The Power of Prologue: The Credit

I spent a year of my childhood in Durham, North Carolina living with my maternal grandparents. The year was 1964–65 and America was at the threshold of its racial destiny.

My grandfather taught at a school that would now be called an historically black college or university. At the time, it was known as North Carolina College at Durham.

In those days, the world was only integrated in name. America had only formalistically desegregated. The reality was that every social institution both public and private clung to racial separatism like a child holds to their favorite toy.

The schools were making only token and glacial efforts to desegregate in North Carolina in the middle sixties and my grandparents ordained that I should for that year attend an elite private school. This was where I was introduced to public declamation and coats and ties in fifth grade and to French class.

It was also where I came face to face with genteel and polite segregation — that is a story I have already told — and it was a lasting lesson. It taught me and I still like to think that I taught others. For it did not stop me. It only helped me to see a dying legacy.

But that is not this story. Or, not the whole story.

As that school year was nearly at an end, I was introduced also to the preparatory grade school competitions in all their pre-pubescent glory. Spelling competitions; writing or composition competitions; and others that have faded away with the decades.

I was the exception already at the school — the first and the only Black. It was the age of “firsts” for Black Americans.

And the lesson taught by that experience was not really whether Black folks could thrive in white environments — we had done that already for 350 years. It was different lesson — even for a ten or eleven year old.

As I look back, the real lesson was whether we, as Black Americans, could pursue our lives and goals even as White America learned about its own heart and soul.

The lesson was really whether White Americans — in this case privileged wealthy Southerners — could learn about their own humanity. This course was not on the curriculum — but it was inevitably taught nonetheless.

But, back to the competitions and the year-end prizes. The school held an awards and graduation ceremony at year’s end — something that I experienced throughout my later life at private schools.

My grandfather and maternal aunt were there to watch me receive awards along with classmates. My name was repeatedly called. Some awards I knew about in advance, others were actual surprises.

As it happened there was only one instance and only one, in which I did not win. It was a writing contest. My fifth grade ego was bruised. But, the prize went and likely deservedly to another pupil.

I wanted credit for what I believed was a winning composition. But life doesn’t do what we want. My loss of the prize was quietly explained to my grandfather and aunt this way:

“Albert won so many prizes — we had to give an award to someone else.”

Later, when the year-end “report cards” were issued there was a short note attached to my Grandfather from the school’s headmaster. He said in so many words that they were pleased to have had me with them for that year — there was no word of any of the “unpleasantness” that temporarily kept me out of the previously segregated Durham YMCA.

But the staid headmaster wrote this: “Albert has been a credit to his family, a credit to himself, and a credit to this school.” At least, that’s my best memory of his words.

My grandfather soon explained that the headmaster had repeated a time-worn tradition. He was tiptoeing around the changes the year had wrought. He likewise had refrained from saying what else I was a “credit” to — the old expression was to say that a well-behaved and high achieving Black American was a credit to their race — as if the race must be uplifted by example.

I remember many things from that year. And, I learned a great deal — inside and outside the classroom — especially from my wise and brilliant Grandfather, who instilled in me that year a love of poetry to last my life. He had helped me when I had to recite a poem before the entire school.

But more than that I learned that in the midst of ignorance there is often enlightenment and that privilege and wealth are no guarantee against stupidity.

But, reflecting back about the headmaster who could not admit the fall of a white picket fence around his elite school, I now see there was actually another class I as a ten-year old boy had taught. That credit is all I would ever want.