Ironically enough, my first encounter with racism had to do with myself. Let me explain!
But, first, go back and read part one of this series.
I didn't get very many birthday parties when I was a kid. In fact, I got a sum total of two. The first one was during first grade. My mom actually gave me a party at McDonald's, which is probably something that I wanted to do because what kid doesn't want to do that? Okay, kids these days probably don't want to do that so much but, back in the 70s, it was a cool, new thing to do. The problem was that, due to the cost, I was limited to something like only five friends. Or four. Some small number. It meant making some hard choices as to whom to invite.
Three of the people were a given. Two of them, the boys, were my best friends all through elementary school. Well, that elementary school, at any rate. The other was a girl who would end being my longest running friend. Basically, she and I grew up together from kindergarten until we graduated high school. Of course, I didn't know that was going to be the case in first grade, but it says something, I suppose, that she was one of my best friends even then. All three of them were at that party.
There may or may not have been one other person there but, if there was, I can't remember who it was.
The issue, though, arose over the "last person" I invited.
I remember the discussion with my mother about whom I was going to invite. On the list were the three (or four) people who ended up coming, and I had one more person to go. I was conflicted. I could either invite Derrick, a black boy in my class at school and next in line on the "friend scale" after the people I had already invited, or I could invite Chris, a boy who had lived down the block from me before we'd moved and had gone to my school until he moved. He had been one of my close playmates for a couple of years, but I hadn't seen him since he left my school. Playdates weren't a thing back in 1977 so inviting him to my party seemed to be the only way to get to see him again. I ended up choosing Chris over Derrick.
That turned into a problem. Chris didn't show up to the party, so my mom wanted me to call Derrick to see if he could come because she had to pay for the guest whether there was a person there or not. So there we were at the party and my mom was telling me to call Derrick and also telling me about how upset Derrick had been not to be invited and that Derrick's mom had even called her and said that I didn't invite Derrick because he was black. Basically, my mom was shifting the racism comment onto me.
Of course, she hadn't told me any of this ahead of time. She waited until we were actually having the party. Evidently, she'd suspected Chris wasn't going to show because his mother hadn't RSVP'd, and my mom was upset about wasting the money. The problem is that I can't remember whom she'd wanted me to invite in the first place. I remember there being a discussion about it, but the only part I remember is that I wanted Chris to be at the party more than I wanted Derrick at the part because it had been close to a year since I'd seen him.
The party was... traumatic. The only thing I remember is being on the phone, listening to it ringing and ringing, and my mom telling me that I didn't invite Derrick because he was black. And crying. I was pretty horrified, too, at the thought that Derrick would think I left him out because he was black, which just wasn't true. And, of course, no one answered the phone. Because Derrick's mom had taken him to do something fun and special because he didn't get invited to my party. The party I can't remember.
I don't remember our friendship being the same after that, and I have always always felt bad about what happened over that birthday party. Sure, yeah, I know it wasn't my fault. I was barely over a hand old. But that doesn't change the emotion involved. In general, when they ask that question about things you would change in your past if you could, I don't have a lot of those things, but this is one. I would certainly go back and invite Derrick instead. If I'd known how important it was to him, I wouldn't have cared about Chris being there at all.
But I didn't know.
It was this relationship, though, that inspired the character of Derrik in "Christmas on the Corner." See, I did grow up in the South, and I did have black friends. Let me rephrase that: I had friends who also happened to be black, because I never thought of my friends in colors. They were just my friends. Derrik is a reflection of that dynamic and, I think, an important one. But Sam won't be having any birthday parties that Derrik doesn't get invited to.