ME AND BLACK SAMBO
My first grade teacher was beautiful and looked a lot like a younger version of the movie star Sofia Loren. Fresh out of the Peace Corp she like so many others of her generation was out to save the world and definitely made a difference. I can still picture her in her tight pencil skirt and beautiful black hair like my mama’s.
My family was poor and worked alongside other migrant farm workers in the cotton fields near Corcoran, California. We lived in a migrant farm camp outside town with mostly Hispanic families. The only other African-Americans were my cousins who were close in age to me. All the kids in the camp attended a small country elementary school surrounded by miles and miles of flat fertile farmland.
One of my fondest memories is when Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock visited our school because they were filming a scene for the movie North By Northwest. The whole school was treated to a field trip to watch the scene where Cary is on foot being chased by an airplane through a dusty, deserted, corn field. I stood there wide-eyed and enthralled as the film crew scurried around setting up the scene and when that plane took flight so did my five-year-old imagination.
That day something sparked in a skinny little black girl with fat braids and knobby knees who stood on the sidelines with big dark eyes taking everything in and I believe that something led to my love of writing. And, yes whenever given an opportunity I never fail to mention the fact that a Hitchcock movie was filmed at my grade school.*
My mother was from the old school and taught me to read long before I started school so when Miss Young did role call and asked who knew their ABC’s my thin brown arm shot up right away. I looked around the room and realized my arm was the only one upraised so Miss Young used me as her helper. I reveled in assisting with the other kids learning their lessons and soon developed closeness with my teacher.
I was very small for my age so sometimes Miss Young would pick me up and carry me around; needless to say I didn’t mind. But this favoritism soon created jealously among my classmates, even my cousins who reported this activity to my mother who merely raised an eyebrow and smiled at the tattle-tail information.
A few words about my mother who was more beautiful than even Miss Young and very smart too. She worked hard picking cotton to buy my school clothes and made sure I was neat and clean every day for school. My dresses were always pressed and every hair in place with matching ribbons. Mama insisted I was well behaved in school or there would be hell to pay.
One of my favorite things was the reward for doing well on our lessons. Each day a pupil got to pick a story for story-time. Mine was the Princess and The Pea; I just couldn’t understand how the Princess could feel that little pea under that mountain of mattresses. I tried the pea experiment with one of my brother’s marbles under my own lumpy mattress and couldn’t feel a thing.
Most of my classmates were Mexicans with a few white kids in the mix. One grinning, freckled, redheaded, simpleton who was the epitome of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman always chose the story of Little Black Sambo while he and his cronies snickered, giggled, and pointed at me the only African-American in the class.
I knew in my heart and soul something was wrong with this behavior but at five years old could not articulate it. I stole glances at Miss Young hoping she might deny the simpleton’s umpteenth request for the story. It reminded me of the billboards along Highway 99 of black people with large white eyes and big red lips eating watermelon. Every time we drove past those billboards I could hear my mother in the front seat utter her perfunctory, “Hmmmpf!”
I personally thought LBS was pretty damn clever tricking that tiger who wanted his new clothes into chasing him around and around that Coconut tree until he simply melted into butter. Because after all new clothes were hard to come by even I knew that, my mama had to pick a lot of cotton for my mine.
After hearing the LBS story for what seems like a hundred times a smoldering rage gnawed at my gut, a giant rage for such a little girl culminated at lunchtime recess, high noon at the okie-doke corral.
“Hey Black Sambo!” Red shouted and pushed me as his grubby posse he-hawed and guffawed with laughter. Fury consumed me; I forgot all about my new dress and patent leather shoes and flew at my tormentor. Grinning Red was caught off guard and toppled backward onto the ground, as children gathered around in a circle.
Landing on top of my bony nemesis I pummeled him with all the might my scrawny body could muster. The red titan had no scruples about hitting a girl as we rolled over and over kicking up grass and dirt in the process until Miss Young finally plucked me off the agitator.
I was a hot mess; torn dress, scuffed shoes, bruised knees, leaves and grass clung to the Dixie Peach pomade in my hair. My opponent looked no worse for the wear though no longer grinning as his right eye quickly swelled shut. We were both marched off to the principal’s office and word sent to our parents.
I sat in one corner and Red in the other as Mr. Gray our principal eyed the both of us, disappointment evident in his young face.
“Patricia, your mother is not going to be happy about this. We have to call the general store to have someone get a message to her out in the fields.” He said nothing to Red.
An hour felt like an eternity, I was terrified because my mother had to leave work due to my misbehaving. I bit my lip and imagined the worse.
On the ride home Mama didn’t utter a word. I watched her out of the corner of my eye attempting to gauge the punishment I knew was coming. My heart hammered in sync with the old chugging truck as we approached our dingy cabin in the camp. Mama parked and turned off the engine, her pretty profile looked straight ahead and she was silent for a few moments.
Then bursting into mirthful laughter, Mama began picking leaves and dirt clods from my tussled hair and said, “Baby Girl, you can’t go through life beating up ignorant people. Choose your battles, save your sanity!”
Many years later when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma at Corcoran High School, an older and distinguished Mr. Gray looking much like Cary Grant, smiled, winked, and proudly handed me my diploma.
The derogatory billboards along Highway 99 have long since disappeared leaving a gorgeous landscape of grape fields. Due to much protest from civil rights groups the story of Little Black Sambo was pulled from elementary school curriculum during the turbulent sixties.
It didn’t make much sense back then but even now after an African-American President; I’m still choosing my battles and saving my sanity.
From a collection of short stories:
Growing Up Colored In California’s Central San Joaquin Valley: Circa 1960’s
* I have a class photo with Cary Grant & Alfred Hitchcock-now that’s some history!