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  • Writer's pictureAnita Friday

When I Found out I wasn't Human

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

My dearest friend told me (when I was in the throws of a “what am I going to do with my life” downward spiral at the age of 50), that every day provides an opportunity to do something new, to start something new, to find value.

I am an attorney. My identity and professional life had been defined in part by that eight-letter word. I am also a mother. Somehow, that six letter word won the tug-of-war that I often experienced between the two. As such, in the spirit of honesty, it is more appropriate to say that I am a retired attorney. I moved to the Philadelphia area with my husband years ago.

It’s taken awhile for me to find out which “opportunity” would create the sense of purpose and meaning that my friend had suggested earlier. However, sometimes circumstances and the ability to notice the clues surrounding those circumstances have, in fact, yielded an answer.

As you will notice, I did not say Black, African American, Negro, Colored, Nigger, Nigga or jigaboo when I said who I am in that second paragraph.

I said attorney. From that the discerning reader should be able to understand that I am somewhat educated.

I said mother and I said more children. From that, the discerning reader will know that I have at least three children.

I said husband. It should be evident that in all likelihood I am heterosexual. Given that I didn’t say ex-husband, it is also reasonable to assume that I am married.

But what is to be inferred from what I did not say?

Part II

One’s reaction to the question posed at the end of the previous section is why I now do what I do. I will tell you how I got there.

I thought I was a human being until I was seven years old.

Memories until that point include trying Avon lipstick samples and painting my fingers nails with my mother. (Remember the mini white tubs that the representatives left in the 60’s?)

Winning a three-legged race with my father.

Playing, hide and seek, red rover, kickball in the street in front of our house and hours spent contemplating how to do trades that would allow me to acquire both Boardwalk and Park Place.

Running to the neighborhood store to pick up cigarettes for the next-door neighbor, buying penny candy (using the tip that I received for my delivery service), the music associated with the Mr. Softee ice cream truck on an early summer evenings and catching fire flies.

I lived in upstate New York. Rome to be exact. My memories from Rome are those of a child between the ages of five and nine. My father was an electrical engineer. He was hired to work as such at Griffiss Air Force Base in 1960. My mother was, at the time, a homemaker.

He and my mother married at the ages of eighteen and twenty-three. I have one older sister.

As you will notice, I did not say Black, African American, Negro, Colored, Nigger, Nigga or jigaboo when I described my family.

One of the games that we played as children was jump rope. We sang simple rhymes as one jumped. One of my favorite rhymes was “How You Figga’?”

It went like this:

How you figga’?

I figga’ like a nigga’ with a horse named trigga’

Cause a nigga’ can’t figga’ til you pull the trigga’.

Want a ride?

Step aside!

Now jump.

And at the end of the line I would jump out of the rope and the next person could jump in and have their turn. I loved how the words rhymed so well. It was so much bouncier than “Cinderalla, dressed and yellow, went upstairs to kiss a fella. By mistake, she kissed a snake. How many doctors did it take?”

The hard G consonant, almost every word rhymed perfectly. It was fun.

I thought I was a human until I turned seven.

Part III

The things I value about my parents (even more now when I look back as an adult, at the choices they made, and the opportunities that they gave my sister and me) are their curiosity, their desire to leave the world better than they found it, their humor, their intellect, the fact that they lived their values with their bodies and not merely their words.

One of the things that I understand about my parents (even more now when I look back as an adult, at the choices they made, and the opportunities that they gave my sister and me) is that they had many secrets. And these secrets allowed me to be a human being – until I turned seven.

My parents belonged to a group called “Small World”. I remember there were six or more families who would get together monthly. We would all eat together. The adults would talk and we children would play. The Jiminezs, Singhs, Weinsteins, Casons, Propas and Jones were a few of the families I remember. Adult were addressed by their family names in our home.

As you will notice, I did not say, spic, sand nigger, kike, nigger, whop, mic, honky or curry muncher when I described the families whose names I can still remember, who were a part of Small World.

One time, one of my parents’ friends brought saris for the other ladies to try on. I remember watching them turn into colorful jewels before my eyes. I remember sitting on the floor and watching as the women became as sisters while assisting each other transform luxurious colorful fabrics into beautiful raiment. I remember the smiles and the laughter and the looks of appreciation as the ladies displayed their enhanced selves before their children and partners.

It was as though sharing one aspect of another culture allowed each to experience something previously unseen/unexplored within themselves.

I want to share a story that my father hid from me until I was an adult. It may help explain why adults were addressed as they were by my sister and me.

My father grew up in Farmville Virginia. (Those who know history will remember this is where plaintiffs in the Brown vs. Board of Education case resided.) He lived on a farm. There was an outhouse. There was not electricity or running water.

The neighboring farmer had a son my father’s age, Chris was his name. The neighboring farm had an outhouse. The neighboring farm did not have electricity or running water.

Many chores are a part of living on a farm. However, whenever they could, my father and Chris would play together. Their families knew this and everything was fine until the boys turned thirteen. Chris’s father and my Dad’s uncle were talking and the boys were with them. The older men heard my father refer to his friend Chris, as Chris.

My father told me that both boys were severely beaten when they were taken home. They were no longer allowed play together.

Why you may ask? In that era one rubric for raising children was spare the rod and spoil the child. The rubric you may not have heard was this. After the age of thirteen, my father was to call his playmate Mr. Chris or sir or by his last name.

This rubric served two entirely different purposes for Chris’ dad and my father’s uncle. It was time for my father to learn rules that made more likely his physical survival in rural Virginia. It was time for Chris to learn what is…a nigger.

Once, when visiting family one summer in Philadelphia, I went with my uncle to pick my grandmother up from her job. She did days work. As we drove up to a home, I heard two young children calling from their yard “Sadie, Sadie…they’re here.” I was surprised to see my grandmother walking from the back of the house. Her name was Mrs. Schaeffer, Margaret, grandma. Apparently, the previous maid was named Sadie, and rather than confuse the children, my grandmother was given a new name.

If you notice, I did not say that these children were indoctrinated at an early age into a system which taught them that they were other and superior. If you notice, I did not call these children victims who, because of their learned blindness to the humanity of others, were deprived of an opportunity to become jewels who sparkle from the wealth associated with experiencing the rich tapestry of all that is human. If you notice, I did not say that being superior really is NOT superior.

During Small World, we children had so much fun. We would make up skits and charge our parents a nickel to watch us perform at the end of the evening. I learned that so much can be done with Silly Putty It can transfer cartoon imag es that can be stretched, it bounces. It feels good.

The Jiminez family lived in the country and I learned about cow chips, I learned what apples that have fallen from the trees and ripened smell like.

Small World taught me not to mix cutlery in a kosher household. I learned how to make a bunny shadow puppet and I watched the Beatles when they first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show while eating a bowl of black walnut ice-cream.

Part IV

Bishop Kosiya Shalita was the Anglican Bishop of Ankole-Kigezi Diocese in Uganda. He visited our family in 1962, the year that Uganda’s independence from Great Britain was achieved. I was a small child and could not begin to fathom the substance of he and my parents’ conversations, but I could tell that something powerful was transpiring by the passion in their voices.

As an adult, I can imagine the ideas behind that passion as African nations were being liberated from exploitive colonialism and Black Americans were fighting for basic freedoms.

As a child, and at the time, I liked the fact that Bishop Shalita let me eat the cherry that had been on top of his sundae.

Alex Haley wrote much of “Malcolm X” in Rome. It was during this time that he and my parents became friends. He was often a guest in our home, both in Rome and in St. Louis where my family moved later. What I remember about his visits are the stories he would tell. When he first became a family friend, an idea was starting to germinate about family history or roots. I will never forget the excitement the day he told my folks that he’d found documentation which corroborated his family’s oral history about a person whose foot had been cut because of frequent attempts to run away from an owner!

I still have the message Mr. Haley wrote in my sixth-grade autograph book.

I was happy because my parents bought this wonderful book. It’s blank created opportunities for friends to fold the pages in interesting ways and write poems such as, “If all the boys lived across the sea, what a good swimmer Anita would be”.

The things I value about my parents (even more now when I look back as an adult, at the choices they made, and the opportunities that they gave my sister and me) are their curiosity, their desire to leave the world better than they found it, their humor, their intellect, the fact that they lived their values with their bodies and not merely their words.

Part V

Children played when I was a child and adults did adult things. (Yes, my mother I was were extremely close and so I was probably allowed to spend more time listening to grown folks talk than some.)

One of the most memorable play times I had was when my mom, dad, sister and I spent an entire Sunday at a camp that was located on a farm in upstate New York.

The adults were somewhere and we children (and there were at least fifty of us of all ages) got to play together. It was a Sunday. The sun was shining. There were fields at the camp and I got to pick fresh peas and pop them in my mouth. The other children looked at me in a way that showed that they were unable to understand why I got so much pleasure from doing this simple act.

Later we went into an open area and danced. They taught me a dance called “The Dirty Dog”. It involved gyrating one’s pelvis to a slow and steady beat. I kind of loved doing that dance if the truth be told, but when one of the older boys told me that the dog sometimes got down on all fours and the other dog danced near her. My inner voice told me that it was time to stop dancing.

Later, we children joined our parents in the large room they’d been in all day. That was also where dinner was served.

I noticed my mother sitting at a table with a grown man. There were books in front of them. I saw that he was struggling as he was attempting to read one of the books. I noticed that the book was one I’d read previously. To my mother’s shame I sauntered over to him and proceeded to read the book in a tone which reflected my pride in my ability.

What I didn’t say earlier was that this was a migrant farm camp.

What I didn’t say was that the children did not understand my joy working in the fields because it was what they were forced to routinely do in order to help their parents meet their “picking” quotas, as they moved place to place.

What I didn’t say was that my family was there as part of an adult literacy program teaching the parents of my new friends to read.

What I did say, at the time before my mother shushed me was “Why are these grownups looking at these baby books?”

What I didn’t know at the time, was that these adults were learning to read as a means to regain some of their humanity.

Part VI

When I was older, I asked my parents what event from my childhood would they think of, if they were to use that event to predict who I would become in the future.

This is the story they told me.

My maternal grandfather was a man who lived a full life. I love to say that he was an Indian, a cowboy, a sailor and a police officer.

PopPop was born in the 1880’s in Indian Territory,

before Oklahoma became a state. He is listed in the Dawes Commission Reports as a Chocktaw Freedman. When I look at photos of his mother, I see a woman who had five husbands. I see a woman who appears fearless. She looks to be pure African. I see a woman in traditional native garb (not the feathers and such that Hollywood advances), but rather the clothes of one who has worked hard and steadily for everything thing that she might have.

When I look a portrait of my great grandfather, I see a full blooded Chocktaw.

PopPop told me that he, like others of his tribe was deeded land by the US government. Once oil was discovered on the land, it was taken from him.

We still have the deed in our family archives. It reads something like this: This land is yours for as long as the grass is green, the water flows, and the sky is blue.

I guess he discovered at some point that he wasn’t a human either. It seems being less than human is part of my genetic lineage. But it is a lineage that I am proud to call my own.

PopPop left home and went to Galveston Texas at an early age. He joined the merchant marines. He saw the world. I suppose that his humanity was re-established when he went to Europe. He was, as they say “a looker”. When we cleaned out his home after he died, I found photographs of all nationalities of women who saw him as a human. Good on you PopPop.

Before he left his home, his mother had remarried. He told me that they used to break horses for the US Government on the ranch that the family owned.

PopPop used to get angry when we watched western movies. He told me that the only reason the cowboys won all the time was because they had guns.

Before Woodrow Wilson excluded Black people from federal government jobs, my grandfather worked as a security guard for a federal agency. Later on, he worked as a guard for a bank. That is as close as a person who looked like him could get to being a policeman in those days.

Therefore, I stand by the adjectives I wrote above to describe that wonderful man.

When I was a child, he used to send me articles about Black inventors and articles that he’d collected from Jack Johnson fights. I think he believed he was a human.

He told me that he had a pet squirrel in his pocket when he took the train from Oklahoma to Galveston. He used to call my sister and me boys. He taught us how to speak some Chocktaw. There was always peanut brittle and Wrigglys Spearmint gum. He could not comb my thick hair. He had pictures of naked women stashed in his basement. (I found them.) He lived in Washington DC and he and I would walk to the Mall to feed the squirrels.

Anyway, the story my parents tell me of me, is this.

PopPop smoked big old smelly cigars. I used to sit on his lap. One day, they noticed that I had crawled onto his lap and he’d placed his cigar down on an ashtray. I snuggled in and got very comfortable. My parents left the room. When they returned, I was puffing away on that old cigar. I was four.

They say that is how they knew who I’d become.

Part VII

I am not sure what that story means.

I like to think that they meant that I liked to be close to people I love.

I like to think that they meant that I would be loved.

I like to think that they meant that I was a snuggly cuddle bunny type of person.

I like to think that they meant that I would be curious about the world around me.

I like to think that they meant that I would not be afraid to try things that seemed interesting.

I’m not sure though.


My mother loved to go to the circus and state fairs. Believe me, a circus coming within a reasonable proximity to Rome, New York was a big deal. One day the circus came to town. Our family went.

There are smaller tents located outside of the big tent. Inside those smaller tents were freaks. The signs said you had to be over a certain age to go into those tents. I watched men go inside. Boy did I want to go too. I wanted to see the bearded lady, and the “spectacle” that could only be seen by the “most brave”.

Maybe my father, remembering my cigar smoking day, was paying extra close attention to me. My father observed me letting go of my mother’s hand. He observed me easing closer to the person who was beckoned folks in to those mystifying tents.

I will never forget the conversation we had when he stopped me.

I learned that everyone is a “freak” to someone on this earth.

I learned that everyone is “normal” to someone on this earth.

I learned that it is often hard to distinguish who is the freak and who is normal. The answer to the question of “freak” or not depends upon who is making the observation.

I was told that these types of labels hurt those who are making them and those who are being labeled. Therefore, the best thing to do is avoid labels. The better thing to do is avoid people who insist upon labeling. The wisest thing to do and the only label that matters is the one which says every living person is loved by and a creation of God.

And then, I got a bag of peanuts, went into the big tent and saw the show.

The movie Dumbo got me. Dumbo was born a “freak”. He had ears that were larger than others. He was ostracized by the other animals in the circus. His mother was ridiculed for birthing and loving her off spring. I delighted in the fact that at the end of the movie, Dumbo’s difference makes him exceptional.

When I was an adult, I was eager to share the film with my children. I wanted them to learn the lesson I loved. I wanted them to learn lesson my father taught me that day at the circus in Rome, New York. But then I watched the film and saw the vignette performed by the crows. If you have a chance to see the cartoon, you will see that the black crows are depicted in a denigrating way. Every negative ethnic stereotype about Black Americans is represented by those crows.

When I watched the film again, I thought in America even the "specialness"" associated with difference, is reserved for a select few.

Yet again, I was reminded that I am not human.

Part IX

Does anyone else wonder what toll being inside the “freak tent” takes on a human being?

Is anyone else ashamed of the fact that we pay to look at the “freak”?

Does anyone else wonder why seeing the “freak” is related to seeing ourselves as worthy?

Does anyone else wonder what it is that we are trying to be worthy of?

Does anyone else wonder what the “freak” does when the circus leaves town?

Does anyone else care about why the “freak” has allowed his or her body to be displayed in such a way?

Does anyone else wonder if the “freak” has a choice?

Does anyone else wonder if this is the “freak’s” only choice, and if so…why?

Do we care?

Part X

I love sweets.

One day an elementary school classmate had Hostess treats called Snowballs in her lunch. My mom would never allow us to eat Snowballs. To me they were coconut covered chocolate things that were filled with a gooey vanilla. (I’d seem others eat them, and also their commercial on tv.) To my mom they were chemicals, chemicals, chemicals, sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar and sugar.

I asked my classmate if I could have one of her snowballs. She told me no. I then told her than my mother was dying and could I please have one. She gave me both of her snowballs.

One Christmas I saved my allowance and brought my older sister an etch-a-sketch as present. It was the most expensive gift I’d ever given. I even had to buy my mother a small bottle of Evening in Paris cologne that year. My sister gave me a paper doll. I cut up the paper doll.

My sister and I shared the second floor of our Cape Cod style home. Once a month she would let me play “wash day” with our Barbie dolls. That day we would take off all of Barbie and Ken’s clothes and they would play together naked.

I think Snowballs, and paper dolls and wash day help make me human, but maybe they indicate that there was more to my parent’s assessment of cigar smoking me, than my assessment of just brilliant unbridled curiosity.

(More to come)

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Sep 01, 2020

Anita, thank you for sharing your childhood remembrances and background. I LOVED reading it. What a remarkable human you are and author!

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