FROM WITHIN THE ELEPHANT'S CIRCLE
[This essay was first published several years ago in the fifth-ward newsletter and is retold here with Bruce's permission]
Bruce, 64, is a lifelong Evanston resident, a chef, a Kendall College graduate, an activist, a former barber, a writer and teller-of-stories, a recovering addict, and an enthusiastic lover of humankind! I interviewed Bruce and his father Roy recently, and I'll post that interview soon.
Posting this essay kicks off the series of essays and interviews I'll be sharing to coincide with Piven Theatre Workshop and Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre's collaborative production of A Home on the Lake. The play tells the story of two Evanston families--living in two eras--whose lives are disrupted by matters of property and race. It runs from April 19 through May 19 at Piven, 927 Noyes Street.
Click here for more about the play and for tickets.
In the meantime ... here's Bruce.
As a life-long Evanstonian, from parents born in Evanston and
grandparents who came here before, during and after WWI, I recognize how fortunate I am. I am the third generation of free born Americans, who happen to be Black and former slaves.
Most of my childhood experiences were within my village and wonderful. If you can imagine the image of a herd of female elephants that get side to side and form a circle to protect the babies within the circle…that is how I recall my safety and security as a child.
I remember, at a very young age, sitting at the children’s table at my grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner. Looking with great pride and admiration at my family, it never dawned on me that they were different in any way…all I got from them was love.
One of my grandmothers was very dark in color (blue black with hair never straightened) while my other grandmother was very, very light, with very straight and fine auburn hair…so light she could and did pass for white. I later learned, she went into clothing stores to buy clothes for us that didn’t allow Blacks (coloreds as we were called at that time) to enter.
My other grandmother, the dark one, would entertain old Jewish and Armenian friends she had helped prior to WWII, at her little private luncheons. She was a cornerstone of MY village. To most, she was not the friendliest person, she rarely smiled and being as dark as she was, she was shunned. But, when she laughed, it was so loud and full of unbridled joy, the neighbors would come out of their houses to see what was funny because they knew it wasn’t ridicule or condescension, but honest clean humor that caused her to laugh.
I remember playing in her yard and watching as strange looking people would come up her driveway, tattered and worn, with cardboard boxes that looked like luggage tied and secured with neckties and rope. They would go to her back door and she would joyfully greet them…sometimes with tears of joy. She would usher them into the enclosed back porch where a table was set for lunch. She would seat them and proceed to feed them….there were never sandwiches served at her house. She would serve them home cooked food, iced tea with mint and always a dessert.
While they ate, she would go into her office and when she returned, they would have job prospects, a place to live, a church home, social connections and quite possibly a “care package.”
As I look back, I now understand that times were indeed hard. A person’s attitude determined their altitude. Their success was directly related to their skill level OR their ability to interact with the whites who could hire them. All were not able. Those who could not, had to be absorbed into our village in other ways. Many lived and existed on the fringe of our little society.
Mind you, our village, neighborhood or society was not without its flaws. We mirrored the American society at large, carrying along with it the biases that were held over from slavery. We even had our own color issues. We also had the “Talented Tenth,” our “upper class”…that 10 percent of our people who had gone to college and got an education by the turn of the 20th century…those who W.E.B. DuBois related in 1903 as “the man who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements.”
There were a couple of social organizations largely based on education, skin color and hair texture such as the Links and the Boule. These were looked upon as the frontline of our people to engage whites in business and education. There were organizations affiliated with churches, the Prince Hall Masonic Lodges and the Eastern Stars, fraternal and sorority organizations which emerged from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and thanks to A. Phillip Randolph, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Sadly, there were no captains of industry among us to ensure that those many who were deemed “unacceptable” by whites, would have an honest job. So, being a mirror of the American experience…we too had crime and those who lived outside the law, as did every other group who sought a life here in America.
As I look back over the landscape of my life, as I study the trials and tribulations of my forbearers, I am truly grateful for who and where I am in life today. I have learned to take people as they are and not as I would have them be. I know that there is only one race…the human race.
My gratitude stems from understanding that there were many who emerged from the horrors of slavery and the ostracization caused by Jim Crow, wounded and forever bitter, both White and Black. I am one who joyfully accepts those from my African, Native American and Irish heritage and God only knows who else from my past.