Jul/Aug 2006 Nonfiction

An Apology to Sonja Spencer

by Larri Ann Rosser

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

People right now are talking about forty-year-old news. "Closure," say some. "Acknowledgment. Justice must be served."

Others shrug. "It's over," they say, "Past and done. Let it lie."

For myself, I know that old injustices don't flow by like water under a bridge. They stick like burrs, pricking in vulnerable places.

In the East Texas town where I grew up, the rules of racial mixing weren't carved on tablets of stone or printed in the back of the Wm. B. Travis Elementary School handbook, but they were clear and unwavering nonetheless.

There were colored children in our school. It was acceptable to play organized games with them, or to talk with them, a group of white kids to a group of black, about important issues of the day, like who would win the high school football game or whether Mrs. Oney really was a witch. Those acts were permitted, but they defined the limits of our social intercourse. You did not eat with them or make them your personal friends, and you definitely did not invite them to your house.

I was a chubby, awkward child with an unfortunate resemblance to Howdy Doody and an even more unfortunate need to be accepted by my peers. I abided by the rules in spite of my sick-hearted suspicions that they made no sense.

There was a yalla girl in my class, with a proud Caddo nose and eyes as clear as bottle glass, who would have broken the rules for me. We had in common red hair, an interest in horses, and a hard time blending in with our peers. She was engaging and friendly, but I knew that our private talks and occasional hand touch were not in alignment with the standards of the day.

Once while talking to my socially specified group of friends about my upcoming birthday—there would be a record player and coke floats as well as cake—I noticed Sonja standing at the edge of the group. Our eyes met, and I understood how much she wanted to be included. I said to her, "I'd like to invite you, Sonja, but my mama won't let me. You understand."

Yes, she nodded. She understood.

She waited, clear-eyed and straight-backed, until our driveling conversation wore down. Then, hugging her books to her chest, she walked away, alone.

Thirty-five years later, that little burr of injustice still pricks me. Not only did I do an unkindness to one who had offered me only good, but I rejected someone who could have been my friend for life. For both of those things, and for the slow, slow changes in the color of our world, Sonja Spencer, I apologize.


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