by Adrienne Gaines
Born in the late 1970s, most of my childhood memories come from the 1980s, and are those of a white girl who lived this decade mostly in Montgomery, Alabama. I grew up in a nuclear family of four – my married parents, my older sister, and me – in a middle-class neighborhood, where there was stability of location, family, school, and friends. We kept in touch with extended family through traditions around holidays. My father, the “breadwinner,” and my mother, a stay-at-home mom, were not the helicopter parents of today. My sister and I attended the neighborhood public elementary school. My parents created a laid-back environment where my sister and I knew it was safe to try new things, to dream big, and to believe in ourselves.
Home was open windows and attic fans, eating cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas straight from the backyard garden, and a playhouse crafted on stilts from an old tin shed. I remember the magic of fire flies, and that one of the best places for hiding Easter eggs was in Granddaddy’s iris blooms. Every season, except summer, passed by quickly, with many Christmases spent in shorts. I remember sitting in school hallways with a book over my head for countless tornado drills and warnings, and yet I don’t recall being scared. I remember huge annual family reunions, where we were all smashed into a great aunt’s home with the best homemade food. Church was Sunday mornings, VBS in the summer, and children’s musicals at Easter and Christmas. I remember the bench front seats in our truck and car where I learned to steer and shift gears long before I was near driving age. I remember family vacations with well-packed coolers for food on the road, and pull-out couches, guest rooms, or a tent instead of a hotel. I remember being proud when I could out climb, out run, or out strategize a boy who had challenged me just because “I was a girl.” I remember the freedom to roam untethered, with only the streetlights to call me home. I remember country music on the radio and folk music on the record player, and Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, and The Cosby Show, Cheers, and M*A*S*H reruns on TV. I remember seeing E.T. at the drive-in movie. I remember Ronald Reagan, the Challenger explosion, and the end of the Cold War.
1980s Montgomery was not only mine but also Mayor Folmar’s city, with an implied “no questions asked” attitude. The ongoing shift to the city’s east, which began in the 1970s, continued. That white flight then enhanced the need for majority/minority busing of kids across the city to ensure public schools were “diverse” and “equitable” because neighborhoods still weren’t. Without school uniforms, clothes and school supplies indicated status; there was no way of hiding from it. And while there may have been diversity in our schools, it was rarely in our neighborhoods and never at our churches.
I know now about the missed opportunities for learning in the places where movements happened, right here, within minutes of my home. The collective “we” now says that my past freedom to roam no longer exists, but as an adult, I know it existed in large part for me because of my skin and nature of my city. There were school-condoned spankings by teachers and administrators to which my adult self draws similarities to the “law and order” ideal growing stronger and to the systematic injustices in politics and the criminal justice system.
I remember all of this with appreciation and now deeply consider what it was in retrospect. Today, I am a full-fledged adult in a middle-class neighborhood, married with my own two children. Although my childhood memories still bring me joy, they also contain realizations of just how much wasn’t discussed or disclosed in a place full of misrepresented history. My memories are filtered through a child’s eyes, and those are wonderful. However, my adult eyes see and my adult mind knows what wasn’t clear to the child’s eyes, and why it matters. This is what it means to grow up: to see wider perspectives, understand the causes and effects, dig deeper into the whys and hows.
1980s Montgomery is now considered history. In some ways, I feel robbed, as if I lived that decade in the haze of a lie— a decade that promised safety, security, and prosperity, but was actually playing pretend. It is the universal pretending by the adults of 1980s, in Montgomery, in Alabama, and in the nation, that are what I now contemplate . . . pretending that issues were a thing of the past, pretending that we had all moved on, pretending there was no need for “those” conversations. I am thankful that my part in that pretending is over, that I can look back on childhood, and, while being thankful, still be open to the reality of what it actually was.