The Other Side of the 50’s (Part 1)
by Assata Shakur
Excerpted from: Assata: An Autobiography, Lawrence Hill Books, 1987
Born JoAnne Deborah Byron, Assata Shakur is the granddaughter of Frank and Lulu Freeman Hill. She was born in Jamaica, NY. When she was 3, the family moved back to Wilmington, North Carolina. In a number of places she uses alternate spelling and capitalization as quoted here.
“We were, however, visited by real, life ghosts. They were the phantoms of the parking lot. It seems that the white citizens of Wilmington and Carolina Beach were not at all happy that my grandparents dared to build on the land and to start a ‘colored’ business. We were too close for their comfort. So they would visit us from time to time to express their disapproval. I don’t know for a fact that they were card-carrying members of the Klan, but, judging from their behavior, I think they were. But then, of course, they weren’t wearing their sheets. They could’ve just been red-blooded amerikan boys out for some good clean fun. The parking lot was made of dirt, and cars spinning around on it at breakneck speed would ruin it in no time. Two or three of them would ride around the parking lot, spinning and skidding, while they shouted curses and racist insults. One time they fired guns in the air. I remember seeing them and hearing them out there and wondering what they were gonna do next. More than once i saw my grandfather go to where he kept his gun and carry it quietly to where he had been sitting. Somehow this made me more afraid, because i knew that he, too, thought they were scary.
“When we were on the beach we shopped at Carolina Beach. It had an amusement park, but of course, Black people were not permitted to go in. Every time we passed it i looked at the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel and the little cars and airplanes and my heart would just long to ride them. But my favorite forbidden ride had little boats in a pool of water, and every time i passed them i felt frustrated and deprived. Of course, persistent creature that i am, i always asked to be taken on the rides, knowing full well what the answer would be. One summer my mother and sister and I were walking down the boardwalk. My mother was spending part of her summer helping my grandparents in the business. As soon as we neared the rides, I wasn’t into my usual act. I continued, ad nauseam, until my mother, grinning, said. ‘All right now, I’m gonna try to get us in. When we get over there, I don’t want to hear one word out of you. Just let me do the talking. And if they ask you anything, don’t answer. Okay? Okay!’
“My mother went over to the ticket booth and began talking. I didn’t understand a word she was saying. The lady at the ticket window kept telling my mother that she couldn’t sell her any tickets. My mother kept talking, very fast, and waving her hands. The manager came over and told my mother she couldn’t buy any tickets and that we couldn’t go into the park. My mother kept talking and waving her hands and soon she was screaming this fording language. I didn’t know if she was speaking a play language or a real one. Several other men came over. They talked to my mother. She continued. After the men went to one side and had a conference, they returned and told the ticket seller to give my mother the tickets.
“I couldn’t believe it. All at once we were laughing and giggling and riding the rides. All the white people were staring at us, but we didn’t care. We were busy having a ball. When I got into one of those little boats, my mother practically had to drag me out. I was in my glory. When we finished the rides we went to the Dairy Queen for ice cream. We sang and laughed all the way home.
“When we got home my mother explained that she had been speaking Spanish and had told the managers that she was from a Spanish country and that if he didn’t let us in she would call the embassy and the United Nations and I don’t know who all else. We laughed and talked about it for days. But it was a lesson I never forgot. Anybody, no matter who they were, could come right off the boat and get more rights and respect than amerikan-born Blacks.”