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When We Were Free to BeLooking Back at a Children's Classic and the Difference It Made$

Lori Rotskoff and Laura L. Lovett

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780807837238

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: July 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807837559_rotskoff

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A Free Perspective

A Free Perspective

Chapter:
(p.234) A Free Perspective
Source:
When We Were Free to Be
Author(s):

Patrice Quinn

Publisher:
University of North Carolina Press
DOI:10.5149/9780807837559_rotskoff.33

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the author's neighborhood in the middle of Manhattan, where there were families who had emigrated from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere in Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean as well as white and black families from along the East Coast. They were an extremely diverse community—racially, ethnically, culturally, and economically. Within several blocks of the author's mother's day care center lived some of the wealthiest people in the country, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Among her classmates on the Upper West Side were children from every position on the economic spectrum—from “old money” rich to recipients of state welfare. Most of the families at the center, however, were poor and underserved. In fact, the day care facility, first started in their apartment, was located for several years in the basement of a local welfare hotel. Many of the teachers and organizers at the center were parents, family members, and neighbors.

Keywords:   neighborhood, Manhattan, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Latin America, black families, East Coast

I am the middle daughter of Dorothy Pitman Hughes, an activist and community organizer (like President Obama, I like to say!). My mother was the founder of the West Side Community Alliance and the West 80th Street Day Care Center in New York City. From the age of six months until I went away on scholarship to prep school, I was educated and cared for through community-controlled day care, community schools, and after-school and summer programs organized and run by my mother and the people of our community.

My father was white, from Ireland; my mother, black, from the rural South. This made me a mixed-race African American, as were many of my classmates at our community schools. Interracial marriage was a real social taboo when my parents were married in 1963, and their relationship reflected the depth of commitment to the ideal of equality held by many people involved in the freedom movements at that time.

In our neighborhood in the middle of Manhattan, there were families who had emigrated from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere in Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean as well as white and black families from along the East Coast. We were an extremely diverse community—racially, ethnically, culturally, and economically. Within several blocks of my mother's day care center lived some of the wealthiest people in the country, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Among my classmates on the Upper West Side were children from every position on the economic spectrum—from “old money” rich to recipients of state welfare. Most of the families at the center, however, were poor and underserved. In fact, the day care facility, first started in our apartment, was located for several years in the basement of a local welfare hotel. Many of the teachers and organizers at the center were parents, family members, and neighbors. Some of the parents were single mothers, but many of the fathers were out of work.

In 1969, Gloria Steinem, a dear friend of my mother's and, like my mother, one of the lights in my life, wrote beautifully in New York (p.235) magazine about my mother and her work. The article describes how a “neighborhood” became a “community” through the vision and organizational genius of a young black woman from the South who brought together people who had been strangers to one another in a troubled New York neighborhood (now one of its most exclusive) and got them to work under the simple, just proposal that our real needs should and could be met. To my mother's mind, the need for food, shelter, child care, education, meaningful work at fair wages, and relationships that acknowledge and affirm the truth and fullness our being were the birthright of all people and perfectly within our means to achieve.

If the day care and community center had had a motto, it could easily have been Free to Be … You and Me. These must be six of the most powerful words in the universe. They not only represent the consciousness promoted by the album and television special but also reflect the ideas behind the civil rights, Black Power, antipoverty, and women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the Occupy resistance movement spreading across the world today. Here, I offer my personal reflections on what it means to have grown up in an environment where the entire emphasis was on the importance of being “free to be.”

As I peruse my Facebook news stream and talk with people about the most recent movement for freedom from corporate repression and domination, I am struck by how difficult it seems for many people to understand why economic parity is central to the very idea of freedom. Perhaps it relates to our society's general unwillingness to face and talk about the facts, the legacy, and the pervasiveness of its opposite: slavery. Over the years, I have often felt as if I were from another planet. And in a way, I am.

People often can feel and point to the mechanisms of their enslavement, whether it's rooted in racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, or other factors. But many people seem to have a harder time identifying what it means to be “free.” I believe that you don't really know freedom until you experience it. And true freedom doesn't really exist if it's only for some and not for others. When I was growing up, I was lucky to get a good taste of freedom, thanks to my mother and other members of our community, and thanks to Gloria, Marlo Thomas, and the other producers of Free to Be … You and Me and the social movements that surrounded it.

(p.236) At one point, one of the parents in the neighborhood enrolled her children in the day care center and donated more than a hundred thousand dollars toward its new, state-of-the-art building. I imagine that like many of the other parents—jobless black and brown men, women working three jobs a day for lunch money—she understood something about enslavement, whether by economic system or by patriarchal culture. I imagine that she also knew something about freedom. And I know that all of the parents, many of whom moved out of work as maids, laundresses, and other less desirable occupations and above the poverty line through the programs at the center, were willing to learn. This woman must have been familiar with the concepts of charity and philanthropy. But more important, she counted herself and her children as a true part of our community, and she saw particular value in sharing at this level and in the freedom of access, movement, and control it represented for everyone.

We children benefited from the love of all kinds of people. We had playdates and sleepovers with each other and attended meetings with our parents at each other's houses. I remember trying to explain fried green plantains to my mother: “They're like little round breads.” I wanted her to cook me some Puerto Rican food. There were white children on welfare, black children of professors and Hollywood stars. Our teachers were grateful and proud to be teaching each one of us and could not have wished anything for us they wouldn't wish for their own, because we were their own.

From the perspective of a child who is enjoying hot meals (cooked by an amazing chef from Louisiana who was also the grandmother of at least six kids at the center), learning and playing beside her counterparts and watching all the parents work together, there is no case for any prejudices or “isms.” They're simply impossible to sustain in the presence of this kind of intimacy. Many people still have difficulty understanding my mother's vision for literally raising children as “Sisters and Brothers” and for including families in the concept of child welfare, including economic empowerment as a necessary part of any service to the poor, and insisting that people's dignity need not be diminished in the process of having their needs met. Many laws regarding funding for community programs enforce separation on the basis of income.

This kind of diversity, coupled with community control, contributed greatly to the center's success in terms of the consciousness and (p.237) the public good it produced. Real diversity fosters and respects open, agile minds. It notices and makes use of everyone's contributions and doesn't overlook them on the basis or race, sex, or class. It produces community members who do not derive their sense of security or power from numbers or sameness or even agreement. We lived, worked, and grew together and found our basis for communication with each other at a deeper level. The ground for our relationship was the fact that we were all there together.

This is why “Sisters and Brothers” is the most meaningful song to me from Free to Be. As children we listened and sang along with the Voices of East Harlem. They also sang, “Ain't We Lucky Being Everybody's Brother.” A song has personal meaning to you when you realize you have a vested interest in those ideals and when you are a part of the work being done to fulfill those ideals. As children, we participated regularly in freedom marches on Washington, D.C. We stuffed envelopes inviting the community to rallies and meetings, and we attended them. We sang those songs with pride because we understood ourselves to be brothers and sisters, and with hope because we knew that not everyone shared the same understanding.

In 1974, we also participated in the filming of part of the Free to Be …You and Me television special at the center. I was one of the children present when Marlo Thomas interviewed a bunch of us about family life. We're all seated in a circle under a geodesic dome on the orange, carpeted floor in one of the classrooms at the center. Although you may glimpse me, and you may see the back of the cornrowed head of my best friend, Lisa (shaped into a crown by my Aunt Mary), and you can see the alert body of my other best friend, Lisa's brother Tino, legs akimbo, and his sweet, dimpled smile, you never hear from us.

I remember being distinctly aware that we were the only black children in the group. And when it was aired I felt disappointed, as most children would, at being excluded from the final version, whatever the reasons might be. I remember mentally trying to sort out whether those reasons had to do with what we said, how we said it, or what we looked like. I remember thinking that Tino's comments had been so lovely—about loving his sister—and that it might have been important for the viewing public to see this expression of familial love coming from a black boy. (This was before The Cosby Show, and, as the child of revolutionaries and as a future artist myself, my consciousness was already tuned toward getting these messages out.) I was (p.238) proud of Tino and disappointed that the world would not hear what he said. But then I remember questioning whether our way of relating was somehow evidence of our not “deserving” to be a part of the larger society that generally rejected us and our parents.

While I benefited a lot from Free to Be … You and Me, I never for a second believed that it wasn't all right to cry or that parents weren't people, that girls couldn't run in races and boys couldn't play with dolls, or any of that stuff. To see the genius of performers like Rosey Grier, Roberta Flack, Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, and Michael Jackson alongside that of Marlo and Alan Alda and Mel Brooks represented what my life really looked like. Since I was a child, I've regarded the Free to Be television special almost as a pamphlet or a calling card for our lifestyle and ideals at that time and place. Hey, this is how we live, this is how we think. We want to include you and respect you and love you. We see you, we don't see things in you that don't exist and we see all the things in you that do.

When we went outside our neighborhood, we had a sense that we were visiting the “outside” world and that we weren't necessarily beloved children in this world. In our community, our teachers and adults loved us, respected us, and listened to what we had to say. We understood to some degree how rare our situation was. I remember meeting children who had just moved to town and kids from other neighborhoods and being surprised at what appeared to be a lack of trust among them. They often had tendencies toward cheating, stealing, and fighting. They also had to deal with power struggles within their families, and sometimes they tried to impose those power struggles on us.

But we weren't raised with competition. We weren't raised to respect status or the status quo. We were allowed and encouraged to question authority, and we saw our parents and teachers do it every day. We also saw our parents tolerating and enjoying difference and always learning. And we were lucky to have special experiences like singing with Pete Seeger at a concert at Carnegie Hall. It sounds almost glamorous now, but back then, it was just one of the ways we participated in making a world we could live in.

We were taught to express ourselves, so it isn't surprising that many children from the community are now artists. I'm still in contact with many of them (including Erica Gimpel, Jonathan Tipton Meyers, and Leah-Carla Gordone, daughter of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (p.239) Charles Gordone) all of whom—like the creators of Free to Be—have committed their lives to serving, teaching, learning, and sharing the message of love and peace through the arts.

I took the whole production of Free to Be to heart, and I was inspired in every way by the presence of the performers in the show, especially their excellence. They let me know that it was possible to sing these kinds of songs, tell these stories. They were my models and teachers.

I've often been called a “utopian” or a “pollyanna.” A friend of mine once said, “I don't think people really understand how serious and effective you are because you're so happy!” That's funny, because it's actually a serious thing to envision freedom for all people—even as it does put a smile on your face.

As a middle and high school teacher, I love to witness my students becoming friends with one another. My students often marvel at how “all” of them become friends, even the ones whom “no one” would ever have imagined they could “like.” To me, that is the definition of freedom. It looks like love and appreciation for the endless and wonderous subtleties we find in the presence of others. Freedom is found in friendship, in the connection between “brothers and sisters.” Freedom is a lack of rigidity that allows us to perceive subtleties and respond to them. I'm grateful for the freedoms I've uncovered in my life and equally grateful that I've known where to look for them. The commitment to other people's freedom has guaranteed my own.

One of my students asked me, “Ms. Quinn, do you really think you can dance and sing your way through life?” My answer: “I don't see why not.”

Peace.