As promised, I will tell you about my best friend through sixth grade. She was a beautiful African-American girl, whom I always felt chose me to be her best friend and felt like I was the luckiest girl in our school. Denise was smart, popular, pretty, and personable; while I still felt like a country bumpkin.
We would meet up every day at school and were inseparable—whether it was being on the same team at recess, partners during reading group, lunch buddies, or walking home from school until she had to turn off and head in the direction of her house.
As I grew older, however, I realized that my family lived comfortably but Denise’s was rich in comparison. Whereas both my parents worked, like Denise’s mom and dad, there were five children in my family but just Denise and her older sister, Debbie.
My dad was an electrician and my mom worked a clerical position for an insurance company. Denise’s dad was a fireman for the city of Omaha and her mother was an executive for a bank—one of the first Black women to succeed to such a high-ranking position. I remember being at Denise’s house when her mother would come home from work—she would be dressed in power suits, high heels, and her hair and nails were impeccable. She was always so sweet, asked us about our day and if we had fixed ourselves a snack.
Denise’s house was on the boulevard in a more modern area to the west, across the street from another African-American girl in our grade, Sybil. Sybil was an only child and her home was even more splendid than Denny’s—she had her own room, leather furniture in the living room, a huge deck off the back of the house, televisions everywhere, and a perfectly manicured lawn with flowers and trimmed bushes.
Denise’s room was like something out of House and Garden magazine—a frilly pink spread and matching curtains, white shag carpet, lovely sit-around items on her dresser, a closet full of clothes that she didn’t have to share, and tons of Barbie’s with clothes galore. I hated to go home to my attic bedroom that I shared with my two sisters, along with clothes and most everything else. There was little privacy and it paled in comparison to my African-American friends’ homes. My dad couldn’t keep a lawn in the front or back of the house because there were too many kids trampling on it day in and day out.
The summer after graduating sixth grade, we all promised to see each other at our new middle school, which was an extension of Technical High School. Can you imagine a school so large it spanned three city blocks and its auditorium alone sat 2,600 students?
I remember that first morning of middle school as clear as if it were yesterday. I trekked the long walk down 33rd Street to Cuming Street, took the underpass to cross Cuming Street, and when my sister and I reached the top steps, I immediately spotted Denise among a crowd of African-American students about 20 feet away. Without hesitation, I walked right up to her and said, “Hi, Denny,” totally expecting the same reaction I had received every day for the last three years in grade school.
Instead, I got a cold glare that said, without words, I don’t know you; get lost. The rejection was a blow like no other I had ever experienced. Denise had made other friends over the summer and had moved on. Her look was a clear message that it was time for me to do the same. We never spoke again.
I walked away and joined a group of my White friends from grade school and for the first time in my life felt the color barrier. It was then that I started to pay attention to the news and realized what was going on around me and what caused my best friend for all those years to hate me so.
I recently looked Denise up and found her through her mother’s obituary in the Omaha World-Herald. Denise never married but went on to earn her doctorates and holds a very high-ranking position with the Education Department in the Federal Government. Denise is beautiful; she looks exactly like her mother.
My point: I grew up pretty naïve, and Denise’s rejection was a cold splash of reality. Back then, the mid-60s, we didn’t have cellphones or social networks to keep in constant touch with our friends outside of school. Denise’s world and my world—our circle of friends, family, and social experiences—were totally separate and completely different. I didn’t know racial discrimination, rejection, struggle; I didn’t hear stories of hate and poverty from my family and friends. Obviously, I had chosen to ignore what was on the news every day, even though I lived blocks away from the largest concentration of African-American population in the city of Omaha—which was also my neighborhood! Apparently, since it didn’t affect me I didn’t think of this racial tension as my problem. That first day of middle school was a true awakening for me—a very hard and painful lesson.
In my next blog I’ll write about the racial tension in Omaha, from my perspective.