Monday, July 16, 2007

White girl in the promised land

Elatia Harris, writing on 3quarksdaily, talks about her life as a white girl before the Civil Rights Movement, about being mistaken for a black child, and the latest attempt by the activist judges of the Bush Supreme Court to roll back the clock to a time where black children can be legally denied an education.

“You look like a sweet little girl,” she said to me. “But I need to know – are you a white girl?”

The sound I had been waiting for, my mother’s wheels crushing the gravel of the driveway, delivered me from any necessity to reply. Too bad the lady couldn’t get a good look at Mother, I remember thinking -- Mother, who was tall, blue-eyed, almost blonde, and beautiful enough that she commanded deference. I knew what would have happened to me, had I lacked the right answer in this country club where people like me -- my people -- never even wanted to belong: I would have been directed to wait outside, almost certainly at the back entrance, in the 100-degree heat that covered the city like a tight lid. I would not have had the same right to tolerable shelter that a white girl had, and no blue-eyed avenger would have come early or late for me.

As may be imagined, over the years I have considered this occasion differently. How complicit with the club lady was I? Would I -- who was plenty mouthy -- have found my tongue, if my mother had come later still? As I write this, I understand yet one more thing that was hidden from me then. The way the club lady fidgeted and flexed and left her office to look at me many times – until now, I have recalled that as guilty behavior: the lady had something ugly to say to me, and she didn’t want to do it. It is far more likely, however, that she was showing herself to me so that I’d be gone at the very sight of her, as a black child would have been cued to be gone. Important to her, too, would have been that club members coming and going would have seen not just me – a non-member to say the very least – but the brass, vigilant and battle-ready to shoo me. The lady was intimidating me; white beneath my tan, I had no reason to know it.

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