Uniform: Fitting In(to Clothes) in North Louisiana

Margaret E Brandl

1

I know what fat girls look like. There are a few fat girls in our grade, the grades below us, like the round girl who always wins the talent show because her mother is always a judge. I do not categorize myself as a fat girl, not in fifth or sixth grade, but I do know my clothes don’t fit right, have a history of fitting poorly no matter what. Part of the problem, I am convinced, is my mother: she doesn’t understand what the other girls are wearing. She is taking me to the wrong stores. If we went to another store, we’d find it, what the other girls have. But I’m not in control here, as much as I want to be. I know what I’m looking for, and I know we keep missing it. Maybe just one more store. Maybe between the dressing room and home, something magical will happen. Maybe if we buy this and I wear it to school tomorrow, I won’t have the same jokes made at my expense. “Meg’s so hot,” the boys say. Even classmates who don’t know what sarcasm is can hear it dripping from their voices, the exaggeration, the italics. “Meg, will you go out with me?”

2

My mother and I spend a lot of time in dressing rooms, looking at ridiculous clothes that I insist I will wear but never do. The clothes made for sixth graders are made for skinny, hipless bodies, and I am again and again surprised that each pair of pants refuses to transform me into one of them, into Hannah or Megan B. or Megan C. or Katie O.

The problem is the pants are all khakis. The school dress code is uniforms, a rule that begins sometime around fourth grade, and although we discover at some point in late sixth grade that uniforms can’t be enforced—that the school can’t provide them to students who can’t afford them—my mother has me follow the rules. Khaki pants, with a belt, shirts tucked in. White blouses or otherwise polo shirts (acceptable colors: white, red, navy blue, deep green). As an alternative to pants, pleated skirts (I own one—navy blue, love it, grow out of it) or scratchy skorts in cheap polyester (navy blue or khaki). I wear skorts for a while, but by sixth grade everyone wears pants, khaki pants with flared legs.

The flared leg is not part of dress code, but I desperately search for pants that will work on my body. I tuck in my shirt over and over again, loop my belt through the loops. Tucking my shirt in isn’t negotiable, so I don’t dwell on the soft blob of stomach so much as I notice how it alters the fit of the pants. Hannah’s stomach is flat, her belt buckle perfectly centered on her body.

The real test comes when I sit down on whatever chair, stool, or shelf the dressing room provides. Always I watch the pants gap in the back, awkwardly held aloft with the belt. When Megan C. sits down, the pants stay flat to her back. Everyone else’s pants seem to fit. And if somehow a pair of pants passes the test, not gapping at the back—through finagling, or a tight belt, or sheer force of will based on the way the flares look when I am standing up—they are instantly ruined if I remember to put my shoes back on.

When I start to wear flared pants, the flare creeps up my leg when I sit down. When Katie O. sits down, even though she is taller than the rest of us, her pants still cover her shoes, but my flared khakis almost surely expose not just the tops of my shoes but the white socks I wear with them. This, I have learned, is called “highwaters.” I don’t understand the origin or logic of the term and have to ask what it means, but from the first time I hear it, I know it’s bad. Just when I think I’ve found a pair of pants that aren’t the sad, shapeless polyester uniform pants, they turn out to be highwaters.

3

Once, I convince my mother to buy me a polo shirt from The Rebel Store—a ramshackle house that is, to our hometown, an institution: the source for all things West Monroe Rebels. High school football, second only to church, is the thing around which my hometown revolves; when the Rebels go to the state championship at the Dome, public school gets cancelled and almost everyone skips town.

A boy in my sixth-grade class has a grandfather who coaches the Rebels, and I get the idea that most people I know seem to think this is both cool and interesting. Though my overwhelming impression of my classmate and most of his friends is that they—like most boys—exist for the purpose of annoying girls, I am forced to sit next to him in several classes due to our names coming after one another in the alphabet; and perhaps this proximity is what spurs me toward looking for a small semblance of belonging. The polo shirt is navy blue and tight against my skin, not loose like the other uniform polos, and the left side is embroidered with the big red and white “WM” logo. Underneath, in red script, “Rebels” is shortened to “Rebs.”

The day I debut my polo shirt, I already feel some percentage “cooler.” Then my classmate gets a look at it. “I bet you don’t even know who the Rebels are,” he scoffs. He is mostly right.

4

I forget what specifically makes me want to join the pep squad, but I can approximate: I want to be part of the kind of thing that all my peers seem to think is fun, to be almost like a cheerleader. I want to be “cool” in junior high. I want to prove that I have what it takes to climb the ranks and be a “popular” girl, someone boys think is pretty. I want to be like my mother, who was popular in high school and a member of the dance team. I want confidence to magically appear out of the sky and shower upon me. I want to wear a blue pleated skirt because my favorite thing in the entire world probably is the anime Sailor Moon, and Sailor Moon wears a blue pleated skirt.

The girls in Sailor Moon wear school uniforms: long pleated skirts with matching blouses, sailor collars. When I start watching Sailor Moon in the summer after fifth grade, I wish that our uniforms were more like theirs, or that everyone in my hometown dressed that way. The girls in Sailor Moon are all the “misfits” in their classes, but to me they all look pretty, and pretty girls don’t seem like misfits. Serena doesn’t fit in because she’s a bad, lazy student; Amy is too smart; Lita is tall; Rei goes to another school; and there are rumors about Mina. But together they’re more interesting and beautiful than all the girls in the rest of the school, so much that only one of the nonmagical characters has a name—Molly.

Like every girl who watches Sailor Moon, I want to be like the title character, Serena. I want to be a secret superhero and princess, to use magic powers to save the world. In the blow-up kiddy pool we put on the backyard patio for my little brothers, I play Sailor Moon in my swimsuit. In every store, I look for sailor collars. I am stuck with the rounded collar on my white blouse, the shape my mother calls “Peter Pan.”

5

I am excited the day we drive to the junior high to purchase my pep squad gear—two bushy plastic pompoms (dark red and navy blue), athletic shorts and a t-shirt for practice, and of course the uniform: bright blue with red and white stripes on the chest and hem of the pleated skirt, plus matching blue bloomers like a pair of panties to wear underneath.

My mother is filling out the paperwork to buy my pep squad uniform. We are in a room with other girls, other mothers, and someone in charge of things is presiding over stacked cardboard boxes of uniforms. I don’t remember whether we change clothes right there, making sure we’ve picked the right sizes, or if the pieces of the uniform are held up against my body. The scene is fuzzy, but the details that stick are the boxes, the weird carpet, and the poor start that I feel we are off to when we walk away with my uniform, try as I might to forget it. The women in charge are guessing easily at numbers, handing skirts and tops to the other girls around me, smiling and laughing with their mothers. But no one is smiling or laughing with my mother. I swear the woman who hands me my uniform sets her mouth in a tight line as she wonders aloud if we need the next size up. I read her loud and clear: my body does not belong here.  

6

In seventh grade we are finally free of uniforms. We wear blue jeans, and I find some that fit me alright, but still we tuck our shirts in, so I amass a collection of black belts with various embellishments. One has an oval belt buckle covered in plastic rhinestones. One is lined sparingly in square studs. I wear sandals to school some days, chunky brown things that smell when they get wet or sand-colored cloggy orthopedic sandals from Walmart, a brand called “Earth Shoes.” Sometimes I am allowed to wear to school my platform foam sandals—black with a white stripe, and two wide black bands on top—but mostly not.

When the weather gets cold I start wearing sweaters. My mother chooses ugly ones she calls “classic,” shades of brown and powder blue in cliché sweater patterns and scratchy sweater fabrics, but my favorite sweaters are soft, made of something called chenille. One is a mock turtleneck in solid lime green; the other is deep purple with stripes (pink, lime green, and bright blue). I feel good in these sweaters, happy with the colors and texture.

Other days I wear a light blue zip-up jacket that says “SUPERGIRL” in puffy white letters, divided by the zipper—“SUPER” on one side and “GIRL” on the other. The jacket has a small “S” logo on a pocket, the one shared by Supergirl and Superman, but I wear it because Sailor Moon is a supergirl and she is my idol. It matches exactly none of my other clothes.

7

I am afraid of a girl in my English class who is pretty and confident but not always great at our English homework. Sometimes we are assigned to work together and I try to help her, explaining the answers but always worrying that she will start asking me about myself or, worse, something I am wearing. The boys think she’s “hot,” and she brags on the first day of school that over the summer she got her name changed legally—from her boring first name to her much more exciting middle name. I am afraid of her because I think she will make fun of me. Mostly she tells me I’m smart, but in the kind of way that means she wants me to give her the answers.

She is in my P.E. class, too, which is a new experience for me—we didn’t have a locker room or change clothes in front of each other in elementary school. While most of us try to change quickly, to spend as little time exposed as possible, she parades around shirtless. She wears silky red-satin push-up bras, and she wants everyone to know it.

One day I think she is complimenting me when she says I remind her of a character in a movie, someone played by Mandy Moore. I don’t know the movie—A Walk to Remember—but I know Mandy Moore is pretty and a pop star, so I am surprised. When I ask really? she responds by asking, “Do you secretly have some, like, horrible disease?” I say no slowly, beginning to get the feeling that she isn’t giving me a compliment. She asks, “Are you sure?”

8

My mother starts teaching me to wear foundation. I smear it on my face but am poor at blending it all the way in; before school my friend Kristen is always ready to inspect my nose and point out the orange streaks.

My classmates get highlights in their dark hair and lowlights in their blonde hair; they crimp sections and straighten sections and grow out their bangs. I make no plans to dye my hair or grow my bangs. I want my hair to get Sailor Moon-length, long enough to twist into two giant round buns on the top of my head that then hang down in floor-length pigtails. Until then, I insist on wearing my hair in two braids every day with different-colored scrunchies, despite my mother’s suggestion that I pull back just the front from my face. Eventually I start listening to her: I think it makes me look like Sailor Pluto.

On seventh-grade yearbook picture day, this is what I wear: blue jeans with a black belt (plain, braided) and a tucked-in t-shirt displaying, in large black letters with red, blue, and orange embellishments, the Nicene Creed—a Catholic prayer. The scrunchies for my short, fat braids are red with white polka dots and, if I remember right, orange. I have an argument against dressing up for picture day, my argument being, “This is what I normally look like. What’s the point of picture day if that’s not what you don’t normally wear?” My mother gives in.

9

When we learn our pep squad dances, we are each given a number that corresponds to our spot. I think it’s supposed to make the arrangement seem more fair, but my assigned spot is toward the very back of the long lines of girls. I am good at remembering what comes next in the dance, at always getting the next step, but I feel awkward sitting at football games and cheering. I don’t know what to do with my voice, how to get the shout right.

We attend a camp before school starts to learn everything: a few days in the school gym presided over by girls on the dance team. They are pretty and silly and outgoing and I wonder how they got to be that way, how they look so relaxed and are so well liked, how their t-shirts and shorts and sneakers complement their perfect, athletic bodies so well. One of the pep squad sponsors, a teacher, is also in charge of the dance team and is always nice to them, but in the hallways at school she is mean to everyone else, especially those of us in Gifted and Talented.

I get mastitis, an infection in my breast. I wake up every morning and have to take giant pills I can’t swallow whole; my mother crushes and blends them into chocolate pudding and they taste like eggs smell: sulfur and chalk. Every time I move my arms or my upper body, my breast hurts—even when I cough or laugh too hard. I bring a doctor’s note to pep squad practice and take it to the teacher, explaining it to her since she hasn’t heard of mastitis. She glares at me. “Then what am I supposed to do with you?” she snaps, her mouth a hard, angry line.

What I feel in that moment, I know later, is rage. I am required to attend practice, so I am here, and I believe I can learn the dances by watching. She is supposed to excuse me, to tell me where to sit out, to accept that I am in pain. But what I also feel in that moment is hot tears pricking at my eyes. I don’t answer. I stand in the formation and practice like everyone else, the infection searing through me, white-hot.

10

My favorite shirt in seventh grade is black on the back, with long black sleeves and a front-side print of neon signs at night. The signs are in Chinese (though of course at the time I’m not sure whether it’s Chinese or Japanese), and down one side of the shirt the print is overlaid with giant Chinese characters in bright blue glitter. I consider it the coolest piece of clothing I have ever owned and wear it carefully, always wanting to save it for special occasions. The shirt is tight to my skin, stretchy, and I like the way it looks—at one time I have the composition of the material memorized (specific percentages of rayon and spandex) so I can check future shirts for it. I love the shirt because it is bright and colorful and reminds me of the scenes of the city in Sailor Moon.

When I move up to eighth grade, I am in a P.E. class with some of the girls from my G.T. classes but can’t keep up with them. They are still effortlessly pretty and members of various sport teams. Sometimes the P.E. teacher has us all run laps and then play softball: whoever gets back first is one team, and the rest of us stragglers are the other. What results are boring, depressing games of softball in which one team can do everything and the other can do nothing. It is a terrible idea.

Still, in my group of stragglers, I make two friends. My first friend is Liz, who is severely overweight but likes to draw and likes anime and in a twisted but honest way makes me feel less self-conscious about my body because at least it isn’t as exaggerated as hers. My other friend is Crystal Chen, who is an exchange student from China. Crystal and I have quiet, hesitant conversations, mostly consisting of her listening to me talk. She gives me a snow globe for Christmas and writes in my yearbook in pink pen—the entire message except for my name unreadable to me, as it isn’t in English. By this time my favorite shirt from seventh grade has gone out of style, and after I meet Crystal, I am glad. I don’t know what the shirt says. Maybe it says something stupid. Maybe it says nothing at all.

Coda

When I go to try on my marching band uniform for ninth grade, I put the bib overalls on backwards. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to zip them, and the moms running the uniform room—“the cave,” as it’s called—laugh at me, as if the fact that the zipper goes in the front is obvious. The first pair of bib pants is too big, so I am given the next size down. All of a sudden I can see my stomach, feel tightness at my hips; but the last pants were so obviously huge that I’d rather wear the smaller size. “These are fine,” I lie as they assign the pants to me and drop a shako hat onto my head.

“If you can’t see,” they tell me, “you’re wearing it right.”

It’s something like a year later, after I understand the marching band routine, that I confess to one of the band moms that my pants are too tight. The next size up is too big, so she gives me a different pair of the same size I’d worn before. They don’t pull, don’t feel too tight. They fit.

“These must’ve been altered for someone!” she laughs, holding up my old bib pants, simple as that.

##

The Gift

My racial biases developed in layers with attitudes and perceptions accreting from my earliest years. My parents’ behavior—their words and body language—when encountering someone different in color or features or accent, swayed me in a patronizing direction. Playmates, teachers, relatives, and other adults, through their conduct, instilled an intolerant bent in me. I held disdainful assumptions as truth. Similarity was attractive; I viewed the dissimilarities in the thick lips, broad noses, and kinked hair of African Americans as unattractive. Many spoke with an accent or in a dialect I regarded as signs of being unschooled. My desire to be esteemed by my kind bolstered my distorted sentiments. My posture toward blacks was condescending and smug at best, unreasonable and hateful at worst. A product of surroundings and disposition, I was not unique.

My biases were formed in a setting, the rural Midwest, in which I had little exposure to African Americans. I remember one or two trips, with my mom and dad, to a black neighborhood in a small town. We visited an older African American lady who had looked after my mother and her preadolescent siblings, and who lived in a tiny abode with tar paper-like siding. My parents brought her the leftovers from a hog they’d slaughtered—the head and feet.

I also recollect a handful of outings to Kansas City, riding with my family through black business and residential areas on our way to the zoo or some other destination. We stared through the car windows at the bleak little houses and the alien faces; when picnicking at Swope Park or visiting its zoo, we watched but didn’t interact with families in every way like ours, except for the color of their skin.

The Doll Test

In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, plaintiffs made a compelling argument that segregation had harmful effects on black children. In their doll test, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, using black and white dolls, asked African American preschool and elementary school children from the South and North to choose the doll they preferred. Two-thirds selected the white doll, and a majority indicated the black doll “looks bad.” In another study, they asked the test subjects to “color line drawings of a child” with a hue closest to their own skin. The youngsters often used a shade lighter than their complexion, with some displaying “emotional conflict” when asked for a color preference. The Clarks found that black children, on the whole, “viewed white as good and pretty, but black as bad and ugly.” Their conclusion was “the Negro child, by the age of five is aware of the fact that to be colored in contemporary American society is a mark of inferior status. A child accepts as early as six, seven or eight the negative stereotypes about his own group.” These findings “illustrated the effect of prejudice and discrimination on personality development,” allowing the plaintiffs in the Brown case “to show that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional.”

Freedom of Choice, Not Full-Scale Desegregation

“It was a pamphlet that was sent out from the school district to all parents,” Hull Franklin recalled. During the 1960s, households throughout the South received information about the freedom-of-choice plans, giving students and their families the opportunity to choose their schools—without regard to race. Another pupil from that era, Ruth Carter, chose to go to the white school because she thought she’d get a better education, and for another reason: “Everything in the city, everywhere you go it was signs ‘White Only’…And I thought this would be the first step towards change…by us going to the all white school.”

In response to the Supreme Court’s striking down of mandated school segregation in the Brown ruling, Southern states cleaned up their statutes and constitutions by removing education clauses, and did nothing else. But with the threat of losing federal financial assistance, school boards began implementing freedom-of-choice plans instead of full-scale desegregation.

Despite the flaws in freedom-of-choice plans, a small cohort of black children and adolescents chose to attend white schools. They entered a crucible in which their courage and determination were on trial. Forty to fifty years later, some of these pioneers depicted their efforts in oral histories collected by the College of Charleston. “They wouldn’t sit with us in the cafeteria, they…called us names, they’d throw spitballs, they’d throw chalk. You’d walk down the hall they’d jump to the other side of the hall. You’d sit at a table in the library [and] you’d be the only one at the table…and then they got so bad at the cafeteria, not only did they not want to sit at the same table, they didn’t want to sit on the same isle,” Gloria Carter remembered. At home, “Each child would share and talk about their day at school,” her sister Ruth noted. “There was no pleasant day.”

“I became paranoid about lunchtime,” recounted Carlton Wilson. “I would want to get to the cafeteria early so I could get me a table…if all of the seats were taken, or if everybody was sitting at every table, I wouldn’t have anywhere to go, because…when I went to the table people would get up and leave…So I would automatically go to an empty table so no one would sit with me. And the other part of the day when I became very nervous was…when school ended, going to the bus, because the fear was that you would get to the bus and not have a seat, because you couldn’t sit beside a white person because you didn’t want to feel that…if you couldn’t get there and have a seat, then you would have to stand up.”

“We were either not there or we were treated badly to say the least,” said Lucy Frinks. “We were taunted and, from the other white students, what would be considered nice treatment would be that someone smiled at you. Certainly nobody spoke to you about anything. It was like you were invisible. Nobody talked to you. Nobody touched you. Rather than touch you people would move to the side. It was like we were pariah.”

Millicent Brown, one of two African American students in a school of eight hundred, described the isolation: “[W]e didn’t have lunch together. We didn’t have any classes together. And I always knew [the other black student] was going through it alone and I was going through it alone.” Besides the white kids, African American pupils had to deal with the adults—the teachers and administrators.

 “The whole atmosphere is, ‘You’re here and we have to do our job.’ Pretty much that’s what it felt like,” Emma Harvin declared, “[they had] no choice” but to teach the black children. Ruth Carter told of how her sister Pearl was treated by one teacher: “[S]he would move the [white] child that’s sitting next to her each week. That child wouldn’t have to sit there all the time. She would rotate the kids around Pearl because she didn’t want to punish [them]…when she’d work with Pearl, she’d hold her nose when she’d stand over her. She was mean to her.” 

Lucy Frinks gave other examples of how authority was administered: “There were rules in the student handbook where you could not carry [an Afro] pick.” She adds that black pupils couldn’t sing “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” without being “expelled…but we could have ‘Dixie’ played at the pep-rally…You could wear confederate flags and what not, but you couldn’t wear a t-shirt with Angela Davis on it.”

For Millicent Brown, each day was humiliating: “[A]fter a year or so [white] people did sit with me and talk. They accepted some things, but they never wanted to be seen walking with [me] coming out of the assembly.” She said, “[A]s soon as you started thinking folks were kind of cool with you then something would happen and you’d be reminded that, ‘no, [they’re] not really.’”

Bigotry Accretes

I assumed black people chose to be separate until a chance occurrence at a hall of justice. I was ten years old and with my mother at the courthouse in neighboring Clay County. In keeping with the pro-Southern leanings of western Missouri, the courthouse had separate restrooms for whites and blacks. Seeing the “whites only” sign at the entry to the ladies’ room, my mother became angry, though she downplayed it by saying, “I’d like to see them try to stop someone who needed to use it from going into that restroom.” I was disturbed by her reaction; it was the earliest moment I recall grappling with the notion that public decrees can hurt individuals. 

At the age of fifteen, I along with half a dozen kids from our parish attended a mini retreat of teenagers from four Catholic congregations. After introductions, the facilitator asked for volunteers to read a biblical verse to the gathering. One of our faction—a slender girl with lank, light-brown hair, a year older than me, and popular with the others in our clutch—volunteered.  Our suburban group comprised white members except for one guy from India, but participants in the other groups, all from the city, were black. Four presentations were given by two girls and two boys. Three of the performances were embarrassing: Each of the black readers stumbled over the words—words we white pupils came across, in school or our middle-class settings, on a routine basis. The white girl read her verse without hesitation, making no errors. When the readings concluded, the audience stared at the floor as if meditating on the spoken messages. I sensed unease in the room and guessed others were reacting as I was: These high school students couldn’t read at a fourth-grade level.  

Compared to Midwestern norms of the time, I lived in an “enlightened” household. Our mother told us not to call blacks the common epithet many in our family and most of our neighbors used; they are Negroes or colored. We should ignore denigrating remarks; although, she said they ate inedible food such as pigs’ feet and hog jowls, and some had a disagreeable odor. And we should not be mean to them. 

Despite what I was taught, I accepted the offensive words and malevolent attitudes of family and friends lest they shun me. I rationalized there were grounds for looking down on people of color.  In my childhood, my limited acquaintance with African Americans led me to think there was an innate difference between us. Even though I knew abusing them was wrong, I felt they were inferior. No one—not parents, not teachers, not priests nor nuns—made a contrary argument. Never a loud bigot, I was a complacent member of the herd, a quiet and insidious enabler of loud bigots. 

Follow-Up Doll Test

Child psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer redid the Clarks’s doll test, but unlike the first study, she included white children. There were two age groups, four to five and nine to ten, who were asked a series of questions. The children responded to the questions by pointing to one of five cartoon pictures displaying variations in skin color from light to dark. Additional queries about a color bar with light to dark skin shades were put to the older children. As a group, the white children associated “the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes.” Although less pronounced, the African American children also “had some bias toward whiteness.” In a surprising result, perceptions of race didn’t shift with age—the findings were similar for both the five-year-old and ten-year-old children. In Spencer’s words, “We are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.” Her study was done over six decades after the Clarks’s research.

Cultural Impact on Students

Several of the freedom-of-choice interviewees remembered how they were treated by peers remaining at the black schools. Theodore Adams recalled the disrespect he received from those who felt: “[Y]ou want to be white, you think you [are] better than we are, we don’t want to associate with you.” A parent, Arlonial DeLaine Bradford, whose children were in the first group to integrate the classrooms in a small South Carolina town, described the response she received in the community: “[T]he Black folk said that I thought that my children were white, and they were better than the other children, and that there were no teachers in the Black schools fit to teach them, and so they gave me a rough way about that.” 

Erstwhile classmates refused to sit by the desegregation firsts during basketball and football games played at the black institutions. “[O]ne would think by doing what we did that maybe we would have been lifted up in our community,” Theodore Adams exclaimed, “but we weren’t. As a matter of fact, we lost friends. Some of the young people that we grew up with didn’t hang out with us anymore. It was like we were caught in the middle of a no-man’s-land…we were hated by the students we were going to school with and not trusted by a lot of the ones that we would’ve been going to school with at the Black high school.” He went on to say he attended some events in the community and at the black school, but they had to be chaperoned—no backyard parties—because “when you fight all day, you don’t want to have to fight all night too.” 

Some of these pioneers, who were “marginalized in their communities” and ostracized in the schools, became quiet, “withdrawn.” Decades later, Lucy Frinks lamented, “It’s like this piece of us that nobody speaks about.” She and her cousins were among the ten black students who integrated a rural South Carolina school system. “[W]e haven’t talked about it and I know it had a very profound impact on my life. And I’m sure on the lives of my cousins.” After giving an account of the dread, anger, and sadness she felt during the desegregation effort, Ruth Carter said it’s a topic she doesn’t bring up with young people, “I don’t talk to them about my life as a child and growing up in Mississippi…I don’t even talk to my own kids about it.” 

Three years of the stressful environment sickened Millicent Brown: “[T]hey thought I had a heart condition because I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t walk five feet without just being totally out of breath…we found out that I had a nervous condition.” Besides the abuse from whites, she adds, “I became afraid…of what it is that Black people think about me in a way that I wasn’t conscious of before…I really believe that discomfort stings today.”

But another desegregation first differed in his perspective. “You hurt. Let me tell you about the hurt. You hurt in the moment that [it] was happening. You hurt you feel as a child, but one thing about being an adult,” Hull Franklin averred, “you grow up, you get over it. Let it pass. It passes…I cannot hold that against anyone because it’s not about them. It’s about me now making myself better…[I] have a positive attitude on life.”

“All White People Are Racists”

While African American pupils integrating schools were haunted by futility, Martin Luther King, Jr., offered hope. He spoke of fulfilling the dream for equality: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Though optimistic, he asserted success will require courage and persistence. With hard work by both races, he believed justice would prevail. “We will overcome.” 

One race has been negligent. “[T]he statement ‘all white people are racist’ doesn’t make me angry. It makes me sad, because I believe it’s probably true,” said Katherine Craig, a white human rights lawyer. “[I]f you grow up in a racist society,” she maintained “through no fault of your own, some of that racism is bound to stick subconsciously. It’s…[a] conspiracy in which we are all complicit, unless we fight it.”

Blemishes Remain      

I left home at age twenty. While my views had been evolving for several years, they solidified when, in my new surroundings, I encountered people who held that racial disparities were anathema to a healthy society. Many of my colleagues were black, and on occasion, we socialized. I began to voice a conviction that racism was unjust. I deemed my deeds mirrored how a good person behaved and my words echoed what a good person said. On the surface, I was spotless; beneath it, I was blemished.

In my sixties, as a volunteer advocate for residents of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, I’ve had to fend off more than one woman (two, to be precise) attempting to entice me into her bed. Their profile: dementia or mental illness, between sixty and seventy, thin, and aggressive. One woman, with an emaciated look and pale white skin, intent on more than talking, gave me her phone number and asked for mine (she got the program’s office number). While I stayed a couple of feet away from her, I was flattered. On another occasion, a woman whose shoulders had a slight stoop, and whose skin was a coffee-with-cream hue, said on seeing me, “My, you’re fine looking,” and reached out to me. I stepped back beyond the range of her outstretched hand, a reaction impelled by distaste. 

How do I continue to fight my racism? My attitudes toward those different from me are hard to control, yet I can resolve to manage them. I can choose to denounce racist comments by acquaintances; I can choose to listen to the stories of persons oppressed in our society and to learn more about them; and I can choose to offer assistance, meager though it might be. Over time, such choices will reshape my nature. 

I have a friend who was among the first African Americans to integrate a high school in the South. Five decades after battling iniquity—the merciless animosity scarring her childhood and adolescence—she wonders what benefits were attained by the fight for an interracial education. While public facilities, including learning institutions, dropped “whites only” restrictions, we failed to dull the sharp edges of racism. Was it all for naught? Did we miss an opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe? If we give an affirmative answer to these questions, we are disregarding the struggle these pioneers waged. We would be making a mistake.

Treated as untouchables no white person would sit with or talk to, spit on, kicked, ignored by uncaring educators, and snubbed in their own neighborhoods, my friend and others held their tempers and their tears, ignored the epithets, and concentrated on their studies. They offered us a gift: In their dignity and integrity, their sacrifice and courage, they exemplified what we are capable of. It’s an offering we can accept or reject.

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Sources:

Interviews are part of the oral history collection of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston: http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/?f%5Bcollection_titleInfo_title_facet%5D%5B%5D=Somebody+Had+To+Do+It 

Photo at the top of the page:  “Southern Desegregation (0045)” by Ron of the Desert is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

 

Family: Three Chapters

1.

After she was married for four years and no children seemed to be coming, my mother did what any good Catholic girl in the 1960s would do: she prayed to the Blessed Mother. She promised if she had a little girl, she’d name her Elizabeth Ann, for Mary’s cousin and mother. She promised she’d name a boy Michael, after the archangel. Then she and my father went to the Angel Guardian Home and applied to adopt.

A few months later, a nun from the adoption agency called and said they had a little girl for my parents, and her name was Elizabeth Ann. A few years after that, the adoption agency called again and said they had a little boy for us named Michael. And in 1998, the story of our names was published in a book called Mary Miraculous: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People Touched by Our Lady.

At the moment of my adoption, I was merged into this family abounding with grandmothers, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third, and replete with stories—stories that neatly subsumed the existence of my first family. My father told stories about my great-grandparents immigrating to New Orleans and later to New York, and of my grandfather walking over the Brooklyn Bridge every day to his job on the Journal-American newspaper. He told me stories about his own childhood growing up with his three sisters and dozens of cousins on E. 2nd Street in Brooklyn—the same street they brought me home to from the adoption agency, the same cousins running to meet me.

Those stories led up to stories about me and Mike. That a cosmic, God-like force brought us together was explained right there in the book my parents read to us when we were young.

“Then suddenly one day the Lady at the Home called up and said:  “We have three fine babies for you to choose from. Will you both come and see them?” So the very next day the Man and his Wife, feeling very excited, hurried to the Home. The Lady told them all about the babies.

“The first baby was a little boy with blue eyes and curly blond hair. He laughed and played with a rattle. The Man and his Wife watched the baby, then they shook their heads and said, ‘This is a beautiful child, but we know it is not our baby.’ And they were taken to see the next.”

Valentina P. Wasson, The Chosen Baby, 1939

What happened, I wondered years later, to the unchosen baby?

2.

There is a freedom—and maybe a bit of paralysis—in not having a hereditary path. I have no genetic path to follow, no ancestors to take after, or reject.

When I am fifty years old, I realize my birth mother, too, is aging, and I hire an adoption investigator to find her. I am grown, mature, my life already in motion, but I am still a little shocked that she exists. When I talk about the things that I love, reading, writing, teaching, and she says, “You didn’t get that from me,” or “Are you sure you’re mine?” I feel a strange sort of pride.

But. I am looking, constantly, always listening, for ways that we—my birth mother, my half-sisters, and my half-brother—are the same.

The sparseness of my eyebrows, and Kerry’s, delights me. That Shannon’s hair goes grey in the same places mine does. That we all started out with the same overbite. I ask who else has my wonky, wavy middle fingernail on each hand.

Who has asthma and who burns but never tans in the sun?

3.

When I first find my birth mother, I feel possibilities narrowing, all my imaginings of her ending. I think at first that this is okay, that wonderful new and true stories are coming, but they don’t. Conversations are shut down. There are things I cannot tell her, about growing up with a mentally ill mother. I cannot tell my birth mother about my frustration that she doesn’t remember anything about my birth father—“I met him at a party. . .we were drinking. . .I never saw him again”—and my adult but childlike hurt that she married so quickly and had five more babies, the first one born just 21 months after I was. There are things she will not tell me.

I become the keeper of secrets, the whitewasher of my past. I tell her only happy things, memories of growing up surrounded by cousins and friends; big, grassy backyards shaded by old oak trees, swing sets and barbecues and collies; playing Manhunt in the woods every summer night; and scaring ourselves silly trying to contact the dead with our Ouija Boards from Toys R Us.

I breeze over the screaming matches in high school and college, the suspicions, the accusations that still happen:

“I know you and your brother talk about me behind my back.”

“I know you love your father more than me.”

“I know you tell your friends bad things about me.”

The bedroom searches for signs of drugs and alcohol and sex, things we aren’t doing yet. My brother and I pitted against each other over and over:

“You are both staying in your rooms until one of you admits you lost the house key/let the cat out/took the Tupperware to school and never brought it back.”

Hours spent in our rooms as punishment for things my mother had done herself.

I say, “My mom and I get along much better when we don’t live together.”

I say, “I had a blast in high school,” and I did.

The mornings I stormed out of the house, slammed the front door, cried on the bus and in the bathroom at school, the knot in my stomach when it was time to go home, just broken parts of the story neatly recessed.

I say, “I know! Ridiculous that I lived on campus during college, five miles from my house. But I loved the dorms!”

I cringe when my birth mother thanks my adoptive mother for raising me.

My birth mother, in turn, keeps from me her relationship with my birth father. She says she doesn’t remember telling the adoption agency anything at all about him. She lets me believe the adoption agency created a detailed story of their relationship and of his life, his family.

I find my birth father’s family, and find out everything my birth mother told the adoption agency at the time was in fact true. We both say, “Wow. Weird,” that the adoption agency says she gave them this information and she doesn’t remember anything about it. I am careful to keep any accusation out of my voice.

She does remember that her roommate’s brother was a priest and that he arranged the adoption. She does not remember that my birth father had blond hair and blue eyes.

She remembers her job at the airline. She does not remember meeting my father at that job. She does not remember that he told her that his parents died when he was young, that he was sending money home to help his aunt raise his sisters, that he was from Ohio, that he enlisted in the Army in May 1966 and went to Germany, just a month after I was conceived.

As narrators of our story, we are both unreliable.

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Photo at the top of page, “adoption & child welfare,” is by Suresh Natarajan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.