When I about eight I started hanging out with black girls a bit. They were about the only girls I ran with until I was in high school. I’d just saunter down to the slave quarters and help them comb cotton.
Sorry. I never know how far the whole “southerners are all racists” thing goes, but I run into it more than the “blondes are all dumb” thing.
Actually I first noticed these gals because of their jump-roping games. The guys I knew sometimes got tired of my showing them up, or went into “No Girlz” phases, and I’d look around at recess and the only thing that looked like fun was these Negro chicks over there dusting up with ropes like it was a combination of dancing, Afro ritual, martial art and eggbeating. Nothing like my sisters’ rope tricks, to say the least. I would watch them awhile, then go try to get into a boys dodgeball game, but I was impressed. Style and sass. I remember seeing this girl I got to be pretty tight with later skipping down the hall in cutoff overalls. She’d unclipped the straps and was spinning them around as she moved, like the jump rope moves. It just looked really cool and I wanted to bop around that way myself. So I started moving in on their group. Not that easy. Harder than the usual clique.
For one thing, they thought I was wack to play with boys all the time. They pretty universally thought boys were a total waste and mean to boot. And I found out they were kind of right. The black boys were worse to girls than the white boys were. For another thing, I was, you know… white. Super white, actually. On the other hand, I was poor like most of them. And had some moves. You know, for a white chick. I remember moseying up beside where two of the ringleaders were inside two spinning ropes, getting the full hot sauce cadence, the ropes slapping the playground asphalt so fast it sounded like a sewing machine. I was dancing right beside them, doing the same moves, same tempo. Everybody started laughing and gave me a shot. I had to be the first blonde ever to do the pepper stepper around those parts. So I got to hang out. Eventually it was like I’d play ball with the boys at recess, but eat with the black chicks at lunch. No boys allowed at that table. And no other white girls. Not that anybody else was dying to sit there. Just one more weird thing Cammy May was into, I guess they figured.
My cousins were pretty scandalized, and couldn’t wait to tell Auntie Beulah about me being a race traitor. And for those who cherish the ideas of us grits being racists, I offer up my Auntie. I think she was actually just kind of down on everybody and looking for a line to draw to keep them out, and being a different color was really convenient. She was an unreconstructed hater all the way and gave me a couple of talkings-to about hanging out with that nigger trash and the horrors sure to come of it. Since we were living on her grudging family duty and paper-thin hospitality at the time, I took it meekly enough but kept on hanging with the “darkies” as she put it, anyway. I had a few equally ominous chats with my cousins about the matter and they agreed not to snitch me out any more, and thus not suffer all sorts of indignities and pain. Like charity, bullying starts at home.
The main wheels in the black girl clique were three sisters, two of them twins. They all had older sisters, like I did, but the older you got the more mixing went on. As soon as you got old enough for sports any sort of integration got to be really pointless. I remember thinking one time that all they would have needed to do was integrate athletic teams back in the forties and fifties and you’d have seen racism melting away. Playing with kids of other races and background doesn’t just force you to get along, it models getting along. You step out on the court and the only thing that matters is can you score over this girl, can you block her out of the key. And the respect you derive on people tends to rub off on the rest of your life. It’s hard to learn to know exactly where somebody will be if you pass behind you without looking or trust them to have your back when you drive in past some elbow-throwing ogre, and not trust them when you’re around them in school. You get used to the way they talk, the way they interact, the way they smell, the way the move.
But anyway, these were classic black chicks. For one thing the twins were named LaMarylis and Tremonisha. The other girl had some stupid African name nobody could say with a straight face, so we called her Mazola. And the twins Tree and LaMa. They called me Camo because I used to wear these lame camouflage shorts some guy gave Flora Lee and she grew out of. I used to hang out at their homes, sometimes eat dinner over there. The twin’s family was just great. The mellowest, laughingest, sweetest family I ever knew.
“Mazola” had a dad who taught in the Catholic high school and her family was kind of intellectual and reserved. I think they thought it was nice of her to bring me around because it showed kindness towards the less fortunate. It think they thought I was some retarded ruffian. So of course I played the part. I loved asking stupid questions and having her folks educate me in modulated tones while Maz rolled her eyes. She had to learn how to talk like a black person, she told me.
Maz had a lot of athletic ability and was tall and slim and ended up being a killer point guard, went to State. It was fun running around with her because I was so fair and pinky/white and she was about as black as you can get without somebody grabbing you and tarring a roof with you. We were always cooking up how black she was, better than Yo Mama jokes. “Maz black as the ass of spades.” “Black as a burnt down nunnery.” “Black as a bible in Harlem.” As inside a Doberman, as a math teacher’s heart, as a box of deacons, as a widow’s tampon.
My personal savior for awhile was Tree’s older sister, Monique. Who got called Eek. She was the single coolest person I ever knew. She must have been about fifteen, but I saw her as being an adult female role model, which was somewhat lacking in my own family. If I’d thought I’d turn out like my Aunties or Mama, I’d have thrown myself under a peanut picker and perished. She wasn’t so much pretty as HOT. She exuded hotness and sexual sophistication. If you wanted to know something nobody else would clue you in on, you’d go to her and she’d explain about getting hair on your pussy (and show you, too), or how to deal with dudes, or what “getting all wet” meant, or who were the cool singers, could you really get babies in you from those little drippy things boys had, or how to get guys to pay for your movie tickets. Once she figured I was around enough to be part of her scene she looked me over and told me I desperately needed getting “nigrized”.
Which had the predictable lack of success, but created a look that just blew my little doors off. But nothing compared to the blowing off that took place when I vogued into Auntie’s trailer with my hair in Bo Derek cornrows, my sweatshirt torn to hang off one shoulder, and my fingers tipped with gleaming gold Bruce Lee nails. She went into orbit, touched the sky, didn’t come down til the Fourth of July. She un-re-do’ed my do with, it felt like, rakes and sling blades. I clenched my fists so hard to keep her from snicking off my claws with kitchen sheers that I had these little moon arcs of blood in my palms. I went from nigrized to honkiated in about fifteen terrifying minutes. Turns out that you CAN go back after going black. Not really though. I remained partial to black chicks most of my life, the few girls in professions that I hang with tend to be of that persuasion.
Once I got invited down to the lake with the twins’ family. It was kind of odd because I never really noticed it before, but there was black ghetto at the lake. There were nice little cottages full of white folks, and down the lake a ways was another clump of somewhat shabbier vacation houses that were all black-owned. (Guess which was more fun and had better music?) It seemed weird to me because it was already the nineties and segregation was long gone. I figured out a way to casually ask LaMa about it, but her father answered for her. It turned out what I was seeing was an artifact. Back in The Day, that was The Way. You had your white beach and your black beach. White folk over there water-skiing, black folk over here fishing for bass. But just passing a law doesn’t make everybody rush out and sell their cottage and go buy another one. And people still feel more comfortable around their own kind of folks. A lesson.
But not as big as the lesson I got when I invited Mazola to come to church with me. More on that next week.