From White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation
My four-year-old daughter, Martha, pulls the pink comforter up to her chin and asks the same question that she asks every night: "Could you tell me a story from when you were little?"
I have already told her how I fell off the jungle gym and chipped my tooth, already described roller skating in the street with my dog, Cinderella, at my heels. Tonight, seventh-grade history class flashes into my head. I am at my desk, my arm behind a stack of textbooks, surreptitiously holding hands with the boy sitting in front of me. It makes me smile—and cringe. I am white. The boy in front of me is black. I am supposed to be sitting in class with him. I am not supposed to be touching him. We are in Richmond, Virginia, 1971—where I ride a bus to a school where most of the children are black.
But I do not tell that story. Instead, I turn off her reading lamp and snuggle next to her. It is more than five hundred miles and thirty years from this bedroom to the yellow one in which I slept during my childhood. I picture the room, with its orange and yellow flowered bedspread, oak desk, and window overlooking the dogwood tree in the back yard of our house.
She won't understand that story. I barely understand it myself—the time that I lived through school desegregation. There is no conventional way to relate it—no prince or princess, no magic, no "happily ever after." I became one of the few white children to desegregate a black school because my mother believed in integration, as did my father, who died when I was seven years old. As a child, I was most concerned about succeeding as a student, making friends, and growing up in spite of the court orders sending me from one school to another.
My memory of middle school flares like a match inside a cavern. I see myself creeping around the linoleum corridors, hunched over, afraid someone is going to trip me as I walk by. My white face gleams like a lantern. Everywhere I go, people look. I can't cover myself up.
I have spent twenty-five years trying to seal off this memory, but my daughter's voice has tunneled through. My story is usually lost in the historical accounts of busing. Because I am white, no one threw rocks at me. No police escorted me to my classroom. I graduated and can still enjoy the privileges that go along with being white. But if I learned nothing else, I did come to understand the scourge of racism. I was a minority in school. I was treated with indifference, disdain, hostility, just because of my skin color.
It's not simply a slogan for me to "teach tolerance" to Martha, and to my seven-year-old son, Jordan. I want both of them to one day read this story and understand it—learn that life has not always been one big "multi-culti" party on MTV. That positive social change is sometimes forged from hostile faces and cigarette ashes flicked too carelessly on my arm in the school bathroom. That once upon a time, a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream, and my family responded to it. I still believe in that dream. I just wish there had been an easier way to make it come true.
In my seventh-grade American history class, Walter sat in front of me, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter at the cartoons he drew in the margins of my textbook. He slipped me cough drops and sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, contraband in the classrooms. He kept his Afro short and tidy instead of letting it flatten on the sides or catch stray pieces of lint. He smelled like lemon oil.
One day, when the teacher, Mr. Palmer, turned off the lights to show a film strip, Walter's hand inched across the top of my desk, grazed my pinky, then came to rest on top of mine. Its heat seared me. The top of his hand was the color of hot cocoa, though it looked gray in the light of the images projected onto the pull-down screen.
Heart pounding, I looked around to see if anyone noticed us. Sandra, who sat next to me, was drawing flowers on her book cover. Billy, a white classmate whose broad chest and facial hair made him look older and more suave than the average twelve-year-old, had his head down on his desk, his eyes closed. Some of the other kids were yawning.
Virginia's miscegenation laws had been taken off the books in 1967, just four years before I started being bused to Binford Middle School. The test case that reached the Supreme Court, Loving v. Virginia, was brought by an interracial couple who wanted their marriage recognized—instead of outlawed—in Virginia.
The Rolling Stones celebrated interracial sex in "Brown Sugar," but "Brother Louie," the popular song about a girl who was "black as night," and her boyfriend, who was "whiter than white," was the ominous background music, as the boy's parents cast him out. School authorities made sure we had as little social contact as possible by canceling school dances and sports—a response that was similar to Richmond's removal of benches at public parks after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There were unwritten rules about interracial interaction between girls and boys, enforced by both races. The black girls who came to school wearing Michael Jackson buttons and Jackson 5 t-shirts brushed me off when I said I was a fan, too. Back then, Michael Jackson still had dark skin, a flat nose, and kinky hair. The girls ignored me when I tried to jump into their playground discussions about which Jackson brother was the cutest. They asked me instead about the comparable white boy group, the Osmond Brothers. I thought the lead singer, Donnie, was a ridiculous teenybopper, and I said so. The girls laughed at that, but also laughed if I ever said anything more about the Jackson 5.
At the only table in the school cafeteria where the white girls ever sat, we used to ask each other to guess which boys we liked. We always rotated through the same five or six white boys in our classes.
One day, I decided to reveal that I liked Dion, a dark-skinned boy in my homeroom who was built like a basketball player. He liked to sing while he beat time on the desk until Mrs. Gregg shushed him. After he had to stop, I'd move my hands silently above my desk to let him know I wished he could keep going. We'd grin at each other.
I made every girl keep guessing until she gave up.
Then I announced, "Dion!"
Finally, Loretta, the self-appointed expert on make-up and boys, said, "You didn't TELL us he was black!"
"So?" I said.
"You're asking for trouble," Loretta said, straightening her shoulders haughtily, her eye shadow twinkling under her brows.
At some point, I must have made a decision to let Walter keep his hand on mine, but I don't remember what I was thinking in the dizzying seconds after he first touched me. In the cafeteria, I had been willing to test the boundaries when I admitted to liking Dion. Now I was willing to go a step farther with Walter, another boy I found attractive. I liked the frisson of doing something illicit, wanted to see what would happen.
What motivated Walter? That he liked me was almost beside the point. It was too dangerous for him to come out and tell me. He had to find a safe way to test the limits. It was brave, and also brilliant, of him to slide his hand across the desk. He counted on me not to make a scene in the hushed classroom. If I refused to take his hand, all he had to do was turn around and pretend nothing happened.
In history class, I carefully slid my textbooks into a barricade next to our hands, so nobody would see. Walter slipped his thumb under my palm, fingers stroking the back of my hand. My fingers nudged his. His head faced the front, eyes on the red and white cloth that Betsy Ross was sewing. I didn't want to look at his face anyway, our hands the only evidence of our sweat commingling, breaking all the taboos.
On and on the chirpy narrator went about Betsy's skills as a seamstress, a beep signaling Mr. Palmer to advance to the next picture. The more the narrator talked, the more ridiculous the film strip seemed. What did Betsy know about black boys? Had she ever touched one?
Mr. Palmer, change jingling in his pockets as he paced the room on his long legs, didn't seem to notice. He paused, rubbed the beard on his dark face, then continued. When he walked past us to turn the lights back on, Walter pulled his hand back into his lap. I picked up my pencil and looked down at my notebook. I wondered if I was blushing.
In our middle school vernacular, black boys and girls who liked each other went together. They playfully shoved each other and acted upset if the shoves were a little too hard. If they were serious, they walked together in the halls and sometimes sneaked kisses under the outdoor stairwell leading from the playground to the industrial arts room. I had no clue what they did after school. My sister's white classmates from the once-segregated Thomas Jefferson High School went to the Lafayette Pharmacy for ice cream and Cokes. I never once saw a black kid in there.
Loretta was the only one of my white friends who actually found a boyfriend within the school. Terry, his chin-length bangs sweeping across his freckled forehead, was white, and willing to walk with her in the hall between classes. His high-water bell-bottoms revealed his white socks with every step. He even made her a bracelet in the school's shop class and had it engraved with his name on one side, hers on the other.
I wondered where else Walter and I could hold hands. The secret burned inside me like a flame that could be blown out by any harsh words, any hostile looks. I liked him, but none of the ordinary rules applied. If he had been white, the next step might have been to walk together in the hall, look for each other on the playground at recess, and sit together to watch the kickball games. If things escalated, he might have called me at home or arranged to meet me after school. I had no idea where he lived, what his house looked like, where he hung out after school.
Did I like him enough to hear Sandra warn me, "Watch out!" To hear Billy and his friends whispering "Ebony and Ivory" everywhere I went? To be stared at and followed when I tried to sit next to Walter on a bench at the school playground? To have nowhere to go outside of school? I hadn't seen a single mixed-race couple at school, or almost anywhere in Richmond. The only one I could think of was Mom's boss, who was white, and his wife, who was black. But they were old and married. I was twelve and hadn't even kissed anyone yet.
I didn't tell anyone about Walter, not even my best friend. I couldn't face the potential ridicule, and I wanted to keep the whole thing protected from the forces that swirled around us. We could find sweetness, however fleeting, in the maelstrom. To expose ourselves would surely end everything.
I wondered what it would be like to be blind, not to know any color at all, to live in a world of pure sensation—all social divisions based on a person's looks irrelevant. In my daydream, Walter and I walked arm in arm down the halls of the school, immune to the clamor and rush of students around us. With our slow gait and our dazed grins, we looked like the other school couples who showed off what the black girls called S.O.V.S. (some one very special). Gone was the usual hallway hostility, the elbowing and glaring. People smiled and waved at us. The walk ended under the playground stairwell, where I reached up and touched the fluffy mystery of his Afro. I leaned inside the wiry circle of his arms, tipped my face up, and let him give me my first kiss. Beyond us, the cracked and weedy asphalt turned luminous as water.
In the end, I wasn't brave enough to do anything more outside of history class than nod discreetly at Walter whenever we passed each other in the halls. Everything between us stayed in the classroom. I secretly held hands with Walter from the beginning of the school year until Mr. Palmer changed the seating chart after Christmas vacation. At first, we smiled at each other from across the room, but after awhile, I got used to seeing the back of his shirt. My white skin felt like a veneer, wearing thin over all that I had to hold inside.
In the dark, in the wooden seats of the auditorium, another film jittered through the projector. All the seventh-grade girls were watching, the boys sent upstairs to their own special assembly with the male gym teacher. On the screen, a girl in a plaid skirt and saddle shoes, her blonde hair curled into a flip, walked into her living room. Her mother, a Navy blue dress smoothed over her knees, looked up from her knitting.
"Guess what, Mom!" the girl announced, smiling.
"You're menstruating, dear!" said the mother, as if that's the first thing that any mother would guess out loud like that.
"Why, yes!" said the girl. "How did you know?"
"Oh, sometimes mothers know things like that," she said.
In the auditorium, some girls snickered. Mrs. Martin, the guidance counselor, paced the aisles in her white blouse and plaid skirt, her heels ticking officiously. I elbowed Liz, and rolled my eyes. Liz and I sat in a row with about two dozen other white girls. The only other white person that I remember in the room was Mrs. Martin.
The mother showed her daughter a sanitary napkin, then told her to wash carefully on the days of her period. Their bathroom had a plush toilet seat cover and matching wallpaper with flowers on it. The girl looked shocked when her classmate called her period "the curse."
"It's not the curse," the narrator said in a voice-over. "It's perfectly normal."
"Yeah, and perfectly embarrassing," I muttered to Liz, who had to cover her mouth to stifle her laughter.
We were all watching the same film, but nothing in the script, or the school, helped me feel anything common with the black girls who were also going through the same awkward transition to womanhood. The staff at the school handled the film the way they handled so many other things—by following the requirements of the curriculum, but backing off from any real discussion. Who in our auditorium could possibly identify with the characters in the film? Everyone in the film was white, dressed in their 1950s fashions, relics from the era when schools were still segregated and Elvis's dancing was still risqué. The worst thing the girls in the film had to worry about was how to politely decline swimming during the days of their periods.
What did the film's producers know of the racial tensions that kept girls from talking to each other about the most basic of female functions? About squirming through cramps because I thought it was worse to tell a black girl than to tough it out? About tying a sweater around my waist because I hated the bathroom so much, I sometimes ended up with stained pants? There were no trash receptacles in the stalls of the girls' bathroom. It was probably a simple oversight, but it made it impossible for anyone to be discreet when she had to walk out to a trash can in the corner of the room where the most hostile girls had staked out their turf. At a different school, the girls might have complained to each other, and then urged the bravest one to go ask the school nurse for better trash disposal. Instead, no one said anything and nothing changed.
A counselor or teacher who felt more comfortable in front of an integrated group might have acknowledged the absurdity of the film's old-fashioned script. She might have asked us to give practical advice to each other, especially about confronting the obnoxious boys who rummaged through our purses, holding up any sanitary supplies they found. That could have helped bridge some of the divisions between us. Mrs. Martin just showed the film, left no time for questions, and sent us back to class.
At home, my mother stashed her feminine supplies way back in her closet, never leaving a trace of her period in the bathroom. She delivered the little information she shared in a detached, clinical tone that instantly squelched my questions. My older sister, obsessed with privacy, said nothing. My white girlfriends were the only people I knew who would talk about periods at all, and we usually joked to cover our discomfort. In my situation, no matter what the film's narrator said, I indeed felt cursed to be a young woman.
After Christmas, I started paying more attention to the white boys I was supposed to like. One day, Billy and I sat on the floor of the hall one day, banished from the library because we switched the radio from Muzak to WRVQ, the new FM rock station. Alone, away from the banter—his teasing that my baggy, corduroy pants made me look like a boy, my retort that he wouldn't know what a girl looked like if she stood in front of him, naked—I didn't know what to say. He was white and Jewish, the right demographic match for me. But I knew he always went out with girls from private schools. I didn't rate.
He cocked his head against the tile wall, his hair coiling above his scalp, and leered at me. He was close enough for me to see the hint of his moustache.
"So, Clara, are you afraid to do things with guys?"
Instinctively, I pulled my knees up to hide my chest while I tried to come up with an answer that would sound like I fell into the safe middle ground between a prude and a slut.
"Of course not," I bluffed, squaring my shoulders with what I thought was toughness. "Why should I be?"
"You shouldn't," he said, and looked like he was going to say more, but the librarian called us back in.
I decided I liked Clyde, whose spiky, brown hair, blue eyes, and sassiness first started attracting my attention at recess. Short and wiry, he seemed to be able to magically insert himself in a knot of boys, and come out with control of the ball during kickball games. When I wanted to see if he liked me, I chose Loretta to ask him. She was the most attuned to gossip and the least afraid to ask a boy his opinion of a girl.
After lunch the next day, Loretta cornered me on the ramp leading out to the playground.
"I talked to Clyde," she said.
"Oh?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, though my heart started banging in my ears.
She tossed her feathery, blonde bangs out of her eyes.
"Oh, Clara, you're not going to like this," she said, giggling nervously.
My stomach clenched. "What, he doesn't like me?" I said, prepared to shrug it off.
Loretta nodded her head and said, "He told me, 'I wouldn't get within 10 feet of that dirty Jew.'"
The bottom fell out of my stomach. All I could do was gape at her while she kept giggling.
Wordlessly, I turned and walked outside. I leaned over the metal drinking fountain near the alley, blinking until the tears cleared and I could lift up my head again. I was furious with Loretta—and I didn't want to believe Clyde. I still liked him, in spite of everything.
I wondered if I could do something to change his mind. I wondered if Loretta had made up the story just to keep me away from him, because she wanted him for herself. I was the only Jewish girl in the school, and calling me a Dirty Jew eliminated me as a competitor.
But it must have been true because in my autograph book at the end of the year, Clyde wrote, "To a weird Jew. Have fun this summer."
Would Billy or another one of the half-dozen Jewish boys at school have defended me had he known what Clyde said? Most of them were too busy teasing me. They and the rest of the white boys at school ignored the southern social code that ladies should be protected. Their comments in my autograph book from that year reveal just how little support I could count on from them:
A black boy, observing my orthodontia, at least managed to say something positive: "Good luck with the brace on your face. Because I know there is at least one smile in the white race!"
In eighth grade, every day after lunch, I went to the library for a study hall. The white librarians, whom I nicknamed Miss Spider and Miss Hard Thing, wore lots of foundation, which caked in their wrinkles and made them look even older than they probably were. Miss Hard Thing's perfume was suffocating. They presided from behind the check-out desk, chatting with each other but glaring at anyone who wasn't sitting quietly at a wooden table. They seemed rattled when anyone asked for help finding a book—and who would, given their reaction? Like Mrs. Gregg at Binford, they seemed upset by having to work with black students. Yet they had to put up with it, because they needed their jobs.
I usually sat alone at a table near the stacks. For the first few minutes, it was quiet, but then a group of black kids regularly came in to socialize. As a white girl, I was invisible to them. When a group sat at my table because the others were full, I pretended to read, but listened to them complain about Miss Spider and Miss Hard Thing. I was afraid to laugh with them, because I thought they would get mad at me for eavesdropping.
The black group's horseplay sent Miss Spider and Miss Hard Thing over the edge.
"Where's your paaaaassss?" Miss Hard Thing croaked to each new arrival, her Southern drawl stretching out the words.
"Quaaaaah-et!" Miss Spider rasped, only to be interrupted five minutes later by loud guffaws.
"We caaaa-yunnt have that in heeee-ah!" she would try again.
One day, Sondra, a black girl who wore a cigarette behind her ear and a stick of incense in her Afro, bent down and kissed a black boy on the nose.
"Whoooo-eeee!" he exclaimed, and jumped up out of his seat.
Miss Hard Thing was apoplectic. She said, "Whey-ahh ahh you supposed to be right now? We caaa-yunt have this in the library!"
I propped up the journal in front of my face and tried not to let everyone see I was laughing.
I began to feel like I was watching everyone through glass, particularly my black schoolmates. I knew practically nothing of their friendships, their romances, where they lived, where they went after school to buy candy bars and sodas. I didn't even know most of their names. I overheard all sorts of things, because nobody cared whether I was listening or not. One day, a black girl heard a John Denver tune on a transistor radio, made a face and said to her friend, "That's some tired music."
I identified so thoroughly with a passage from Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" that I copied it into my journal: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass."
Ralph Ellison was just one of the black authors I was reading. The English teacher who supervised my independent study showed me poems by Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton. My mother, always interested in educating herself on racial matters, bought paperbacks of Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Black Boy by Richard Wright. My sister and I took turns reading them. I also read Black Like Me by John H. Griffin and imagined what it would be like to disguise myself as a black girl. I thought it might be a good thing at school, because for once, people would talk to me.
I read and re-read the opening scene of Malcolm X, when Malcolm and his friends conked their hair and learned to lindy hop. I also was fascinated by Brown's descriptions of running with a gang in Harlem. Both men made their world sound colorful and fun. Their struggles to find jobs, get respect from Whitey, and escape a life of crime, were more sobering. They made it clear that the world was stacked against the black man. Yet I had trouble making the connection between these books and my situation at school. In my world, the black kids were on top and I was on the bottom.
"Imagine," I wrote one day, when I walked out of the library without permission because I just couldn't stand one more minute of it, and sat under the pine tree near the entrance. "Just ten years ago, this school was lily white. All the girls wore knee-length skirts and bobby socks; all the boys straight leg trousers (jeans unheard of) and crew cuts. Sometimes, I wish one of those students was me! At least I'd know where I was going and exactly what I was about."
I had no place at school, nothing to connect me. But I kept on watching and noticing, my private notebooks the only place I dared to say all that I wanted, invisibly writing what I secretly felt.
From Clara Silverstein's White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, which will be published by the University of Georgia Press in September, 2004. Copyright 2004 by Clara Silverstein. All rights reserved.