No Black Woman, Indeed, No Woman

“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… no woman has ever written enough.” -Bell Hooks.

Bellhooks

When I moved to the U.S. deep South in 1990 as a senior in high school, I was stunned by the racism. I had never encountered anything like it.

I was raised air force. I was raised on books. I was raised on Jesus. I was raised on love. I was raised completely oblivious to class and race.

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When I was twelve, my best friend dated my brother’s best friend. She was white, he was black. We were mildly appalled. We giggled about it behind their backs. We speculated how long it would last and what their children would look like if they got married.

We were suspended in that state of horrified fascination that overcomes witnesses to some terrible accident. But not for the reason you’re thinking.

We giggled because we were twelve and they were our friends and none of us had ever dated before and it was weird. It never occurred to us to think of their respective races. They were Colby and Angela, and they were dating. That was plenty to be appalled about.

So imagine me, age 16, entering my senior year at Jefferson Davis High School, Montgomery, Alabama. De facto segregated classrooms. The (almost) all-white choir (one very talented black boy, whose family could afford the required year-long tux rental and whose voice had won him a reluctant place in the Southern Belle teacher’s heart, had made his way in). The white girl whose study group had to borrow someone else’s house to work in because her dad wouldn’t let the black kid in their group come in through the front door.

Summer. That sweet, innocent white girl I got to know when we roomed together on a mission trip. She forgot her shampoo, and was horrified when our other roommate–Lesley, my friend with the missing eye and the short close-cropped African hair, and the laughter that filled the room–offered to loan hers. Summer leaned in to me later, conspiratorially, and asked if she could borrow mine instead. “It’s just, you know,” she said. I didn’t. I didn’t know at all. “Well…” Still not understanding, sorry.

“I don’t want to borrow her shampoo. It’s just…”

It’s just. Oh.

Did you know that by 1995, the Montgomery Country Club still did not allow the children of black employees to swim in their pool, and not because they were employees. The children of white members shouldn’t have to share a pool with [insert ugly term here], of course. They might, I don’t know, leave… something… in the pool…? Contamination, you know.

I consider myself lucky to have been raised color-blind. But it’s not an unmitigated virtue by any means. The down side of color-blindness is embedded in its name: It’s a form of blindness.

In my AP English class that year in Montgomery was a boy named Les. I’ve spoken of him elsewhere. I didn’t like him at first–he fell asleep in class regularly, played practical jokes constantly, and the teacher treated him like some sort of prodigy. Which, it turns out, he was. I liked him better once she explained: He had a thyroid condition that caused him to gain weight and fall asleep uncontrollably, his mother was sick, he worked nights to pay the rent, and he was enrolled in four AP classes in hopes of earning a scholarship that was the only way he would ever go to college. The kid fell asleep during the AP exam and still won top marks. He got his scholarship: To Harvard.

He was black.

For years, I used Les’s story to defend a deeply held belief that race doesn’t matter. Look at Les, I’d say. He was born in a poor black family in the South, and he did fine. Look at Les. Race doesn’t matter, not if you’re willing to work hard and overcome. Race doesn’t matter.

I didn’t understand why black activists had to be so in your face about it. I mean, I know racism sucks, but it’s not like it stops a person from doing the things they want to do. Look at Les. Not everybody can get into Harvard, of course, but if you don’t like the racism of the South, why not move North? Look at Les.

This was the form that my own color-blindness took.

In the time since, both forms of blindness have fallen away, for better and for worse. I notice race. When I meet someone for the first time, it’s one of the first things I notice about them, somewhere between noticing whether they’re smiling (after) and what they’re wearing (before). I am no longer color-blind.

I also recognize racism’s insidious harm to our society. No, it’s not enough that a rare prodigy can break away from the poverty and cultural deprivation that was planted in slavery, grew in segregation, and continues to flourish like an insidious ivy digging its roots into a crumbling brick wall. It’s not enough. I am no longer color-blind.

When two professional black women are apprehended and searched because a pair of shoes was stolen from a shop they were in earlier; when two out of five couples run into legal trouble for their home births and it just happens they’re the black couple and the bi-racial couple; when this commercial starts a fire-storm of hate talk:

When THIS:

When this is what your black friends face every day, well, it’s not enough that a few people are okay, that some break away. None of us is okay so long as some of us are not.

I don’t know what the answers are. I wish I could say, “This social program,” or “This private initiative.” Heck, I wish I could say that I myself have never had a racist thought in my life. I wish I could say that.

The only thing I know for sure is that stories change things. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave (the book not the movie) changed slavery. Martin Luther King Jr changed segregation with his speeches. Sojourner Truth and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker and it’s still not enough.

Keep writing. Keep writing. It’s not enough yet, but there’s hope for us. There’s hope:

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5 thoughts on “No Black Woman, Indeed, No Woman

  1. Excellent post. Racism and prejudice affect all of us, every single one. I still get followed in some stores. Ignorant white women in supermarkets still grab their purses out of their shopping carts when they see me coming down the aisle. And I still check the locks on my car doors when I see young men – of all races – walking down the sidewalk or in the street near my car. Fear and ignorance affect us all. Acknowledgement and questioning our biases is crucially important. Thanks for posting this.

    • Gail, thank you for sharing.

      I think about this all the time now (though probably not as much as you do). When looking for rental homes on behalf of a friend of ours, it crossed my mind to wonder whether their application might be rejected due to their race. It hurts my heart to think of it, but I know it happens. It burns me up.

      And I didn’t even get to the things we face as women. Just today while I was volunteering, one of the other volunteers made the remark, “Hey, it’s even better here now that we got a pretty girl” (I was the only female, so it’s not like he was referring to his girlfriend or daughter). I said, “I’m not here for decoration,” and let it slide. I suppose he thought he was complimenting me.

      Later, after we were introduced (by name), he called me “sweetheart” and told me to come pick something up. I said, “My name is Heather” and he said, “I’ll still call you sweetheart.”

      I think he was a bit put off, though, because he didn’t actually talk to me again after that. Though he did make a few more remarks about how he thought they ought to “get a few more redheads in here.” Presumably he’d prefer the sort he can call “sweetheart” and order around.

      Of course, I think we all harbor prejudices and, as you say, the trick is to examine them and do our best not to act on them irrationally. I have a prejudice against people in Hummers (lol), but I try not to cast them dirty looks or cut them off in traffic. I mean, they might be nice people if you get past the conspicuous wasteful consumption and … oh, nevermind. They’re probably perfectly nice people. And I’m being flippant.

      Anyway. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s so so important to talk about this. Thank you.

  2. If you don’t mind I think I’ll share my family’s Montgomery, AL experiences in small doses. We lived within the genteel confines of East Montgomery (near THE nice mall) about four years ago. Here’s one experience that is particularly sad since I got the all to rare “confirmation” from a member of the white and established community.

    There was one thing that we could count on in Montgomery during my drive to work from East Montgomery (nice side) to West Montgomery (literally across the railroad tracks to the not so nice side): the ever present early morning prison work details picking up garbage along the highway that traverses the city like a latitudinal line on a globe. These guys (they were always men)and almost always black (I thought I saw one white guy out there in about two years…he must have really done something especially egregious I thought)were out there like clock work; always during the early morning commute. The men were dressed in baggy large overalls with wide black and white stripes. Of course there was always a white officer watching the crew. The more I saw the crews the more I thought, “people who don’t know black men are getting a pretty biased education during their commute each day because they always see us out here in convict gear picking up garbage.” I also thought it was pretty strange that the only people committing crimes MUST have been black men since they were the only ones on the detail 99% of the time.

    I mentioned my observations a friend at work. He was Air Force, like me, and we were always pretty frank with one another. He grew up in the area and his father had been one of the local judges. I told him in a sarcastic way that it seems the only people who commit crimes must be black men based on the “chain gangs” I see on the roads. He said, “Your suspicions are right; they are not the only ones who commit crimes. Here’s how it works. The white men are sent to work on one of the Alabama state penitentiary farms. You won’t see them on the roads. Families of these guys would call my dad in the evenings when they got into trouble. They’d tell my father that is would be embarrassing to see their kin out there on the roads. My father always thought that they should have been embarrassed by their relative committing the crime in the first place. But anyway, that is how it works.”

    So during my daily commute I’d see the work details and know it was injustice in motion, racism on parade. I am not referring to the punishment in itself. If you do the crime you can expect consequences. However I was privy to the inside scoop. I knew where the white convicts were serving their time. I also knew people were on a commute similar to mine everyday, or perhaps some were just passing through Those folks got a clear message about whom to fear and assume the worst about by just looking at the work details along the sides of the roads.

    • Wow. I had no idea about this. Appalling. I vaguely remember some controversy around the chain gangs, but I never gave it much thought because I figured: If you do the crime, you do your time. Sadly, I’m not surprised now to hear how this plays out on the stage of real life in a society so steeped in racism.

      Did you ever see the research/test that was circulating a few years ago, that seemed to uncover unconscious biases against black people, even among black people? I can’t seem to find it now, but it involved looking at pictures of people and selecting words from a screen, if I remember correctly. What they found is that most people will select negative connotations and/or violence-related words more often when looking at a person of African heritage than Caucasian. Even people who claim to have no prejudice.

      Well, is it any surprise, when what you describe above continues to happen?

      Btw, what years did you live in Montgomery? I’m curious because it’s been twenty since I lived there, so I wonder how much, if anything, has changed.

      Also, where did you grow up? How was racism different there? I often wonder, when I think back on my childhood, whether there was racism everywhere I lived (England, midwest, California, New Hampshire) and I just didn’t notice it because I was part of the privileged group.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I would love to hear as much of it as you’re willing to share, whenever and however you want to share it.

      • Eating out in Montgomery, AL around 2011 got a whole lot better than it was in the 1990s…but only in franchise places. Walk into a locally owned place and you can bet you’d only see one color of people greeting you at the door and serving you as a waiter. You’d ALWAYS see another color of people in the kitchen (if you could see the kitchen) our busing tables. Enter more upscale places…like Earth Fare in East Montgomery, these places are run by companies that figured out the only color that matters is green and people of all shades expect to be treated with dignity and respect and are appalled if the employees aren’t treated that way as well. On the other hand, the local places know what they are doing. They keep that local atmosphere for folks like them…who are “set in their ways.” I get it; the only point is that I wish I didn’t.

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