Monthly Archives: February 2016

We Called Him Bosco: A Child’s View of the Black and White Divide

My heart pounded. I had never met a black person before, and I shuddered to think one would sit next to me.

But the closer we came to town, the more black people got on the Trenton Transit bus, and the more I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.

Dark, silver-haired men boarded the bus, dressed in tweed jackets that resembled the cloth seat covers. Women in floral dresses, some with shopping bags and children in tow, and the occasional hankie tucked in at the waist beneath an ample bosom.

After dropping their coins in the meter, they made their way to a seat, steadying themselves as the driver pulled back on the road and stinky exhaust belched out the rear.

Of course they were mothers and fathers and grandparents, just going about their day. But to me, they were scary as hell. None of these dark-skinned people had a name, at least not to me. They didn’t live near my house, nor talk like me. And they certainly didn’t look like me, a little blond girl of ten going downtown to pay her mother’s Sears’ charge and phone bill.

No, they didn’t have names. Until Bosco.

That’s what everyone called him – the black kid who was so big and round, they nick-named him for the wide-mouth jar of sticky, sweet chocolate syrup. I remember him standing at the top of the playground stairs. Like a good-natured bouncer, he kept the hooligans out at recess, laughing and walking back and forth in his safety-patrol belt, his legs so fat they rubbed together. His shirttails untucked, hanging down at his sides.

But I was young. There were no people of color in my life. And so Bosco was a novelty, like the chocolate syrup my mother would never buy because we didn’t need it, she always said.

Later, there would be another black student at my elementary school – Sheila, who wore glasses with pointy black frames and had pigtails sticking out the top of her head. I used to watch her skipping rope. And how we teased my brother about her, asking if she was his girlfriend – unfeeling children that we were.

Sheila was bused from the black neighborhood to attend the special-ed class at my school – down in the basement next to the janitor’s closet, not far from the kitchen where the lunch ladies bustled about in red lipstick and sensible white shoes.

Bosco and Sheila were the only black faces in my life that had names, aside from my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hall, to whom I gave a straw sun bonnet as an end-of-the-year present. The others, the ones who got on and off the city bus, were just a never-ending parade of black and brown.

Then suddenly, my world turned to living color, just like when Dorothy stepped into the Land of Oz. Children from our township’s four elementary schools merged into one junior high, and the students from the one black neighborhood swarmed the halls along with everyone else. And there were more black teachers. More than I thought existed.

But it wasn’t enough. While I knew some of their names, I still didn’t know them as people. Only one black girl did I get to know at all. In high school, Karen ate lunch with five white girls every single day: A Jew; an Estonian immigrant; a Pentecostal who went to a church where people shouted and shook and spoke in tongues; a boisterous southern girl who eventually moved back to Virginia; and me, a plain as plain Presbyterian.

But I never went to Karen’s house. And she never came to mine. The divide was palpable. I wanted to know her, but eating lunch together every day was all we could manage. Maybe it was enough.

After all, my father had said Martin Luther King Jr. was a “trouble-maker.” And the rule was, you didn’t disagree with him. Not ever.

Over the years I have gotten close to many Hispanics. My son married into a Hispanic family. And I have several good Asian friends. Long-lasting friends.

Of course, I’m not exactly a hermit. I worked as a freelance features writer for years and can talk to just about anyone. But when I talk to blacks, the conversation never seems to get past the pleasantries. Past the business we’re about.

Maybe my expectations are screwed up. Like, why should I think just talking to someone would lead to friendship? Should it?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a dream I have that one day I will have friends of many colors. Friends I can drink tea with, or invite to dinner or a movie. And the giant white balloon I’ve been riding around in will finally pop.

Meanwhile, it’s February. Black History Month. And I will honor it by learning a little bit more about the people I never did know. FFG