minstrel show
Seventh through ninth grade students at Millwood Junior High School wear blackface while performing a school-sanctioned minstrel show in 1963. (Henry C. Coburn)

My sisters teased their hair,
painted their faces black, their lips white.
Faces like a black and white television set;
Millwood Junior High School,
northeast Oklahoma City, 1963.

I was eight.
Their feet jigged to Dixieland jazz.
Dozens of white kids
at a school-sponsored minstrel show.
Hands in the air;
fingers moving to “Alleluia”.

My father’s camera flashed,
burning the bulb, leaving smoke.
Children in audience brainwashed
seeing mankind diminished.
Parents laughed in school auditorium
until more black children enrolled.

The same multitude of colors
as theirs, flowered in my yard.

Fear changed the school bus.
A teenage black girl
was called “Big Bertha”.
Nobody asked her real name.
She sat alone, looking out the window,
seeing as I did.

Birds of autumn crossed fall sky
blending horizon of color.

Popular girls pinched their noses.
I knew what I was told,
but she appeared nice to me.

Hate felt bad.

Signs in yards all the way down the block
popped up like popcorn.

“Cheap perfume,” dumb, I was told.
I was another young kid, yanked into the exodus,
a boy torn away from the trees
and field I loved.

Black families kept crossing long-established
boundaries on Northeast 23rd Street.
Sit-ins had emboldened a free people
told they were not free to mix.

A dream defied fear,
a vision for all races
to live in harmony.

I heard Martin Luther King was a trouble maker.
His words, “We shall overcome” spoke otherwise.
White flight filled the suburbs
searching for a white spot in the universe
boasted by chambers of commerce.
Courthouses divided bathrooms.
Hospital entrances were reserved for whites.
“You can’t bring them in this way,” a physician said.

People forget.
They forget the danger of ignoring history
unless history compliments them.
Laws created two societies,
one “colored or negro,”
everybody else white.

A less bigoted generation came, then another,
but some folk never placed a stepping stone.
Some folk got as far as indifference,
painting life with broad strokes of ignorance.

I drive by my old neighborhood;
see shopping centers never updated.

Life is worth improving.
We all breathe.

Flocks of birds cross the sky.
Colors blend horizon
in warm oasis.