In the intervening 15 chapters and 120 pages that have brought her to this point, the author, at 18, has integrated Southern Bell Telephone Company, the Insurance Company of North America & Canada, and an entire section of the US Midwest-the Fox River Valley-which she accomplished by reneging on her acceptance of admission to Duke University and choosing instead to go integrate Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. After barely surviving the surreal, prolonged trauma of her first year in the Land of the White People, the author recounts here a few of her earliest impressions from her foray into the New Racial Frontier.
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The Vicissitudes of Sex
Ma was a born-again, devoutly Christian, southern Baptist with Victorian sensibilities. Being the younger of her two daughters, I was a prude of the first order. She had drilled us early on the necessity for honoring the highest standards of decorum when it came to how we carried ourselves. After all, we were three females without a man to legitimize us or to stand up for us in situations that would have never occurred in the first place had a male been present. So, just as we were required to rigorously mind our manners as black folks moving in the white folks' world, we man-less women moving in a man's world faced similar obstacles. The way to overcome them was to always Act Like a Lady. For the first twenty years of my life, I was slavishly unquestioning to her unyielding code of conduct.
It worked fine my first year in college when locking down coeds while letting the guys run free defined campus life in the late 1960s. Nowhere were things more separate and unequal than along the borders marking opportunities for sexual encounters, but since I was still my Mama's good girl, the inherent unfairness of the lopsided, women-only rules of behavior didn't bother me. So, night after night, my dorm mates and I raced across campus, passing boys ambling leisurely along while we were propelled by the fear of not flinging ourselves through the front door before it was bolted shut at curfew.
Parental repression remained my familiar, so it also didn't bother me that the university's policy of in loco parentis did just that: It merely replaced Ma with Miss Shirley Gash, our Head Resident. At first, I even liked the new ruler of me. I liked her a little bit less, though, each time I saw her hovering just inside the door waiting to lock us out at the bewitching hour, which was later on weekends than during the week.
And once I began really noticing the klieg light inequity of the girls' situation relative to the guys, I began protesting the gap. A budding feminist movement across the country and on campus gave me confidence. Why should female students be the only ones bearing the burden of preserving the myth of our girlish chastity, a myth in which the university seemed heavily invested. And what a myth it was.
Despite years of Ma's tutelage in the ways of white folks-specifically, white women--, I was still shocked to come face-to-face with what she had always told us: Even though black women and girls were routinely portrayed as being morally loose, it was white women and girls who fucked freely and without compunction.
Abortion was still illegal back then, making libidinous frolic very risky unless, of course, you were a rich girl and could get a "tonsillectomy" or some other euphemistically tagged surgical procedure that cured you of pregnancy. Poor and working class girls who got knocked-up, for the most part, got babies.
In my high school of 1200 students, everybody knew which "fast girls" were "doing it" and we definitely thought less of them and the "nasty boys" who were "doing it" with them. And while the girls who had been doing it were the exception among my friends in my black, segregated high school, on my almost lily-white college campus, it appeared the opposite was true: Not only did it seem most of the white girls around me had done it, they seemed eager to do it every chance they got. Having seen no parts of a penis and content to remain ignorant, I was appropriately appalled. The university responded in several ways.
First, there was curfew: 10PM Sunday through Thursday, 11PM on Friday, 12 midnight on Saturday. Then there was The Fishbowl. A six by twelve-foot glass enclosed entryway in each dorm, this place was a virtual netherworld serving as a terminus each evening for things male and female. That was where heterosexual college men and women were allowed to tether themselves to each other, feverishly clutching, groping, and tonguing in a sloppy frenzy until the clock chimed curfew at which point the thoroughly aroused coeds, with fully flushed faces and lips sucked swollen, needed to be on the inside behind locked doors while their male counterparts, similarly stiffened and swollen, found themselves literally out in the cold.
It was a steamy corridor of sexual dalliances that had usually begun somewhere else on campus and reached tsunami proportions as the final seconds ticked off. The dorm mother stood just off to the side, keys in hand, waiting for the appointed hour when she could slide the dead bolt into place and, in that flick of the wrist, separate the chaste believers from their slutty sisters.
For the perpetually dateless like me, there was only one way to run this gauntlet: head down, eyes averted, praying that bodies locked in passion would have mercifully left us a clear path. Then as soon as we cleared this fetid space, we, the ruefully un-joined, exchanged excruciating details about exactly who had been seen doing what to whom.
If I had had a boyfriend, I, too, would've tarried in the Fishbowl, slobbering down my man in public view. After all, doing time in the Fishbowl had great social currency and elevated you among the pathetically un-chosen, those like me who used the space only as a portal for coming and going. It was easy to be disgusted, even puritanical, because I had no juicy, libidinous opportunity staring me in the face. Despite my straight-laced upbringing and black folks' general prohibition against public displays of affection, I don't doubt I would have succumbed if given the chance.
The real drama came when the most fortunate among the pulchritudinous would burst from the Fishbowl and run screaming down the hall after curfew, sobbing and joyfully announcing that a most hoped-for event had indeed occurred: They had been lavaliered.
This meant her fraternity boyfriend had laid claim to her by stringing his frat pin around her neck. This marking of territory was a pre-engagement ritual, which also signaled that sex was not only expected, but required. With great solemnity, the other girls on the floor would dutifully hold a candlelight ceremony in reverent homage to the highly desired status of the newly yoked.
Even in the fall of 1967, though, there was one space where men were welcome beyond the Fishbowl or the dining hall: in the parlor off the first floor lobby. In a few short years, students and administrators would battled over "visitation rules" governing when we could have boys in our dorm rooms, for how long, and under what conditions. Meanwhile, as a big brouhaha broadcasted the perils of underage drinking, beer never ceased flowing in the deafening din of the Rathskellar, the student-run saloon in the basement of the student union.
The sexually charged borders between men and women produced two other spectacles I had never even heard of: "powder puff football" and "panty raids."
Former high school cheerleaders seemed to rule the girlie football scene. In cut-offs and sweat-drenched t-shirts, they screamed and sweated amid tangled arms and legs and heaving chests while male admirers grunted appreciatively, cheering them from the sidelines. That was powder puff football.
Panty raids was the guys' turn to teach me something. For no apparent reason and without warning, they'd swarmed girls' dorms, racing from room to room, snatching underwear from dresser drawers. Why they couldn't just settle for the panties left on their floor the night before, I didn't know. Some girls jumped up and down, clapping and shrieking, while others collapsed on their beds, squealing "victims." The more athletic girls perched on rooftops and pelted their marauding visitors with water balloons.
My sophomore year, Abby and Genette, my two black friends from Chicago, entered with the freshman class. Together we would stand silently surveying the panty raid scene, having already decided how we'd handle any boy who dared enter our rooms to snatch anything that belonged to us. We felt our historical imperative demanded a response different from the white girls feigning helplessness.We were going to kick the panty raiders' marauding asses. For us, it had nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with race.
As it was, we never had to pounce for a historical reckoning because, miraculously, not one guy ever entered either of our rooms. And not once in my four years on campus did I ever see a black girl flailing in the giddy melee of powder puff football; not once did I see a black guy snatching panties. As far as I could tell, panty raids and powder puff football were "a white thing."