In a recent conversation captured in an article entitled "Is Desegregation Dead? Parsing the Difference Between Achievement and Demographics," Susan Eaton, research director at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, mentioned a term that was new to me: perpetuation theory.
"Perpetuation theory posits that people who attend desegregated schools will continue to opt for racially diverse settings later in life and will use skills learned in school to more successfully navigate such settings."[i]
It must be true because some of my best friends are white. Moreover, a few of us have been friends for nearly half a century. Yet, this was certainly not foreseeable in the early days when I was staking my claim in various racial wildernesses.
So, at this point in posting these manuscript chapters, I'm taking a few steps backwards to come forward.
~ ~ ~
Observing the Enemy
I was whispering into my hands cupped around the receiver even though I was in the phone closet with the door closed. Squatting in that airless container once a month, I talked to Mama about the strange goings-on in the Land of the White People. She was never shocked by anything I reported and always had good advice whether I asked for it or not.
I had just told her one of the girls on my floor wanted to go out with a guy who asked her on a date, but she said she couldn't.
Actually, what she said was, "Whoa! Jeeze, my parents would kill me!"
"But why?" Her parents were hundreds of miles away, so...
"Because he's Jewish!"
"Ma, what kind of sense does that make? What's wrong with being a Jew?"
"The Jews killed Jesus."
"So Sue can't go out with Brad because somebody killed Jesus?!"
"Not somebody, honey, the Jews. People don't like Jews because they killed Jesus." She said this like she was talking about something that had just happened the day before. I was confounded. How could something that happened a zillion years ago have anything to do with now?
"But, Ma, I thought Jesus was Jewish-you know, King of the Jews. I don't get it." She said what she always said when she was through talking about something.
"You just keep on living, honey. I have to leave some things for you to figure out on your own. Riiiight?"
I was a good, ignorant Christian, a Baptist girl. Before I got to college, I never spent time around people who didn't go to church every Sunday like my family and friends did. And the only Jew I'd ever seen was on the front lawn of the federal courthouse. He was a not-quite-white man with a white beard, wearing what looked like a long black robe. He was standing under an ancient tree reading a book.
When Ma saw me staring at him, she said, "Honey, it's impolite to stare."
"Is he Filipino?" I had some classmates who were half-Filipina, so Filipino was the catch-all for everyone who was not white.
"No, he's a Jew." From then on, a Jew was that guy on the lawn of the courthouse. But the guy who had asked out the girl on my floor looked nothing like him. And even after Ma offered her Jews-killed-Jesus explanation, it just made no sense, which is why I was shrieking in the closet.
Come to find out later, the religiously intolerant father also forbid dating Catholics! Even Ma couldn't explain that one to me. Thus began my rapidly expanding list of Stuff White People Do That Doesn't Make Sense.
At the top of that list was toothpaste all over the bathroom sink. It was one thing to put it there and another thing entirely to walk off without rinsing it out. Part of my problem was that I tried to wait until most of my section mates had completed their morning ablutions before I showed up, which meant I was always greeted with glistening globs of fresh toothpaste spit. By midday the deposits had crusted over. And by the time the maid came once a week, the oral excrement had solidified. The white girls provided both the experience and a new word to describe it: gross!
Another thing on the list was hand-washing or, rather, failure to wash their hands even after using the toilet. Then there was the whole failure to flush or parading around in nothing more than a shower cap. But most astonishing of all was flopping down in a bathroom stall and dumping bowel and bladder contents without reserve, sometimes with the stall door open as they continued their conversations.
So, for me the bathroom was a site of both refuge and a trauma. A typical, black Southern girl, I was extremely conservative and did not believe in showing my body. Even though I had grown up without boys or men in the house, nakedness in the presence of others was simply not part of my experience. In our high school gym, every shower stall had a curtain and even the boldest girls carefully covered themselves. Consequently, the first time I saw white girls walking around butt naked and comfortable, I was stunned.
Who raised these people? Hadn't they ever heard of modesty!? Before long, though, these shocking displays turned offensive. I felt put upon, constantly forced to face their libertine instincts. Eventually, I realized the truth: I envied their freedom. What must it feel like to simply let go no matter where you were, no matter who was around? Envy turned to resentment and festered.
I was always on the lookout for places I could go to get away from them. Everywhere I went, I was watched. Everywhere I went, they pretended not to see me. The bathroom stall was one place I could escape to. Whenever I pushed through the doors to find no one in sight, my stomach unfurled with relief. If I was lucky, I could make it in and out in total solitude. Otherwise, there they'd come with their smelly excretions, exploding with utter abandon.
I could count on two fingers the girls who knew how to wash their own clothes. The rest of them were completely clueless about sorting white clothes from colors, how much detergent to use, or even where to put it. They couldn't figure out how to operate washers and dryers with instructions printed right on the lids. So, of course, they didn't know the difference between hand laundry and machine washables. Didn't know how to wash things by hand in the sink. And even when I demonstrated hand washing for the few forced to consider they were capable of such a feat, they knew nothing about squeezing instead of wringing or rolling fine washables in towels before placing them flat to dry instead of hanging them on hangers, sopping wet, to be permanently stretched out of shape. They watched me as though I were demonstrating soufflé-making techniques I had learned at the Cordon Bleu.
The one or two who used an iron didn't know there was a temperature dial or how to position a garment on an ironing board to iron it. They sprayed starch until it formed puddles, ensuring they'd burn holes in their blouses, thereby ruining brand new irons-their own and other people's-with bits and pieces of fabric soldered to the faceplates. So what? They'd just go out and buy another one. Or not.
They left the iron turned on, face down on the ironing board which left charred iron outlines through the pad down to the metal and created an ironing board surface that looked like a jig saw puzzle with iron-shaped pieces missing. I always brought along a folded towel to make certain I'd have a surface flat enough for ironing.
After the first week or two, though, almost nobody even bothered with ironing, choosing instead to walk around looking, and sometimes smelling, like they had pulled their clothes from the bottom of a heap. More than a few had.
When it came to eating, forget about it. They flopped down at the table and dug in, shoveling food without once pausing to say grace. They ate with elbows on the table, talked with their mouth full, and drank while they ate. They put their bread flat on the table instead of on their plates and ate crumbs from the table after dishes had been cleared. Gradually, I learned White People's biggest secret: They were uncouth. Heathens, really.
Despite my constant incredulity, I did learn some good things from watching them though: how to section a grapefruit the rare times it hadn't already been done in the kitchen; to squeeze the last drops from my grapefruit half into a spoon instead of into my mouth; to tip the soup bowl away from instead of towards me; to break off and butter a bite-size piece of bread instead of slathering butter on the whole slice and eating it like a piece of cake.
When I really wanted to be pretentious, I ate like the girls who had traveled in Europe or attended prep school: fork in my left hand, tines turned down, and used my knife, in my right hand, as the fork's constant companion. No matter what, though, I never could remember which bread plate or glasses were mine, so I learned to wait until everyone else chose and then just used the pieces left.
Most of them neither knew what their parents did for a living, nor how much money they earned for doing it. The more I learned, the better I felt about how much more I knew about the world than they did. Believing that reduced to a manageable level my swirling anxiety about not measuring up, about not being able to bear up under the burden of never being able to escape them, always weighing, measuring, comparing myself to them, and feeling like I was being weighed, measured, and compared by them.
Ma had been right all along: When it came to looking out for themselves, white people were clueless. Still, when I complained, she was sympathetic-to them.
"Don't be so hard on them, honey. How can they know if nobody taught them? A lot of them had parents who sent them away to school to get rid of them, so they really didn't have anyone to raise them and they've ended up raising themselves. If I hadn't taught you to pick up behind yourself or be respectful of others, how would you know how to behave? If you can show them how to do something, go ahead and show them. It's no skin off your back."
One white person who was the obvious exception: the maid who came once a week. I ran into her one day when I returned before she had finished cleaning our room. When she realized which side of the room was mine, she complimented me on how neat and clean it always was. I was so grateful I began timing things so I'd be there when she arrived or I'd return before she left. She'd chat with me a few minutes and move on. We exchanged Christmas gifts and at the end of the year, I left a goodbye present for her on the foot of my bed.
Meanwhile, Mama was a constant chorus of encouragement and pep talks aimed at making me feel better. She reminded me that I was new to their world where the jib was cut specifically for their fit and everything had been set up to benefit them. Consequently, just making it through each day, thrown off-balance by doubt and burdened with uncertainty, I had to be a superior breed. Anything I accomplished beyond mere survival, she explained, was just more proof of my talent and gifts. It was up to me to find my place in their world without losing sight of who I was before I landed among them.
"Honey, I know it's hard. I don't know if I could go out there, in all of that cold among all of those strangers that don't want you out there anyway, and do what you're doing. But don't forget: You come from sturdy stock. How else could Mama who raised six of us by herself during the Depression, four of them boys? And think about me lugging these vacuum cleaners around day in and day out, bent over the ironing board, slinging brooms and mops, and putting up with a bunch of stink and mess and foolishness so you and your sister could concentrate on your studies because that's what's going to get you out of here.
"You don't have to stay out there if you're sure you're ready to come home, but you have to make sure that you've really, really tried. Each generation has to make it a bit easier for the one coming behind it no matter how hard it is. That's our job. So you just do the best you can and if you ever feel like you just can't take it anymore, then come home. We'll figure out something else. It's totally up to you because you're the only one who'll know when you've reached that point. Now say your prayers and go to sleep. I'm proud of you."
There wasn't a chance I would forget my interloper status. Created a hundred years before I was born, Lawrence was the frontier school on a bluff above the Fox River erected to "give gratuitous advantage to Germans and Indians of both sexes."[ii] While the advantage to Indians remained buried, the advantage to "Germans of both sexes"-and other descendants of European immigrants-was impossible to miss in 1967. Nowhere was the sense of entitlement to this "gratuitous advantage" more evident than in the racially segregated Greek organizations on campus.
Black students had arrived just in time for the Greeks' rancorous open debate with the university over whether the fraternities and sororities would voluntarily desegregate or be forced off-campus.
I pretended I didn't give a rat's ass about the folks who "went Greek," arguing that any black person who wanted to be in a white supremacist fraternity or sorority deserved whatever they got-they should just have to go off campus to get it. The truth was, however, that I succumbed to the pressure to want to be invited to pledge a sorority. The truth was that none of them invited me.
Eventually, of course, the Greeks succumbed to the times and opened their doors to the previously dreaded Negroes, thereby preserving their campus facilities and keeping their snouts in the trough of university-subsidized living. And so the scene was set for Gabrielle, one of the five black girls who began freshman year with me, to add another prong to her tiara of "firsts."
When she and Gretchen joined the glittering embrace of the sorority tagged "the rich bitches," Gabrielle became Lawrence's first black woman Greek.
On the other hand, who could blame them? If I could've been adopted as an honorary white girl like Gabrielle or claimed by the wealthy as one of them like Gretchen, what would've stopped me from joining forces with the blind beneficiaries of subjugation and privilege?
If all that separated me from them was lack of opportunity, then I needed to find the community that shared my world vision, the ones who would welcome me as insider and friend.
[ii] http://www.lawrence.edu/library/archives/history.shtml, accessed December 1, 2005.