This is the introduction that I wrote for an unpublished anthology that I edited with by Pat Schneider, Director Emeritus, Amherst Writers and Artists. All That I Remember: Black and White Women Remember Race Before the Birmingham Bus Boycott are the stories of women who recall race lived intimately, yet separate.
I am posting this because renewed interest in the relationships of black and white women as a result of Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help. Even in this Obama era in which some pat themselves on the back and proclaim we are now post-racial. It is race that causes us to slow down, become a traffic jam of gawkers as we stare from behind our safety glass determined, yet hopeful, not to witness the pain and suffering we cause when we collide.
I remember 1955 as a world of school and home. I turned eight years old only weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. I remember third grade, Miss Woods, the brown weatherboards of McDonough #32, the asphalt playground and the deadly merry-go-round where my classmates and I learned the physics of centrifugal force as five older boys ran alongside and pushed the iron frame with all their might: our lessons marked with skinned knees, scraped palms and bumps to the head.
I remember a classroom with blond wooden desks and chairs. The first row was snug against Miss Woods’ desk, while the last row of chairs scraped against the bulletin board causing the construction paper edging to sag. Above our heads and out of reach of curious fingers, Miss Woods thumb-tacked our successes, emblazoned with 100’s in the two-inch header space above our chunky, innocent letters.
I remember 1728 Hendee Avenue, the white house with red trim, the two-bedroom miracle my parents bought on Daddy’s GI bill. I shared a bedroom with two younger sisters. At bedtime, Mama entertained us with the adventures of Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Bear. We giggled at her dramatic recitation of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “De Party.” Just before she flicked the light switch, she knelt beside our beds, showed us how to clasp our hands and pray the Lord would keep us through the night.
In the morning, Mama fed us hot oatmeal in her bright yellow kitchen. When I stepped outside 1728, I walked into a vibrant world, richly black. Friday night fish fry’s honky-tonked into Saturday mornings and raised enough money to make the next month’s mortgage payment. Saturdays, we watched Momma “do” heads and unwrap row after row of tight, shiny coils from the metal prongs of curling irons. Sunday mornings, girls in frilly sherbert-colored dresses, and boys in dark pants and white shirts, each family loaded into its own car and drove to Sunday school or mass. I remember a neighborhood where Mamas stayed home with babies, while Daddys went off to work as longshoremen or mailmen or shipbuilders. That was Truman Park, four square blocks of post-World War II working class, black suburbia.
What I don’t remember are those other folks, the white people. We saw them as gray apparitions on our black and white TV, we saw them as we drove through their neighborhoods on our way to church or to visit cousins, we saw them masked and sequined riding Mardi Gras floats. I knew about them from stories, from gossip, from bits and pieces of information I gathered when I eavesdropped on Mama’s conversations with her sisters and friends. Sometimes Mama talked about the lady she worked for when she was a teenager. Most often, she chased us from the room when the conversation turned to white folks and their business.
Between the overheard conversations and being chased away when grown folks talked, I came to understand that my aunts worked in the homes of white families. My Aunt Lillian lived much of her adult life in another woman’s kitchen, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. She was there for all their gatherings, every birthday, every anniversary, every graduation. She ironed the white cotton handkerchiefs before every funeral, then washed them clean of tears and grief. Her knowledge of that family was so intimate she knew what they wanted and needed before they did.
A strange intimacy existed between black and white women in segregated America. A strangeness passed down generation-to-generation, from the “peculiar institution” through the strange career of Jim Crow and made manifest by strange fruit hangin’ in the poplar trees. It is a strangeness that estranges us from one another. Strange as though our history baffles us, as though we cannot recall honest words to tell our stories.
Many American women warily eyed each other from opposite sides of the ironing board. The smoldering heat scorched both feminism and womanism. Black women swiftly learned that, although feminists traced their activism to the abolitionist and civil rights movements, we were not sisters. So, sisters did their own womanist thing, while some feminists marched for equal rights with confidence knowing that a black woman was home caring for her children. This anthology is neither a feminist or a womanist tract, or the saga of domestics and their ladies. It is an occasion for us all to hang brave banners on clotheslines.
I want to know the truth behind the strangeness. I am no longer a child. I am fifty years past the time when I needed to be protected from life’s realities. Not unlike the child who hid at the foot of Mama’s bed to eavesdrop on end-of-the-day phone conversations, I still want to know, to understand the secrets, what happened when women left their homes and communities for work or school or shopping or medical treatment in the world of the other. I want finally to hear the stories about white folks business. I want them straight on, in broad full daylight with every corner illuminated. I want to hear the stories in black and white, like the black and white of old celluloid movies whose projected light on living-room-wall size theater screens illuminated sharply defined places and all the shadows in between.
Pat Schneider made the shadows stark when I heard her read in a writing workshop. She wrote about what she called the Missouri Compromise, her personal experience of making a faustian choice. As a young woman, she had to choose between a church-sponsored college scholarship, her path out of poverty, and being a friend and mentor to a black child when she was told never to bring that child to services again. Her choice left her spirit torn and pained, just as the historical compromise set the stage for a civil war whose wounds have yet to heal. Pat’s piece was my first time hearing white pain associated with race, about something being broken in a white person because they could not live fully human in a racially divided society.
Pat and I talked about how many stories there must be of women, black and white, who lived race before 1955. We wanted stories from all across the country north and south, east and west. We wanted to capture them all from domestic workers and their ladies to activists like Rosa Parks. We decided to grit our teeth and accept the politically incorrect stories as well. It was a politically incorrect time and women hurt one another in both conscious and unconscious ways. Even so, they were there for one another, helping one another through life’s hard times. Often they cried over the same losses and rejoiced over the same victories, but couldn’t/wouldn’t eat with the other at the same table.
We speculated that these women had not told their stories, much like the World War II veterans who kept hidden from family and friends what it was like in battle. This was a generation who wanted to put the past behind them, didn’t believe their lives constituted history in any case. I am a baby-boomer, the tell-it-all, let it all hang-out generation. I believe the personal is political. I believe that unless we know our history we are doomed to repeat it. I believe that stories can help heal, make us whole.
The conversation across race created by this anthology is long overdue and one that will soon be lost to time. It is a conversation that might have happened if women had trusted one another, believed in one another as fully human beings.
What I have learned in reading the manuscripts is that it is not an easy conversation. What I have read sometimes made me so angry, I wanted to quit this work. At other times, I wanted to quit because I couldn’t stand the sadness and pain. Sometimes Pat and I howled with laughter at the absurdities unconsciously, unknowingly revealed by sincere writers. I learned that having a heart in the right place means little if its contents are unexamined.
Despite my personal longings, misgivings and inhibitions, these first-hand stories of how it was to live race and be a woman need to be told, so I continued to read. Pat and I read over three hundred manuscripts. The first to arrive, as a result of an ad in Poets and Writers, were overwhelmingly submissions by white women. Many of the stories were lovingly told memories of black women who cared for and protected, sometimes from their own parents, these women as children. As a child I remember my aunts boarding busses in the dim morning light to ride to the homes of those children and I must confess until I read these stories I never thought about them.
In my world, my cousins, left behind, were the focus of attention. I never considered that my aunts, or any of those women in their white uniforms, might love those children, so I was surprised by the depth and intensity of feeling portrayed. I gained a new respect for the superwomen who had the capacity to love, care for and protect children at both ends of the bus line. By the time I’d done reading, I was angry because so many of the writers abandoned and forgot their “black mothers” as soon as they came of age, went off to college, got married. I can’t comprehend how a beloved mother figure is relegated to memory’s trash heap until an ad in a writers’ journal once again makes her useful. Is that love? Is that what racism does to love?
We spread our net wider, encouraged word of mouth and contacted organizations such as Cave Canem, national retreat and workshop for African American poets. Then we heard from the women, and daughters of the women, who rode those morning busses. Their stories are rarely about love for their little tow-headed charges. They write about the caprice and vindictiveness of their employers. Their daughters were taught that they were never to do this work and that was love. As we placed these stories side-by-side, as if in intimate conversation, the complexity of the combined narrative grew and the questions multiplied in number. What I learned is that the knot that is racism isn’t easily untied.
Our wider net brought us more black writers and a diversity of stories, by black and white writers, about how race was lived before December 1, 1955. We received stories and poems about travel, segregation, employment, friendship, education, and neighborhood and community. Pat and I chose stories that rubbed, for one or both of us, the wound of racism raw and forced us to feel its sting. We wanted honesty. We wanted immediacy of experience. We wanted to feel as though we were seated at a woman’s kitchen table as she poured sweet iced-tea or strong black coffee, shared laughter and tears with a circle of friends made stronger by being there through life’s trial and tribulations. These writers, because of segregation and in spite it, inhabited the same kitchens; we just wanted them to sit down and talk.
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, not the first black person to do so, but the one who helped set all those feet in motion walking and marching up freedom’s road. Much has changed in American society since December 10, 1955. The American color palette has become more varied and rich. This is now a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Pat and I don’t want these stories to be lost in the cacophony.