I lived in the ghetto of Pontiac, Michigan when I was a very young child. We were one of the few white families in the neighborhood. I was perhaps too young to understand the significance of that or to even notice any import of the differences between the races there. My eyes were opened however on a warm summer’s day.
The front porch was being painted white, the wash changing it from faded grey to clean brightness. Having finished the job that morning, my mother felt it best to remove her 5 children from the temptation of disturbing the paint as it dried and took us to our grandparents for a visit.
We returned several hours later, she in the hopes that it was dry enough to not be affected by our hands and we in the wish to put our handprints on the creation, thus to mark it as ours.
Pulling into the driveway, we saw the young neighbor boy, Sheddy, standing shirtless by the front steps. He had a paintbrush in hand and was dipping it into the bucket of paint that had been left beside the porch when we had left. He had obviously been there for a while as he was more than half covered in the white fluid already. He was carefully painting the remaining patches of his brown skin, oblivious to our return. My younger brother, Tommy, jumped out of the car and ran to his friend, laughing and wanting to join in what he saw as play. We older children approached the pair slowly, anxiously concerned about our mother’s reaction. She sat in the car for a moment. It seemed she could not close her mouth and her eyes were wide as she watched the boys now painting each other and squealing with laughter. Finally, she slowly got out of the car and approached the jubilant pair.
Sheddy’s mother came into the yard at this point, her hand firmly held by Sheddy’s older sister who had brought their momma to see what he had been doing. She wordlessly came and stood beside my mother as we all stood to the side in silence, waiting to see and hear what would come of this.
My mother finally moved and without a word, turned the spigot on for the water hose, lifted the nozzle, and brought it over to the 2 boys who were now aware that just maybe, they were in trouble. Each woman took hold of a child and started to wash the paint off of their small bodies. The water was cold and they shivered though the day was warm. The women quickly finished their work, still silent as they scrubbed the pair clean of the paint.
The silence was broken when the chore was completed. Sheddy’s mother stood back, her arms akimbo on her hips and she tried hard to maintain a glare at her young son.
“Just what do you think you were doing messing in Miz Nancy’s paint here?” she demanded an answer as Sheddy dropped his head under her scrutiny.
He mumbled a reply none could hear.
“Speak up and apologize for what you have done!” his mother scolded.
“I was just trying to look like Tommy. He’s my best friend!” Sheddy finally answered and I could see his eyes were full of tears.
I looked at the 2 mothers, concerned that my own had not spoken yet. Tommy started to cry too at this point and soon both boys were taking gasping gulps of air as they sobbed, afraid now of what the mothers would do next. Uncharacteristically, the rest of us; my brothers and sister, and too, Sheddy’s sister, were being very quiet. I looked around at them and felt very confused by what was going on. This was not the way my mother dealt with us when we got into trouble. I watched her standing off to the side now, her own eyes full of tears as she looked at the boys. My heart quickened and mind raced to try to understand why this was different.
Tommy stooped and reached down into the mud at his feet. Taking a handful, he started spreading it all around on his body. Both women jumped towards him and tried to stop what he was doing but Tommy jerked away from their hands and grabbed more mud, spreading it on his head and rubbing it on his belly. Sheddy’s mother stopped and stood back from him as our mother frantically tried to make Tommy drop his handfuls of mud.
“Don’t Mom, please don’t!” Tommy begged and started crying again. “If Sheddy can’t look like me, then I wanna look like him!”
Both women stood back and looked at their boys, then at each other. Though there were tears in their eyes, they smiled. More surprising to us all, they then embraced each other and laughed! Turning to the boys, they scooped them up into their arms, kissing them and holding them close. Nodding to each other with a smile, the 2 mother’s carried their little ones away.
My brothers and sister watched silently then took off to go play. Sheddy’s sister followed her momma home. She was glaring and I think she was disappointed that he had not gotten the trouble she had hoped. I felt rooted to the spot and watched them all leave.
I stood there for quite a while, looking from the paint and muddy mess in the yard to the house where mom was likely now washing Tommy then I looked up and down the street we lived on. I saw people passing all around me. Some were black, others white; walking, playing, working, and driving past in cars. Life went on around me but something inside of me had stopped. This moment in time meant something important. What the boys had done, had tried to do, was significant. I puzzled and pulled on the feelings and thoughts that stirred in me the need to understand what had just transpired. My very small world had just taken a giant leap into reality. I knew then without a doubt that neither paint nor mud was needed for us to see each other as being the same. Mothers are mothers and children are children, and we are all one. Our color is not what determines our worth. Though we moved away later that year, I’ve never forgotten the lesson I received from 2 innocent little boys.
My eyes were opened that day and my soul thirsted for peace as the turbulent years of the sixties tore open the flood gates of racial marches and battles. I paid attention to the news, as the events I should have been ignorant of at my young age brought greater clarity to my own feelings of right and wrong. I rejoiced in hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak. I cried soul wrenching tears at his death. I write now of my own awakening in honor of the man and all that he did. We celebrate him today. I thank you too Sheddy, wherever you are now, for helping to open my eyes.
Frank Gorshin as “Bele” in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield“, the fourteenth episode of the third season of Star Trek: The Original Series. 1969
WESTLAND, MI Mud Festival – JULY 12, 2011