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Sydney, Australia

My Last Fight

By George Lancaster


The two black boys — twins, their hands fisted, glowering — block my exit from the cafeteria. Though we’ve never exchanged words I’m familiar with their bullying reputation. And for some reason I’m now their target. A crowd forms behind me, its collective urging palpable. The pressure builds, but I’m unsure what to do. I’ve made it all the way to seventh grade without getting in a fight, and it looks like the first time is two against one.

The setting?  Newly opened Renfroe Middle School in Decatur, Georgia, six miles due east of Atlanta. The time? October or so, in 1972, a year at the tail end of the city’s black/white seismic shift.

~~~

Like most cities, Decatur (founded in 1822, 25 years before Atlanta) had clear boundaries between where blacks and whites lived. An east-west train line helped, loosely bisecting the city between the whiter north and the blacker south. But another divider, called South McDonough Street, extending due south from the train line, was more definitive. To the east of it was white. To the west, stretching to Atlanta, was black, the demarcation clearly visible from Dekalb Avenue, which followed the train tracks into the capital city. From the white perspective, Decatur literally had a “wrong” side of the tracks — the south side west of South McDonough Street. The lower land values probably made for an easy decision to build the new middle school there.

~~~

The twins stand firm. I look to my left, and there’s an ally, my friend Sidney Harris, smiling at me, his black arms crossed over his powerful chest, forearms tensed and rippling. Both thumbs are raised. His muscular definition stands out amongst us 13-year-olds, but he doesn’t use it to intimidate. Far from it. He is soft-spoken and friendly, without an ounce of bravado. We’ve bonded during after-lunch pick-up football games that start as tag but invariably turn into full-on tackle. He’s bouncing on his toes, his knees slightly bent. I recognize those signs of imminent forward motion, and my confidence soars. Suddenly the mostly black crowd is less intimidating. Supportive even. For the first time the overriding sense of otherness falls away, and I feel like I belong.

Until that moment I’d felt separate. Like a foreign visitor. And would’ve likely felt no different had I grown up there.

~~~

Though not officially segregated, the elementary schools reflected the racial makeup of their immediate vicinity. From first grade onward, kids were with their own race. And the two high schools — Decatur for whites and Trinity for blacks — reinforced the separateness. Though not of a particular location, as they served students from all across the city, they were segregated by design. And practice. Located within a stone’s throw of each other on the north side of the tracks, they were worlds apart. In fact, a large public housing project, overwhelmingly black, separated the two. Then, in 1967, a loss in federal court forced the city’s hand. Either desegregate or lose federal funding. In response, the city closed Trinity and transferred the students to Decatur High.

Between 1967 and 1971, while the new middle school was proposed and built, the city used the old Trinity feeder school, the black Beacon Elementary, as a temporary facility for all seventh graders. The forced commingling of blacks and whites was a confronting, eye-opening experience for both colors. Though few people recognized it at the time, especially the whites, this stepped changeover proved prescient, saving the schools the turbulence experienced by those in other districts caught off-guard by later, abruptly shifting demographics.

I wasn’t there for the Beacon transition but I can imagine the anxiety. For both sides. Many white families didn’t take kindly to these events and promptly left for whiter pastures farther out. Or stayed put and sent their kids to private schools. Five short years after court-decreed desegregation, the previously all-white Decatur High School was majority black. As was Renfroe Middle School.

~~~

Funny, though, I’m not aware of the angst. At least in my own school. All I know is that most of the faces in the hallways are black, and the whites and the blacks pretty much get along. But I’m entirely alert to the contrast with nearby districts. Hearing of knife fights at Columbia High School. Observing from afar the ongoing tension and violence at Tucker High, Stone Mountain and others, as white flight escalates into a stampede and neighborhoods switch races seemingly overnight. For me, it’s all distant, of another planet, as Renfroe remains a calm oasis within the greater madness. Except for today, right now, in the cafeteria.

I’m not similarly ripped as Sidney but I am fast. Deceptively so. During games, Sidney and I take turns carrying the ball and racing beyond the reach of opposing players. I’m stupidly fearless and reckless, driving into other players with my neck extended and vulnerable. Not mindful of concussions or broken vertebrae, I’ll do anything to make that extra yardage. To impress Sidney. Running comes naturally, but I’ve never played football before, having just arrived in August after growing up overseas, my Presbyterian missionary parents living their beliefs in Japan for the previous 20 years.

~~~

We moved back to America for good in 1972, settling in Decatur, and dad bought a house. With cash. He didn’t believe in debt or credit, but finding a place large enough for the seven of us limited his affordable options to the “wrong” side of the tracks, in the southwest quadrant. My parents didn’t care where it was. They had no patience for racial divides. And our black neighbors showed no anger, or even puzzlement, at our inexplicable encroachment. The neighborhood seemed entirely at ease with its lily-white additions, and our arrival set off no subsequent black flight. The best part: Renfroe was a five-minute walk away.

~~~

I glance at Sidney again, and he hasn’t moved, perhaps waiting to see if it’s necessary. The twins begin waving their arms, giving me the finger, taunting me. One of them shouts, “Whatsamatter, honky, you scared?” Their sneering faces are fearsome, and the crowd pushes in closer, willing me to make a move. I take a few tentative steps in the twins’ direction then launch myself straight at the one on the right.

Being called “honky” isn’t the trigger. I’ve been called names all my life. Almost daily. By the Japanese. From the generic and omnipresent “gaijin” (foreigner) to the more specific to me “kinpatsu” (blond hair) to the stronger “yabanjin” (barbarian) to the downright strange “bata kusai” (reeks of butter). In fact, being called a derogatory name is oddly comforting. It could be worse. I could be overlooked and ignored. Anonymous. No, what triggers my action is the two-word question, “You scared?”  As the youngest of five — two sisters, two brothers — I’ve heard the question a lot growing up. And over the years I’ve honed a single response: Prove the questioner wrong.

I rush toward the twin on the right, his shocked expression the last thing I see before my shoulder slams into his stomach. The contact is familiar, and I understand. Immediately. I know why they’re angry. This same thing happened on the schoolyard the week before. Almost free around the left side of the line, my right shoulder caught one of the twins, not sure which, in the diaphragm, sending him sprawling and gasping for breath as I kept running for the end zone.

Now, in the cafeteria, we tumble to the linoleum floor in a tangle of limbs. No punches are thrown as we wrestle for dominance. Then the other twin jumps on my back, gets his arm around my neck and starts pulling. I yield, and we scramble to our feet. The twin still on the floor gets up and joins his brother and they both turn for the door, mumbling under their breath. I stand in place, adrenaline hyped, too jittery to comprehend it’s all over.

Someone punches me on the shoulder. It’s Sidney. “Cool, bro. Those bullies be askin’ for it.” He laughs. “They surprised or what?”  Then he turns serious. “You know I got your back, right?”

I nod.

“And you got mine?”  He holds his hand up for a high five, and I slap it hard. The tension in my body instantly dissolves.

~~~

That skirmish, though brief, has lasting benefits. No one, black or white, ever again challenges me to a fight. My friendship with Sidney strengthens and continues throughout high school. And from that day forward, I don’t see black or white or any hue in between, just good and bad people, who come in all colors.