By Helms Jarrell
Have you read The Help? I am Mae Mobley. Miss Eva hugged me close as I read to her from my kitty cat book, words she could not read herself. Miss Carolyn cleaned the scrape on my knee I got from running too fast on the pine straw at the daycare playground. Ms. Hendrickson taught me the wonders of hot sauce in second grade, an elixir to be used on every food: tuna, pizza, avocado.
I am a child of integration. Mahogany, caramel and chocolate were the hues surrounding me at the table, on the playground and in sleeping bags strewn around the birthday party floor. Penny, Olinty, Jennifer and Stacy were my people. I thought I was one of them.
Walking shoulder to shoulder around the sixth-grade track, a chestnut girl with raven hair and fawn toned skin approached us. “Oreo!” she hollered. I didn’t understand. The girls started walking faster. “What did she say?” I asked, “What did she mean?” The girls explained. We were “Oreo” chocolate girls hanging out with a vanilla one. It wasn’t a good thing to be an Oreo.
A shift happened that day. The girls turned their circle inward when they saw me approach. Soon, I learned I had to make some new friends. It was the natural thing to do. After sixth grade, white girls were friends with white girls; black girls were friends with black girls.
Maybe it would have been easier to stick with the norm, but I couldn’t. Miss Eva, Miss Carolyn, Penny and Olinty were a part of my story. I could not deny them. I could not deny myself. When we decided to move into West Charlotte, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was reclaiming a part of my own story. Cultural norms and societal “rules” set the course I should take, the neighborhood I should live in, the friends I should have. The thing is, I don’t like being told what to do.
Not too long ago, I was in dialogue with others. We were sharing dreams of creating a new economy, one that is not dominated by consumerism and materialism. I mentioned that I felt that Jesus was beckoning me to downward mobility, to a place of simple living and neighborly love rather than striving for superiority.
A chestnut woman with raven hair and fawn-toned skin spoke with fire: “You had the privilege to choose where you live and what you do. You cannot and should not preach the message of downward mobility to those who did not have the same privilege as you. You can leave any time you want to and you have the resources to get out. We don’t.”
I want to honor the pain of the chestnut woman. I want to respect and hear what she has to say. I want to check, double check and triple check my privilege and ego. But I’m having a hard time doing so.
You see, God called me here. I can’t leave. These people are my family. This place is my place too. Here, I can be friends with Kelia and Rhaji. Here, my two sweet boys are nurtured by the loving care of Nyika and Jamar. Here, I can apologize, right the wrong and embody the truth that my forefathers were too blind and ignorant to see. Here, I’m not just vanilla. I am myself.
Together and here, little Eva will hear from a variety of skin tones that she is smart and that reading is fun. From here, little Carolyn will be encouraged to volunteer at the hospital, to pursue her dreams of being a doctor. Here, Ricky will work hard to start up a business selling his own hot sauce. Here, all of us will gather around a celebration table. Penny, Carolyn, Olinty, Jennifer, Eva, Rhaji, Nyika, Kevin, Mae and I will laugh and tell stories, Oreos ready for dunking and hearts embracing one another.