Ghosts of Christmas past

As South Africa emerged from apartheid, it put in place a Truth and Reconciliation commission whose goal was to help that nation come to grips with its racist past. Many have argued that while there has been much racial progress here in the American south, we have still not come to grips with our own past.

For example, it is quite clear that some of the tensions within the Pine Bluff City Council have the earmarks of personality conflicts, unbridled bull-headedness and a lack of communication among all parties involved. At the same time, it is equally clear that some of our governing problems arise from the city’s past and not the failings of the current mayor or city council alone.

My family moved to Pine Bluff from rural Jefferson County when I was 4 years old. I was the youngest of 11 children. Like most black and many white families in our state, we struggled to make a living in an economy that still remained anchored in sharecropping and Jim Crow(ism). But, because almost all in my immediate neighborhood were “poor but proud” like we were, I did not feel especially deprived. Except, that is, at Christmas, when new yearnings always surfaced.

Those feelings of deprivation had a lot to do with the grandiose expectations that kids everywhere have for that holiday. But during the 1950s, new-found access to television meant that Christmas was just beginning to be that time of the year when capitalist consumerism became king. Frequent trips to stores on Main Street after Thanksgiving sealed the deal. Like kids today, I longed for much more than the candy, fruit, homemade cakes and pies and warm clothing our parents always provided. How about a three-speed bicycle? Or an electric train that runs round and round in a circle on its own tracks? Or a BB gun? Or an aquarium with tropical fish? Or one of the new battery powered toys seen on TV?

Yet the realities of life in a town that sat amid a declining, labor-intensive agricultural economy coupled with our very large family size meant that Santa delivered few of the more expensive, widely advertised choices on my yearly fantasy list. So I looked with envy at the few lucky kids in my neighborhood who got one of the toys I longed for. I also wondered how kids shown on television were so lucky as to receive many of the best toys and goodies of the year. That childish envy usually quickly evaporated, and Christmas remained one of my favorite times of the whole year.

In many ways, the experiences of Pine Bluff’s entire black community vis-a-vis our city’s municipal government mirrors some of my own memories of Christmas past and those lingering feelings of deprivation. Almost every year our city hosts a reunion of at least one of the four all-black high schools attended by residents during the 1950s and 60s. Like all reunion goers, they are fond of reminiscing. They talk about the “good old days” of tasty, home cooked food, caring families and teachers, adolescent dating fantasies, winning sports teams, etc. They love Pine Bluff and their memories of it.

Inevitably, they also recall that in the parts of town in which we grew up (East End, West End, and North End) we often got few of the civic “goodies” that our city’s white communities received. It’s as if the civic equivalent of Santa Claus seldom visited our communities. They recall the lags in gaining access to water and sewer services; the unpaved streets that, absent sidewalks, made for muddy Sunday-go-to meeting shoes, pant cuffs and bare legs; the open ditches that bore (and still bear) a striking resemblance to those seen in pictures of today’s Third World countries; and many other sights conducive to feelings of relative deprivation.

Civic actions and inactions of the past have resulted today in continuing evidence of the uneven distribution of those services and amenities needed to make for a healthy, functioning and attractive city. Blight resulting from past neglect still besets too many of our historically black neighborhoods. We can do better. And help is on the way.

Rumors have it that Santa has stowed away enough future Christmas toys and gifts for over 70,000 Pine Bluffians. With a little truth and reconciliation on the part of our city’s adults, we may be able to oblige those future generations of local kids who await Christmas eve.