One, two, three!
You gotta know how to pony like Bony Maronie
Mashed Potato, do the Alligator
Put your hands on your hips, let your back-bone slip
Do the Watusi, like my little Lucy
Na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na, na na na na.
“Land of a Thousand Dances” written by Christopher Kenner in 1962
Hit single by Wilson Pickett in 1966
It really funny how little humans comprehend. I remember dancing to this song in my all white high school in Western New York and as we tried to master The Pony and The Mashed Potatoes we had no idea we were trying to emulate another culture. Maybe it was because we were self centered teenagers and deep into the comfort zone of our all caucasian world. But luckily music was a universal language that first exposed us to a world beyond what we grew up in.
I’m ashamed to say I needed to look up Wilson Picket to learn more about him for this post. I realized that over the years I enjoyed dancing to a lot of his singles including “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour”.
In the 1960’s, I was part of a white closed system but not completely. I lived next door to Mr. C.’s farm. Looking out my bedroom window, I could see his yellow house, the grey shingled barn, the collection of outbuildings and beyond it all, acres of orchards. They were my refuge, a lovely deviation from the limits life imposed on me. I was shy and self conscious in high school and I was always glad to get home. School was like a game board with rigid rules and what seemed like only one path. Competition was intense, some won and others were left behind.
I would change my clothes after school and then go down to my father’s cluttered workshop that smelled of oil and dirt to retrieve my bike. Pushing and pulling it over the dry clods of a plowed field I’d finally get it to the powdery road that weaved through Mr. C.’s farm.
My route passed a stagnant pond that was be mixed with insecticides stored nearby. The smell from the fumes was terrible. It was the 1960’s, no one knew any better.
As I pumped the pedals of my bike as hard as I could, row after row of plum, apple and peach trees blurred into lovely shades of green and chartreuse. Sometimes I would stop to pick the ripest fruit from a high branch closest to the sun. Other times I would keep going hoping for the freedom that motion offered.
When I reached the halfway point of my journey, I came to a field where vegetables were grown for sale. A cluster of hunched over bodies dotted the area. I slowed down and was surprised to see black people picking tomatoes. I had never seen anything like this in real life. Sure I had watched “Amos and Andy” and Shirley Temple with her African-American dance partner but this was different.
I noticed that no one acknowledged the loud clicking sound of my old bike. Something seemed to press them all down, forbidding them to make any connection with me.
On I went. A wonderful hill and the gift of gravity were next. I pumped harder and harder and my mind raced.Where did the workers come from? Where did they go when the sun set and darkness came?
Down, down the hill I sailed. The speed and the rushing air cleared my mind. I was gloriously free in the moment.
The road leveled, my bike slowed and I was home again.
Having returned the bike to the dank darkness of my father’s workshop, I walked back to the my house but was stopped by an intruder, a rooster who stood a foot and a half tall. It was autumn personified from the red of its comb and wattle, to the rusty brown on its back, and the yellow cascading down its head and chest. Its grandness was further accentuated by the explosion black feathers at its tail.
The exotic creature was unlike any barnyard poultry I had ever seen. and I sensed that the bird had been bred and raised for a special mission and its defiance frightened me.
The rooster took a step forward, unfurled its huge wings, rose into the air, and thrust its open talons toward me. I screamed and ran into the house as the rooster slowly sauntered into the nearby plum orchard sensing it had made its point.
My mom was preparing dinner and my dad reading the paper laid out before him on the kitchen table. I told then about the attacking rooster and my father told me it belonged to a worker Mr. C. had hired to help with the farm. He went on to describe the rooster’s owner as “Good Ole Sherm” who wore no shoes and who had feet as wide as they were long and was “black as the ace of spades.”
No one ever had to explain to me that during my childhood I lived in a very intolerant country and was part of a prejudice family. My grandparent came to this country directly from Poland in the early 1900’s and I frequently felt the sharp painful stabs of Polish jokes. And my dad and mom seemed to have a lot of negative things to says about other ethnic people, racial minorities and, from time to time, various religious groups.
My dad volunteered to take me to see Sherm about the rooster. After supper, I followed him through the plum orchard to Sherm’s home in Mr. C.’s abandoned chicken coop.
Constructed with old cinder blocks that looked like small grey loaves of course bread, the squat structure had a black tar paper roof and paned windows on three sides. Someone had attempted to clean the glass but dirt stubbornly clung to corners. The small door for chickens was nailed shut. A larger entrance, four weathered vertical boards held together with two horizontal boards, had an empty tuna fish can for a knob.
My father knocked on the door and after a moment it was opened by a tall middle-aged black man in overalls, a flannel shirt, and work boots who seemed happy to see us and welcomed us in.
My father went in first. I followed. The windows brought light into cramped space that was furnished with a broken wicker chair, a lime green formica table with rusted chrome sides and legs, a red kitchen chair covered in cracked plastic upholstery, and a small cot. The shelter had no water, electricity, or bathroom. An oil lamp, camp stove, and a battered aluminum cooler were the only conveniences. I didn’t smell any chicken odor, only the masking scent of white wash.
My father sat down on the wicker chair, I stood. Sherm did not look at me but pulled the chair away from the table and gently motioned for me to sit down. The two men talked about the rooster and laughed as they came up with a plan. They discussed this year’s crop and the need for more rain. Sherm asked if he could get us something. My dad nodded.
Sherm took one step toward the cooler on the floor, opened it and took out a glass bottle of orange juice. He reached up to a wooden plank shelf over the door and brought down three glasses. I could see that they had not been washed thoroughly and a hazy film remained.
I watched my father raise a dirty glass to his lips and drink the warm golden liquid until it was gone. I did the same.
I learned a lot about the hypocrisy of prejudice that day, that humans find great personal benefit in labeling other people with broad unjustified brush strokes. Maybe we do it because we are afraid or lazy or because there is comfort in being a member of a tribe. But if we take the time to talk to individuals, really listen and get to know them, everything would be a lot easier. My dad, despite his prejudicial comments in private, treated Sherm, the person, with the greatest respect and compassion. Witnessing that simple act of hospitality and the resulting act of total acceptance has had a lasting impact on me. Because of that brief encounter, I believe,and will always believe, in inclusion and the importance of an open mind and an accepting heart.
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