The First Steps
by Emily Pittman Newberry
I was primed for those first steps from an early age. Born in 1944, I was shamed for the loss of my birth mother as my parents dodged the disapproval of their divorce. Shamed for hiding the beatings from my stepmother whose untreated postpartum depression barked off the end of a leather belt.
I was primed for those first steps by my love of history. My anger was fueled by the horror of Jim Crow rape, murder and degradation, the forced removal of my Cherokee ancestors on the trail of tears and government spying on labor movement activists.
I was primed for those first steps by televised images of snarling dogs lunging at young people in Birmingham Alabama who just wanted a seat at the lunch counter, a good education and jobs or the right to vote.
Now it is 1963, the summer after my freshman year in college. In June I start work at a summer resort hotel in Lake George, New York. I help cook three meals a day for the employees. Many are migrant workers who go from Florida to Upstate New York according to the season. Others are local people and college students like me just here for the summer.
College is very expensive and I need the money from summer work to help pay my way, but I also need to cry out against the lunging dogs and lynch mob ropes. So in August I leave work early and head for the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
It’s a long ride on the Greyhound Bus from Lake George to my sister’s apartment in Washington, D.C. In the evening her college friends gather for a beer and I take in their big city sophistication and upperclassmen’s cool. I listen as they report rumors of white gangs ready to attack the march tomorrow. They even call a department store to prove they could buy as many rifles as they want that night without restriction, and the salesman eagerly gives his name, hungry for the commission. I listen to their talk and sleep on it. In the morning I wake to a not too humid day.
After breakfast I give my sister a hug. The door from her apartment now feels like a portal into the unknown, and I am ready…. I hope. The city bus ride with shoppers and sightseers ends and I get off. I’m drawn toward indistinct crowd noise. Slowly the long blocks of dull concrete and bored pedestrians give way to the sound and rhythm of joyous voices.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round
Turn me round, turn me round,”
I walk faster and faster and the voices get louder and louder.
“keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’
marching down to freedom’s land.”
As I reach the last intersection the marchers stretch out as far as I can see in either direction. The singers are in a semi-circle and the people gathered around clap and join in.
There are more Black people than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I know, as I wait for the light to change, that I am here as much for my own liberation as I am for the rights of African Americans. I feel it deep in my gut, from long buried memories.
I knew at age 6 that my wanting to wear girls clothes and hang out with the girls, was hated and feared. I still hide behind the nice guy I wear like a suit of armor.
And here I am. Decades from now I will come out as a transgender woman. But that journey will be many more miles than I walk today. The light changes. The crowd claps and sings, and I take the first steps into one of the movements that begin to clear a path for me.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round,
turn me round, turn me round
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round
gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’
marching down to freedom’s land.