It happened during the first year at my new school. I came home with an announcement from the principal: On St. Patrick’s Day, we had to dress for assembly, in white blouse and blue skirt. But if we were Irish, we could wear a green blouse instead of the white.
This simple announcement caused a flurry of activity within my family. My grandfather insisted that my older sister and I would wear green blouses for this school assembly. It was left up to my mom, grandmother, aunt, and uncle to find these blouses on such short notice. They were fanned out to different parts of the city, from the local department store on Linden Boulevard, to Macy’s at Herald Square and every place in between, in search of just the right color of green blouses for St. Patrick’s.
While the folks searched high and low, I secretly hoped that they would not succeed in their mission. School was tough enough. Here I was in the second grade, among the first blacks to be bused out of my neighborhood in Southeast Queens an all-white school in Northern Queens. Then I was a short, shy, skinny kid who wore white sparkly Catwoman style glasses. So I was already under a microscope.
It looked like things would swing my way when they managed to find a blouse that fit my sister, but they couldn’t find one for me. I was always the difficult one to dress, since I was short, skinny, and, as the old folks would say, I had no waist. I wore suspenders on my skirts to keep them up. My grandfather just felt that they needed to try harder, and sent them back out. His granddaughters were going to be properly attired for this assembly. The evening before St. Patrick’s Day, my mom and uncle arrived home together, tired, but satisfied. Mission accomplished. They’d found green blouses for both me and my sister.
Why did my grandfather insist that my sister and I wear the green on St. Patrick’s Day? We were black folks—or should I say, Negroes, as we were called in the mid-60s, before we evolved to “Black and I’m Proud.” All the Irish folks that I saw in school books and on TV didn’t look like me. They looked like white people. But I couldn’t just straight out ask my grandfather, “Why,” because children were just supposed to do as they were told. Somehow, I needed to know that it would be worth my spending a school day thinking that I could be hauled off to the principal’s office because the teacher might think it audacious for a little black child to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. So I didn’t ask why. Instead, I asked, “What do I say if the teacher asks why I’m wearing green?”
“If anyone asks—you tell them your grandfather’s last name is REILLY!”
Until that moment, I did not know my grandfather’s surname. My second grade mind didn’t think it was possible for my mother’s parents to have a last name—and if they did, what did it matter, because to us kids they were always Moyee and Pa. Sometimes I would hear Pa call my grandmother Mintha—but we were never allowed to call her Mintha, which was short for her first name, Aramintha. That they had a last name at all was a new concept. And my grandfather’s last name was Irish?! That day, I learned something new about my family’s heritage. And I was proud that my grandfather had the conviction to celebrate this part of his heritage by making sure that we were properly dressed.
Well, my pride could not keep my knees from trembling under my skirt as I headed out to the bus stop that morning and tried to get through the day. Every time I saw a teacher in the hallway, I would look up to see if they would see this little black child in green, pluck her out of the class line, and march her down to the principal’s office because I had the audacity to think that I could wear a green blouse, when I should be wearing white. Because, judging by appearance, I wasn’t supposed to be wearing the green.
As it turned out, only one teacher asked, and it wasn’t even my own teacher. That afternoon, as my class was on the way to assembly, the sixth grade teacher caught sight of me, and asked why I was wearing green. Before I could get the answer out of my mouth, she was halfway down the hall with her class. But my knees had stopped trembling.