When my daughter Nga was 15 we went to Dexter, Michigan and found the house I lived in when I was 3. I took the picture below in an attempt to recreate the photo of me that is sitting (or was sitting) on my father’s desk for as long as I can remember.
The photos were taken at approximately the same place along the road. A lot changes in 40 years.
Dexter House had been an antebellum mansion outside Ann Arbor in the small town of Dexter; it was divided into university housing for nearby U of Michigan and had supposedly been a stop on the underground railroad.
I have known this fact my entire life although I don’t remember when I first heard it. I think it must have been when we lived there, and that my mother explained what that meant.
I doubt I understood the concept of slavery, or escape, or race for that matter. I know that when I was in 3rd grade I did not understand what “colored people” were (that was the term used then). I know this because I can remember my friend Dodo (yes, Dodo, short for Dorothy) talking about someone’s “colored” gardener and the image that invoked of a person with skin like a book’s endpage– a swirling kaleidoscope of color.
This is not so much a beautiful evocation of the natural tolerance of children as of the rigid segregation in which we lived, inasmuch as I never ever encountered people of other races. I can remember vividly in fact, because it was so rare, the few non-whites I met growing up. The housekeeper at my school, the Hindu girl in fourth grade (also the only handicapped child I encountered), the three black girls at Haverford Junior High.
My kids knew from a very young age that there were different races, but they didn’t exactly understand what that meant. They knew their father wasn’t white, but since Asian people are essentially invisible in our society, and you never really encounter the terminology, they used to tell people that their dad was black, which people found very confusing. When Nga was about 6 she asked me one day, in her high piping voice, why we were the only white people on the train we riding. Everyone on the train laughed, especially since Nga is not, in fact, white.
I believe I told her that it was smart people who ride the train, and has nothing to do with the color of your skin.
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