Thursday, November 13, 2008

Growing Apart

My son has a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. The one part that he reads over and over, that just astounds him, is a section in which MLK realizes his childhood friendship with a white boy will not be allowed to continue.

Perhaps, because he wants to talk about that over and over and OVER, the other night, I dreamed of an event that I had not allowed myself to think about in ages.

When I was young, I had girl friends who were white.

As with any of my friends, I had sincere affection for some, a friendly rivalry with others.

My relationship with one girl, Melissa, was characterized by both of those. We were both officers in FHA, first and second clarinet in band, vying to be at the top of our class.

And we really, really liked each other.

But Melissa and I grew apart, as black and white children in the South used to do. Not so rigid a distinction as it was decades ago, but still with the implicit understanding that our adult paths probably would not cross much, that we'd have lives that were separated, in part, along color lines.

And it is a separation that I have abided by. Oh, I've made white friends in the interim, people who share my academic or political interests or who are my co-workers or who share the absolute drudgery of some PTA duties with me. But they are not people who grew up with me in a tiny, rural area where much of the world was still viewed in black and white terms.

I say that I abide by it because when I see my old friends, there is a wall that all the smiles and innocuous questions and plans for class reunions cannot surmount. It is a wall that I uphold based on (unfair?) assumptions. "We'll have nothing in common," I think. There will be mutual disappointment in the way we "turned out."

Sometimes, I am tempted to reach out to them, to ask them how they survive the pressure of being women from (and often, still in) a rural, conservative world. To ask them what memories do they have of our time in school together, of our long-ago shared interests, of people, places, and events. But I cannot. I don't know them the way that I once did. Our shared past has been lost to the present separation for which we were long prepared. The divisions along lines of race and politics are simultaneously very much real and very much constructed inside of us.

And it is not a division that happens suddenly. I brought up Melissa because she was at the center of the dream I mentioned. When we were 17, we traveled to San Antonio for a national FHA meeting. Melissa had a nightmare one night in the room we shared with our advisor; I will never forget her screams.

She'd told me some time before that her mother had been sexually assaulted by a man that had broken into their home. Her mother had not cried out, because he'd threatened her children.

I knew, as a girl, what her nightmare was about, the awful feeling of having someone creep upon you while you're sleeping, the absolute terror of realizing that a place you thought was safe was not, the horror of sexual assault.

The man alleged to have raped her mother was black, and I'd heard another story as well: that Melissa's mother and the man had long had a clandestine relationship, that her mother said she was raped as a protective move after she and the man were discovered together by her husband.

I knew, even then, that women are often accused of lying about rape, that incidents of sexual assault are routinely dismissed on the basis of "she was aking for it" or "she'd had sex with him before, so why is it an issue?"

But (and I've written about this before here and can't find the damned post), I spent a lifetime hearing from my grandmothers and other black women how dangerous white women were to black men, how black men were lynched for consensual relationships, how white women blew through our communities and did whatever the hell they wanted with little regard for the effects.

And so I felt lost. I was not mature enough to understand that, what mattered, at that moment, was Melissa's perceptions, the ones that shaped her fears and escaped her as screams in the middle of a warm spring night. Instead, I lay in bed as our advisor comforted her, wanting to say something, not knowing what to say, to do, to think.

Feeling separated from her, from all the facets of who I am.

We never talked about that night. And, after we went to college, we did not talk about much of anything. We saw each other once, still too young to have forgotten our friendship, began to talk excitedly, simultaneously... then stopped.

The few times I've seen her since then have been appropriately stiff and polite. Small smiles, a quick press of fingers, a question about kids or jobs or the temperature that require only a sweet murmur as a response.

I wonder if she, too, has excised the memories of two girls debating which was the best clarinet reed, complaining about ill-fitting band uniforms, loving English class, pondering the future of R.E.M.

If she has, are they forever buried?

Or do they linger, come to her sometimes in the middle of the night when she least expects or wants them, separated from her by time and place and mores, yet still very much a part of her?


Anonymous said...

thank you for this post, elle. as usual, you are wonderful.

Giftie Etcetera said...

3rd grade. Rural Louisiana (St. James Parish, to be precise). The most wonderful girl was in my third grade class. She sat right behind me. I loved her humor and her smile. I was jealous because she had cute clothes. We gossiped about boys and passed notes.

My birthday came in January. I gave out invitations.

Having heard my relatives say black people were dirty, lazy, and gross. So I didn't give her an invitation. I thought my family would be mean to her, but even more, my 8 year old mind thought my family would be mean to ME if I invited her.

She cried at school when she wasn't invited.

I realized that I was the mean to her...and then I started to feel horrible.

It was already too late.

I wonder if she thinks about our friendship and how it ended. I wonder if she ever made white friends. I wonder if she knows how much she taught me, how much her pain taught me.

elle said...


LSMSA was the first place I learned that things could be different.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...