot. Aha! So, blond feels like this.
“Janis, you get yor bad self in here,” her mother’s voice intrudes from the kitchen. With a sharp intake of breath, Janis carefully untangles the strands so as not to pull my hair. She doesn’t want to wake me and she doesn’t want her mother to know where she is. A floorboard creaks as she darts out of the room.
Janis, I know now she is six, needs to know what white feels like because she has never been “touching” close to a white person before. She’s too young to realize she wants to breaks the rules, the societal laws that dictate how colored people should relate to white people. If she ignores those customs, she risks punishment. The belief that she is definitely not equal is the foundation upon which these tenets, spoken and unspoken, stand. She may not walk on the sidewalk if a white person strolls there, she must step into the street. She may not sit at a table with a white person, enter a white restaurant through the front door or sit any place other than the colored section. She may not try on clothing or shoes in a white store because the clothing would be tainted. She must drink from the colored fountain and sit in the colored balcony at movies. Even courtrooms are segregated. She could not have learned all the restrictions by the age of six, so her mother has commanded her to stay out of our way and to have good manners. Janis intuits that touching a house guest is not good manners, but six-year-olds are not as inhibited as adults when it comes to satisfying curiosity
That is what she is here to do. Her sable skin glows. Jet eyes question and laugh. Black pigtails adorn her head. Tan colors the palms of her hands and the bottoms of her feet. She delights in our differences. My blue eyes and white skin, not even tanned from the summer sun yet, tempt her. My lifeless, Marilyn Monroe mane slumps to my shoulders. Outside the bed clothes, white colors my hands and feet and then there’s Nellie, the other white volunteer, who is doe-eyed, with black rimmed glasses and shorter dark-brown hair pulled back just behind her ears. We are white and she knows she mustn’t touch us, but she is curious.