1969: Time of Change in America

In August 2014, we celebrate the 45th anniversary of Woodstock, a seminal event in what came to be known as the “Summer of Love.” Now, I wasn’t there; even though I begged my mother to let me go. Many of the artists that I was listening to were on the bill: Buddy Miles, Sly & the Family Stone, Richie Havens, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Since I was only eleven years old, my mother thought it a joke that I would even form my lips to ask her if I could go to some place way upstate “with all those white folks,” as she said it. So I had to console myself by getting the soundtrack album when it was released. But as it turns out, that summer I had my own musical adventure of my own. Here’s the story:

It was the summer of 1969, a time when the United States was still in the midst of social upheaval. President Nixon had just taken office, and was welcomed by vocal protests against the Vietnam War on one hand, and a militant change in tone to the civil rights struggle on the other. The Civil Rights Bill and the Supreme Court decision that forced busing as a way to integrate the schools, had just made their way on to the American landscape. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had both been killed just the year before. Yet, the country took the time to marvel at the success of the Apollo 11 mission that landed astronauts on the moon.

I was eleven years old at the time, and watching these images at home on TV made it seem like the whole planet was just a “Ball of Confusion,” as the Temptations sang on their hit record. Nevertheless, I was happy that it was finally summertime, which meant not only time off from school, but also more time to spend singing with the chorus. My older sister Karen and I were members of the St. Albans Community Children’s Chorus, a professional group of black boys and girls from the St. Albans section of Southeast Queens that performed classical music. The director of the chorus was Mrs. Lucille Burney; Mrs. Ruth Perkins was our accompanist; and Mrs. Beatrice Nickens was the business manager. We performed all over New York and New Jersey, and made trips to the state capitol in Albany, Chicago, the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., and to Montreal, Canada for Expo ’67.

That summer the chorus was at the pinnacle of its career, as we prepared for our longest trip ever: a six-day, seven-night cruise on a Cunard ocean liner to perform Bermuda! We would also perform on the ship as well. And I could not wait to go! This was the longest trip I had ever taken and my first trip away from home by myself. My grandfather, who emigrated to New York from St. Croix, regaled us with stories about his experience traveling to the United States on a steamer ship. That heightened my excitement over the cruise.

However, my excitement was soon replaced by anxiety. The directors of the chorus thought that maybe it would be best for me to stay home. I was the youngest member of the group, and the resident space cadet. The directors thought that I might be too much trouble, since I had a hard time following directions. I was one of the leads in the two chorus lines that marched on and off the stage. Brenda, the other lead, and I were supposed to mirror each other and reach the front stage at the same time. Once, at a concert at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Church, I veered so far off that Brenda got to the stage before I did. That landed me in a lot of hot water. I also daydreamed a lot and forgot that there were people and photographers watching us for the littlest slip, like the time we got our photo taken on the steps of the state capitol. My smiling face was turned so that it looked like I was facing the person next to me, while everyone else faced forward. The thought that I might miss the trip of a lifetime because of those embarrassing mistakes was like adding insult to injury.

Yet despite my missteps and mishaps, I turned out to be the one person who could sing my part and everyone else’s. Mrs. Burney had awarded me best musician at one of our recitals, and got me a scholarship to study music at Mannes Preparatory School in Manhattan. So in the end, I guess that musicianship won out—that and the fact that my mom pleaded with them to let me go. But Mrs. Nickens gave me a stern warning to be on my very best behavior.

Before the trip, we learned something about the country of Bermuda and the type of clothes we had to wear, like Bermuda shorts. Nothing could be worn above the knee, so mini-skirts, which were high fashion at that time, were not allowed. We also learned about ship etiquette. Each chorus member was fitted for new uniforms. One of the uniforms featured a hot pink calypso blouse made fashionable by folks like Harry Belafonte. That was my favorite uniform. We also got a uniform that included white deck sneakers, our first uniform without dress shoes.

In addition to getting us fit for new uniforms, my mom had to buy us luggage, toiletries, new clothes and accessories. The clothes included two formal gowns to wear to the captain’s dinners. Mrs. Nickens had just started her women’s clothing business and we bought our gowns from her. When mom took us over to look for gowns, she discovered that just about all of the gowns were either too wide or too long for me—or both. When I got measured for my uniforms, folks complained that I “had no waist”—that’s how skinny I was. Only one gown managed to fit—a lime-green shimmering lamé with a high neck. I liked the color, but hated the style.

“That’s an old-lady gown!” I said to my mom.

“But we’ll have to take it,” she said. She liked the style, but hated the color.

And so we were packed and ready to go. But at our last Saturday meeting, I caused an uproar when I walked into the school auditorium where we rehearsed. The night before, my mom took me to the hairdresser, who cut my hair into a short afro. At the time, only revolutionaries like Angela Davis wore their hair in an afro. My mother was not trying to make a political statement. She cut my hair simply because I liked to fall asleep with gum in my mouth, and this time when it fell out and landed in my hair, she could not get it out. So she dragged me to the hairdresser at the last minute to cut my hair.

“How can she go to Bermuda looking like that?!” they asked. “You can’t straighten that! It’s too short! How is she going to take care of it??”

Back then, straightened hair was still the standard of beauty. Wearing our hair natural was not looked upon kindly. Plus, we were black people trying to prove ourselves in the white venue of classical music. The pressure to conform to European beauty standards was strong. The directors were also concerned because sometimes they had to style our hair right before a performance, and they didn’t want the challenge of trying to get a comb through a head full of tightly coiled natural black hair. My mom promised to teach me how to braid up my afro at night so that it would be easier to style and to comb, and I was strictly advised to braid my hair up each and every night.

That was a small price for me to keep my new afro. I knew that it was a radical style, and many black people didn’t like it. One boy said to me, “You look like a Mandingo warrior!” which at the time was not a compliment. Nevertheless, I loved my afro, and hated the alternative—the hot comb. I cringed in fear whenever I got my hair hot combed straight because I would always get a little burn along the top of my ear while someone tried to get that “one little nap.” But this fuss over my new hairstyle added to my extreme shyness. And it didn’t help matters any that I had entered that odd pre-teen growing stage, being short and skinny with size 9 feet and a belly that caused my mom to buy a girdle for me to wear with my gown. When I tried to imagine myself with this modern, even militant, hairstyle wearing that old lady dress, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

All this anxiety meant that for me, the cruise really began when we got on the charter bus that took us to the pier in Manhattan where we would board the ship. Once we went across the 59th Street Bridge, I knew that the back-and-forth about whether I would go had finally ended, and there was no turning back. I joined in the excitement of the other kids as we approached the pier where the ship was docked. When we stepped off the bus and saw the large, gleaming back and white ship with red smokestacks that would be our weeklong home, we let out a collective gasp. I smiled in awe as we walked up the gangplank and boarded the Cunard Franconia.

The captain and crewmembers of the ship treated us as special guests. Before we left port, we got a tour of the ship. Everything looked so large and luxurious, from the wood floors and walls, to the pool and the dining room, with its chandeliers and the white tablecloths. We returned to the deck just in time to wave goodbye to the parents who drove to the pier so they could see us off and wish us a safe journey. I felt like a star in a movie as I saw the crowd waving on the pier while the ship’s horn bellowed in the background.

Our sleeping cabins on the ship were below the deck, and I almost ran alongside the chambermaid who escorted me to my cabin. My quarters were small but bright with white walls and cabinets. I marveled that this space could hold everything found in a luxury hotel, yet still look spacious and cheerful. The chorus members slept two to a room, and the chambermaid shows us how the beds unfolded from the wall and folded back. We were expected to keep our rooms clean and neat, and to make up the bed. Mrs. Nickens would get a report every day of any problems with kids who did not keep up their rooms.

Up until then I had no idea who would be my roommate. I automatically assumed that it would be my sister. Then Mrs. Nickens crisply stated Karen and I would be separated. I know she thought that my sister and I spent too much time together, to the exclusion of the other members of the chorus, and she looked for ways to pull us apart. I don’t think she realized that many of the older kids did not like to talk to us because they were teenagers and to them we were babies.

Nevertheless, I took it in stride when Karen was taken to her room and I was left alone to unpack my things. Soon my roommate came to join me, and I don’t know who was more surprised. Here I was going to share a room with the instrument of my torment—Andrea. We had never gotten along from Day One. I never did anything to her, but she would call me names or pinch me when no one was looking. While it’s true that the other kids got mad at me sometimes when I messed up directions, with Andrea it was strictly personal. My only consolation in dealing with Andrea was that some of the older girls that I liked and respected didn’t like Andrea either, and barely tolerated her older sister and younger brother. The word going around was that all three of them were stuck up, so they hardly had any friends. And Andrea was the worst of the three siblings. She never missed the chance to let us know that she was better than everyone else.

When Andrea saw me inside the room, a big frown came on her face. “Why do I have to stay with—her?!” she huffed.

Why can’t I sleep with someone else too, like Norie or Linda or Donna or Alison or Joyce? I thought to myself. These girls were all teenagers like Andrea, and while we weren’t best friends, they were nice to me and didn’t mind talking or having a laugh with me. I knew that if one of those girls was my roommate they would be kind enough to make the best of it. Now here I was stuck with the queen of stuck-up.

The vehemence of Andrea’s reaction was not lost on Mrs. Nickens. She looked at me sympathetically, but stuck to her guns. “There is where you’re going to sleep!” she said as she turned to leave.

As soon as the door closed, Andrea plopped down on the bottom bunk and glared at me like an animal marking her territory. I figured that Mrs. Nickens and the other chaperones would want me to sleep on the bottom in case I fell out of the bed, but I thought it best to say as little as possible to Andrea. Besides, I could do something that I had never done before—sleep on the top bunk. The directors had no idea that back at home, I was a little tomboy, so climbing up to the top bed for me was like a big adventure. I looked forward to going to bed that night.

But before bedtime, we had to have dinner. And our first dinner on board the ship was exquisite. It was the first time that I ate gourmet food with different courses and full table settings. I sat at table with Mrs. Burney. During our meals, she would ask if I was having a good time, and what I thought about the trip so far. Our waiter was a tall, slim man with short black hair, a strong British accent and a pleasant smile.

“My name is Francis,” he said as he held my chair. “Welcome aboard!”

“That’s interesting!” Mrs. Burney said, because our waiter Francis was on a ship called the Franconia.

“Yes, it is!” I agreed.

But then there was more. “I have a brother who lives in New York,” Francis said, “On Francis Lewis Boulevard in Hollis? Are you familiar with that area?”

It turned out that his brother lived in the neighboring community from St. Albans, and that I often went past his area on the school bus coming home. Mrs. Burney gushed with pride as she explained that I was bused to an all-white school in Flushing.

“Well, what a coincidence!” he laughed.

Francis took the time to explain what was on the menu and made suggestions about the kind of dishes I would like. He assumed that I, like other children, would hate the vegetable dishes, and he was really surprised when I ate all of my salad and raved about the cream of asparagus soup. After that, he made it a point to let me know when they were serving a special vegetable dish.

Having such a pleasant dinner with good food and good conversation did not prepare me for the shock that I got when I opened the door to my cabin. Andrea had thrown her clothes all over the room. Well, well…Miss Stuck-up doesn’t know how to clean her room! I thought. I maneuvered around as best I could and got ready for bed.

I pretended to be asleep when Andrea returned to the cabin, got in her bed and turned out the lights. Usually I sleep like a rock, but in the middle of the night, I woke up to a muffled tinkling sound coming from the bottom bed. Oh, oh…, I thought. That means trouble—BIG trouble. And people are going to think that I did it! It would be a natural assumption that an eleven-year-old would make a sound like that in the middle of the night. I wondered how I would get people to believe it wasn’t me. And I worried that Andrea would try and pin the blame on me, if she got caught.

I quietly tried to go about my business and enjoy myself as best I could. After the second night of that tinkling sound, I got up the next morning for breakfast, and Mrs. Nickens was waiting for me, along with the chambermaid.

“Someone in your room has wet the bed!” she glared at me.

“But I don’t wet my bed!” I said.

“Tell the truth!”

“Mrs. Nickens, I swear—I don’t wet the bed!”

The chambermaid also reported that our room was a mess, and that one of us wasn’t making up the bed. She and Mrs. Nickens marched me back to my cabin to have a look. Andrea’s clothes were still all over the room.

“Show me your things!” Mrs. Nickens commanded.

I showed her my clothes and things neatly placed in drawers and closets.

“Show me your bed!”

I pointed up to the top bunk.

“You’re not supposed to sleep on the top! What happens if you fall out?! Tonight you sleep on the bottom!” She turned to the chambermaid. “Which bed is the one not made up?”

“The one on the bottom,” the chambermaid said.

“I’ll deal with Andrea,” Mrs. Nickens snarled. “Cynthia, you sleep on the bottom from now on. You hear?”

“Yes,” I answered.

In all the commotion about me sleeping on the top, Mrs. Nickens never found out which bed was the one that got wet, so I was still on the hook. I was mad because Andrea’s behavior had caused me to lose my perch. But I got over it because I would soon get my revenge. That night I kept listening for that tinkling sound but all was quiet. I wondered if Andrea decided to control her functions out of spite. But then on the fourth night, there it was, like clockwork. I couldn’t wait to get up the next morning to see what would happen.

When I went down for breakfast, Mrs. Nickens was waiting once again with our chambermaid. As soon as Andrea came down, she pulled her off to the side. Later on, she told me that Andrea was going to another room, and I would now share the room with my sister. Mrs. Nickens did not apologize, but she did relax some of the hawk-like gaze that she had on me. For me that was apology enough. By that time, some of the other teenagers had kept her busier than I ever did. A few kids got seasick; one kid got homesick and cried for their mommy all day; and another kid was almost left behind in Bermuda.

Word quickly got around among the kids about Andrea, and they no longer let her or her siblings intimidate them. Andrea avoided me after that and never bothered me again. The other kids were friendlier to me too, so it was easier for me to relax and have fun. Even Mrs. Nickens looked at me in a different way.

All that did not mean that I went the entire trip unscathed. At one of our performances in Bermuda, we were sitting in the waiting room about to go on stage and I was daydreaming. Before I knew it, Mrs. Nickens ran over and smacked my legs closed, her ivory face red with anger. But the damage was already done. The next morning a photograph of me sitting with my legs wide open in my long white skirt appeared on the front page of the local paper.

Even with that embarrassing mistake, I had the time of my life on the cruise. And that much-hated girdle and gown turned out to be the biggest surprise of all. I dreaded the night of our first captain’s dinner, and took extra time to dress carefully and properly comb my afro. When I walked into the dining room that evening, all of the chorus members and chaperones turned and stared. They could not believe their eyes. The waiter at my table held my chair and smiled.

“Miss Cynthia,” he said, “you are the belle of the ball!”

Mrs. Burney agreed. You look absolutely gorgeous!” She tufted my afro with her hands, smiling with approval.

After that evening, I walked a little taller and spoke up more. The older kids in the chorus who shunned me would come up to me and start a conversation. They learned that I knew the words to all the hip songs, and that I knew all the dances. When we got back to New York, we were talking like old friends. And while I still made mistakes, one or two of the kids would console me.

“Don’t worry,” they would say. “It’s just a mistake. You’ll do better next time.”

1969 was indeed a time of change in America—at least in my part of it.

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2 thoughts on “1969: Time of Change in America

  1. Pingback: Why do I have natural hair? Because I hate hairdressers. | Still curious…after all these years…

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