Willie Mae’s Biscuits*
Much has been written analyzing the sociological factors and the history of racism in America. However, I have found that, in spite of this, even the most educated of my friends not raised in the South have found my stories about living it hard to believe. I was once even accused of actually making them up, presumably in a bid for sympathy for myself as a southern ex-pat. Yet, it is on the level of interpersonal interaction that the sociological factors are maintained and, to some degree, those factors live on the level of culture that resides in the subconscious.28 As in any culture, one often becomes aware of these deeply ingrained day-to-day rules only when they are broken.
The “people’s history” of the civil rights movement, to use historian Howard Zinn’s phrase,29 lives as much or more in the subconscious micro-decisions, to use my phrase,30 made by white people in relation to black people, and vice versa, as it does in the conscious, collective actions described in the news and in the history books. This is, no doubt, true of any kind of oppression and it behooves activists to understand this dynamic if they are to look forward to any real, lasting change for the better. In 1960, at my Bible college in south Georgia, I had my first opportunity to make such micro-decisions on an ongoing basis, in tandem with a black person making similar micro-decisions.
My college education, with the exception of one term in graduate school, was always and ever financed by money I earned during the school year, part-time and full-time in the summers. At Norman College, I had a $50 per quarter music scholarship, in exchange for my singing in the choir; I had money saved from my waitress jobs my senior year in high school and the following summer, and I was on the college work-study program. My job there was doing menial tasks in the cafeteria, working alongside other students from poorer families, maybe a half-dozen at any given time. We washed the dishes, filled water pitchers to go on the tables, wiped down tables after the diners had left, served the food and did other similar chores.
The cooking of the food was done by an entirely black and female kitchen staff. Some of these women also did housekeeping work in the women’s dorm. There were, maybe, four or five cook/maids altogether. Although conversation, joking and considerable horseplay went on among the students, it never overlapped into the cooking area, where the black women engaged in their own conversation and joking. If horseplay went on in that area, it was so subdued that we rarely noticed. In point of fact, having a real conversation with the black women in the kitchen with us was implicitly, but strongly, forbidden.
Warm hellos and goodbyes were exchanged, some how-are-you’s, a minimum of remarks related to our work, such as “can I wash this pan now,” but, in general, the white student workers and the black women cooks steered clear of each other in the kitchen as much as possible and the kitchen appeared to be arranged in a way to facilitate this invisible social line. Nevertheless, I somehow developed a relationship with a cook whose real name I will not provide, even now, lest any thing negative should somehow redound to her if she is still living or to her descendants, possibly still living there. Willie Mae was one of the women who worked in the kitchen and also had housekeeping duties in the women’s dorm.
Our unusual and, perhaps, even dangerous, relationship started on one of the few occasions when she was cleaning my room while I was there. So restricted were we women by draconian dorm rules confining us to the dorm after 7 p.m., that few would have chosen to waste a free hour or two in their daytime schedule in their dorm rooms studying. Most would go to the rec room on the other side of campus or hang around with the male students at the picnic tables scattered under the trees. I treasured the precious solitude to study, so I would often be the only person upstairs in the dorm during the day. There came a day when I was in my room studying and Willie Mae came in to clean.
Since I did not grow up with servants, black or otherwise, it was an entirely new situation for me and I had to decide what would be considered proper and whether I would do it. I figured, judging from the behavior of the other girls toward the cook/maids, that I was probably supposed to nod, then pointedly ignore her or go down the hall until she was done, but I did not do that. Laying aside the question of race, it would have felt strange to me to engage in avoidance behavior in the presence of a maid, since my own mother had been a maid. And, of course, my own inclination had long been to ignore the question of race, if no one in power was looking. I knew the dorm was deserted. So, instead of avoidance, I stayed on the bed, said, “Hey, Willie Mae,” and returned to my homework while she cleaned.
Presently, running the feather duster over the top of my record albums book-ended on the floor, her back turned to me, Willie Mae said, “I just got to ask you. How come you to have this Mahalia Jackson album?” The contents of my record collection were, by then, I am sure, well-known to everyone on campus—students, staff and faculty. It was a tiny college. Any deviation from a highly specified norm constituted a juicy piece of gossip. There was much about my record collection that would have been of interest to persons wishing to assess my character and the inclusion of black artists would have been only the starting point.
The expression on Willie Mae’s face when she half-turned to look at me from the floor, waiting for an answer, is something I have never forgotten. It was a mixture of mischief, curiosity, wariness, camaraderie and command. I could not have resisted it, even if I had wanted to, but I did not especially want to. I commenced to tell her the story. The story was that my high school friend, Sarah, who was also my current roommate and therefore someone Willie Mae also knew, and I, had sneaked away from Groveland one day and taken the bus to Orlando to see the movie, “Imitation of Life.” We had had to sneak because her mother would not have allowed her to see that movie, which is about what used to be called “miscegenation,” i.e. interracial marriage. My parents, surprisingly tolerant in the matters of my movie watching, music listening and choice of reading material, would not have cared.
When a key character dies in the film, Mahalia sings at the funeral. The film featured all or most of the song. I had sung many solos in church myself, I told Willie Mae, and so I was interested to see a solo church singer so highly featured in a movie and I had also loved colored music long before I ever knew some of it was colored music. But, I had never seen or heard Mahalia Jackson and I had been transfixed. I did not say it to Willie Mae, but we both knew in that moment, that Mahalia Jackson’s style of singing was not exactly what one would hear at the First Baptist Church of Norman Park, Georgia. It had been so impressive a moment to me, one of those times when you ask yourself, “Who in the hell is that singing,” that when I subsequently joined a record club and saw Mahalia Jackson’s album as one of my free picks, I included it, without hesitation, on my order list and it became the second record album I ever owned—Mahalia Jackson at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1958.
If Willie Mae had looked any further in my very modest record collection of about 15 albums, and she probably had already done so when she asked the question, she would also have found the soundtrack to the movie version of Porgy and Bess, which I had obtained in the same way I had obtained my Mahalia album. I had wanted that because Roy had mentioned it to me in one of his letters, when describing the song about racial tolerance from South Pacific, the movie version of which Sarah and I had also seen together. (She had had to sneak to see that one, as well.)
I knew there was no hope that I would ever be in a situation where I would see the actual movie, Porgy and Bess, but, when given the opportunity to get the soundtrack, I did that as the best substitute I could manage. I played that album frequently and because of that, word spread throughout the dorm that I was a big fan of N-word music which, no doubt, did little to improve my standing on campus. Never mind that Porgy and Bess was written by two white men. It was performed by black people and that was enough to make it N-word music.
Willie Mae and I had a few more private conversations in my room during the course of the year, though I would not wish to imply that they were in any way lengthy or conspiratorial, beyond our ensuring that they were unheard by anyone but ourselves. We did, however, share fleeting, secretive and knowing looks when working at the same time in the kitchen.
At some point during the school term, maybe around Christmas, Willie Mae became aware of my fondness for her biscuits. Willie Mae made damn fine biscuits, never equalled in my experience thereafter. She made them, as far as I could tell, when she felt like it but she always made them on Wednesdays. So bleak was my existence at that time that Willie Mae’s biscuits were one of the few things I could look forward to, so I tried to schedule my work hours on Wednesdays so that I could swipe an extra one for later surreptitious consumption. Not only did Willie Mae look in the other direction on biscuit Wednesdays when I slipped one into my apron pocket while moving swiftly past the pan of biscuits newly removed from the oven, but I also, on some occasions, found a biscuit or two wrapped in wax paper in my coat pocket as I left for class directly from the kitchen.
Willie Mae always acted like she disapproved of troublemakers, even such a high-minded troublemaker as myself, and as things got worse and worse for me that school year in Georgia and racial tension swirled around us both, I understood completely the danger we would both be in if anyone knew about our conversations—or the biscuits. Because of this, I became somewhat protective of her and was scrupulous, or thought I was, in protecting her from any undue attention, certainly any that would be related to me. And yet, I inadvertently caused her humiliation and exactly the kind of attention from which I was trying to protect her.
Willie Mae often sang quietly to herself when going about her chores in the dorm rooms and, after our conversation about Mahalia Jackson, she made no effort to conceal this if I happened to be around and no one else was. I therefore had the opportunity to appreciate that she herself was a singer and I guessed that she probably sang solos at her church or certainly in the choir, exactly as I did albeit, surely, in a style more similar to Mahalia’s. I felt this as a bond but I cannot say that she did, necessarily.
Sometime late in Winter Quarter, a conversation developed in my room among dorm residents who were also in the choir about singing, in general, and songs the choir was currently working on. Among those was an arrangement of the kind of song still identified as a “Negro spiritual.” There was nothing unusual about that. The old Broadman hymnal used in every Baptist church I ever attended, unlike the modern hymn book I used and despised during my brief stint as a Presbyterian, was quite eclectic and contained not only traditional hymns and hymns identified as traditional, meaning folk songs, but even lyrics put to classical melodies. The Broadman hymnal figured large in my music history education. It was full of songs identified as Negro spirituals and white Baptist choirs frequently sang arrangements of them. I assume these were done by white arrangers because who would have included arrangements by black arrangers. Certainly, they were intended to be sung white-style, note-for-note as written, in pear-shaped tones, while standing at attention.
The spiritual in question was Jacob’s Ladder. Everyone else in the room maintained that they liked the arrangement of Jacob’s Ladder. I said I enjoyed singing it, but was uneasy, as a white person, singing Negro spirituals in a white version of Negro dialect and with white singing rules. I said I thought there was something strange about white people singing songs that had come out of a slavery tradition wherein they were the slave-owners. I wondered what black people thought about that. I said it felt, somehow, like stealing, or as if it were somehow mocking their traditions, as if we were including it because it was cute. I said it called to mind, for me, blackface performances. “Patronizing” would have been a good word to use in that conversation, but I had not yet learned to use it in the context of race relations.
I was then unaware that what I was describing was exactly what had happened to black blues music. For some reason I have never understood, white people would consume black music if it were performed by white people but not so eagerly if it were performed by black people. I did not yet know that white musicians had made a bundle learning and recording the songs of old black blues men in the South without paying them fairly or crediting them. There was no money involved in the Jacob’s Ladder situation, it being a folk song, except insofar as the traveling choir served as a public relations strategy, soliciting donations from the churches we visited, and the sheet music company made money off the arrangement, but the dynamics as they related to Negro spirituals were not unlike the dynamics of the blues situation.
By now, I was receiving stern warning looks from my roommate, but, unfortunately, I paid them no mind. There was a brief moment of puzzled silence, then the rebuttal, that colored people should feel infinitely complimented that white people sang their songs. I beat a fast retreat back into my book, puzzled, myself, at the problem I had raised. Why DID I feel that way, I wondered, when I had never had such a thought before? Much later, Roy explained it to me. I had never before been so immersed in old South culture, had never seen black people in a day-to-day context of segregation, and now that I was, new questions were arising for me.
How Willie Mae got drawn into this situation, I will never know, exactly. My guess is that my remarks during the conversation in the dorm room were repeated soon after to Mama Davis, the choir director and administrator of my music scholarship. Somehow, she apparently got it into her head that my reservations about singing Negro spirituals would be resolved by inviting Willie Mae to sing for the choir at a choir rehearsal. Any such invitation coming from a member of the faculty was, of course, actually a command, so, however Willie Mae might have felt about it, I am sure she would not have had the option to decline—not if she wanted to keep her job and her standing with local whites as a compliant employee.
No one could have been more surprised than I was when Willie Mae appeared at the door to the rehearsal room not long after the dorm room conversation and Mama Davis launched into the kind of introduction that, these days, would certainly qualify as paternalistic and condescending, in this case, maternalistic and condescending. I can only speculate that whoever conveyed my sentiments to Mama Davis had mentioned Willie Mae’s singing to her or, perhaps, since Mama Davis lived in the dorm and may have heard Willie Mae sing in an unguarded moment, she had thought of the connection herself. I think maybe she thought such a performance could be construed as our being absolved from any wrongdoing, that it would constitute some kind of gesture that gave us permission to sing a Negro spiritual arranged in a white format. Her reasoning would be —See? We’ll sit and listen respectfully to a black person singing a black song in a black style. Therefore, our singing of their song is in no way disrespectful.
Willie Mae sang her song, a cappella, in a strained voice quite unlike her normal one, while twisting a dust rag nervously in her hands and looking around as if she expected a physical attack at any moment. I will never know if she did it that way because she was actually so nervous it strained her voice or whether she sang it that way because she thought or knew it was expected. To give it her full and best effort could well have been taken as defiance. I shrank into my seat and tried to be invisible, while thinking, “Oh, my god, did I do this?”
I never knew if Willie Mae connected me with this shameful charade but, as far as I could tell, nothing changed between us. I knew that the right thing to do would be to ‘fess up as to my role in it and apologize. Truthfully, I would have taken that opportunity, also, to be sure that she knew that her name never came up in the original conversation and that I would never purposely have caused her any kind of discomfort or danger, but I was a coward, plain and simple. I never said a word.
As the school year progressed and my reputation as a troublemaker grew, enhanced by gratuitous embellishments from my enemies, I believe Willie Mae gradually became more cautious in regard to me—understandably, since whatever became attached to her reputation, she would have to live with, whereas I had already said to her that I would be gone forever on the first bus out after my last final exam. And yet, there was one more surprise left for me, to come from Willie Mae.
At the very end of the last quarter, after I had been reluctantly pushed into the position of leading an unprecedented revolt among the women against the dorm rules and had been prayed for, lectured, punished and more or less expelled, Willie Mae studiously ignored me as I worked my last day in the kitchen. It was the last day of final exams and I was packed and ready to go on the first bus out. I said goodbye to no one in the kitchen, but headed straight for my room to wait for the bus. I had left my winter coat lying across the top of my two suitcases and when I picked it up I felt a bulge in one of the pockets. It turned out to be two biscuits wrapped in wax paper—and it wasn’t even Wednesday. She must have put them there that morning while I was taking my last exam.
I never sang a Negro spiritual in public after that, although I have been several times courted by members of Arcata’s mostly white Interfaith Gospel Choir, and will usually avoid any possibility that I will have to listen to a white choir singing a white arrangement of one. I like to think it is atonement for whatever pain I may have caused Willie Mae, but it is also that, in spite of whatever progress has been made in race relations since 1961, it still feels like a rip-off to me.
Before I was a student at Berkeley, I was a student at Merritt College, which most students still called Oakland City College, though the name had technically already been changed. There were several issues boiling around OCC at that time. One was past protesting about, but some of us were still protesting. That was the plan, already being implemented, to close down the current campus, located conveniently for poor folks, black and white, and build a new campus way, way ‘cross town in a rich folks area where it would be virtually inaccessible to the poor folks it was currently serving.
There was a scale model of the new campus displayed somewhere, evidently to make us all enthusiastic about the change that would make it impossible for many of us to go to college. Every time I saw it, I wanted to smash it. Ironically enough, I had become friends with the son of the president of the other community college in Oakland, Laney College, who knew a lot about the issue and had validated my anger at the class and race implications of it.
The other issue was that, during the semester that the Free Speech Movement occurred in Berkeley, students at OCC were being asked to pay a fee additional to their other fees (tuition itself was free), to help cover expenses of the sports teams. Many of us, working our butts off to get through college and not in a position to benefit from extracurricular sports even if we cared, were incensed at that proposal. I gotta cough up an extra $30 to support the FOOTBALL TEAM??!!
I took it upon myself to start a petition opposing the fee, thereby drawing the notice of people who wanted to start an OCC branch of SLATE, a political organization at Berkeley. I ended up being the secretary of this new organization (women still ended up always being the secretary at that point in history) and single-handedly wrote its by-laws, since no one else could be bothered with the drudge work.
One day, we were having a meeting in a classroom, attended by maybe 20 people. I happened to be sitting towards the back, near the door, in an area with many empty seats. As the meeting got started, there was a commotion at the back of the room, the person speaking stopped speaking and about 10 black people entered the room and sat down at the empty desks. I was surrounded by them.
They were unlike any black people I had ever seen close up. Remember, I was only a year or so out of the Deep South. I had seen and talked to black women students at OCC. I had been expelled from two colleges for having integrationist sympathies (among other things), but, aside from Willie Mae in Georgia and the all-black kitchen staffs of restaurants where I worked in New Jersey for two summers, I was never around black people. But, none of those people were anything like these people.
Their arrival brought the meeting to a screeching halt. I could not take my eyes off the man who took the seat next to me, in the desk across the aisle, and he was checking me out as well, though not, I imagine, for the same reasons. He was riveting. Handsome was only part of it. It was his bearing and expression that had me enchanted. I had never seen a black person so completely self-contained, poised and in charge, male or female, and he managed to do so without being in any way aggressive or threatening. At least, I certainly did not experience him or them that way. I struggled to keep from grinning from ear to ear with the thought that seeing these people (I think they were all men) is going to make up for a shitload. If I had doubted it before, I knew then that I was out, out, out of the South.
What had happened was that, unbeknownst to me, a great effort had been made by the other SLATE officers to involve black students in SLATE. They were not yet officially the Black Panthers, an organization that was founded in October, 1966, but there is no doubt about who was sitting next to me. It was Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, just blowing my mind. They all sat down and Bobby looked around the room as if to say, “Ok, we’re here, now. Get to the point and don’t waste my time.” I could hardly contain my glee.
The person speaking managed to scoop his lower jaw up from where it had dropped on the table (he told me later he thought they had failed to interest Bobby and his bunch), gulped a few times and continued speaking, now directing it straight at Bobby. My memory ends there but I am sure that that was the involvement of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers in OCC SLATE in its entirety, at least while I was there. The next time I saw him, he was selling “the little red book of Mao” at Sather Gate on the UC campus, as he describes in the documentary film, Berkeley in the Sixties.
More than one kind of Black Studies
While my participation in the Free Speech Movement and my disastrous decision to go on strike for a Black Studies Department are the only direct contributions to the Civil Rights Movement I can claim, my personal involvement with black people has only increased from that time. Central to that involvement is my relationship to my daughter’s father and his family, which became, for a time, my family as well.
When I first met John, it is true, as others have suggested, that I was somewhat motivated by curiosity. It is hard to imagine, given my history, how that would not have been a factor. Whether it was also a factor for him, I cannot say, as he had had non-black girlfriends before me. It was certainly was a departure for him to be involved with a college student and he has admitted to some curiosity on his part on that level. But, I stipulate vehemently, the curiosity disappeared very soon and was replaced by a deep sense of camaraderie on both our parts in being southerners in categories oppressed by southern culture. He gave it to me, straight up, that the two kinds of oppression were in some ways comparable and that our mutual experience of escaping from the South was something we could share with only a select few others. Had he not, I imagine that we would never have gotten anywhere.
I met John through my best friend, Hazel, my co-worker in the office at the museum. She had recently separated from her husband, for which he blamed me, for setting the example and asking her searching questions, as one woman friend may ask another. He, the son of a Nobel prizewinner, who had transferred from Harvard, was engaging in the activity later to be designated sardonically “nouveau poor” and living in a largely black part of north Oakland in an apartment building mostly occupied by black people. He was dating the beautiful 16-year-old next door, John’s ex-niece by marriage. David had come to know John through her. Hatching a plan to get new friend laid, while exploiting the woman who encouraged his wife to leave him, David asked Hazel to fix John up with me.
All of us met one day on the terrace, a campus eating spot, for lunch, to all appearances casually, so that John and I could eyeball each other before committing to a date. I was reading a newspaper and handed it to John, pointing out an interesting article—something I would have done with any person with whom I was having lunch on the terrace. I soon realized that John could not read the article and was, with consummate skill, trying to redirect the conversation. I rescued him as gracefully as possible, taking the newspaper back and encouraging the line into which he was directing the conversation. David glared at me from across the table. Hazel shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. John presently excused himself without asking me out.
David proceeded to light into me about my insensitivity. I said, “Well, David, we’re sitting here on a college campus. Am I to assume that black people I meet here can’t read or should I treat him exactly as I would have treated any white guy on a college campus you were trying to set me up with?” There was about 15 minutes of this, during which time I said I really liked John, but I could not imagine what I would have in common with someone who could not read, given that so much of my lifetime experience, past and present, depended on reading.
David, son of the academic elite, accused me of classism and racism. I said, “Just because you were busted in the FSM doesn’t excuse you from your own prejudices, in this case, against southern white women. I just got kicked out of two colleges for black people, what the hell have you done besides deny who you are and date women far too young for you because you think it’s OK because they’re black? And, furthermore, you’re a faculty brat whose Daddy paid all his expenses to Harvard and Berkeley. I had to avoid prostitution on my way to college, where the hell to you come off accusing me of classism?” It was very contentious.
The upshot was that David skillfully manipulated me into saying it was untrue that I judged people out of hand on whether or not they could read, that I was perfectly capable of interacting with people who could not read, and that I was just questioning the compatibility factor. So, then I had to prove it by agreeing to go out with John on a double-date with David and Lisa to San Francisco to hear Stokely Carmichael speak. On the chosen evening, we ended up at a table with about a half-dozen of Lisa’s women friends, in a room filled with hundreds of black people, David and I being the only two white people I could see in the room, while Stokely talked about black power.
David was sure he was getting the revenge he sought by placing me where I could be expected to be uncomfortable, but I was, in fact, having a great time. Lisa and her friends drew me into their group warmly, John was attentive and protective and I disagreed with not a single thing Stokely said. At the end, there was a question and answer period. To David’s great dismay, I stood up and asked, “Well, if you think white people should not be included in the movement, just what exactly would you like for us to do?” Stokely said, “do everything you can to change the minds of white people.” Absolutely fine with me and I’ve been doing it ever since. We drove back to Berkeley, where David let us both off at my apartment. John came up and never left. We were together for six highly eventful years.
David was utterly flabbergasted that his plan to set up his new friend while abusing ex-wife’s crusading divorcee friend had blown up completely in his face, and he never missed an opportunity after that to obstruct, confound, abuse, judge or dismay me. John finally had to instruct him that I was his woman and if David did not change his behavior, he would lose John as a friend. It was a rocky start in some ways, but not others.
John and I got over the reading problem quickly, as soon as I realized that he was dyslexic. All I had to do was ask myself what were the chances that a black dyslexic child could learn to read in 1930s rural Virginia (John is a bit older than me.) It was probably hard for any black child in that time and place to learn to read, so I cut him slack that I never would have cut a white man. I made one brief attempt to get him to a specialist to teach him to read, if that was possible, but gave up as soon as I understood that it was far too late. My question about compatibility was soon answered when I found that John was an ace teller of stories, screamingly funny and so intelligent that, in every way but employment, he had a million ways to conceal his dyslexia.
It turned out that the uniqueness of the experiences we had shared in the South far outweighed what we might have shared had we both been readers. We had both been trashed by racism and I had been trashed by sexism, as well. We had both been inspired to transform ourselves, to leave our childhoods behind and to be open to new experiences.
There was another factor that played into our mutual attraction. In order to be a graduate student in Berkeley, I had had to kill part of my life—the southern part. I had successfully learned to control my modest accent, to speak of the South only with other relocated Southerners and to conceal most of the temerity I still experienced by virtue of having been raised to be a Southern lady. I looked and sounded like all the other people walking around the Berkeley campus. My three years with my first husband had taken me a long way in that direction, but I did not realize until I met John that there was a whole piece of me that never got to come out, because I had gotten so much negative feedback on it. I had not realized that I was, myself, compartmentalizing in order to conform. The energy it required was immense.
I could not share with John most of my academic experience, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was, by that time, so exhausted with trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps while being expelled, fired and busted that what I needed was some tender loving care. I had just come out of two relationships with upwardly mobile college men, both of whom tended to see my intelligence and aspirations as merely qualifying me to be their audience. I had felt challenged at every turn. With them, I could never come home from school or work and let down my defenses. John was the cure for that. It was a great relief for me to leave my work on campus and let out the self I was required to hide there. It was John’s pleasure to take care of me in this and other ways.
My accent came back in his presence and there was no reason to hide it. We delighted in aping people we had known in the south, in dredging up old South expressions from our childhoods, in talking about our families, in laughingly trying to top each other’s hick credentials, in telling stories only we, as southerners, could truly understand. Reveling in our escape from the South, we took trips to local parks, to San Francisco’s Hippie Hill, to Oakland to visit his mother and siblings, all of whom had also cheerfully kissed Virginia good-bye. We went on backpacking trips in the Sierras. Race was, for us, mostly a subject for conversation, except when it was an issue for other people, black and white, whom we might encounter. I was grateful to be re-connected with my roots without having to re-connect with my family or the South, itself.
When I met him, John was a merchant seaman. He had been between ships when he developed a heart arryhthmia so severe that he could not work. David, as part of his sales pitch, had said that John’s doctor had given him a year to live. I strongly suspected that that was manipulative bullshit designed to play on my sympathy, but there was no doubt that John was very sick. I needed no doctor’s note to determine that, since I could listen to his heart myself, hear the sometimes frighteningly erratic beat and see that he went gray when his heart went irregular.
I went with him to several of his heart appointments, waiting in the lobby at the Veteran’s Hospital, which treated merchant seamen, while he went into the doctor’s office, and could see the difference in his health after he had “shock surgery” to fix the problem. Whereas I was not taken in by the “he’s dying” story, I could not see how he could possibly have faked the heartbeat, paleness, doctor’s visits or shock procedure. The state of his health was also a factor in our staying together. My concern for him was what I could exchange for his letting me be southern and for his protectiveness of me. And, the dying story did cause me to realize, when he talked about going back to sea, that if he died there, I would never know it or him, better. If his heart condition was shortening his life, I wanted whatever I could have of him. The threat did place an urgency on the relationship that would not have otherwise been there.
The influence of John on the evolution of my race-consciousness, as distinct from his contribution in loving me, was in validating my premise that there is no difference between black people and white people other than the differences imposed by their respective subcultures. I was keenly aware that, although I was breaking the biggest taboo that there had ever been in my life, which was that little white southern girls do not fall in love with black men, the world had not fallen apart.
What had happened was that I had broken through into a whole new world. I had learned what it felt like to be loved for the part that had embarrassed the other men in my life. Our love song was Aretha Franklin’s version of “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” It was only with John that I began to seriously consider motherhood. On John’s side, he became more black under my influence. He grew his formerly straightened hair into a modest Afro, stopped dissing his ex for having gone so black as to teach African dance in the Haight-Ashbury and enjoyed his role as the black friend of white college students. Perhaps only to please me, he chose an African tribal name from a tribal map of Africa I provided, survived the unmerciful teasing he received from his family for doing so, and continued to use that name long after we had broken up.
John also volunteered to assist me in doing the field work for my Senior Honors thesis, based on his extended family, entitled “Skin Deep: color as an interactional factor in a family of light-skinned Negroes.” With the full consent and co-operation of his family, I tape-recorded interviews and took notes at family gatherings for about a year, then analyzed the interactions to see if the diversity in their individual appearances influenced the way members of the family and their friends related to each other. Since they were all mixed-race and there were different fathers, some black and some white, some members of the family could and did sometimes “pass” while others, especially John, experienced some pain from those members of the family because of their more African appearance.
While the title and language used in the paper are now quite dated, I believe that the subject matter is as relevant now as it was when I did the study. As long as racism is as deeply entrenched in society as it is, how African an individual appears is going to matter in their interactions with people who identify themselves as either black or white. My intention was to make a contribution to the historical and scientific literature on race relations in order to better understand how to eradicate institutional racism. My relationship to John offered me the opportunity to do that, though I would not wish to deny that what was in it for me was also my chance for graduate school at Berkeley. My adviser had told me that if I could write a dynamite Senior Honors thesis for him, it would go a long way toward securing my admission to graduate school at Berkeley, and it did.
I was told that, as an anthropological study, it far exceeded most social science Master’s theses and I was urged strongly to submit it for publication to an anthropological journal. As a graduate student, I was well-launched into the effort to publish it when political events brought the world down around my ears and I abandoned the effort, along with my career, to become a country hippie. I am deeply grateful to John’s family, and to Lisa’s family, for acting as my informants, even though my conclusions had the potential to place some of them in a negative light and they knew it. Although some participants may have later regretted their participation, I believe it was a useful endeavor and that I had everyone’s full permission at the time. I see it as an inseparable part of my efforts on behalf of black people and well within the instructions I had been given by Stokely Carmichael.
As an interracial couple, John and I felt quite comfortable in Berkeley, at first. I never felt any disapproval there from white people living out of the south, though I did have to hang the phone up on a man from Groveland, wanting to take me out as he passed through the Bay Area on his way to Vietnam. When I mentioned my boyfriend, he responded, “Oh yeah, I heard you were shacked up with a (fill in the blank).” Where he got that piece of information I will never know, but I was so shocked to hear the phrase from someone other than John’s family clowning around that it took me several seconds to decide whether to try to educate him or whether to slam down the phone. I opted for the latter response.
However, as the black power movement grew, we began to feel more conspicuous around black people in Berkeley. When John and I finally left Berkeley with our children, it was in part because we feared a race war that would separate us and/or damage our children. We hoped to find a place to live where we did not feel so conspicuous and where our children could be raised with the least possible amount of race consciousness. The place turned out to be southern Humboldt County but only because that was the best we could do. Racial equality was at least a stated value among hippies, so we hung our hopes on that. Racism in the local mainstream population was far worse than anything we had seen in Berkeley, so we avoided the local mainstream population, as did most of the other hippies, as much as possible.
This proved to be somewhat ineffectual. Our first home was a rental located only a few feet from the busy county road, where we were highly visible to passing traffic. One of the locals, well-known for his redneck attitudes, took a few potshots over our house from the road one day not long after we moved in. John and his eight-year-old son were in the front yard. They ran frantically into the house, where John grabbed a gun I didn’t know he had, raced back outside, jumped into the truck over my screaming protests and chased the shooter down the road.
Fortunately, he did not catch him. I learned later, through a local woman who was sympathetic to hippies, that this man had subsequently gone to one of the bars in town, where her husband sat having a beer, and bragged loudly how he had “shot up them niggers on Briceland Road.” She did not tell me what her husband’s response was, or that of the other customers in the bar, other than that he was disgusted when he reported it to her.
There were no further such incidents, though my stepson surely suffered by being the first black child to attend Redway School. When he came home complaining of racist name-calling, we arranged a meeting with the school principal that turned out to be somewhat nerve-wracking. While John took a scary tone with the principal, who writhed uncomfortably in his chair, I volunteered to provide a free presentation on Africa to my stepson’s class, using materials I was pretty sure I could borrow from the Lowie Museum of Anthropology, my former employer.
The presentation was so successful that I was asked to do it for several other classes, as well, and it led to my giving similar presentations in the district on local Native American tribes. Whether it improved things for my stepson is hard to say, since he returned to his mother in the city when John and I broke up that summer. There were no further complaints from him but it causes me pain now to think what his school experience must have been like and how powerless I was to improve it. In any case, this interaction with the Southern Humboldt Unified School District was one of the factors that inspired me to help found an alternative hippie school before my daughter should reach school-age, hoping to spare her what my stepson endured.
Some final thoughts
In what seems to be an ironic footnote to my lifetime of civil rights activism, I learned late in life through DNA testing that I, myself, can count slaves in my ancestry, along with the slaveowners. It is a tiny amount, 2% to be specific, but, in combination with the fact that my great-grandmother is listed on the 1920s census as a “mulatto,” it is enough to give me pause. I have to wonder how far back in my ancestry I would have to go before I found the person who succeeded in passing for white. I have to wonder if that was the person who started the lie that I had Native American ancestors, in order to cover up the black ancestors. Was this the crowning lie of all the lies I have been told by my family? Did my father know of our black ancestors when he told me I could never pursue my ancestry because the Arcadia Courthouse had burned down, taking all our family records with it? Did my grandparents know when they took me to the Seminole reservation and told me I was looking at people who could be my cousins?
Were the five brothers, one of whom was my great-great-grandfather, who left the plantation in Georgia during or after the Civil War and moved to the Florida swamps really leaving because they were the youngest ones in a large family and would not inherit much? Or, did they leave because they were the children of my slave-owning ancestors and my ancestors who were slaves, running away from the life they would have in a place where everyone knew their parentage? Are the mixed-race Georgia family listed in the 1920 census in the same county as my ancestors, with the same name spelled a bit differently, my relatives? It saddens me that I may know what there is to know about all my ancestors, except the ones who were slaves. They will be harder to trace.
Fortunately for me, there is nothing about my appearance that would suggest my drop of African ancestry, but I remember how closely people were scrutinized in my high school by persons looking for such a history. At least four people I remember who had extraordinarily curly hair were always unpopular and jokes were made about them, along with half-serious speculations about their families. King describes an incident that indicates how pervasive was this scrutiny, when he quotes Assistant State Attorney Sam Buie’s question to a group of reporters gathered at the courthouse during one of the trials of the Groveland Four. Referring to an overly inquisitive northern reporter, Richard Carter, who has just walked away from the group, Buie asks, “Say, is that Carter a nigger? He’s got awful curly hair. You sure he’s no nigger?”31
It gives me pause to think that 150 years ago, had my ancestry been known, I could have been sold as a slave, no matter what I looked like. I have to wonder if, had my ancestry been known in 1956 at Groveland High School, I could have been put on the bus to Leesburg to go to the black school, no matter what I looked like.The knowledge of my black ancestors does nothing to change my experience as a white person in white America, but it does remove a level of abstraction from my activism. And, I have to wonder how many white racists are like me in having black ancestors they never knew about. Would their knowledge of that fact change their position in any way?
I cringed when I saw archival footage of Pres. Bill Clinton saying in a speech that “we are all mixed-race,” hearing that statement from the perspective of recently-formed organizations like Black Lives Matter. White people are not all mixed-race, in terms of either their experience or genetics, and saying such a thing diminishes the experience of black people who are oppressed because they are black and cannot, as someone in my lineage did, choose to be white. Clinton surely meant to imply that the concerns of mixed-race people are or should be the concerns of everyone, but I can well imagine that there many people, black and white, who missed that subtlety.
However, from the standpoint of eliminating the concept of race entirely, which would be my goal, it might help if everyone had their DNA done and white people besotted with their whiteness were forced to know just how blurry is that line, genetically. “Take that, you redneck,” I cannot help imagining myself saying, cheerfully. If I have slave ancestors and I never knew it, there must be huge numbers of people, especially in the South, who are not as white as they think they are. I have to wonder if the compartmentalization that sustains institutionalized racism would be increased by such knowledge or whether the knowledge would contribute, finally, to its demise.
Such questions are unavoidable for me, given my history, but it is the much wider question of social justice for everyone that continues to inform my life as an activist. I yearn for and work for the day when every child born in my country has the same chance to become a productive and happy citizen as every other child, within the parameters of what humans can control. My mother used to tell me that I was doomed to failure because what I describe as my goal is heaven on earth. That may be true, but I find that I can’t live my life in the expectation that hell on earth will continue for so many. For whatever reason, I am compelled to cast my lot with the idealists and I have no regrets for having done so, if for no other reason, because it has led me to know so many honorable people.
Events that have taken place since the 1960s—the presidency of Barack Obama, the rise in the visibility of black people in the culture in general, affirmative action, Black studies, voting rights laws—suggest improvement. But, recent events—the Black Lives Matter movement, the disproportionate jailing of black people, right-wing attempts to reverse the voting rights laws and prevent oppressed groups from voting—suggest the opposite. It is hard to know whether to despair over the backlash or cheer the resurgence of the civil rights movement. I can only continue doing what I have always done, trying to change what it is in my power to change, and urging others to do the same.
*I am aware that this is the kind of story that sounds like a steal from Gone With the Wind, but I can guarantee that I was not Scarlett O’Hara and Willie Mae was not Mammy. This is too good a story to avoid telling it through fear of furthering stereotypes.
© Jentri Anders, 2016