A Memoir by Al Poole, Part 1
The middle aged man took another look at his passenger and resolved to put what he knew were unreasonable thoughts out of his head. His job as a youth counselor at the local detention center was a blessing for a black man in Norfolk, Virginia in the early 1950s. Like many others, he had learned to control his behavior in the segregated society he had to navigate daily to support his family. The simmering resentment he and most African Americans felt were a few years from becoming the nation’s defining issue.
His passenger, a young colored boy, not yet a teen, was spending his second stay at the Youth Center. Although cooperative in every other way, the youngster had steadfastly refused to discuss the reasons he kept being picked up by the local police as a run-a-way. The decision had been made to send him to see the white psychiatrist downtown. He would be more effective in getting the young man to talk.
The youth counselor had seen this scenario many times before. Young colored kids would be so awed by white shrinks that they would open up and tell all, frequently causing legal issues for their family and friends. These excursions were even resented by the white staff at the Center as they were viewed as failures on the staff’s part.
As the counselor reviewed what he knew about the boy, the counselor felt his own attitude begin to soften. As far as anyone knew, the boy had been an excellent student throughout elementary school. The problems seemed to have begun the summer before he entered junior high. That summer he had been picked up several times by the police for wandering the city streets late at night.
The first two times, he had been returned to the home of Miss Annie Reid, the common law wife of his father. The last time, she had refused to immediately accept him and so began his stays at the Youth Center. After several weeks at the Youth Center, he was returned to Annie Reid’s home. He ran away again soon after junior high school started. It was several weeks before he was again picked up by authorities and returned to the Center. Now, he was on his way to see the doctor who would make recommendations to the Juvenile Court regarding his deposition.
The youngster observed the youth counselor. The counselor would have been shocked to know that the kid felt and understood the counselor’s distress. Over the last tumultuous year, the boy had learned to read the intentions of adults quite well. Despite his personal circumstances he felt the same deep pride for his people as did the counselor. In fact, he liked the youth counselor and the Youth Center a lot. The truth was that he didn’t confide in anyone, choosing to lock his secrets safe in a place he had created deep inside of himself. He had created this special place during the early years of his life. He had learned to go there whenever he felt threatened.
He had many secrets but the one he could not possibly tell anyone was that he felt responsible for the death of Ms. Carrie, the old lady he called grandma, even though they were not really related. His family was made up of Pops whom he thought was his father until he overheard Miss Annie say that he was not. He had been abandoned and left with Pops before he could remember. Pops in time took in Ms. Carrie, an old lady in her early 90s with no family to take care of her.
At that time, Pops was in his mid-50s and a good man. He worked hard as a construction worker and would remain with the same company all his life. He had already raised and supported a family of his own. Although he accepted the responsibility for the kid and Ms. Carrie’s wellbeing, he had no interest in raising another child. He always came home late and spent many of his non-working hours at Miss Annie Mae’s home. He seldom interacted with the boy with one exception. Pops detested dealing with white people and early on gave the kid responsibility for dealing with them. The boy became responsible for taking the late payments to the local utilities in order to get the lights turned back on. The kid even had an account at the local store so that he and Ms. Carrie could buy most of the food.
Ms. Carrie was in her 90s and had outlived all of her relatives and most of her friends. But there were younger family friends that used to come by and say hello. The most frequent visitors were the teenage sons of a neighboring family. She thought they came to see her. The boy never told her that they really came over to “play” with him. Since, he welcomed the attention; he easily agreed to tell no one how they “played.” Never the less, it was clear to the community what was going on and so none of the kids in the neighborhood were allowed to play with him.
Miss Annie Mae was the only other adult presence in his life. He thought she was the most powerful person he had ever met. She owned her home, operated a boarding house (motel) & used the kitchen as a saloon on weekends when booze wasn’t legally available. Pops would take the kid to her house on weekends to work and greet guests and show them to their rooms. She was the first person he met who was clearly not afraid of white people. He had great admiration for her and would later list her as his step-mother in all legal documents. Miss Annie Mae loved Pops and for this reason the boy was able to tolerate him.
Early that summer, Pops gave the kid the rent money and instructed him to pay the rent. He spent most of the morning playing, and by the time he arrived at the rent office, he had lost part of the money. The lady looked at him angrily and told him that if he didn’t get the rest they would be evicted. When he got home and told Pops later that night, Pops said to hell with it, contacted a friend, and they all moved out the very next day.
Although the move was less than two blocks away, it devastated and isolated Ms. Carrie. The boy watched as she shut down. He spent almost every hour of her last days with her. He felt totally responsible for her death. Sharing his guilt with anyone was not possible and his life began to spiral out of control.
As they entered the psychiatrist’s office, the youth counselor felt compelled to make one more attempt to reach him. “Try not to get anyone in trouble,” he said just before he was told to wait outside.
The doctor surveyed the young kid’s demeanor from behind a large desk. Deciding that this meek looking kid would be easy to break down, he immediately started the session. Initially his questions came in a quiet, confident tone. However, as it became apparent that the kid was totally ignoring him, the psychiatrist found his voice rising in anger. How did this black kid have the temerity not to respond to him?
The truth of the matter was that he was not in the kid’s league. The youngster had observed Miss Annie Mae’s behavior around white people and was simply not awed. He just entered his special place and actually never even heard any of the psychiatrist’s questions.
After some time, the kid was sent back to the waiting room and the youth counselor was called into the psychiatrist’s office. The counselor was told that the youth was non-responsive. The doctor talked like the kid was a victim and so the counselor was stunned later at the Juvenile Court when the psychiatrist described the boy as incorrigible and recommended that he be incarcerated in reform school.
During the ride back to the Youth Center, the kid could feel pride flowing from the counselor; he left his special place to enjoy the counselor’s warmth and approval. In spite of his personal circumstances the boy felt a vague sense of joy in being who he was. The next two weeks at the Youth Center were among the best days of his youth. Clearly all of the social workers, white and black alike, appreciated his behavior at the doctor’s office. Even the young inmates approached him with a new found respect.
His responses to the psychiatrist led to his incarceration in a reform school, but he would never regret stonewalling the doctor. He would visit his special place many times in the future but as he entered the Youth Center he knew he would never go there in fear again. For perhaps the first time in his life he felt a sense of place and knew that he would survive and prevail.