Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sammy Davis, Jr. Went Swimming with My Mother (No He Didn't)

It was a mistake any white four-year-old could make - in 1962.
Graphic, copyright Teece Aronin

When I was four, my mother told me a story about a civil rights activist she admired. He was a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King and his name was James Farmer. Knowing what I know about him now, he was one of the bravest people who ever lived because he was one of the volunteers who rode buses throughout the South testing how successfully and safely blacks could enjoy their newly established equal legal status. 

This was a time when Jim Crow, separate but equal laws were still in force in a de facto way, meaning that forcing blacks to the back of the bus was supposed to be illegal but was still a stubbornly lingering practice. What Farmer did was extremely dangerous and blacks were frequently beaten and lynched for this kind of "brazen" behavior. 

When my mother was a girl, Farmer visited the church camp she was attending, spoke with the children, and swam with them in the lake. I was impressed by this and bragged to my Sunday school class that my mother had gone swimming with Sammy Davis, Jr. I loved Sammy Davis, Jr. I also lived in an all-white neighborhood since neighborhoods, even in the North where I was from, still tended to be segregated. The black men in my life were either Sammy Davis, Jr. or Nat King Cole. I loved him, too.

When my Sunday school teacher fawned over my mother, telling her what I'd shared with the class and swooning over how thrilling it must have been to go swimming with Sammy Davis, Junior, my mother, who never swore - even in her mind - had a WTH moment. Immediately she whisked me aside and abruptly demanded to know what that was all about.

Once I'd explained, and she saw how guileless I was about it, she laughed.

Then she had to explain things to my Sunday school teacher who probably thought James Farmer was a singer too.

But my Sunday school teacher wouldn't have had my excuse.