10 December 2011

Early Lessons, #4: A Cheer for Cleveland

Camp Tippecanoe 
circa 1970
To the left,
To the right,
To the left, 
Right, left

My head be hurtin'
My bra too tight
My booty shakin'
To the left, to the right

My skirt too long
My afro been combed
Let's all get together
Right on, right on

Hey, hey, right on
Right on, right on
Hey, hey, right on
Right on!

Ages 7 to 11, I found myself attending a Y-camp every summer. It was great fun.  5-6 girls to a cabin. Horseback riding, singing, hiking, swimming, boating, crafts, and—everyone's favorite—Dining Hall!

Two distinct groups, from one distinct economic class, attended camp the weeks I went: Appalachian (white) girls, and inner-city (black) girls. It was some governmental program for "at-risk" children, and that's who qualified. Subsidized camp was our summer "opportunity."

Now of course none of us knew this at the time. We looked around and saw that white girls were housed together in cabins, and black girls were housed together in other cabins. Strong signal:  Us vs. Them (though surely this was not the intended message).

More salient at the time was that the black girls could beat the sh-t out of us. Appalachian kids can be pretty tough, but by and large we were no match for our sisters from Cleveland. And they seemed older and bigger than us. Older and bigger and meaner. We felt ourselves cowed all 'round.

      1... 2... 3... HAUL!  

You'ins is doin' it wrong!
Tawny gots it right, look.


Besides being housed separately, we had our own dining table by cabin so we were segregated for three meals a day. Activities were assigned to cabins, not individuals.

Strike fear into ya?
It does me.
Oh, but there was "free time." That was when we all came together—

Remember tether ball? Most fights between the conveniently color-coded groups were over who would play next. Things stayed verbal and only mildly threatening for the most part but occasionally a sister needed to get serious.

In a split second arms wrapped to body, ball in face. They probably played three games to our one. We were cool with that.


About a week into our two-week stay, things calmed down on the racial front. Some of us on the White Side had formed tentative friendships with our oppressors. The Black Side seemed to be softening toward us, too.

I credit myself. No, I do. By that age, I could be drop-dead funny and I soon reached the level "funny enough to let live" by standing near tetherball and calling out hysterical one-liners. Pretty soon, everyone was smiling despite themselves. Sometimes all of us had to stop to laugh. I want to claim that it was the first real break in the hostilities. It was also when I learned that I could pull off a lot with that being funny thing.


There was this Michele, a screamingly funny black girl in a cabin close to mine. We started falling into back-and-forth joking and capping on each other, like real friends. Then we were running around in free-time together. Michele and her cabin-mates taught me the cheer that started this post and I've remembered it all this time.

I remember Michele in another way. She was special to me in no small part because she was black. Appalachian kids don't get to experience much outside the mountains, and no black people lived anywhere near my world. But there was something beyond the exotic:  Michele crossed the lines of Them and Us. We were in the same circle. It was a significant and powerful event in my life.

When Michele and I said good-bye, I gave her a prize possession. It was a funky, floppy Coke hat—a promotional thing my dad got because he was a grocer. All my friends coveted it, and I was crazy about it. I gave it to Michele with love and sadness but no feelings of regret.

I would love to have seen
how it went over in Cleveland....

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