How I’m learning to name both the injustice and goodness of my childhood in the South.
When I was a girl, sometimes it rained so hard and long that our backyard flooded. Our house sat a few feet above sea level, a block away from the inlets of the North Carolina coast. When the rains came, there was always a chance that the drainpipes would overflow, spill across the roadways, and fill the bottom of the yard with enough water to reach our waists.
We had no fear. No thoughts of snakes or disease or objects dislodged by the current menacing our bare bodies with their sharp edges. We knew the Sunday school story of the Flood as one of triumph and hope—animals, a rainbow, salvation. We didn’t learn about the waters of judgment. We stripped down to our underwear to wade through the murky pool and never considered the destruction that primordial storm had left in its wake.
I now look back on my childhood and see a similar mix of innocence and ignorance.
In our part of town, the houses were spacious, even grand, with wraparound porches, wide-planked wooden floors, and pecan trees shading the backyards. We lived within walking distance of the local plantation. Across an old wooden bridge and a road through the woods stood an imposing three-story white manor house. Past the house, cottages lined the dirt road, with clothes hanging out to dry. We sometimes drove down that road on our way to the country club. I stared out the window of our minivan from behind tinted glass and saw African American tenants sitting in rocking chairs on the front porches. The air was hazy and thick with heat, like a shimmering wall between us.
A woman named Caroline took care of my three sisters and me a few days each week. She was short and had light brown skin, a round face, and sparkling eyes. She wore a white dress and white …
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