I sat down to review my ovvn. And when I began to remember how I learned about the idea of race. I could see my gradually intensifying awareness of a racial gulf as clearly as if it were a fissure in the lifeline of my hand.
As a child, before 1 learned the culture’s negative associations with blackness, I was fascinated by the idea of racial differences. For most of my primary and secondary education, I went to a public school in which white children were a distinct minority. In first grade I wanted Julia, the black single mother on TV, to be my mother, and I don’t think it occurred to me that she couldn’t be. I wanted to marry Michael Jackson when I grew up. I wanted to pat classmate Sean Wilson’s Afro because it looked alluringly springy growing mysteriously upward and outward even as my own hair grew downward.
When I first heard the words black and white used in a racial context, I was confused: No one, of course, is black or white. I looked around at my classmates of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, African and Nordic descent, and what I beheld was ivory, biscuit, buff, brick, sandalwood, clay, tobacco. peanut, hazelnut, chestnut and Moroccan leather, though 1 could hardly have named those names. W hen someone explained at last that the browner children were “black,” I resisted, because to me black, like white, was a hue that had no color, no warmth. What am I? I asked, and was told that I was “white.” I stared at my hand, darker and sallower than the unpleasant peach-beige “flesh” shade in the crayon box, and 1 tried to merge these new concepts with the living, breathing evidence before my eyes. It was clear, though, from something in the voice that explained these things or perhaps from the images around me that were stalling to filter in. helping me to assign different values to the laughing, quarreling, undifferentiated tangle of childness in the schoolyard that I was in by my skin, by a hair: that I was a lucky little girl indeed.
In third grade, my best friend was black; I still had little sense of what that meant. To me, Sondra’s most defining quality was a kind of impudence and an eager, tombovish energy that set her apart from the more placid girls on my block. We lay on the twin beds in her room oh glamorous excess, twin beds, clown lamp, play lipstick and waved our feet in the air; we planned in detail how we would be roommates in college. Being in college meant that we could let boys come over to our room to visit.
Sondra’s house was a heaven of forbidden independence, for she was what we would now call a latchkey child. Her mother was the only mother 1 knew who wrorked. Sondra’s father was a handsome man in a uniform, appearing only in a black-and-white framed photo on a bedside table. When Sondra’s mother came home at night, her return was heralded by a stem footfall, sterner than that of the other parents I knew. She had her reasons: Once we spilled nail-polish remover all over her varnished vanity and it blistered the finish. Another time we let the boys into the house and, in a riot of sensuality, tasted the dessert wine kept in a glass carafe on the sideboard, fondled the glass grapes on the living room coffee table and pierced all the chocolates kept in a heart-shaped box in the living room into sticky half moons with our fingers.