I quivered a little with fright as the somewhat chubby black woman marched determinedly towards me. It was 1955 and in case you have not guessed, I was a chair in the Montgomery bus. Like my forebears, we disdained bus-seats that were reserved for the people some referred to as ‘blacks’ with disdain in their voices as though they had smelled something rotten. So you may well imagine my indignation, fright, and humiliation when the bus driver took the bus in for an upholstery over the weekend and ordered the men at the garage to reupholster just the nine seats in front of me, and switch me to the row behind the seat that had been behind me, because I was ‘somewhat worn and not as cushy as I used to be’.
The next day, I was naturally shame-faced and quiet all the way to the bus-station, and tried to pretend I could not hear the gloating of the other seats. I knew what would happen as soon as we got to the station: the seats in front of me would be occupied by the Whites, and I would get the Blacks no one wanted. So when I saw a black woman marching towards me, I quailed a little. Why did my mother and grandmother before her hate to be occupied by blacks? Did they have needles or sharp objects on their behinds that could hurt us? Well either way, I was going to find out now, I thought in exasperation as she gingerly lowered herself onto me.
I waited a beat, tensed in terror, aware of the other seats eyeing me with ill-concealed glee ¾ they would giggle aloud if they didn’t think it might scare the passengers. After a second, I realised the bus was already in motion and I had not felt any pain. In fact, if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t tell the difference!
Just as I was heaving a sigh of relief and settling in to a quiet, uneventful journey, a rough voice yelled from the front of the bus; “Hey, seat number 11, everyone on that seat vacate it please. This nice gentleman needs your seat”.
I looked up to see the gentleman; he was ‘white’ and rubbing his grimy hands together with satisfaction. At the sight, I recoiled. If there was one thing I could not abide, it wasn’t Black people, it wasn’t dirty people, it was people who looked like they might fart while sitting on me, and this man had the shifty look of one of such persons.
Then just as I had once more resigned myself to my fate, I noticed that the lady sitting on me, relaxed even more, refusing to budge. I had heard of stories like that, but I thought it was a myth. I tried to poke her a little to urge her to stand up, but that just seemed to make her more comfortable because she sort of wriggled deeper into my worn leather before announcing in a no-nonsense voice, “I am comfortable right here Driver, thank you”.
The driver, or what little of him I could see from my vantage point, turned so red I was afraid he was going to have a small stroke. Then with veins jutting out from his neck, he announced frigidly, in the coldest voice possible, “Maám, perhaps you did not understand me?” He managed to make ‘ma’am’ sound like an insult.
The woman glared right back and her own voice this time, far surpassed his in frigidity, “I understood you very well my good man. But unless I mistake the matter, you want me to stand up so that my fellow human being may sit, for the mere reason that you believe that the colour of my skin makes me somehow inferior and therefore, unworthy to sit even though I came on this bus before him.”
The entire bus erupted in a cacophony of excited noise as people began to understand what was happening. The woman rotated her hips in a kind of weird dance that pushed her further still into my cushions and announced, “I will not give up my seat for this man! If he were ill or old or feeble, that would be a different thing, but he is healthy as a horse and only wants to take my seat because he thinks I don’t deserve to sit while he stands even though I got here first!”
These last words created even more commotion as even the other seats and passengers excitedly talked over each other. In about 15 minutes, when it was obvious that she wouldn’t give up her seat, she was arrested and taken away on charges of ‘violating the laws of segregation’ whatever that was.
I was sorry to see her go, because carrying her for those few minutes made me realise that the so-called blacks and whites were all just human beings with the same bodies, beliefs and ideologies. They may have different skin colour, but they all had the same red blood!
When I get home that night, I learnt from my mother that the woman’s name was Rosa Parks and that she was an ‘activist’, whatever that meant. The next week, I heard she had been convicted and then, she appealed against her conviction. Her actions gave birth to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the most effective non-violent revolutions. It in turn led to the repeal of that segregation law and now, people sit wherever.
That was years ago. Rosa Parks was one passenger I never forgot because she made herself popular and she made me popular too. Today, I live in a museum with all the other seats that were in the bus that day, but when people pass by, I am the one they take pictures of. The other chairs that smirked at me that day are green with envy today and I owe it to Rosa Parks.