Excerpt 4: Noccalula Falls
By the time I was sixteen-years-old, I was even making a name for myself in the sports sections of the newspaper, from junior high up through my senior year. Due to such status, I became a lifeguard at the recreation center during the summer. It is ironic we weren’t invited to swim there, but a tall, black lifeguard was on duty protecting those that could. This new position afforded me many notes slipped my way from girls that went to my school.
“Hiiiiii Mathew! Can you meet me after school?” one would usually say. These notes led to secret rendezvous up on Lookout Mountain, our local lover’s lane. What would make me defy tradition? Nobody in my family or community that I knew of had openly dated white people. Not to mention the fact that to marry one would have been illegal in Alabama at that time anyway. What would make me grow bold enough to step over the line drawn by law and popular opinion?
My mother would say stuff like “Don’t bring no nappy headed black girl up in here!” But that didn’t mean I was to bring home a white one. I knew what she meant. The brainwashing of the slave owners held fast with rural folks and many others of her generation. They carried the wishes of slave- owners who favored the biracial traits they could produce, over authentically powerful African or Native American ones that stood out. These unsuspecting old folks passed down the desires of racists in the form of colorism. Although people, like my mother, who thought along this line weren’t aware of it, what they felt was common, even if not spoken out loud. Leading all the way up to the brown paper bag standards that I met later in college at Fisk, where I experienced this form of racism—colorism—in my community.
These standards left me with few social options that summer, especially after being chased and threatened with a beating from the kids calling me Oreo. I knew not to date any girls from Carver, so I wore my orange and black jacket through a sea of white girls who began to notice me. I also noticed them. I was no better able to ignore puberty than I was my mother’s orders to integrate those white schools. At that stage, my hormones saw no color lines and apparently neither did theirs. My need for companionship saw no barriers, and a few of them offered up any. I had probably been arrested by some of these girl’s kinfolks during the marches, but they were there batting eyes and making it clear—I could go there. I got bold enough to have kissed one on the front of the school steps and landed in trouble in the vice principal’s office.
That was the beginning of me finding myself in somebody’s office or before a red-faced, angry administrator for getting caught crossing that line. It seems amazing to me now that Emmett Till’s murder for allegedly making a pass at a white girl in summer of’55 was just thirteen years from the summer I dated a few. What was I doing? This is in a state that didn’t get rid of laws banning interracial marriage until the year 2000. Alabama held on despite the infamous civil rights Supreme Court decision in Virginia vs. Loving; the case that finally allowed interracial marriage.
Alabama was a state where somebody could snatch you up out of that parked car on Lookout Mountain, overlooking all those disapproving white folks below, fornicating with one of their teenagers, and quite easily lynch you. They could at least arrest and punish you for daring the crime. It was 1968 that first summer of risks, the same year some racist killed Dr. King. There I was foolish (or daring) enough to climb a hill and break a social taboo after leaving work at Noccalula Falls.
The impulsive risk-taking. The defiance. I wondered where it came from first. I could blame some influence on my parents who dared to do what they wanted without asking. In truth, they mostly did their best to keep me out of risky situations, like all good parents. So where else did the influences come from I ask? In 1968, you could come up missing or a splattered headline across some Alabama newspaper—‘the strangest and stupidest fruit killed for courting a white girl’ it would say. People did it all the time, but it was dangerous and kept down low if possible.