I’ve wanted to do interviews for a while here on Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake, and after a brief foray into spontaneous interviewing via Facebook chat with an old high school friend, April Aubrey, I am back at it with my first full-length interview.
I am interviewing another high school friend, Kym Williams. Kym and I went to Wilby High School in Waterbury, Connecticut from 1975 to 1979—gosh, I feel old looking at those dates. Wilby was a very integrated school at the time, with a nearly 40% black student body.
I can’t lie and say that Kym and I were close friends, or even friends that hung over each other’s houses after school. I knew Kym. I liked Kym. My memories of Kym include her skipping down the hallways of Wilby singing and wearing Mickey Mouse ears. See, Kym is about as obsessed with Mickey Mouse as I am with race relations. I remember Kym’s laugh, her wicked sense of humor.
I picture Kym in a white button down blouse, grey vest, and black flared pants, and some kind of scarf, or was it a man’s tie, her shoulder-length hair parted on the side, neatly pressed and curled under. Did you have this outfit, Kym? Because that’s the outfit I always picture high school you in.
I admired Kym a little from afar, and if I hadn’t been so shy in high school, perhaps I could have claimed her as a closer friend. I am so, so glad and grateful that we have reconnected through Facebook. Kym has been a faithful reader and supporter of my blog, and is the person that suggested I do interviews here. Because of that I wanted to honor Kym with the first WJSS full-interview. Here we go….
(Please note that the interview is from notes I took during our phone conversation, and is constructed from my notes, and memory.)
Wendy Jane: Hi Kym. You are the person that suggested I do interviews here on Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake. You suggested that I could get (black) people’s stories, like the woman who wrote The Help did. Well, I wanted to start by asking you about that. I haven’t read The Help or seen the movie, but I remember when the book and movie came out, I did hear some comments from the black community about how if the book had been written by a black woman, one of “the help” themselves, perhaps, that there would not have been as much of an interest, that Hollywood wouldn’t have made the movie, and that black voices aren’t recognized when they tell their own stories, use their own voice. And, so I start to feel guilty that here I come being the white voice that is telling the stories of black people—capitalizing, well I’m not capitalizing now on anything…but, I think you know what I mean. What do you think about this?
Kym: The story got out, the story got out. I don’t care who tells it—the story got out. It’s like how people talked about The Blindside.
WJ: Well, I think what I heard anyway, what black people’s problems with that was that the Sandra Bullock character was being portrayed as the Great White Hope, who helped the poor black kid—that perhaps it was patronizing, or stereotyping these roles.
Kym: What black person has the money to do that—to give him a better life? It didn’t matter who does it. If she had the capability to do it, why not? I don’t see what the big deal is.
WJ: So, is there anything wrong with me doing these interviews?
Kym: How would you know if you don’t come over and ask me? It’s simple. You can’t worry about how other people feel. Just worry about doing the work you do. You can’t please everyone.
WJ: Phew. OK, no more guilt. Okay, so first question. What is your earliest memory or realization that there was such a thing as race, or what it meant to be black?
Kym: To me, I didn’t really know. I just didn’t know true prejudice or hate until I worked at Peter & Paul (candy factory). When I lived in Bucks Hill, my neighbors, the Nelsons, were Italian. A few doors down was Doreen Sullivan–they were French Canadian. There was everybody there—Abigail Quinones, Susan Beamon, Mike Habrokovich, Denise Sullivan (people of diverse backgrounds we both went to high school with). We were all together.
WJ: Do you remember anyone saying anything about you being black, or even talking about difference of skin color when you were younger?
Kym: I don’t remember anyone saying anyone couldn’t play with me, or that I couldn’t go over their house. It could be more economic. I remember Cheryl Emanuel who lived down the street. They had a big house, and she had everything she wanted. It seemed like they had more money. When Cheryl had a birthday party, that was the place to have a party. Everyone was invited, and her parents were really nice.
WJ: Can you tell me a memory you have of working at the Peter & Paul Candy Factory?
Kym: I have so many stories. It’s sad. I remember Angela told Walter he had “monkey hands.” It was a factory. Sometimes I wore rollers in my hair because sometimes we’d go out right from work. Why should I mess with my hair—some days I wore bandanas. They’d say, “You look like Aunt Jemima.”
WJ: Did they think they were joking?
Kym: They didn’t think they were being funny. They didn’t know any better. I also remember one of the bosses would buy the same perfume every year for his wife. He’d give money to one of the girls (who was white) to go buy the perfume because he said he wouldn’t go to Waterbury. (too many black people)
It was a gender thing, too. It was male-dominated. I was black, and a woman. I remember one day, making a suggestion, saying, “do it this way.” The male worker said, “no, we’re doing it my way.”
They’d also say things like “all black girls have an attitude.” One white girl whose boyfriend was black, and the father of her kids, said that that’s the reason all black guys date white women—because all black girls have an attitude. She thought her kids were better, too, because they were part white. I knew better. I knew if the cop pulled over one of her kids , the cop doesn’t care if they’re part white. I knew another girl though who was white and her husband was black, and her kids looked black. She kept those kids under her wrap, raised them all to be gentlemen. She did that all by herself.
I had some good friends there, too, though. I am the black friend!
WJ: (laughs) Oh, so you get to play the role of the black friend a lot?
Kym: Yes, You feel you play that role sometimes. My friends have been a mix–black, white, old, young, straight, and for awhile I was hanging out with gay hispanic and black men, and a gay black woman.
WJ: I’ve heard, not sure if it’s true, that the black community has a hard time accepting homosexuality. Not that the white community is always accepting either by any means.
Kym: Yeah, it’s hard being gay, and being black. It’s hard for someone to be a gay black woman, and I think that’s why so many men in the black community are on the DL.
WJ: How did you feel about your co-workers?
Kym: Sometimes I felt sorry for them because they don’t have a clue to understanding or enjoying another culture. There’s something nice about participating in another culture—the food, music, the different personalities. Sometimes I enjoy at the job I have now…there’s this young Yugoslavian guy who delivers pizza to us. We talk about music. Now, I like any kind of music but hard rap. He plays his music—R & B, and I play mine—things like Queen. That’s the beauty of it. We’re older, too, than him—like his mother. But he’s well-rounded. He takes the time to listen to the music. He was going to show us a dance from his country, but he had to leave. The others that don’t want to know anything—they’re missing out—it’s the not wanting to know that gets me.
WJ: Have you heard of the school cafeteria phenomenon of how kids might mix racially while in high school hallways and all, but once you get to the lunchroom, it’s self-segregating. I do have that picture of my mind of Wilby pretty much being like that—that we were really integrated during class and in-between, but once lunchtime came, most of the black kids sat with black kids, white kids sat with white kids, and Puerto Rican kids sat with Puerto Rican kids. Do you think we live integrated or segregated lives once we’re out of school or work?
Kym: I don’t remember lunch tables being segregated. I do think once we’re out of work we go back to our own groups. One of the girls I hang with, most of her friends are white. When I go to a baby shower, or things like that, I am usually the one black person there.
WJ: Are you always conscious of that? Of noticing that you are the only black person there?
Kym: It’s nothing negative. People don’t treat me badly, or….
WJ; Yes, I didn’t mean that, but just being conscious of being in the minority often—having to notice that.
Kym: I do remember one time (back when working at the factory), I went to a company party. It wasn’t about race, really, more about class. That was hilarious. A girl I worked with, who was from the office who was black and married to a white guy—we all went to the party together. Another woman, who was white and who worked in the upper offices, came up to us and asked what department we worked in. My friend and I said, “factory.” She walked away fast. We laughed. It was funny. We howled. We were no good together.
WJ: You were able to laugh it off, but was there any part of you that was mad or hurt by it?
Kym: I’m not gonna get mad. She’s entitled to her opinion. Her loss, not getting to know two wonderful personalities.
WJ: Do you think people should strive to live more intermingled lives–live in more mixed neighborhoods, socialize more together–or is that not important, something that would seem forced. What are your thoughts/feelings on this?
Kym: If I or we had the money, I would move to a mostly mixed neighborhood that had a better income level…. I say that because I believe that when people work hard for their money they care more about the area in which they live, and the people around them. I miss living in my house. There it was mixed, but everyone cared about the street. I hate where I live now. I’m here because of my lower income, and here no one cares…….I would like to live in an over 55 Community…..some peace and quiet!
WJ: Well, I’m finally getting to the question you thought was the only one I was calling you about. You posted an article on Facebook about a neighborhood school in Brooklyn where re-zoning might change the demographics of who gets to go to the school. This news seemed to cause an uproar among mostly white parents who can afford to live in the neighborhood of the school, and who are worried about losing their privilege to automatically have their children attend it. I wanted to know what your feelings were about this action and response?
Kym: Why are we still here, stuck into the same things? Money and the color of skin dictates what goes on.
Every parent wants to educate their children. Some don’t care, but for those that do, let’s have good schools for all. Some kids don’t even have books. Waterbury (where we grew up) kids aren’t given books because they’re worried they’ll destroy them. Make the kids and the parents responsible. When I heard the parents in that article say this is the reason they moved here, because of the area and the good school, some that lived in the area for sometime their kids also go there (race), but because of over-crowding. that area wants to move the kids (with money) to another school, and they don’t want to hear that…..they think the other kids should go.
The one thing I think I did wrong back then was, if I didn’t know the parents of his friends, I didn’t let him go over their house. I told him if something goes down, you’re gonna be the one blamed—the black kid. He wasn’t allowed to go over his friends’ houses until his junior year. It happens—a black male is blamed for something he didn’t do.
But Desmond was the good kid. He didn’t care about being one of the cool kids. He was the kind of kid that other parents wanted their kids to hang around with because he was a good kid. Some of the Wilby kids used to tell their parents they were out with Desmond so they wouldn’t think they were getting into trouble. After a few times of me hearing they were doing that, I didn’t allow him to hang around those kids anymore. All these “cool kids”, they’re 23 years old, they have kids now. Desmond is doing well. He works in a group home for people with developmental disabilities, and is a deejay. I don’t know if I said this to you but I made him volunteer and give back to the community, too. I did it, and he did it with me. That’s why I believe he likes his job, because he is helping people who can’t help themselves.
WJ: (Here I stumbled over my words trying to get the question out.) I know I can’t lump all black people into one group and think they feel and think the same way, just like I can’t lump all white people together in one group either. But, if there is anything you’d want white people to know about black people, something you think we don’t “get” or understand, what would it be?
Kym: We’re all human. In every family there is one person—the one that’s a drug addict, the brainiac, the rich one, the poor one…but don’t judge us all by one—don’t say we’re all lazy. And, I don’t want my son to be judged as a black male gangster. I hate to be judged by the color of my skin. Hate me, but have a reason to hate me. Don’t judge me when you don’t know who I am. I know who I am. Every one of us is human.
WJ: Thank you Kym so very much for your time, and your thoughtful answers and conversation. I appreciate you taking the time, and for allowing me to share your interview on Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake.
Kym: You’re welcome. Thank you for listening.
I had an epiphany, if Jewish people are even allowed to have those, a few days after the interview. I still pondered, worried really, about the whole idea of me being the white person giving voice to the stories of black people. Then it hit me. I am not the giver of voice, nor do I want to be.
Some months ago when the movie The Help came out, there was a thread on Facebook, led by a black author that spoke to the lack of black voices being able to be heard when they tell their own stories. I interjected along the thread, and was met by a woman who was black and seemed very angry over my sentiments. She stated that she didn’t need a white person to give voice to her or any black person. I felt wounded, even though my friend who started the thread stuck up for me.
It is not that I am giving voice. I am not. I am reaching out. Kym and I are having a conversation. She is black. I am white. We are talking about race. We are talking about life. Still, in this day and age, our lives can be very segregated. I always feel richer when I reach across color and cultural lines and connect with someone different from me. Different, but the same. Like Kym said, every one of us is human. And, I am thankful for all of the connections that I make with every human being that I am lucky enough to cross paths with.