The Shreveport I grew up in was extremely hot and fairly oppressive. Perhaps you grew up in a similar place. It doesn’t mean that positive things weren’t happening; that slow change wasn’t underway. Just like anywhere, Shreveport was filled with many wonderful people with good intentions. There was, literally, a church on every corner — preaching love and acceptance– yet the racial divide was so pronounced even in the 1980s that my 70% Caucasian high school elected a Caucasian set and an African-American set of class favorites. Two sets for each grade. Also, girls like me were insidiously discouraged from playing high school sports. That was what the tough African-American girls did. They made up the softball and basketball team with a token Caucasian mixed in. Those token girls were considered unladylike. They were immediately labeled. In fact, all the types of people one could be were rigidly defined. And they labeled you; you were rarely granted the option of labeling yourself.
One time in 5th grade, I played with three African-American boys at recess. Afterwards, my blond teacher pulled me aside to ask if there was a problem. “Did they
hurt you?” she asked, her concerned eyes probing over me. I stared at her, wide eyed, ponytails baking, thinking, why is she asking me this? As I matured, there were many times when I questioned the logic and fairness of it all. Like the time, in 1985, when I experienced my first college rush week. As a member of the sorority, I was expected to help decide which new hopefuls would be invited to join our sisterhood. Slides of each girl were projected onto the wall as we discussed whether she was a good fit or not. When a picture of the one African-American girl brave enough to try made the wall, I was shocked at the comments. It was decided that, even though she was one of the nicest, smartest applicants, we couldn’t possibly allow her to join. We would become the black
sorority. That’s how it starts and there would be no turning back.
I dropped out of the sorority the following week. The sisters were furious; you just don’t drop out, they said. It was unthinkable, down-right rude, a slap in the face to my sisters. So then I had one more label to put with all the rest I’d collected. Looking back, I think leaving that particular sisterhood was one of the most honorable things I did as a young person. I wish now that I’d done more.
Now, from Philadelphia, I see my hometown in movies, splashed across the big screen in my basement. I see the pine trees, the old high school on Line Avenue, Barksdale Air Force Base, and the Texas Street Bridge filled with movie stars and drama. Now, I drive my eight-year-old daughter to soccer and basketball practice, and wait for her to attend a high school that doesn’t have class favorites. Where teenagers, like my oldest daughter, now in college, open their mouths in disbelief at the prejudice of having two sets of anything based on race; at the insidious ways in which adults, even teachers, taught prejudice; and how, not so long ago, nice people got the quick boot simply because their skin was just too dark.
I ask myself if I really want to go home at all, and the answer is always yes, yes, yes. Take me back, if only for a day, to see what made me who I am, that stifling heat and insidious injustice that formed my strong heart, that ripped it open so many times, knocked me down, and resisted as I pulled myself up. That gave me an appreciation of pain and hardship, oppression, and mercy. I wish I could go back and right the wrongs that surrounded me, and appreciate the many positives. I wish I could go back and right the wrongs I created. But I can’t go back there; I can’t get home. Now I can only write about it, and hope that what I have to say has value.
I wonder what happened to the rejected sorority hopeful. I wonder if she lives in the new and improved Hollywood South.
Hilary, Obama, and the Little Seedling (Jan 2008)
Sleeping with Deuce Bigalow (Nov 2007)