The recurring nightmare: my ten-year-old self walking down our sterile suburban Detroit street, lined with Malvina Reynolds' "little boxes." I cannot distinguish my family house from the others on my return trip from the corner drugstore! Unable to find my home, I am lost in a hostile world of neighbors who don't speak to us. I walk with eyes straight ahead, heart racing. Morning arrives, and the sounds of summer dance in through my open window, ending the nightmare. I am home again.
Little did I know then that my search for home would be a lifelong quest. Each time I left the security of my family house, I experienced the oppression of being darker and different. Sometimes I did not know whether people stared at my family in public because of our exotic good looks and the fashionable clothes that my mother sewed for us, or because they considered us "niggers"— a barb once hurled at me in an argument with a Polish-American boy who lived on my block. When in 1955 we first moved into this lower-middle-class Irish-German-Polish neighborhood, the same boy's mother inquired of my mother, "Is your husband Negro?" after seeing him, tanned and shiftless, mowing the front lawn one day.
Irish- and German-American kids on our block taunted us for "eating leaves" as we picked them young and tender from a nearby grapevine in early summer. Knowing we would soon feast on this delicacy that Mom would stuff and roll with fresh ground lamb, rice, spices, and lemon did not erase the hurt of ignorant insults. And the teasing I experienced from these same parochial schoolmates for being a "hairy ape" was enough to entice me to endure the torturous process of bleaching my "moustache" and forearm hair with a burning solution of hydrogen peroxide mixed with ammonia. My skin developed a sore rash each time but the resulting blond hair was worth the pain.
Although my parents were U.S.-born of immigrant parents, they retained and took pride in their culture. Each summer we