I had a deja vu moment this morning as I bit into a piece of chicken that was left over from last night's dinner.
The bite of chicken was a memory flash as brilliant as the memories invoked by our sense of smell. It was a memory from childhood and like so many, it was fond, but the realities behind it are less pleasant.
At first taste, I was brought back to a two-lane highway, somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line on a very hot summer day when all of us, the whole family of six, were glad to be out of the confined quarters of the station wagon, even to be baked by the sun at the picnic table of a wayside rest.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time in my son's fourth grade class. One day, I pulled read-out-loud-to-the-class duty. The book was The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 (Bantam, Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, 1995) by Christopher Paul Curtis. I read the scene of the Watsons' trip south to visit grandparents. As I read, I felt as if I were reading the story of the trips that our family took most summers of my childhood to New Orleans.
The Watsons took cold fried chicken with them. They ate out of their cooler. Not in restaurants.
Most African Americans of a certain age whose families traveled know this drill. Cold fried chicken, because it will keep for the long haul. It is cheaper than most other things that could be packed and much cheaper than buying meals on the road. On a hot summer day, with a can of soda to chase it down, it is delightful passing the lips. We didn't know—or care that other people were stopping into a local diner to be served their bite to eat.
As kids, we didn't really know that those road-side diners existed because my father was not going to bring his family into one, especially one south the the Mason-Dixon.
When we, or most other African American families, traveled, we packed provisions because there was no guarantee that we would be welcome in any establishment; that basket of chicken was vital. So were the wayside rests where we knew we could stop. Regardless of whether other people were happy we were there, they had little authority to tell us to leave.
Even today—especially today, people take for granted public accommodations. (Certain political ideologies are not keep on paying for them, those most associated with dispositions that will have little trouble being welcome at every place to eat.) Some of us know that there are just places we cannot go, are not allowed or where we must at least endure the hot glares on the backs of our necks in order to do things as simple as use a restroom or eat at a restaurant. There are places in this country that are tacitly declared off limits. Those places are closer and far more numerous than most of us, even I, are willing to admit.
Our trips to New Orleans were to visit grandma and grandpa. On most of our trips to the south, we stopped in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It was close to the midway on the two-day trip to the Mississippi delta. There was a more important reason for stopping there for the night. Past this point, we were entering the American South, where we could not be sure which establishments would “have a vacancy” for US. Would mother and father be able to find a place that would welcome our patronage?
We were kids. We looked forward to the hotel stay. We looked forward to Cape Girardeau, where we knew we would get our treat, a motel stay almost as wonderful as the two or three weeks we would spend at grandma and grandpa's. The stories of danger and trepidation that lie just off the thoroughfare were just stories that were tucked neatly in a package of lore that we should not forget, cautionary tales to be heeded by little black children, but that we should not fret about, because we were just children and we were on vacation to grandma and grandpa's.
Meanwhile, my father worried, only slightly as a wise and brave protector. My mother worried, because that is the job of mothers. We set worry aside, opened the cooler and pulled out the cold fried chicken and maybe potato salad. We jumped from bed to bed until mother said, “You kids are driving me crazy,” and “Get in the tub,” and wondered when the motel staff would bring the folding bed for the younger siblings.
Soon, we would be in New Orleans. We would eat well and mostly forget how wonderful the cold chicken seemed. We would have a mountain of red soda (or cold drink, as they called it) that grandma tried to make as big as her of love that could more than fill the Gulf of Mexico. We ran around in the sweltering heat of the city, again only slightly aware of the dangers that lurked in the craziness of that place and which mother and father tucked away in their own childhood memories.