I bent down to pick up my new bike from the sidewalk again. When I lifted my head, a strange girl stood over me straddling her own two-wheeler. Her arms ended in handlebars and the front wheel jutted toward me.
“Need help?” she asked.
I nodded. I couldn’t balance. My mother had told me to wait until my older sister came to visit, but I was impatient. The gleam of the bike lit my dreams. I wanted to learn to ride right away. My mother didn’t know how and my father was always busy.
“I’m Marcy. I live down the street.” It turned out that we were both 6 but she was almost 7. I admired the way she held her bike: casually, like another limb. Her straight brown hair swung free at her shoulders. Mine was darker and curlier and pulled back into braids. We lived in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago. It was one of the few integrated neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1950s.
She stepped to the side of her bike to walk along with me. She said that she would take me to a space wider than the sidewalk where I could wobble without falling. I hesitated because I had just met Marcy and I had been warned against strangers. Then I figured it was okay because real strangers were bad men with candy, not girls my age.
We headed around the corner and up the block. Maybe Marcy was not allowed to cross the street either. Mulberries, smashed on the sidewalk, stained the bike tires with purple patches. Marcy picked a few berries from overhanging tree branches and offered them to me. They were warm and barely sweet. My mother had told me not to eat them because people would think we were poor. But Marcy didn’t seem to worry about that.
At the end of the block there was a large building set back from the street with a paved rectangle in front. A slim brown man with a shaved head stood on either side of the building entrance. The two of them didn’t move or speak or make eye contact. They stared out above our heads. They looked scary to me but Marcy assured me that they wouldn’t bother us. She put down her bike and stabilized mine while I started.
“Keep pedaling,” Marcy yelled. “If you stop, you’ll fall.”
It seemed obvious, when she said it. To balance, you have to move forward. In practice, it was not easy. I had to fight the urge to brake when the front wheel veered.
That evening, I asked my mother what the big building was and she said that it belonged to the Black Muslims. It was called Temple Number Two. The men were guards, members of the “Fruit of Islam.” It seemed weird to call men “Fruit.” She told me to stay away from there, that they were dangerous.
“Not to me,” I could have said, but I knew better.
I don’t know where Marcy lived. She only appeared when I brought out the bike. After a while, I could ride well enough to follow her on the sidewalk and stand on the pedals. Under the eyes of the Fruit, we zoomed fast circles and collapsed dizzy and giggling.
One day, Marcy rode up and told me that she couldn’t play with me anymore.
“My mother says that you’re a Negro.” She looked at me.
“Yes.” I knew that I was a Negro, although it wasn’t clear to me what that meant. Most Negroes had brown skin instead of light tan like mine. It was something my parents mentioned when they talked about behavior, that I had to be a better student and more polite because I was a Negro. At school, kids had different skin and eyes and hair color but we never talked about it.
Marcy sighed. I wondered then if she had expected me to deny it, that if I had said “No,” she would still be able to play with me. But it was too late.
“Well, ’bye then.” She waved at me and took off. It was so fast, so final. I should have asked why. Why couldn’t she play with me anyway? I was the same person. But I already knew that this Negro business didn’t make sense. I just stood there, holding my bike, trying not to cry.
After a while, I decided to put the bike back in the garage. But when the wheels rolled, I thought about how much I liked riding. I sat back down on the seat and rode along the sidewalk past the mulberry trees to the temple. There I traced a few slow circles, more self-conscious alone. I thought about how the Fruit stood silent and how now, without Marcy, I was silent, too. I wondered if silence made me a Negro.
On the way back, I rode fast, legs pumping up and down. Everywhere the air touched my skin felt like a distinct edge. I was me, separate. Marcy taught me to ride and now that learning was mine. She couldn’t take it back. The bike, the sun, the breeze didn’t care that I was a Negro. As long as I kept pedaling, I would be okay.
Toni Martin is a physician and writer, author of When the Personal Was Political: Five Women Doctors Look Back. She lives in Berkeley.
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