It was an afternoon in the fall of 1967, when the air still remembered the heat of summer, enough that both doors were left open, to help get as much breeze as possible through the house. I sat sweating through my fourth-grade homework, trying to finish in time to run outside for one last bit of play before suppertime. And off in the distance, from the closest high school, the Negro high school, the drums started pounding.
We lived, my grandmother and I, next to the line that separated white from black. There was, in that time and place, no legitimate mixing of the societies. If I looked west from my yard along Bay Street, I could see the black side of Mullins, but I could never go there and had little reason to look. My life was on this side.
But sometimes during the school year we could hear the marching band from their high school, somewhere out of sight, practicing. Mostly from this distance we could only hear the drums, and Grandmamma would purse her lips disapprovingly, and I would ape her, but still I listened to the rhythm, because at that early age I already had a fascination with music. “Jungle music,” she called it, though I couldn’t tell any difference between their drums and the drums from the high school, where all the white kids went.
The band at Mullins High played all the big music, like “The Beer Barrel Polka” and “Seventy-six Trombones,” and they marched upright in crisp uniforms at a quick step, and at the football games they spelled out words on the field. At the parades they were cheered; they played with great precision, and never got out of step.
The black band came to the parades, too. When they came through the white parts of town, they were on their best behavior, and merely swayed when they marched, but they marched with a jaunty swagger that frightened the women and made the men swear under their breath. After the band passed the laughter broke out—embarrassed laughs from embarrassed white folks.
On the other hand, you never heard the white kids practicing on the street the way the black kids did, marching through their neighborhoods, beating their drums and playing at full volume. Theirs was a different world, and as long as they stayed in their world, my grown-ups didn’t much care what they did.
So on this autumn afternoon, when the distant drums changed direction and started getting louder, I forgot my homework. I had no real idea how far away they were, but even I could tell they were getting closer.
Grandmamma came out of the kitchen and sidled up to the screen door. From down the street I could hear voices, anticipation, shouting and clapping.
“Cain’t believe it. They’re coming right by here,” she muttered, and started to close the door.
I don’t know why she changed her mind, but she left it open and stood at the screen. I quietly closed my reading book and joined her, looking out from under her arm, and I saw black people (though at the time I didn’t call them that) lining the street. And, after a while, I saw the band coming down the street.
Nothing I had ever seen, not even the way they sashayed down the Main Street parade route, had prepared me for it. The drum major, in full regalia, led the way, stepping impossibly high, head thrown back so far that the plume on his hat seemed to brush the ground. He had a huge silver baton that twirled in patterns I couldn’t follow. As he passed my door he blew a cadence on his whistle and the horns and woodwinds joined the drums and I was afraid hellfire would rain down upon us all.
Looking back over the distance of forty-four years, I can’t say what the tune was or how well it was played. What I remember is the exuberance, the overflowing joy in what they were doing. They were playing all-out, without reservation, sweaty, full-throated and soaring. And the black people in their yards responded, waving their hands in the air and clapping, making their own joyful noise.
And while all this was going on, with the drum major and the music, the band marched, but it wasn’t like any marching I ever saw. It was more of a series of dance steps that should have made it impossible to play an instrument. They spun, they crouched, they squatted. Their knees bent into a duck walk, and they would turn complete circles spinning on a heel. They leaned forward and played at the road, then whipped back to play straight up, as if they were playing to God. It was all in unison, planned and choreographed down to the individual steps, and it was wonderfully frightening to watch.
The drum major came to the corner with Cooper Street and turned right. The band followed, and they passed out of sight. Their whole intrusion into our little corner of our white neighborhood had taken less than five minutes.
I was nine years old, and I had never had a black schoolmate, or played with a black kid. To my knowledge I had never spoken to a black person nor been touched by one. In the stores we didn’t share a checkout line. I would never go back to Jim Crow. It was a nasty, ugly time, and the attitudes that created it were wrong.
But when I think back on that evening in 1967, I’m afraid we’ve lost something. Those kids played in the fullness of passion, not because they had an audience, and not because they were being paid, and not because their band director made them, but because they wanted to. They had found a piece of joy in a bleak world and they expanded it till it filled, for five minutes, the world of a nine-year-old white boy.
After the last drummer turned the corner and disappeared back into his own country, Grandmamma and I listened to the wild rhythm for a few more minutes. Then she went back to the kitchen and left me to finish my homework, alone, while the drums faded off back into the distance.