The following excerpts are from two essays by Dorothy West, both included in her collection The Richer, The Poorer. The first excerpt is from Fond Memories of a Black Childhood; the second from Remembrance.

We were always stared at. Whenever we went outside the neighborhood that knew us, we were inspected like specimens under glass. My mother prepared us. As she marched us down our front stairs, she would say what our smiles were on tiptoe to hear, “Come on, children, let’s go out and drive the white folks crazy.”
 She said it without rancor, and she said it in that outrageous way to make us laugh. She was easing our entry into a world that outranked us and outnumbered us. If she could not help us see ourselves with the humor, however wry, that gives the heart its grace, she would never have forgiven herself for letting our spirits by crushed before we had learned to sheathe them with pride.

When I was a child of four or five, listening to the conversation of my mother and her sisters, I would sometimes intrude on their territory with a solemnly stated opinion that would jerk their heads in my direction, then send them into roars of uncontrollable laughter. I do not now remember anything I said. But the first adult who caught her breath would speak for them all and say, “That’s no child. That’s a little sawed-off woman.”

That was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have shrunk in size, a natural concomitant of my advanced years. That my enthusiasm for life and for people of all races and nations has not diminished is sufficient consolation.

In the year that I was five, perhaps because of my precocity, my mother took me to see the greatest evangelist of his time, Billy Sunday. My mother was not really a churchgoer, she did not assume a mantle of righteousness, and knowing that, her sisters made their faces severe and tried to dissuade her from taking so small a child to a large auditorium that was bound to be crowded beyond it’s capacity. But my mother stubbornly said that she wanted me to have that experience. She wanted me to remember that I had seen the great Billy Sunday.

It was in that same year, as I recall, that my undaunted mother took me to see the moving picture version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In my safe world I knew nothing of slavery, not even the word. She wanted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, pictures on a silver screen, to prepare me for the truth of slavery and its heritage.

We went to the movies. I knew about movies. They were stories told with pictures. We went often, and had lively discussions on the way home. The motion picture began, and we were both absorbed. I had never seen a movie before about white people and black people and their interplay. The white people looked happy and the black people looked sad. The white people looked rich and the black people looked poor.

Then there came a scene when a white man whipped Uncle Tom, and Uncle Tom just stood and took the beating. And I was suddenly aware that my mother was crying softly. Gently I patted her knee. It is still very vivid to me. I said softly, “Don’t cry. It’s not real. It’s make-believe. No man would beat another man. You said only children fight because they don’t know any better.”

When we were walking home, she could have told me, “I was crying because it was real.” Perhaps she decided I was not ready to be told. I was not yet ready to bear the burden of my heritage. In this week I have watched the television series Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the racial unrest of the sixties. And I have wept as my mother wept because it was real.