Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Through the Back Door

I've met a number of people because of my book. Some I have met at readings, and in a post-to-come I will tell about some of them and the stories they have told me. Others I have met via email--that is, people who have written after or while reading my novel because they have been moved by it or appreciated it or wanted to point out errors. One of the people who wrote to me (who signs in here as rasirds) lived for many years in Detroit (but does no longer) and has become a regular reader and commenter on this blog, and I thank you/her very much for your/her interest and participation. 
     Another person who emailed me, Marcy Feldman, still lives in the Detroit area and is planning to host a book event for me when I visit in November. She is an extremely dynamic and socially conscious person, and she heads an alumni association of people who attended her Detroit elementary school. This group raises money and provides many other kinds of much-needed enrichments and services to the students and families of this neighborhood school.
     One of the benefits of heading this alumni association is that Marcy has managed to keep in touch with many people from her past and get to know them as adults. Which leads to the subject of the post: the back door.
     Through Marcy, I heard this story from Lynn, a member of the alumni association who no longer lives in Detroit. Lynn kindly gave permission for me to retell it.
     When Lynn, who is African American, was a little girl, a Jewish friend of hers (let's call her X) invited Lynn to come over after school to work on a school project. As Lynn and X came up X's walk, however, an African-American woman--the "maid"--appeared at the front door.  She studied Lynn very carefully, held the door open for X, then turned her attention to Lynn and said, "Where you think you goin'? You need to go to the back door."
     Here's what Lynn says: "Later that evening when I was dropped at my house, my mom was anxiously waiting to hear about my first study date.  I told her what happened, and still today, I can remember the look of pain and horror on her face."

We can only imagine what X made of this. And we can only wonder whether X's mother knew about this, and if she did, what she would have said. And we can only imagine the damage that must have been done to the "maid" and/or her fears about her job and/or her place in the home of X's family to inflict this kind of treatment and humiliation on a little girl who had been invited to this home. And, certainly, we can all quietly sit with our own painful musings about the impact of this incident on Lynn all those years ago. 
     Because Marcy has rallied her fellow alumni, she has also had the privilege to revive this relationship with Lynn, and the two women have made it possible for me to tell you this story. In a follow-up email, Lynn said that she thought this must have been a very common experience for African-American children. This makes me realize how little I knew about the many black children (we used the label Negro back then) I went to school with and what I might hear if any of them stepped through time into my current life.

4 comments: said...

Fourteen busloads of my Detroit Mumford High School 1959 graduating class, approximately 600 of us, trooped into a Washington DC restaurant. Three members of our class were African-American, one of them our class vice-president, and a passenger on our bus. The restaurant owner approached the shepherding adults to tell them, "the Black students eat in the kitchen."

We all screamed and pounded our way out, but getting back on the bus with our vice-president was as awful as one might imagine.

Back up to 1944. My mother and her small child, (me), were traveling by train from Louisiana to Chicago in route to Detroit. The train was filled by returning soldiers, many of them drunk with the relief of coming home.

My mother, tired from travel, found an empty car and we gladly plopped down on the uncomfortable velvet seat. Minutes later the African-American conductor stopped at our seat.

"M'am, you can't sit in this car," he said. "This is the colored car."

My mother assured him she did not care about the color of other passengers and reminded him that the train was empty. (African-Americans from Louisiana could not afford train travel.)

"Yes, m'am," he said, "But you can't sit here. This car is for colored folks only."

I didn't know about discrimination, but I did know that for some strange reason we would have to step over and around all the soldiers again and hope that one of them would give us a seat in another crowded, beer smelling car.

None of this made sense to me. It still does not.

Thank you for allowing us to comment about diversity and how its negativity has affected us. We must hope that diversity will become the advantage we have all earned.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, Rasirds. Lots of stories to be told . . .

Jim Poznak said...

Susan, thank you for making space for these important memories.

Susan Messer said...

thank you for making space to read them and comment--even from a distant location.