Me and IT
January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
Me and It
by Dorothy Day Ciarlo
At some point in life, one has to talk about certain troubling things whether anyone wants to listen or not. For me, It began in childhood and has been a burden of pain and shame. I’m thinking I’d better talk about It now, and a good place to begin is with Idabelle. But first, let me tell a few things about my childhood.
Though time supposedly weakens memory, the Dickensian names of my childhood are forever there, waiting for a tug on the memory chain to come tumbling out. My schoolmates’ names all denoted something—Mary Ellen Finger, Nancy Jean Sharp, Janet Love-it, Jane Ann Cook, Uldene LongStretch, Basil Butler, to list but a handful. So, too, the places: Boil Park, where we went for picnics: Right-Sell, my elementary school, and Win-Field Methodist where my sister Peggy and I went to church every Sunday morning and evening. And the streets—Chest-er Street, Gain Street, Arch Street, Ring-o, stream out of my memory closet. But the Thing that clouded my childhood and in fact my whole life, didn’t have a name. In my own mind, I began to call it It.
I grew up in a time in a place where It was a constant presence, everybody felt It, had some relationship to It but nobody ever spoke of it. I was born in 1933, in Little Rock in the state of Arkansas, into a family that had come to Little Rock from the west coast a few years before. In my family, my parents were quick to point out that we were “not Southerners” and that plus the fact that my father was a professor, made us seem different than the other people we lived near. In fact, my father was a scientist who taught medical students at the University of Arkansas. You might think that this meant we lived in the rich part of town, but you would be wrong. Teachers in Arkansas, even university professors, made next to nothing at that time. This didn’t matter much to me because other people in my neighborhood didn’t have much money, but they also didn’t have much education.
The other thing that was different was that my mother was sick: not sick with a disease that people understood, but sick with a strange illness that kept her in bed all the time until I went to school. Because Mother was in bed and my father was very busy with his research and teaching, we needed a helper. That’s where Idabelle came in. She came to work part-time for our family when I was born, and the other part-time she went to college. One of my clearest recollections is of my dad bringing back books from the library for Idabelle’s college classes, saying, “It’s ridiculous that she can’t go there.” To this day, whenever I think about Idabelle not being able to go to the public library I get mad about It.
All of my very early life Idabelle was my dearest person, except for maybe my father. She was tall and dark and slender and had a deep, infectious laugh that I still hear. I have just one small picture of her. She is holding me in the crook of one arm— I am about 6 months old—and close to her other side is my sister Peggy. Idabelle is looking serious, right into the camera, and right into my heart. Memories about what Idabelle and I did are dim. Mostly, what I remember is a feeling: that Idabelle was my person, and when she left there was a hole in my heart which remains to this day.
She quit working for us to get married when I was about 5. By that time my mother was getting out of bed more and we didn’t need so much help. After that, every Christmas we went to visit her in her neighborhood and took a basket of fruit for her family. Soon she had her own two boys and she grew stout and lost some teeth. (My father said, “The babies got the calcium.” He did research in nutrition and knew about such things.) I didn’t feel close to Idabelle in the same way anymore and it made me sad. Then she and her husband and kids moved to California and I never saw her again.
One of my other earliest It-memories is of walking to school with Rosemary Moron. We had just moved to our new house, and she lived right across the street from me, and for a short time when I was about seven we walked to school together. I didn’t much like her, I wasn’t sure why at first. She had a mole on her finger which was disgusting and she always wanted me to hold her hand. This particular day was a beautiful spring morning, and Rosemary and I were holding hands walking down Ringo Street heading towards Right-sell. A boy a little bit older than us was riding his bike in the quiet street, slowly with no hands, doing figure eights with the front wheel, whistling, looking dreamy and at peace. All of a sudden Rosemary for no reason calls out, “NIIGGERR!!!” The boy’s face changes, he grabs the bike handles, stands up and hunches over his bike, and rides down the street as fast as he can. I feel my stomach turn and fury wells up against Rosemary. My memory is that I pushed her into the street. Probably I didn’t. I know I quit holding her hand, and I never walked with her again. But the memory of that event is as clear as if it happened yesterday.
My best friend later on in grade school and early junior high was Janet Love-it. Her father ran the Summer Field Ice Cream store. She and her father were sweet, shy people. I adored Janet. But there was a problem in our friendship: Janet’s mother, who was loud, mean, and overprotective. She always wanted to drive Janet to and from school, and since Janet and I were best friends, I had to walk over to Janet’s house 3 blocks away and ride with her mother if I wanted to be with Janet. Invariably when we were driving home, we would pass through groups of kids walking in the quiet street, coming home from their school, laughing and joking loudly as they walked. Janet’s mother would yell out the window, “GET OUT OF THE STREET, YOU BLACK APES.” And the kids, without even glancing at her, would move ever so slowly over to the side of the street, still laughing and seeming to have fun. I wanted to talk to Janet about her mom, and about It, but I never did. Eventually, I couldn’t stand It anymore and Janet and I ceased to be friends.
When I was in junior high, I had to go to the Sunday evening youth program at Win-Field Methodist, which I hated because I was very shy and I didn’t have a good friend to go with. Also I was an eighth-grader and everyone else was a ninth-grader. I went because I thought I was a Christian and that I should go to church. Well, the kids that went to the Sunday evening program took turns leading the program. One Sunday in February it was Brotherhood Month, and I signed up to lead that Sunday’s program. Actually, I wondered why it was just Brotherhood and not Brother-and-Sisterhood. In any case, I thought this was my chance to stand up and talk about It. We had a program book that we were supposed to follow. It looked boring to me so I asked Daddy how I might start out the discussion so that the kids would really think about Brotherhood. He suggested I ask them, “How many of you went swimming last summer?” And then, when they would all raise their hands (the summers were unbelievably hot in Little Rock), I would tell them that if they had been Negro they wouldn’t have been able to go swimming since there wasn’t a swimming pool for Negroes and the law didn’t allow whites and Negroes to swim together. I thought it was a good idea and that it would change the kids’ way of thinking.
I was wrong. Right away after I had gotten past the swimming thing but before I could even get into the discussion I had planned, the boys were jeering and using awful names and the girls were giggling and It had taken hold and Brotherhood was out the window. I felt stupid and humiliated and I wanted to die. The older couple that was supposed to be the adults in charge didn’t say anything except, at the end of the ruined program, that as Christians we should all believe in Brotherhood, whatever that meant. Not long after that, I decided I wasn’t a Christian.
Somewhere in my childhood I read a story in the Readers Digest about a woman who was Negro and was very light in skin color. It was a story of her “passing”, as it was called, for being white. This was a new and very exciting idea to me. I had often thought that I was really adopted —since my mother and my sister both had red hair and I did not — and the idea that I really was Negro captured me. It didn’t seem implausible: I knew my dad and mom were upset about It and they might have chosen a Negro baby, so it was just an accident of fate that I became light-skinned enough to “pass.” The complexities of this didn’t bother me: from earliest time I thought that in some way black people were really my people and my external appearance was a sham. It was an accident of adoption that I was considered white.
As I grew older I felt forced to give up the idea of my Negro heritage as unrealistic; yet it stayed deep in my mind. I longed to really know a Negro. It may seem strange to think that in a place where a good proportion of the citizens were Negro, I never had opportunity to know a single one as even a distant friend except Idabelle, and that was when I was little, but that is the case. I began to scheme about how I could meet and talk to a black person on a normal basis. Finally one day in high school my opportunity came: I was downtown, close to where the Negro college was, and a young black woman (who was, in fact, a college student) was standing waiting for a bus. I took courage in hand and struck up a conversation with her. She was friendly in what seemed to me a natural way. I was extremely nervous but tried not to show it. I don’t remember what we talked about but it seemed to me like she didn’t think there was anything odd about me starting the conversation, and that was a big step forward for me. When my bus came, I said goodbye and got on it and was relieved that it wasn’t her bus. I could not have stood having her have to sit in back of me. (My usual practice was to sit just one aisle above the middle of the bus, which to my mind conveyed that I really would have liked to sit right next to a black person. I had learned through sad experience that if I sat right in the middle, that meant that the black people had to scrunch up into fewer seats behind me.) I would have liked to be her friend, but at least this was a beginning.
When I was in high school, I took the same bus to Little Rock Senior High School (later re-named Little Rock Central High) as the kids who went to Dunbar High School, just a little ways away. The irony wasn’t lost on me that there was a strange duplication of educational services here. Every morning the bus stopped first at Dunbar, and every morning the boys from my high school would harass the students getting off from the back of the bus at Dunbar— changing the name of the school (which I later learned was named after a famous poet) to an insulting depreciation— and every morning I got mad.
But I was being affected by this, as well as lots of other stuff. Many years later, when I was in training to become a psychologist, I worked with a psychiatric resident, a handsome cultured African-American man named Lloyd E., whom I learned was from Little Rock. I grabbed every opportunity I could to talk to him, even though it was pretty clear that he had little interest in talking to me. This became even clearer one day when I was asking him questions about where in Little Rock he had grown up, what college he had gone to, etc. Then I asked him what high school he went to, certain in my own mind that he must have gone away to some prestigious private high school in the North. He said, “Dunbar.” Without thinking I said, “You’re joking.” He looked me straight in the eye and into my It-distorted heart and said quietly, “No, I’m not.”
It is no accident that as soon as I was old enough to leave home and go to college (in 1951) I chose to “go North”. Actually, I went East to a Quaker school which, I was certain, given its history and its northern location would have many black students. It did, and I got to know every one of them. Not surprisingly for that era, most of them were from Africa. In fact, getting to know the African and other “foreign” students of color was a freeing experience for me. One friend I made was Roz E., from Nigeria. Rumor had it that she was from royalty, and she carried herself with grace and confidence. She had the same infectious wonderful laugh that Idabelle had. I remember one time during spring break (when most all the other students went home, but Roz and I were too far from our homes to go back) Roz and I went into the industrial town near the college to shop. We went into a dress shop, and I asked to try some item of clothing on. The saleslady said, “You can, but she can’t.” I was furious—this was supposed to be the North—and stalked out dragging Roz with me. I felt the same incredibly deep shame that I had felt in Little Rock and I mumbled apologies. She said in her lilting Nigerian-British accent, “That’s all right, Dotty, I didn’t want to try on anything anyway.”
In college I also became friends with Sylvester, an African-American who took residence in my internal self for the whole of my life. He and I were good and deep friends. We rarely talked about It, and when we did, little needed to be said in words. If truth be told, I felt we recognized our mutual souls. I never needed to apologize for my Little Rock-affected self-ness. He died recently, and I have felt a deep grief at his passing.
In my adult life, I have done things that people whom others like to say have “white guilt” do. I’ve taken and then worked on developing workshops for helping people understand the dynamics of “Us versus Them.” I’ve worked with diversity committees. I’ve lived in dedicated multi-racial communities. I’ve taken a trip to South Africa and loved Nelson Mandela and heard a society having to talk about It. I have privately been irked with white friends who like to talk about “racism” and how they are free of it.
In my later life, I find myself turning back to my childhood self. I think about Idabelle and how that first deep relationship with a person who cared for me and whom I loved set something unnamable but profound in motion. I believe I have done some of what I could do in my life to deal with It. And I have learned to accept that everybody else thinks I belong to that group of people called “white”. But inside, I’m still not sure but what I’m “passing.”