“How can you be friends with them?!” my friend sputtered indignantly. She jammed her hands in her pockets, but still managed to shake a verbal finger in my face.
We were talking about white people and, consequently, about slavery, lynchings, segregation, poverty, violence, racism. It was the season of Clarence Thomas and Rodney King.
How can you be friends with them?
The answer has everything to do with the circumstances under which I was born.
Having started out with things so far out of kilter, I suppose it was just a matter of time before I added white friends to the collection of paranormal phenomena that make up my life. Perhaps I can explain.
When I was around six months in the making, my grandmother beat my mother so brutally that my mother and my sister, then four years old, fled town with Uncle Tommy’s help.
I was born three months later, a birth not widely heralded. At least not by my grandmother and her side of the family. Although we were living with my father’s sister and her husband, I have no recollection of them and so I can’t speak to what their reaction might have been to my arrival. Except to say, of course, they knew I was coming. And then there I was.
I didn’t arrive completely without fanfare, though. Right there in the delivery room, my entry into this world was an occasion which I used to literally show my ass. There are those who would argue today that this approach marked me for life, indeed became my signature. But in this instance, I mean, literally, my ass because my butt was where my head should have been, giving others who know me cause to claim that my head and my ass have often been juxtaposed in ways that defy nature and defeat my best interests.
Anyway, this was not a normal position. So, as Odessa told it, the doctor reached in and turned me around. Straightened me out. This turn of events might have something to do with my subsequent experiences with many men along the way who have felt the need to turn me around in an effort to straighten me out.
In any event, several days after my arrival, my sister had an idea and approached my mother.
“You see,” she told Odessa, “we don’t need another baby in this house. So, you can just take her right on back to that hospital.” The honesty and directness of that approach inspires me to this day. My sister was not confused.
Though I was born in the South in the summer as 1949 wended its way towards 1950, things did not fall into the easy, slow pace often associated with that time and place.
My problems started when, from the beginning, Odessa forced me to understand my power to disagree with the general populace about who I was in relationship to them, the rest of the world. Even though a precocious, stubborn child, I did not welcome this burdensome responsibility, this task of self-definition and, consequently, of self-defense. I wanted to be like everyone else. But, I had no choice. Odessa said it was to be. And so it was.
Black, female, poor and confident in the apartheid south of the US was a heady recipe for danger, a brew sure to produce only one thing: a crazy nigger. A crazy baby nigger, I got off to a very early start.
When I was four, we moved out of the room we shared in the home of Bertha and Major Bunch and into a public housing project, a place where poor people and their families were bricked in and roundly despised. Shortly afterwards, a small white social worker came to our two-story flat with paper thin, vomit green walls to verify the information previously submitted and required to determine the amount of government subsidy—the welfare check—we were to receive.
Early on, the issue of my parentage ambled into the conversation and plopped down on the table, exposing the questionable origins of my existence and therefore my worthiness of government support.
"So the Youngest Recipient is illegitimate," the Social Worker said glaring at me, cutting me down to a millimeter.
"No," Odessa responded utterly remorselessly. "Bernestine is not illegitimate. I just wasn't married to her father.” She was not one to lie or shadow the truth.
“My baby is not illegitimate because, you see, God gave her to me just like He gave me my oldest daughter. And nothing that is the work of God can be illegitimate.
“Illegitimate is a man-made thing. My children come straight from God." Instantly, I shot up to six feet tall.
The Social Worker raised her eyes to meet Odessa's steady gaze, snorted, rolled her eyes back down to the form, and wrote in the block next to my name: Illegit. I leaned against Odessa. She put her arm around me and saved me from being swallowed whole in that abbreviation.
That was the first of many visits from the Social Worker, every one unannounced. She cruised our home, eyeing cupboards for contraband (“No sugared cereal? No sodas? Good. They cost too much for what you have to live on.”), pulling back the curtains to the closets seeking the merest hint of a male presence (“Not even one boyfriend for such a good-looking woman like yourself?”), fingering my skirt or my sister’s blouse while Odessa looked on silently (“Did mother make these for us or did we go shopping and buy them downtown?”).
By the time I reached kindergarten, I was diagnosed as severely anemic. Had low blood. Needed iron. Consequently, I was routinely at the Health Department where the government corralled poor sick folks of all colors for the convenience of dispensing whatever medical attention was our due. I was poked and prodded and stuck and pulled by strange always white, always male hands.
These trips contained their own lessons for a black child in 1950s Charlotte, NC. After riding in the back of the bus to get to the Health Department, we signed in and then took our seats in the back of a huge hall, the part of the room reserved for coloreds.
There I learned to sit and wait for my name to be called for services to be rendered on a first-come-first-served basis unless you were lucky enough to be white, which meant no matter how late you arrived, you always came before every single black person.
Our relationship with the Welfare Department and the Health Department lasted for about eight years, during which my life seemed constantly in peril. Time after time, Odessa was ordered to deliver me up to doctors who barely spoke English, which is really beside the point because, of course, they had no need to talk to us. They were doctors. We were poor, black, female. What could we tell them--even about ourselves--that was important to know?
Before I could be cured of low blood, I developed “heart trouble”: a nonspecific set of alleged irregularities that might be curable, they surmised, after a bit of cutting-edge surgical technology at the hands of young doctors in training. Without it, they warned, I would die before I reached the age of ten.
Without it, I turned ten at which point it was determined that I needed eye surgery to correct a problem that they could see, though not explain. But Odessa kept getting in the way of those icy-eyed doctors in stiffly starched green cotton jackets who never once spoke directly to us or even called us by our names, the ones who were desperately seeking to use me as a guinea pig
Each time they offered a surgical cure, Odessa turned to me and said, "Honey, do you want this operation?" Her statement could easily have been mistaken as a question. Instead, in each instance, I understood that I was being called upon to speak up for myself.
So, each time, I surveyed the forces arrayed before me: my mother who would not presume to grant or withhold permission for such an invasion of my body without first consulting me; the doctors, jaws slackened in disbelief, scowling disapproval.
And, each time, I just said, "No."
The second time I exercised my right to choose, they practically threw us out of the Welfare Department. These wardens of the public trough accused Odessa of being crazed, an unfit mother who would let her ten-year old daughter's voice be heard above those of doctors who knew what was medically required. They said they would take me and my fourteen-year old sister away from her. At the very least, they said, they would cut off our welfare check. That was not the end of it, they warned. We would see. A crazy nigger and her crazy nigger child.
One night during our weekly family meeting, the three of us voted unanimously to take ourselves off of welfare. We decided the $30 a month welfare check was not enough to make up for the stigma, the invasions, the assaults that came in tow. It was around this time that I came to loath white people. Odessa, a fervent believer with impeccable Christian credentials, was not pleased.
“Judge not that ye be judged,” she frequently admonished. Considering what I was working with, I decided I was willing to take my chances though I was wise enough to keep all of these thoughts strictly to myself.
Up to that point, what I had learned of white folks I learned from Odessa, books and magazines. Raised in a home purposely devoid of television--"the stupid box"--I looked to her as my primary source.
White folks were the people whose houses she cleaned. You can’t wash shit from a man’s drawers and not learn a lot about him in the process. And what she learned, we learned. Every nuance.
Many days, Odessa came home exhausted--not from the physical labor, but from the mental toil of constantly deflecting the arrogance of adults and children drenched in the rightness, the mightiness of their relentless whiteness.
Hers were not a victim’s tales, just tiresome examples of white folk who believed the only way to rise was to first step in her black face.
In 1961, a few reasonably prudent white leaders in our town struck a deal with middle-class black leaders and thus began inching towards desegregation of the public schools. As agreed, at first the black leaders offered up their own progeny, thinking them the best representatives of our race: colored children with two college-educated parents, members of Greek letter societies, owners of a mortgage and two car payments, regular church-going, paid up members of the NAACP. Children who came from something and were, therefore, best qualified to go places.
But native intelligence and academic stamina did not sufficiently track the number of parents and household income to provide a large enough pool from which to draw the Race Warriors. So it wasn’t long before the circle of the deserving had to be substantially widened. The black leaders went back and dutifully broke off a larger piece of their best, brightest and most well-behaved children and offered us up, a tithe of talent to be cast upon a sea of white mediocrity. For their part, the white leaders refrained from unnecessary talking.
I was among the first to be courted as part of the larger group for this social experiment, another opportunity to become a guinea pig for a different cause. At first, I was intrigued, even flattered to be seen as a worthy warrior in The Fight for Racial Justice and Equality. Then we had a family meeting and together explored my options.
For one year, I attended a junior high school that had been an all-white school in an all-white working class neighborhood the year before we showed up. But when the propertied white leaders decided to send the poor black folks to sit in classes beside the poor white folks, the poor white folks fled and took their children with them, leaving all of us mostly poor black students and solidly middle-class black teachers to our completely black selves.
One night after attending the first monthly parent-teachers’ meeting of the year, Odessa came home mad as hell. My English teacher, technically black but proudly bearing the genes of the oppressor, had smiled into my mother’s face, the mirror image of her own, and said, “We were so surprised to find out that Bernestine is a recipient.” In Odessa’s fury, the word came out “ree-SIP-yunt.”
“Recipient?” Odessa repeated, puzzled.
“Yes. On welfare!” The English teacher whispered sympathetically.
“Bernestine is so well-dressed, so well-mannered. She speaks so beautifully and carries herself so tall. We just never would’ve thought….You can imagine our surprise….” Her voice trailed off.
Odessa inhaled the insult, tucked it away inside her gut and finished listening to the glowing reports from the English teacher and all of my other teachers. And then she came home fit to be tied. Less than a year later, my sister and I both got summer jobs. At 13, I earned the same $30 weekly salary as Odessa who, at`43, had been in the workforce for 33 years. Because she refused to let me or my sister clean white folks houses (“I do it so you won’t have to do it”), I had found an office job doing typing and filing.
Then it was time to choose schools again, the War for Justice and Equality having ground slowly on.
In the end, the decision was left up to me. I chose to leave the Race War to those who knew they had the money for the clothes and thought they had the money for the weapons.
The next fall, I transferred to a brand new school in a black community surrounded by a mix of poor, working class, middle class, and even upper middle class black neighborhoods. There, left to our own devices, we Children of the Dream brilliantly mimicked the ways of the oppressor, endlessly creating, refining, dismantling, recreating hierarchies of class and skin color and hair texture that would scar us forever after.
It was around this time that I came to loath middle class black people while I continued my life as one who was different, unusual, not an easy fit. Like my name, my fatherlessness and other differences, some real, some imagined, grew into a source of strength even as they remained an easy target for those who saw them as one more reason to try to bludgeon me into conformity.
Eventually, I awoke to the liberation of life led hugging the periphery. A status quo that granted me no allowances commanded no allegiance in return. So when college presented me with the first real opportunity to break free of my black oppressors, I grabbed it with no thought of ever looking back.
Finally, I would stand toe-to-toe and fight the first whom I had hated long and hard: white folks. I marched off, brave under the banner of own personal declaration of war.
I had long ago grown accustomed to being set apart. So, free to haunt quarters and form alliances that, under normal circumstances, would have been taboo, I continued skirting the rim of convention, consorting with others, courageously different for that moment, who pleased me. This is how, once I reached college, I came to have white people as friends. And to simultaneously understand that whiteness was a character defect.
Gruesomely visible in a sea of colorless faces, I was deluged by an endless mass of centuries of wrongs that had to be stomped, burned, smashed into ‘60s and ‘70s rights; by white folks, one-dimensional obstacles to be overcome. Jack-boot forces in control of the world, yet so mean, so small, so scared, so threatened. It nearly drove me mad.
Until I remembered that I had seen something like them before. Long before I ever saw a white person in person, I remembered, there were middle class black folk who sat in judgment on me. The black mothers who upon meeting me with their children, especially their sons, would stop me in my tracks with their threshold inquiries, challenging my right to enter: Where do you live? Who are your parents? What do they do for a living?
Perched atop their pedestal in our black, segregated world, they and their offspring were the first who were mean, small, scared, threatened by my worthless difference. So, years later, in my near madness, adrift in the raging white sea called college, I reached back and saved myself by remembering: The early blows to my psyche were not black or white. They were black and white. I loathed them equally.
How can you be friends with them?
That is a very good question.