Memoir

What I Did For An “A”

 

1980. It’s my first year at a small all-girls (what was I thinking?) college just outside of Boston—quaint, with dorms refashioned from large Victorian homes. It was just a short ride on the T into the city, yet the school setting seemed worlds away from Boston’s intense racial tensions I had read about in the newspaper, and seen on television back then. There was a major rift, and there had been riots between the all-white, Irish Catholic neighborhood of South Boston whose residents strongly protested the busing of black students from the all-black neighborhood of Roxbury. Rodney King hadn’t happened yet, but still at eighteen, I wondered, “Couldn’t we all just get along?”

When we were assigned to write an essay in my freshman English class, I decided I’d take a stand and write about race relations. I wrote about growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut and how in my very integrated high school, everyone pretty much got along. I asked how come that couldn’t happen in Boston, too. Shortly after my essay was turned in, I sat alone after class one day with my professor to discuss it.

“Wendy, I think you did a good job on your essay. You speak up on behalf of race relations between blacks and whites, and note examples of the friendships you had in high school with students who were black.” The professor, in his brown, preppy, corduroy jacket, looked serious, thoughtful, as he continued. “However, I want to ask you to answer the question of whether you ever have, or ever would date a black person, and explore that as part of your desire to speak up on race relations, ” he challenged me.

I left class wondering what the professor’s motives were. I was just eighteen years old, and not so sophisticated. My mind started racing, and I worried about what I should do. I did have a boyfriend back home in Connecticut who was black.

I thought to myself, well, maybe my white, Bostonian English professor is prejudiced against black people. If I wrote that I would date a black person, then maybe I would get a bad grade. Or, even worse I thought, was that he would take my dating a black person as the reason why I was so pro-black. I would be a “N” lover, a white girl who only goes out with black guys, whose intellect and whole belief system wouldn’t be worth two cents. This is what went through my head, and I copped out.

I edited my essay, and wrote that although I didn’t think there was anything wrong with interracial dating, I thought I probably wouldn’t date a black person because of the difficult societal pressures that we would probably experience. I went on to name the imagined, though I really did experience them, scenarios of people staring and making derogatory comments on the street or in restaurants: “Salt and pepper don’t mix.” Of white girlfriends asking, “How could you go out with a black person, you’re too good for that!” Only they didn’t say “black person,” they used the “N” word. Of my white guy friends half-teasing, half-serious warnings, “Once you go black, you never go back.” Of black girls looking at me with narrow eyes, and letting my boyfriend know he was no good for having to go outside his race to date a white girl. No, not me, I couldn’t deal with that, and it was best I didn’t date a black person, even though I personally saw nothing wrong with it.

I turned in my revised essay. I’m pretty sure I got a good grade on it. The teacher even commented in another of those after-class discussions that it was probably a wise decision I was making to not date a person outside of my race, because of the difficulty society has with it. I wondered whether he really meant it, or if he knew I had wimped out, and could see through my lies on the page. I alternately wondered if he was glad; relieved that I would stick with my own race.

My boyfriend came to visit me in school soon after this, and I proudly gave him the essay to read when we were in my dorm room. Once it was in his hands I remembered about the revisions, and tried to tear the paper away from him before he would get to the page where I erased our relationship from my life, but it was too late. He wouldn’t let go of the paper, and kept on reading.

When he finished, he paused, then looked up at me from the bed, and said with a big grin on his face, “I’m glad you had the good sense to never date a black guy.”

I was no longer proud of taking a stand on weakened knees.

We didn’t break up over that—our break-up had more to do with his being conflicted about his religion—he was a Jehovah’s Witness-I was a Jewish girl. He wanted to marry a good, Jehovah Witness girl, not someone like me, who at the time, smoked cigarettes and drank too much.

But, that’s beside the point. Today, while I can forgive myself for being young, naive, and impressionable, I still wish I had told the truth in that essay. I wonder what my grade would have been.

I now know that the grade wouldn’t have mattered.

9 Responses to “Memoir”

  1. April February 26, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    If I weren’t white and gay, I would marry you. Oh yeah, and Catholic! WOW. I really loved this story Wendy. People don’t realize how difficult it was to be openminded and progressive “back in the day before it was cool”. We got it from both sides, and so did my daughter might I add. I have to give her a lot of respect for maintaining her dignity throughout her childhood. Having a gay, white, catholic mother never became her alibi for seedy behavior. I distinctly remember my first black girlfriend of four years, going militant on me when it was over, instead of just saying she was tired. Her “new friend” was aghast that she had shared four years of her life, living with a white woman. I can still feel the pain from back then. Keep up the good work, Wendy.

    • Wendy Jane February 26, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Hi April,

      I’m flattered:) Thanks so much for your comment. It was harder back then I think, with the civil rights era right on our heels. It’s interesting to think of how your daughter grew up–It shows you were a super mother that gave her the love and security she needed to have the dignity she had. I’m sorry for the experience you had with your girlfriend. I suppose we grow from it, even if it is painful growth. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  2. sarah February 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    Nice essay Dubs (can I call you that here?). Ah yes, all that chatter from people we once considered friends. I remember the same comments, stares, feelings when I decided to go to the prom with Earl, and my own conflicted feelings about racism. Would I have gone with Earl if he had been darker skinned? Would I have gone with him if I had had the courage to ask Miriam?

    I remember how cool everyone seemed with me being one of the few white kids on the bball team, hanging with the black kids, talking trash on the court, being in with the crowd, until Prom. “what you doing stealing our man?”, “nigger lover”, etc. And how come the lunch room was still incredibly segregrated? rarely crossed race lines at lunch…

    • Wendy Jane February 28, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

      Hi Sar,

      Sure you can call me that:) Thanks for sharing your memories here. I didn’t know that you got flack for going to the prom with Earl–if only they knew you really didn’t want to steal their man:) I also like your honesty as you question whether you would have gone to the prom with Earl if he had been dark-skinned–there’s so much complexity in the light-skin/dark-skin issue for whites and blacks. And, yes the cafeteria tables–there is much written about that, and….tomorrow’s post asks a question about just that.

      Again, thanks for reading and sharing.

  3. Teri June 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    There is a powerful statement here Wendy…or a question rather, ” Do we, stand up for who we are authentically in the classroom even with the consequences of a bad grade?” Imagine how many students have done this in the past, and possibly started to believe this was the “right” way of thinking because it was what our professors wanted for us. I too, dated a black guy 15 years after your experience. I dealt with some of the same nonsense from my peers, and some family members. I too, wrote about my experience in a interracial relationship while in graduate school for a course called; ” Power, Privilege and Oppression.” I spoke the truth no matter what my professor thought or wanted to hear. Finally, in 2010, I was proud of my younger self to have loved no matter what color and what people said. I did get an “A” on that paper. Like you said,the grade did not matter… Thanks Wendy for this memoir.

    • Wendy Jane June 17, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

      Teri,

      Thanks so much for reading and for your very thoughtful comments. I certainly regret not writing my truth back then. In hindsight, knowing myself now, it’s almost hard to believe that I just didn’t write that, “yeah, I date men who are black, too..”

      I hope that there aren’t too many students who write what the professor wants to hear, which like you say, can be dangerous for a young mind-leading us to please others, and not stand up for who we are. I’m glad that you were able to write about your interracial relationship in grad school without worrying about what your professor thought, and that you got your “A,” too.:)

      Again, thanks so much for sharing your experience here with me and other WJSS readers.

  4. Gigi January 16, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

    I finally took the time to explore your blog. You are such a smooth and raw writer. I appreciate you teaching tolerance, especially on such a delicate subject being race. I mostly appreciate your views on interracial love, (not because I’m biased being in a interracial marriage) but because your views are explosive, blowing up the barriers and expressing the beauty of it. The beauty in my perspective, is being with anyone despite societal views. Especially with the new heat of race in the country. Thanks Wendy!

    • Wendy Jane January 16, 2016 at 9:14 pm #

      Gigi,

      Thank you so very much for taking time to explore WJSS. I truly appreciate your kind words and I loved hearing what you took in from reading some of the pieces. What you say about love and interracial relationships is beautiful, too. Seeing you the other day reminded me that I still need to sit down with you and hear more about your wedding and your relationship, so that I can feature it here in a post.

      Thank you again for stopping by here,
      Wendy

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