An apartment on the Upper West Side. Shared by two interracial roommates. It’s the year of ‘the human being’. The year of race-creed-color blindness. It’s 1963. One roommate (‘white’) is a Harlem community organizer, working out of a storefront on Lenox Avenue. She is twenty-two and fresh out of Sarah Lawrence. She is twenty-two and in love with a young Umbra poet (among whom in later life such great names as Imamu Baraka and Ishmael Reed will be counted the most illustrious members). The other roommate (‘negro’) has just surfaced from the jail cells of Albany, Georgia. She is twenty-one and the only ‘negro’ in her graduating class. She is in love with a young, defiant freedom rider (‘white’) who has just had his jaw dislocated in a Mississippi jail. He is sitting with her at the breakfast table, his mouth wired for sound.
Among those who pass in and out of this interracial mecca: a photographer (‘negro’) who in a desperate moment just rifled their typewriter and headed towards the nearest pawnshop; a young, vital heroin addict (‘negro’) off the streets of Harlem whose constant companion is the nubile Sarah Lawrence girl (‘white’); the Umbra poet (‘negro’) who is drinking coffee in the front room and reading a verse called ‘June Bug!’; an assortment of bright-eyed women (‘white’) fresh from a prayer vigil on the steps of our nation’s Capitol; a few rebellious-looking women (‘negro’) en route to Itta Bena, Mississippi, to renounce their Northern bourgeois heritage. Idealism came back in style. People got along for a while. Inside the melting pot. Inside the melting pot.
It’s summer. The ‘negro’ roommate and her young ‘white’ lover are considering marriage. In a while, she’ll take him to the hospital to meet her father (a stroke victim from an overdose of idealism). In a while, her short white lover with the overhung lip (so that he stuttered slightly) will confront the gray-haired distinction of New Jersey’s first ‘colored’ principal. (‘I love you,’ he said . . . her lover, that is . . . ‘I want to be a Negro for you,’ he said . . .) Her father will fix his deep gray bourgeois eyes on her and not move a muscle.
It’s summer. The Sarah Lawrence graduate is listening to her Umbra poet. He is dark and quiet, and his eyes dart back and forth across her face while he reads. The apartment is growing dusky (and dusty). Later the coterie will prepare to attend a rent-strike meeting in Harlem, or a fundraising benefit for SNCC, or a voter registration meeting in Newark, New Jersey.
We are in the year of racial, religious, and ethnic mildew. ‘Negro’ families in Montclair, New Jersey; Brookfield, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Mount Vernon, New York; Washington, DC – the hidden enclaves of the Black Bourgeoisie (a book that will be taken down from the dusty shelves of some obscure small-town library and soon issued in paperback, causing the fortunes of an obscure ‘negro’ sociologist to rise) – will see their children abandon a lifetime of de-ghettoizing. Their sons will go to jail for freedom (which in their parents’ minds is no different than going to jail for armed robbery, heroin addiction, pimping, and other assorted ethnic hustles). Their daughters will kneel in prayer on the dusty red-clay roads of Georgia, as if the neat velvet pews of the Episcopal Church had never been their first encounter with religion. The ‘First Coloreds’ in medicine, law, politics, baseball, education, engineering, basketball, biochemical research, the armed services, tennis and film production will all be asked to come forward and speak about their success. Ralph Bunche will become a household name. Everyone who is anyone will find at least one ‘negro’ to bring along home for dinner. It’s the year of ‘the human being’. It’s 1963: whatever happened to interracial love?
In our Upper West Side apartment our young (‘negro’) roommate has just come back from the hospital with her freedom rider. She is ashamed and strangely depressed. The bleak look in her father’s eyes was not reassuring. He could not move a muscle, yet he seemed to be saying, ‘Is it for this that I fought and struggled all these years, for this, this indecent commingling?’ He does not seem to understand the shape of the world to come. He does not seem to understand that this young, colored woman he has spawned does not, herself, believe in color: that to her the young freedom rider of her dreams is colorless (as indeed he is), that their feelings begin where color ends (as indeed they must), that if only he could understand that race as an issue, race as a social factor, race as a political or economic stumbling block, race is part of the past. Can’t he see that love is color-free? She is close to tears. The gray, bourgeois eyes remain fixed in her mind.
Her lover sits dejectedly in the sunless room (when they took the apartment, she chose the back bedroom just off the foyer, thinking it would provide her greater privacy. It does, but it is also without light and by the end of her time there she will discover that almost all her unhappiness stemmed from that dark and dusky corridor she called her room. It was only sunlight she needed. Pure, delicious sunlight flooding through a room). He is thinking about his parents, about his stern Bostonian upbringing. His father will not even venture to meet the girl he has chosen to marry. His mother will only agree to a secret rendezvous in some out-of-the-way Boston restaurant. How can he bring his father to an understanding of what it feels like to be beaten to a pulp? Teeth mashed in, jaw dislocated, nose rearranged, stomach pulpy. And all for freedom. All for the ‘negroes’ of this land we call America. It is imperative that his father understand that he has not been betrayed, that he, the son, is in fact trying to fulfill the father’s dream, that dream that he, the father, believes in deep, deep down. Somewhere way deep down. He, the son. It’s 1963: we’re in the year of prophetic fulfillment. The last revival meeting is at hand, where the sons took up the cross of the fathers. White sons went forth to the dirt roads of Georgia and Alabama to prove to their fathers that the melting pot could still melt. ‘Negro’ sons went forth to the Woolworths and Grants and Greyhounds of America to prove to their fathers that they could eat and sit and ride as well in the front as in the back, as well seated as standing.
Her lover sits in the sunless room feeling dejected. Soon he is to return to the cotton fields for some more ‘grassroots organizing’. His Boston accent flirts with the edges of a Southern drawl. His white face floats in a sea of black protest. It is a time that calls forth the most picturesque of metaphors, for we are swimming along in the mythical underbelly of America . . . there where it is soft and prickly, where you may rub your nose against the grainy sands of illusion and come up bleeding.
Our young lover (‘white’), upon his return, will land in jail a second time, where he will refuse to post bail, refuse to eat, refuse to keep his mouth shut until he is again beaten into irrational silence, his mouth once more wired for sound. His father does not come to his aid. His mother begs him to use the enclosed check and come home. His (‘negro’) lady writes him poetic letters from her Upper West Side apartment with here and there a little Emily Dickinson for encouragement (‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’) and a little Edna St Vincent Millay when a more elegiac mood reigns (‘if I should learn in some quite casual way that you were gone, never to return again’). They will pass the winter in this desultory fashion.
The (‘negro’) roommate takes refuge in her sunless room. In the face of her father’s paralytic sternness, in the face of her lover’s imprisonment, she sits, sips tea, and relives the ‘negro’ void of her college years (what was it like to be the only one????).
She recalls her father’s freshman admonition on how to avoid the roommate problem (EEEEK!!!! There’s a ‘negro’ in my room!!!): always request a single. She remembers each one of those singles – one for every year. Though she was never lonely. They made her class president (for freshman openers), then honor board representative (for sophomore encores), then class-something-or-other the year after that . . . she was sure she was one of them, until that fateful day THE SIT-INS STARTED and she began to wonder why, in fact, she was so privileged when, according to THE SIT-INNERS (who came in droves to lecture at every near-white institution in the country), many of the members of her race (they were still a long way away from being ‘her people’) were living in poverty and despair, deprived even of the right to vote, a basic American right. Yet they were Americans, just as she herself was an American. So at Easter time she announced to her father (who had not yet had his stroke) that she would be going South that summer to work as a voter registration worker, that she would be going South that summer to find out once and for all what it was like to be a ‘negro’.
And that summer had brought her one startling and overwhelming realization: that she could marry anyone, not just a colored doctor-dentist-lawyer-educator, but anyone: a Mexican truck driver. A Japanese psychiatrist. A South African journalist. Anyone. Up to and including a white man. This was the ripest fruit from a summer spent picking cotton and cucumbers, and taking sun baths in Mama Dolly’s chicken yard with another ‘negro’ friend who was also escaping her bourgeois past. They were turning themselves into earth women, black (the word surfaces!) women of the soil, in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature, in harmony with the Southern earth of their ancestry, and the deep Southern sky, and the moody Southern stars.
It was there that she met her young lover (‘white’) who shared their bare existence of cornbread and chitterlings, while together they combed the hot dirt roads pleading with folks to come out and vote, come out and be shot, come out and lay down their life on the interracial line. She had an ear for public speaking. She attributed this to some Southern ancestry deeply ignored by her parents (and never let it occur to her that her father before his paralytic crisis was himself a most persuasive speaker). She loved standing in the pulpit with outstretched arms, tears rolling down her cheeks, offering herself to freedom and begging others to join her, join this great hand-holding, we-shall-overcome bandwagon of interraciality when black and white would, in fact, walk hand in hand to freedom.
A shiver curved down her spine. She sat still in the sunless room and remembered. The fear. That she had pushed somewhere out of reach. That she had refused to acknowledge, until the day they shot holes all through Mama Dolly’s farm and she came home. To her last year of school. To make speeches, and sing songs, and raise money. But never, ever to go back. Not even when the leader of the Movement himself begged her to use her college degree and come back and teach. She would make speeches and sing and raise money and send clothes. But never go back. Except through the eyes of her lover (‘white’) who lay awake nights in that same Mississippi jail. That was the closest she ever came to a return.
She closes her eyes for a moment. She is reading: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Toward a Psychology of Being; Rabbit, Run; The Centaur (‘Listen to me, lady. I love you, I want to be a Negro for you . . .’ ). And every Wednesday at five o’clock she sat for an hour and unburdened herself on a very sleepy psychiatrist whose continual dozing was a sure sign that not only was she boring, but that any life dissected too closely was boring and could only make you fall asleep. He diagnosed her as manic depressive. All negroes were prone to manic depression, he told her. They were all subject to frenzied highs, followed by sudden, depressive lows, he told her. It must have to do with all that singing and dancing, he told her. So she went to the library and looked up manic depressive, to catalogue her symptoms and hang them on her wall: prone to ecstatic moments followed by severe depressions with accompanying loss of self-esteem, feelings of meaninglessness, and a sense of the insignificance of life (later she would laugh when she discovered that meaninglessness came from the dark shaft of gloom that surrounded her day and night and that ecstasy was just a sunny room away).
She wished her father would forgive her lapses. Her racial ones as well as her sexual ones. After her first night in bed, she was astonished: that was what the fuss was all about? That was why her father watched over her with lock and key, scrutinizing every date as a potential enemy? For that?? That peculiar slipping and sliding that occasionally provided a momentary gasp, a strange, slight convulsion? And then what? How could her father think she was going to the dogs because she had slept with one man and was about to marry another one (‘white’, true)? And what of it? She wished her father could talk, that he didn’t just lay there and stare at her, like she was really ‘colored’, like now she had really turned into ‘a colored woman’ and was beyond salvation. That was the real bug. Not that she had ‘opened the doors to herself’, as her mother put it, but that she had ceased to be her father’s adored child. She had even committed the final sin, the unforgivable final sin of (‘negro’) girlhood: she had cut her hair. ‘How few “negro” girls are blessed with long hair?’ Her father had sobbed. ‘How could you go and turn yourself into a negro just like any other negro? How could you do that?’ And he turned and walked away. She could feel her skin turning darker while he lay there and stared at her; her hair felt not only short but unbelievably bushy. At any moment a toothless grin would spread across her face and she would be a walking replica of all of his nightmares – she would shuffle backwards and grin and her bushy hair would stand on end and she would have turned into ‘a colored woman’. That was what she read in those gray bourgeois eyes; that was what caused the stroke: the sudden transformation of his beloved, intelligent daughter (she was the only ‘negro’ to graduate from that Alpine fortress) into ‘a colored woman’. Such thoughts left her sticky and glued to her seat. If only she could abolish the gloom and let herself blossom under the light of this interracial love affair. If nothing else they would have beautiful children. They always were, these interracial urchins produced out of Chinese and white fusion, or Indian and negro fusion, or for that matter, white and negro fusion; as if through the process of mating the children took the best of all the features: added a little kink to the too-straight white hair, chiseled into aquiline the too-broad negro nose, rounded the tight, slinky Chinese eyes to a delicate almond shape. She liked thinking about a little interracial baby of her own. She put her hand on her stomach, and opened her eyes. The room was dark. Even with two 150 watt bulbs, the room was dark. She heard her roommate open the door.
Her roommate was a healthy-looking girl (whose name was Charlotte, by the way): the kind of girl who adored a lovable sheepdog at the age of three, and rode horses bareback at five; the kind of girl who was bred, not raised. And it showed, particularly around the eyes, and the deep healthy glow of the skin. It showed. With a trace of interracial rebellion in every strand of that vibrant, blonde hair.
If her roommate was healthy-looking, she, by comparison, was a bit anemic-looking. She was, for instance, too pale for a ‘negro’, with something a bit too yellow around the gills. Four years in the North woods of academia had given her very little opportunity to dress chicly as (‘negro’) women notoriously do, with a flair for the right place to hang a scarf, cock a hat, don a cacophony of colors with an uncanny, unerring taste for making it work. She had no such flair. Had, in fact, no flair whatsoever. If you thought of any color at all beside her, it was brown. That monotonous brown that goes well with a pair of Buster Brown shoes. Her first lover (‘negro’) had attempted some improvements on her looks. He had suggested, for example, that she eliminate that brushstroke of bright orange smeared inaccurately across her lips, that she stop those clumsy efforts at tweezing her thick, bushy eyebrows that were, in fact, her best feature. Suggested, in sum, that she stop trying to do something with herself, but instead just wear turtleneck sweaters (preferably black ones to go with her Buster Brown shoes), and one plain, corduroy skirt with big pockets. Which she did. Even after they broke up (he took a motorcycle and headed out west with a new (‘white’) girlfriend).
Her roommate is reminding her that there is a poetry reading tonight down at St Marks on the Bowery and would she like to go with them? It’s an Umbra reading. She’s trying to decide when the key turns again in the lock and Henry (‘negro’), the poet, enters. They are actually living à trois and sometimes à quatre when what’s-his-face takes a brief furlough from jail. Right now there are only three of them. Henry is unquestionably endearing. With the softest voice you ever heard. Charlotte (her roommate) is considering supporting him for life. He could write poetry, she could work. It is not a particularly political dream – Henry is not about to go South and sit in, he is not even interested in voter registration, and his poems are curiously apolitical. It is really a romance, which will eventually pop (if one is willing to admit that romances are a bit like balloons). Charlotte found she didn’t like working. Even for poetry. Henry read about her wedding in the New York Times (Sunday section). But we are light years away from this eventual outcome.
It’s 1963. The windows to this ground-floor interracial mecca are always wide open. An assortment of people avoid the door and come in through the windows. There’s Adrienne (‘white’), another long-haired beauty of the Sarah Lawrence variety. She spends all her time with Skip, the ghetto youth with the heroin problem. She and Charlotte spend hours trying to devise ways to help Skip kick the habit and become a full-time rent-strike organizer with the other part of his time taken up with solving his daily problem. They see him as a beautiful human being ‘caught in the currents of a segregated existence’; they fervently believe that their own infiltration of his lifestyle, their own willingness to live among him (and with him, if the need arises) will surely change all this. Integration is a pulsating new beat, which will liberate him from the old, segregated ways of doing things. For is it not, after all, we, who must overcome? WE, who must walk hand in hand? For if you (Skip) are not free, then it follows, as night follows day (an exquisite metaphor for our purpose), that I (Adrienne) am not free. Togetherness came back in style. People got along for a while. Inside the melting pot.
There is a tall, somber young man (West Indian, and West Indians are not ‘negroes’), called Derek, who always rings the bell and waits politely to be admitted. He sits in the corner of Charlotte’s room (all the congregating takes place in Charlotte’s room which faces the street and the light and the . . . we could go on) and pontificates. In his methodical, messianic mind there is a theory building that perhaps integration is just another form of imitation, that perhaps integration is just another form of stultification, that perhaps integration is just another form of impersonation, that perhaps . . . and a year later he will shout from the podium, ‘Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!’ and the romance will go up in smoke (if one is willing to admit that romances are a bit like smoldering fires).
There is another quiet, diligent soul who frequents this integrated coterie. A prophetic soul who is looked upon as the Father of the Movement. He comes only to persuade everyone that they should use their education in the service of the massive voter education program he is starting in Mississippi. Its aim: to increase the literacy rate of Southerners (‘negroes’) and prepare them for political activity. He calls it the politics of arithmetic. He has understood that politics is the source of power and that Southern arithmetic (ten negroes + one white = eleven whites) should be reversed. It is a stunningly correct analysis that will go down in defeat at the Democratic Convention of 1964, when that illustrious body turns its back on the New Math. The sands of illusion are prickly and wet, and our Prophet will seek a final answer in the Fatherland, as all true prophets must. There is no honor in one’s own apartment.
And what of love, instead of politics? What of that nubile, fleeting sensation, when one is color-blind, religion-blind, name, age, aid, vital statistics-blind? What about the love of two ‘human beings’, who mate, in spite of or because of or instead of or after the fact of ? What of Henry and Charlotte and their possibilities for an integrated cast of children? What of all those interracial couples peppering the Lower East Side in the summer of ’63 and the summer of ’64 only to go into furtive decline in the summer of ’65 – no longer to be seen holding hands in public (‘Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!’)?
But it’s 1963 and Cheryl (we have neglected to name her) declines tonight’s Umbra festivities. She is tired from reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Toward a Psychology of Being; Rabbit, Run; and The Centaur (‘Listen to me, lady. I love you, I want to be a Negro for you . . .’). She will not go with Charlotte and Henry, even though Henry is reading ‘June Bug!’, her favorite poem. She will stay home and practice her stream-of-consciousness therapy, isolating herself in her closet (the only place in her room where her desk fits) and writing automatically, putting down everything that comes into her head (. . . my father sat me down on his lap when Mrs Drexel slapped me and he told me not to worry about that old librarian slapping me just because I asked if we could take a break and she looked at me like I was a troublemaker and slapped me across the face and the shoe man gave me a pair of tasteless shoes and the brightest red lipstick he had and I insisted loudly that the shoes were in bad taste and lipstick was too gaudy because I didn’t wear shoes like that just because I was colored and couldn’t he tell I didn’t give off any odor of any kind just because I was colored and that I always held my breath every time I went into his store because I was colored and didn’t want to give off any odor of any kind so I tightened my stomach muscles and stopped breathing and that way I knew that nothing unpleasant would escape – not a thought nor an odor nor an ungrammatical sentence nor bad posture nor halitosis nor pimples because I was sucking in my stomach and holding it while I tried on his shoes and couldn’t he see that I was one of those colored people who had taste). The book said that if you did this every night for an hour, you could speed up the analytical process, and maybe cure your own self and Cheryl was very anxious to be cured of her manic depression at a cheaper rate than twenty-five bucks an hour so she sat in the deep gloom of her room and wrote and wrote and refused to think or punctuate or let her mind do anything but record every single syllable that popped into her head. Censored thoughts were passing out of her unconscious at an amazing rate. Afterwards she couldn’t lift her wrist from the desk or decipher one syllable. But she was sure she was making progress.
This was always the last performance of the night. Before bedtime. Then she turned out the light and let her thoughts take her to that Mississippi jail cell. Where Alan (as he was prosaically named) rotted. She would compare their sexual coupling (‘black’ and ‘white’ together) to her first encounter. Did he (Alan) seem smaller simply because she was trying to overcome three hundred years of mythological white impotence in order to mate healthily with him? Or was he smaller? It was a difficult thing to determine. If he was smaller, then surely race played no part in it. It was just coincidence that Aaron (the first time they made love it was on the Staten Island ferry) –
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry
– was bigger. Race was not a factor. Sexual fulfillment was color-blind. And she tried to put herself to sleep but couldn’t. She began thinking about Charlotte, whom she admired a great deal. There was something incredibly attractive about her healthy, bold looks. She would have liked to have Charlotte’s boldness. Her face had a frankness that held your attention.
They had met at a Civil Rights conference at Sarah Lawrence a year before Charlotte’s graduation. Charlotte had come to New York first (Cheryl didn’t graduate until the following year) but whenever Cheryl came to New York for the weekend, she stayed at Charlotte’s apartment. They agreed to take an apartment together after Cheryl’s graduation. Charlotte was sexually ripe. Beside her Cheryl felt like a novice. It wasn’t that they ever talked about sex. They didn’t. They talked about babies a lot though, about what beautiful babies she and Henry would have if they had babies. Charlotte’s eyes would look almost dazed with pleasure. But Cheryl was always vaguely irritated by Charlotte and Henry’s relationship. In her eyes Henry was too meek. Perhaps because she liked noisy, more vociferous men. Perhaps not. Perhaps Henry was just meek. But his meekness irritated her. She found it subservient. And she disliked him for it. He never got angry, never raised his voice above a whisper, spent all his time in Charlotte’s room writing while Charlotte spent all her time in Harlem in a storefront office organizing rent strikes. That didn’t seem right.
Once, Cheryl’s mother and father came to dinner and Henry was there too. They all ate in the kitchen at the small round table and her father’s eyes kept filling up with tears. He could not reconcile his daughter to this place. He could not reconcile his daughter to Charlotte (with all her frank breeding spilling all over the place), not to Charlotte and Henry (with all their frank sexuality spilling all over the place). When Cheryl accompanied them to their car, he was still crying. He asked her to come home, he realized now that he had made a terrible mistake sending her to that exclusive school to be the first and only one. It had made her queer. It had made her want a queer life among queer, unnatural people. It was not what he had in mind at all. He had simply wanted her to have a good education with a solid respected (‘white’) name behind it. That was all he had wanted. Then he had expected her to come home again and teach and get married and live in the apartment on their third floor. He did not want her to lead this queer integrated life with some pasty freedom rider who liked to flagellate himself for ( ‘negroes’). It was unhealthy. It was wrong. He should go home, too. They should all go home. Henry should go back to his ghetto. Charlotte should return to her well-bred country life. She, Cheryl, should come home and get a job teaching school. Everything else was too queer, too unspeakably queer and made him cry.
It was not a successful dinner party. Cheryl felt depressed and hid in her closet to try a little automatic writing ( Daddy you must see that I must lead my own life even if you don’t understand it and all this talk about color all the time I’m not the same anymore and I have to be what I am I’ve lived with all kinds of people even if they were all white and now I’m trying to live with some white people and some ‘negro’ people and find out who I am and I have to do it and . . .). And then the doorbell rang. Strange. It was past midnight. And she was alone. Henry and Charlotte were still down at another Umbra reading. She peeked cautiously through the keyhole. It was Alan. Out of jail. Standing in the doorway. And crying. No, no, don’t touch. He said, no, please. He had something to say: he had just come from his parents’ house. He knew now that he could not marry her. He knew now that he would never go back South. It was over. He had come to say goodbye. It was all over. He understood now that he could never be ‘a negro’. Never. Ever. And then he was gone.
She went into her room and sat down. She opened The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. But she couldn’t see. Then opened The Centaur: ‘Listen to me, lady. I love you, I want to be a Negro for you . . . But I cannot, quite. I cannot quite make that scene. A final membrane restrains me. I am my father’s son . . .’ She had never read the ending. She did not know that was how it ended. She had thought it was possible to rupture every membrane and begin at zero.
Then she thought. I must find an apartment high up, around the twentieth floor, where the sun will come flooding in in the morning and I won’t awaken inside a deep shaft of gloom. Then I will be able to think and see clearly, about how integration came into style. And people getting along for a while. Inside the melting pot. Inside the melting pot.
It’s 1963. Whatever happened to interracial love?
Artwork © Lorna Simpson, Black Cloud, 2011