Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.”
Our families were awfully proud when children brought home good grades on report cards. Sometimes neighbors would ask to see my card and, to reward my good work, would give me a dollar. When I graduated from high school neighbors showered me with small gifts — money or trinkets that might be useful in school, like a dictionary or a box of pencils. In the years when I returned home for visits from college, my grandmother would insist that I go door to door to check in with the ladies up and down the block on West 41st Street. Almost to a house, each woman would reach into her apron pocket and pull out a dollar or two and press the money into my hand, hugging me and telling me to make them proud.
My grandmother watched my procession from her front porch. I was embarrassed to take their money and I complained to her about it.
“Do I have to go to each house? I don’t need their dollars,” I once said.
“Yes, you do,” she implored me. “It’s not about what you need. Giving you money means a lot to them. These neighbors helped raise you. They corrected you when you were bad and they praised you when you did good things. They are proud of you. Giving you a dollar or two makes them feel like they are helping to get you through college, investing in you.”
It took me years to figure out why my grandmother forced me to check in house to house. West 41st Street was more than a community; it was, my village. I had to learn to process the fact that the people who lived around me had invested in me. They protected me. They encouraged me. They taught me right from wrong, they made sure I knew when a correction was in order. In many ways, by listening to them wax tales on my grandmother’s porch, they were some of my first teachers in journalism because they told wonderful stories, which is what we do in journalism. We tell stories.