"Away From My Mother's Watchful Eye" is a memoir and coming of age story about busing in New York City to achieve school integration in 1965.
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"Away From My Mother's Watchful Eye" is a coming of age story that chronicles my early years growing up in inner-city Brooklyn, New York amidst the turbulent, racially and socially explosive 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and while many older Negroes supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his calls for peaceful protests, many young Negroes gravitated to a more militant and confrontational approach to winning freedom and equal treatment under the law.
Young Negroes were constantly being called upon to be "down with the revolution" and encouraged to hate "Whitey" and to fear the Police in particular who were looked upon as being an "occupying force" within the Negro community. All of this was swirling around me as I struggled to just be a kid. I certainly didn't hate anyone and my being bused to a White school only served to complicate things as I found myself eventually feeling trapped in my own community and walking a tightrope between two diverse cultures.
Surprisingly, I found peace, friendship and acceptance in the most unlikely of places; the White community I'd been warned to view with with fear and distrust.
My years in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn were both character building and life changing and laid the foundation for my becoming the man I am today. This story is told through the eyes of a precocious and intelligent little boy and it's told with humor and love.
They say that “Angels” walk among us and I’d have to say that my mother, Clara, was probably the most Angelic person I’ve ever known; just a sweet, loving and caring person whose heart went out to everyone. Clara Mae Fallen was born in Danville, Virginia, to Mary and Fred Fallen. The oldest of three children, she was big hipped and “high yella,” two great qualities that served her well in the small town that put great emphasis and preference on light skinned Negroes. My grandmother, who was part Cherokee Indian, often proudly remarked that had we been born during slavery, we would’ve been the “house niggers” given our families light skin tones and delicate features.
After high school, my mom went to work for a family of “good White folks” and the Missus took it upon herself to introduce her to their chauffeur, a good looking, tall young man named Colonel. They soon married, had my sister Ruth and migrated to New York City where they quickly entered the restaurant business. They did quite well from all accounts even though it was a constant case of “one step forward and two steps back.” My father’s constant gambling drained the profits considerably. My mother often reflected on how they made five to six hundred dollars per night on the weekends alone, a lot of money in the fifties, only to have to borrow money from my grandmother on Monday morning to re-stock the restaurant. This gambling addiction would ultimately cost my parents their home and their business.
Clara and I developed a bond before I even arrived. I began communicating with her from the womb and she listened. Oh, I don’t mean that I actually talked but, I communicated in my own way and she did respond. For example, if she ate something too spicy, I’d kick her in the ribs and if she drank something too cold, I’d nudge where I thought her bladder was and send her running. Finally, over the course of nine months, we understood each other. So, even though her doctor, Dr. Aurelius King, told her not to expect me until Christmas day, she knew from my constant barrage of elbows and kicks that I was anxious to make my entrance. I’ve always had a sense of urgency about things and that has not changed until this very day.
My mom informed my dad, Colonel Jesse Mayfield that it was “time” and he’d have to interrupt the illegal gambling game that he ran in the basement of their restaurant. He must have had a bad card hand because he stopped the game immediately and asked his friend “Reebop” to give them a lift to the hospital in his brand new, 1953 Cadillac. My mother often recounted the story of how they pulled up to Williamsburg General Hospital in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and Reebop jumped out of the car and ran inside to get a wheelchair. He apparently grabbed a wheelchair from the emergency room without asking anyone. Several nurses and a hospital security guard were hot on his heels as he burst through the doors, rushing to the car.
The nurses immediately ushered my mother into the emergency room, registered her and notified Dr. King. As my mother lay on a gurney in the hallway, my father and Reebop nervously paced the floor.
Curtis Williams, affectionately called “Reebop,” was quite a character. About five feet, nine inches tall, with conked hair and a gold trimmed tooth, he was a known “numbers runner” and a low-level mob enforcer. His wife Sarah had knots all over her forehead, mementos of his violent temper and he would later be suspected in the murder of a rival numbers runner and convicted of manslaughter in the death of a man that attempted to rob him. He and my father were best friends and he was about to become my Godfather. My father, to my mother’s chagrin, ran around with some of the shadiest characters and they were all afraid of him.
Dr. King finally arrived, greeted my father and rushed to my mother’s side as she lay in the hallway. They tell me that he complained to the nurses that my mother hadn’t been assigned a room. As he left to address that situation, he assured my mother that everything would be fine and that he would return shortly. I don’t know how he defined “shortly” but, upon his return, he was greeted by my mother and me. My mother had already had a child and apparently, the second child usually comes much faster. How that little fact escaped Dr. King is beyond me but, whatever, I was here; eleven pounds of cute and round! We were quickly taken to a hospital room where I was cleaned up and my mother attended to. When informed that I had arrived, my dad and Reebop cut short their cigarette break and raced to the room. So, here we were, them looking down at me and me looking up at them, not knowing which one I was related to but hoping it wasn’t the one that blinded me from the glare of the sunlight bouncing off his proud, gold adorned smile. No, lucky for me, my dad was “the Colonel.”
My dad wasn’t a military Colonel, though he had served in the Army during World War II. Colonel Jesse Mayfield was actually his birth name, as it was the custom in his day for Negro parents to give their children prestigious names that inadvertently demanded the respect of folks in general and White folks in particular. It was common to meet Negroes named General, Sergeant, Major, Abraham Lincoln So and So, George Washington So and So or Booker T. Washington. My father was very proud of being named Colonel and used it to his advantage to get out of more than one compromising situation. He often boasted about how being perceived as a military Colonel gotten him out of traffic tickets and even an arrest for gambling. Even though he only had a high school formal education, he was blessed with good looks, a fine physique, a photographic memory and ambidexterity. These qualities alone made for quite a formidable character but the two things that impressed me most about him, even at an early age, were that he was brutally honest and absolutely fearless. I can honestly say that in my entire life, until the day he died, I never saw him take one backward step. He lived in a “black and white” world. There was very little gray area with him. He told it like it was, would give you the shirt off his back but would shoot you if you crossed him. As I ease into upper middle age, I often reflect that I am better educated, more worldly and sophisticated than my father, but never the man he was.
I was named Jesse Aurelius Mayfield. The name “Jesse” obviously came from my father but my middle name came from the good doctor that “almost” delivered me. Dr. Aurelius King was another interesting character. His sister Inez was married to my father’s first cousin, Charlie Tinsley so, that sort of made us related, once removed. It seems that he was a nice guy and took really good care of my mom so, I got his name and his nickname, “Reedy.” He went on to have quite an illustrious career and often remarked that his two biggest claims to fame were delivering the Reverend Al Sharpton and me.
A week later my mother was released from the hospital and I was brought home to meet my sister Mary Ruth. I was only a week old but immediately I knew something was up. Hey, “intellectually gifted” didn’t just start when I got to the fifth grade. Mama was yellow, Daddy was yellow, I was yellow and sister was chocolate brown with what would now be commonly called “Afro-centric” features. It confused my little brain but it was apparently my first attempt at intelligent thought. I just couldn’t articulate what I was thinking. My eyes must have said something because my mom kept saying, “He looks like he wants to say something. He looks like he wants to say something.”
My dad’s gambling finally caused us to lose our home, a beautiful brownstone on Tompkins’s Avenue in Brooklyn. The family moved into a one-bedroom apartment and my parents quickly applied for an apartment with the New York City Housing Authority. The projects! The housing projects, today, poverty, slum and gang infested, were once beautiful, secure, well-maintained, Jewish and Italian occupied dwellings where your rent was determined by your income. For example, two families may both have a two-bedroom apartment but one family would pay $27.00 per month and another family would pay $80.00 for the same apartment. This would be ideal for my father, given his weaknesses.
As fate would have it, a White gentleman entered my parent’s restaurant one evening and while eating and making small talk, he admired my father’s diamond studded watch. My dad was very proud of this piece of jewelry that he had won in a card game as it was valued at $2500.00. In passing, Dad mentioned that he had applied to the Housing Authority and that given the bureaucratic red tape it would probably be a year before he was called for an apartment. The gentleman smiled and said, “I’ll bet you that watch that you’re called for an apartment within a month.” My dad said that was impossible and agreed to the wager. Three weeks later my mom and dad received a letter from the Housing Authority informing them that they had been accepted and granted an apartment. Apparently, the White gentleman was an “Executive” with the New York City Housing Authority! Oh well, my father never asked and the gentleman never volunteered and all’s fair… My father relinquished the watch and my family moved into the Kingsborough Housing Projects. A fateful relocation as it turned out because, a member of my family would be in that housing complex for the next thirty-six years.