A Quaker Child Reads Malcolm X and Virginia Woolf When I was a kid, I thought Quakers were the most boring people on the planet.
At least one family in our meeting had no pictures on their walls. The 4th Commandment: Graven images and all that.
I was glad that wasn't us. We were dull, but the walls weren't bare. In fact, my mother had worked for the Philadelphia Museum of Art before she got married, and she had collected some very nice prints. Over our mantlepiece was a William Blake engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims riding in procession. The Wife of Bath faced the viewer, her ample bodice loose enough to reveal part of a nipple. That dark fleck repelled and fascinated me, like the sucker on an octopus.
On the whole, being artistic was encouraged as long as the art didn't get too challenging. My parents' taste was impeccable. Their furniture was dark and polished.
We read like fiends. The Friends Free Library, on the campus of my school, was founded and funded by an 0ld-time Quaker who had believed that fiction was a stew of lies; it wasn't allowed among the adult books. Only in the children's department. As a very young child, I felt relieved about that and pitied the grownups who were deprived of stories.
That has since changed, and the founder of the Friends Free Libarary has been overruled.
We read all kinds of things. When I was about 12, I found an off-limits paperback book on a shelf of my mother's closet, which made it instantly enticing. I'd heard my parents talking about it--someone my father knew had written the novel, but they didn't want us kids sticking our noses into it. The book was about illegitimate babies, and jazz, and drugs. It sailed over my head. I loved it, and it scared me. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which my older brother had left lying around. I didn't understand most of that, either. I learned a new word from it, one whose context sang of sex and power and adult stuff that I recognized instinctively but couldn't define.
"Pimp," I said out loud, alone one morning in the stiff dining room. The new word had to be tasted. "Pimp."
I loved Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting Orlando, but I didn't finish it. Too challenging in ways that made me uneasy. When I was 12, I read Isadora Duncan's life story. "I'm surprised she knew how to read or write," my mother snapped, when I tried telling her how much I'd liked it.
That clinched it. I knew who I would try to become, once I could get free of a mother who only let me wear white underwear.