A Door Opens Slowly
by Angela Green
The Supreme Court law integrating schools for whites and blacks passed before I was born, but it wasn’t until I moved to South Carolina in the summer of 1969 that I sat in a classroom with black children. As a third-grader, I was unaware of the political hailstorms that had assailed our country the previous fifteen years. I was sent to school with simple instructions to obey my teacher. Although I can’t recall specifics, I have hazy memories of bullies picking on the black children on the playground. This remembrance exists, I think, not because the confrontations were so horrific, but because of approving smiles from my parents when I told them that I stopped other white children from being mean or making “ugly” remarks to the newest children in our ranks.
In my family, friendship with black neighbors was accepted. We lived in a small community. My brothers and I all played on integrated school sports teams. We had always been taught to treat everyone with kindness and respect regardless of their color. Even with all of this “treat everyone equally” rhetoric, there was, however, one underlying understanding within the family: the daughter can be friends, but she cannot date the black boy. That was the line that was silently drawn in the sand. It wasn’t spoken aloud, but it was voiced. The way Mama and Granny discussed girls who had crossed the color line was a lesson just as clear as the ones at Sunday school. “I don’t understand why a person would want to do that.” “That just doesn’t look right.” “She is such a beautiful girl, why would she want to be with a colored boy?” Since I always wanted family approval, I never stepped out of bounds with this expectation.
By my twelfth-grade year, one of my best friends from middle school was pregnant. We seldom saw each other because of the academic tracking system, but we smiled and spoke when we passed in the halls. In middle school, she had always been full of life, laughter, and playfulness; she was a sincere and genuinely kind person. However, she had now committed the unpardonable sin in the eyes of many people. Although she had gotten pregnant without being married, that was not the unpardonable part. The unforgivable act was that the father of her child was black. It didn’t matter that he was an intelligent, handsome, and kind person. It didn’t matter that she loved him. What mattered was that his skin was black, and she was forever judged as a lesser than. That was thirty years ago.
“People aren’t ready for this,” my mama says with genuine anguish. “I’m not ready for this,” she adds.
Then she continues wiping down the kitchen counter, turns, and walks to the stove to wipe it off, before walking back to the sink where she finishes up the dishes. With red-rimmed eyes, she looks at me with a mixture of shame and concern. It isn’t like my mother to vocalize such a racist comment, and I know she wonders how I will receive it.
Mama has opened her home to all types of people of all races for as long as I can remember. Both my brother and son had best friends who were African-American and were welcomed in her home like sons and grandsons. To this day, when these men see her anywhere, they come to her and big bear hug her, knowing she loves them and will hug them right back. It has been on more than one occasion that their friends have stood open-mouthed while these black men have walked over and given this elderly white woman a full-sized body hug. When a community improvement group organized, she invited the members from the only African-American church in the community. She was delighted when they began coming; however, one by one, the other white members stopped coming until it was only Mama and the black members. Eventually, they decided to stop meeting as well. What was the point when there was obviously no desire to cross the racial line and work together as a “community?” That incident frustrated Mama. After all these years, she wondered why those people couldn’t get over the past and work together. It was, after all, the twenty-first century and time to get on with the future. Now with a pained look, now that I want to cross the racial line, now she is worried about how these same community members will treat me.
Mama is a puzzle and here is a piece that she has managed to hide from me. The “I am not prejudice unless you want my daughter” piece of puzzle, which is one of those last hard pieces to fit. This piece which must come from another puzzle box because it seems so completely out of place with the person I thought I knew, this puzzle that I thought I knew. But no. I see that it goes right here. Right here in the tiniest corner, blending in so well with the other colors that if you don’t look very closely, you could miss it entirely. Like I had. But not entirely, for if I had truly missed it, I wouldn’t have waited a month to tell her about him. I wouldn’t have only spoken of the wonderful things about him first and saved the secret for last.
“Mama, he is finishing up his dissertation in November. He is a journalist and has published twelve books. I can talk to him about anything. I can talk to him about my dreams, what I do, the things that interest me, and he understands. We laugh about everything. He was a chaplain in the military for thirteen years. He’s a wonderful person. Do you know how hard it is to find a man like that, Mama?”
I go on and on. “I really like him, Mama.”
She listens. Finally, I know I have to say it. I have to say the “but” and get it out there.
She waits, “But he’s black.”
I might have said he was a child rapist escaped from prison. If he had been white, she and I both know he sounds like the perfect person for me. But he isn’t white, so I wait for her response.
“No,” she says, “People aren’t ready for this. I’m not ready for this.”
I look down at the floor before I speak. “That’s why I haven’t said anything for a month,” I respond, almost in a whisper. When she looks at me, she looks a bit ashamed. I’m not a teenager she can intimidate. I am an adult who understands the double standard in her life. My brothers can have best friends who are black. She can criticize her white friends who wouldn’t meet with their black neighbors, but I can’t fall in love with a black man. My brothers don’t care about color. My mother doesn’t care about color. However, when it comes to me, color is an issue of reputation and character. I can’t love the man; I have to not love the African-American man.
There is a long pause where neither of us speaks. Neither of us is sure what to say.
“Mama, when did we first come to South Carolina?”
“June 1969. One year after my Daddy died.”
Exactly forty years from that June until this one in 2009. Forty years from my first summer in the small South Carolina mill village in 1969, from the first year of school integration in that community until this June when I have fallen in love with a black man; forty years of progress, yet we are still questioning integration. Another puzzle.
“Mama, I know people will talk, and you don’t want me to be hurt, but where are these people when I’m sick? Where are they when I need help? When do they come to make sure all my needs are met or that my children’s needs are met? They don’t come. They are never here. So let them talk.” I pause a moment to pace myself. “I never expected to take this journey, but here I am. And this is where I’m going.” Again not a word, but not as much pain in her eyes.
“Mama,” I say, “when I talk to him, I don’t think of him as a black man. I just think of him as a man.”
She looks at me without speaking, but I know my Mama. And I can tell that as time passes, that paradoxical puzzle piece I found in her box will begin to blend and meld into the other pieces, into the background of her beautiful picture until it is lost, disappearing into that dark portal where all lost puzzle pieces go, while we step over an invisible line, entering into a life we thought we were already living.
Angela Green teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages in Laurens, South Carolina, and her above essay won the nonfiction category in the summer 2009 South Carolina Writer’s Workshop contest. She is also working on a book of poetry called “Immigrant Children,” inspired by her interactions with ESOL students, and has published poems in various anthologies like New South Poetry Chapbook, Anthology andVirtuous Woman. She has also published articles in The Lutheran, Autumn Life, Virtuous Woman and Sandlapper: The South Carolina Magazine. “A Door Opens Slowly” has never been published.