I was spoiled as a child. My parents gave me wonderful experiences.
I don’t know what year it was when the black limousines started coming into the neighborhood. It was probably the year that Kenny Dooley was five, but I realize that doesn’t place for anyone but me.
Kenny didn’t look five, anyway. What he looked like was a Raisinette. Just going by height you might have guessed him at four, but only until you looked in his eyes. Or until he opened his mouth. How anyone that small could have such a tough, gutteral bass voice I don’t know. Or how his typical glare could look both innocent and outraged at the same time. When he’d call my mother “Barb,” it was a resonant bass note.
I don’t recall it ever being voiced, but it was generally understood that the black limousines were delivering the Black Muslims missionaries. It didn’t seem odd that our neighborhood would be the target of missionaries. The Pentacostals had their tent and the Mennonites came through every summer with a bus, right behind the ice cream truck, recruiting children for vacation bible school. They got me one summer.
The black limousines were scary, but the way we figured it was, Black people had the right to be scary. And when my friend Mantan came over to shoot hoops, the only mention of fear was our standing basketball joke. Mantan would hit some crazy shot with his eyes closed or behind his back and he’d ask, all false innocence, “Did I hit that, Mike?” And I’d say, giving it all the misery I could fake, “I’m afraid so, Andrew.” I could never bring myself to call him Mantan. And he’d laugh and say, “Don’t be scared, Mike!” But black limousines were never mentioned.
We always left our doors unlocked. I don’t think we had locks. And once a week the whole family went shopping. One night we returned from a shopping trip and Kenny was sitting on our kitchen table looking (figuratively, of course) green.
We started unloading grocieries and my mother paused, noticing some extra intensity in Kenny’s usual glare. What I couldn’t help but notice was that he was completely surrounded by empty raisin boxes.
“Barb,” he said, fixing her with as intense a look as I’d ever seen, “don’t buy no more raisins.”
Kenny’s mom, Queenie, was raising him on her own, and he pretty much roamed the neighborhood at will. But that’s misleading. There was a large extended family to keep Kenny home, and it wasn’t enough. Mostly he hung out at our place. Queenie’s brother King was two years ahead of me in school and he was a basketball star. Without doubt the best player the school had produced in years. He was also the most polite, deferential person I’d ever known. I was shamefully clueless in those days, but I think I sort of got the connection. The better he was, the more steps back he had to walk. Thinking now of the rage in five-year-old Kenny’s eyes, I can’t imagine what King must have been holding in. And it never, ever came out.
Kenny didn’t hold it in. One day, I think it was a day after a visit from the men in the black limousines, Kenny sat on our kitchen table, eating something other than raisins, and lecturing my mother on how terrible White people were. Mom was enjoying it immensely. I wish I had my mother’s appreciation for the absurdity of life. I would have expected her just to soak up the delicious irony of Kenny’s lecture, but on this occasion she apparently decided it was time for Kenny to grow a little.
“But Kenny,” she said, “We’re White.”
She’d found something that could shut Kenny up.
I suspect that what Mom takes away from that episode is richer than what I got out of it. But all I’ve got is my take. What I take away is Kenny’s reaction. He didn’t handle it like any other five-year-old I’ve ever known. He shut up. He thought about it. He went home. And he never said anything bad about White people in our presence again.
And Mantan and I keep shooting hoops.
So, what I’m trying to say is, I was a pretty lucky child.