I moved to Atlanta in January of 1966. I left a world I knew intimately, but didn't always like very much. I was excited to move. A big city. A big world. After a small town childhood, it seemed like a dream. I left Hampton, SC, a low country hovel of a town, where separate was anything but equal. I was constantly in trouble for drinking out of the Colored water fountain, playing on the wrong side of the tracks, and knowing songs by a guy named Hambone that no little white girl should know - at least not back then.
One of the first things I did to meet new friends was join an acting school. Actor's and Writer's Workshop, affectionately known just as Workshop, was a little school in an old Victorian house on Juniper Street. Most people would know it today as the school run by Julia Roberts' father. It was there I met Yoki, my first real Atlanta friend.
Yoki took me in as her friend. She saw a loneliness in me, that she was loathe to allow in her presence. Nobody was allowed to feel anything but wonderful when Yoki had anything to say about it, and Yoki always had lots to say about everything. Because of her, I was invited places, included in groups. It didn't take long to lose the loneliness. It didn't take long either to realize what an extraordinary thing was happening to me. Yoki was Colored. In my old world, she would not have been my friend. I would not have invited her to my house. She would not have invited me to hers. But in this brave, new world, anything truly was possible.
Humor was the great equalizer at Workshop. We did a number of small, silly plays, often written by Mr. Roberts, and performed in the streets, parks and neighborhoods of Atlanta. At one such event, a man snarled about white children playing with black children - "Aren't you afraid that color will wear off on you?" We all looked around at each other. I don't remember who started it, but someone pointed to a freckle and yelled "HELP! IT'S WEARING OFF! I'M CATCHING THE NEGRAS!" Well, we all chimed in on that. It became standard fare any time racism popped its ugly head, we'd all chime, "HELP, I'M CATCHING THE NEGRAS!" Racism just can't hold a candle to taunting children.
At a party at Yoki's house once, I started to dive into a bowl of nuts when Yoki yelled out "Don't eat all the Nigger toes, girl!" My eyes assumed the size of platters. Surely to God, that was a word you simply could not say at Yoki's house. I about wet myself. The whole room got quiet. Yoki's daddy sat down with Yoki and me and began picking through the nuts. He picked out several Brazil nuts and handed us each some, and started eating his share. "Why you think folks call them that?" he asked. "I don't know I said," gratefully munching away, starting to relax. "It never made any sense to me." Yoki added. "Me either." He dug around the bowl for a few more. "They always look more like white people toes to me." Examing my nut, I had to agree. "They're brown and all with skin on," he noted "but you rub them just a little bit and they're just as white as can be underneath." He clearly was right, and had obviously given the matter some thought. "I think maybe it's just like people." he mused, while we all munched away. "Rub them a little bit and you'll find we're all pretty nice underneath."
After some recent reminiscence on the web about the old day term of Nigger toes, I shared this story with a friend. She was amazed and rather awestruck at the end of the telling, not so much by the story, as by the people in it. Yoki was Yolanda King, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s oldest child, and one of the finest people to ever breathe. I'm blessed to call her friend. I am richer by far for having known her at all, and richer still that she also called me friend. "Wow." my friend said. "You actually KNEW Martin Luther King, Jr." "No." I said. "I didn't. I never once met the man. I knew Yoki's daddy."