ONE JULY SATURDAY AFTERNOON in 1958, when Chicago was still a de facto segregated city—a “city of neighborhoods,” they euphemistically called it—my mother, all 611/2 inches of her, took me to Rainbow Beach on the South Side. I was 12 years old, and we were engaged in a project that had been going on since I was five: She was trying to teach me how to swim.
I could not utter the words I am afraid, though I was. Instead, like my father, a political organizer turned steelworker, I believed that if I were ever to master the water, it would come from somehow beating it into submission rather than relinquishing myself to its power.
But perhaps because of the dynamo in the flowered swimsuit—this political organizer turned mother—I loved the beach in spite of myself. Wading and splashing, standing at the water’s edge to feel the force of the tide, watching my feet when the water rushed out, taking with it the topmost layer of sand, creating the impression that I was somehow zooming backward.
“Are you afraid of the water?” my mother asked me gently, at last broaching this all-but-unmentionable subject.
“I just don’t like it that much,” I said.
“You’re getting there,” she said re-assuringly, this woman who had chosen, for philosophical reasons, common law over marriage and who had named her son (I insisted on believing) after the Scottsboro Boys.
There were teenagers all around us, roughhousing and flirting, and I auditioned for their attention with rabbit-eyed glances, hoping they might see something in me that would inspire their interest, when suddenly they began to rise up like a flock of birds, all winging toward a spot on the beach farther down. An immense human circle was forming, people jeering and shouting at two African-American women who had appeared in their bathing suits and sunglasses.
In 1958, if you were a black person, you did not step foot on Rainbow Beach, though you were more than welcome to splash in the water around 47th Street, some 30 blocks north. Maybe they were maids, tired after a long day of cleaning white people’s houses; maybe they had originally planned to take a bus to the Negro beach but were just too hot; maybe they were new to Chicago and didn’t know the rules. But now they were surrounded, frightened, holding their towels in front of their bodies.
My mother pushed her way through the thick crowd until she was standing next to the two women. “You should be ashamed,” she said to that seething circle of hate and fear, and it was amazing how quiet it got. All those good-looking, sexy teenagers stared at her. “These women have every bit the right to come to this beach as anyone else.”
Every bit the right as anyone else. I still remember the Chicago idiom of it. And a furious girl in an orange bathing suit who shrieked, “Try going to one of their beaches, and you’ll get your initials carved into your back!”
Into your back? I wondered. Or in? Into or in? Which was right? And there it was: me using words to knock myself half-unconscious, me wishing that all those kids wouldn’t notice that on a beautiful summer Saturday I had nothing better to do than be with my mother, nothing better to do than stand at the edge of Lake Michigan while the waves slid over my feet, while my mother fearlessly rode the tide of history.
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