Monday, November 1, 2010

A Playground Memory

This picture is me with Ditto standing outside our house on Oregon Street in Berkeley, California but I am older than I was when this happened to me. I am in third grade in the picture, I think. The day I went to the playground happened when I was in between first and second grade, I am fairly sure. I just felt like showing the cars and me at a small size. I am sporting the haircut that my Dad gave me. He cut my hair to save money we didn't have. We were very poor in these days.

We all have tough ones. This memory is one of mine. I would wander on my own through the streets of Berkeley. My mom thought nothing of it either, as long as I was in my time frame. I had already proved that I didn't get lost. I was only half a block from Le Conte Elementary school. It was just across Ellsworth Street. The playground was on the far side of the building. The neighborhood was lower middle class as the middle class was in the Fifties. We lived there because both Mom and Dad were finishing at Cal up Telegraph Avenue from where we lived. There was a black neighborhood in Berkeley, I think mainly because of World War II and the industrialization it caused. That neighborhood was a fairly long walk from the school where this occurred. There was not much reason for the black kids to be in the neighborhood except it was on the way to Oakland from their part of Berkeley. This sounds odd today but in the Fifties it wouldn't have. And it was a remarkable thing that the black youth could feel safe enough to wander like that in a small crowd. These were junior high kids I encountered and I assume that's what they were doing, going home from Oakland.

I am happy to report that I did not turn against blacks because of this encounter. I easily could have, I think.

A Playground Memory

That playground called me
on the wrong day, there alone
except for the crowd,
five blacks who showed up
for no damn reason that day
and one spit on me
Sen-Sen chunks, my face
wet and me with no idea
what just happened here.
I was six years old.
I do not like licorish
still at sixty three.

August 16, 2009 3:38 PM

I am actually nearing sixty five today.

Wiki says: "Sen-Sen is a type of breath freshener originally marketed as a "breath perfume" in the late nineteenth century by the T. B. Dunn Company, currently produced by F&F Foods. Sen-Sen bears a strong resemblance to Nigroids, a liquorice sweet made by Ernest Jackson & Company Ltd.
"Sen sen can be purchased today, usually in small packets. In the 1930's it was available in more convenient small cardboard boxes. Similar to a matchbox of the time, an inner box slid out from a cardboard sleeve revealing a small hole from which the tiny sen sen squares would fall when the box was shaken."


  1. A story that can go in so many different directions. So many. Countless, really. And the poetic irony, although it is not quite irony at all is it, of Sen sen chunks.

    I hear your voice strong behind this, "I am happy to report that I did not turn against blacks because of this encounter. I easily could have, I think."

    And I think of the time I was, really, molested by a doctor and then again later by a young man. I think of when I was punched in the stomach while pregnant, by a young black child. I think of when my friends humiliated me when I was young. So often we are presented with opportunities to turn against. It is up to us to not.


  2. Each such encounter, a brick to build a wall, or a step. I hear footfalls, not barriers. Licorice like a wick...took the fall.

  3. This I could relate too, with similar times..

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I do from time to time feel the need to tell it straight. I was a bewildered six year old on that afternoon. I recall keeping it all my secret, as if I was shamed and somehow at fault. There was the other part of me that knew I didn't do anything except be there. I shouldn't have been there. It was farther than I was supposed to go. But that happened all the time. So the whole thing was complex. I am quite sure my parents never found out about that incident. There was no reason I needed to tell and I was already sure I didn't want to be a snitch pretty much no matter what.

  5. Or the experience could have turned you against older kids. Or boys in general. Or liquorice eaters. I see no reason for racializing the experience, except that it took place in a racially segregated society.

  6. Rachel,
    But the racially segregated society was pretty much all of it nonetheless. You say those things theoretically. In the playground, at that moment they were strange and unusual creatures. They said stuff and it wasn't like the stuff that other big boys said. The smell of Sen Sen was anchored too. It was the first time I ran into somebody else actually using Sen Sen though I must have known what that was. The experience was a totality and dark complected skin and tightly curled hair and different looking eyes and nose were all part of that. These boys were not white and I noticed because I had seen few blacks before at age six. I didn't have words for all that but I could certainly see nonetheless, and because of Sen Sen all over my face, I could smell them too.

    Even if I had met a couple black friends of my mother's from university, it wouldn't have mattered because the experience was completely out of adult context and I wasn't generalizing in that way yet, a fairly sophisticated thing to expect a six year old to do.

    I will add though that my trust of big boys and strangers was eroded that day.


The chicken crossed the road. That's poultry in motion.

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