Saturday, July 24, 2010


When I was a teenager at Germantown Friends School, I envied the black kids. After graduating its first black student in 1958, the school had made a concerted effort to integrate in the 60's.  From my point of view, what was notable about these mostly scholarship kids was the fact that they belonged to a definite culture.  They seemed so easy about it, hanging out in relaxed groups, sometimes calling each other brother and sister. They shared something warm, and I wished I could be included. It was the era of 'Black is Beautiful', and yes, it was.

If I'd been able to put words to it, I might have said that I lacked ethnicity.  White kids often feel that, as if they their racial identity is so 'normal' (are people of color 'abnormal'?) that it's not anything to take note of, like a shade of paint you see everywhere in institutional buildings.  But for me, it was more than that--the culture I came from, Philadelphia Quakerism, felt...wispy and insubstantial.  There seemed to be so little to it. My parents didn't speak with pride of my father's conversion to Quakerism from Midwestern Presbyterianism, of my grandparents' relief work during World War I with the British and American Friends.  (That was how my grandparents met--my existence is due to Quaker action in the world.)  On First Days (Sundays) we went to a plain meetinghouse where we sat in a quiet group until someone was moved to stand up and speak, but we didn't talk at home about why we worshiped that way, what it meant, or how other religions managed the God thing.  Other Quaker families talked about their faith, but we didn't.

In fact, I was like a fish so wedded to the placid water of a lake that it has no idea it's wet.  Quakerism subtly affected everything in our household.  For one thing, we valued silence.  The implication was that silence isn't empty, but full, a place in which God can speak. Hanging out together didn't have to be full of chatter. I was part of a self-effacing but prideful  culture. Decor was ever tasteful, never glittery. Fabrics were natural, not synthetic...and for me as a young kid, flowered underwear was out of the question. White ruled! White sheets, white walls, white underpants.  Humility and modesty were "better" than ambition, money seeking, any kind of hard pursuit.  Never mind that the same Grandfather who did relief work in France had left my mother a nice inheritance. "Doing" was never a priority for either of my parents.  It took me a long time to adjust to the fact that I'm an ambitious person, and that it's okay to put my name out there.

For a long time, if I went to an author's reading, it felt 'wrong' to me to ask the writer to autograph a book. Book signings! What hubris, my father might say, criticizing the author's 'need' for recognition.  Ah, but he also brought me to the rich well of silence from which words and stories emerge, like lovely creatures, blinking in the light of day.  Writing itself was all there, in the silence. It was waiting for me to discover it.

(Thanks to Beverly Tatum and her thoughtful book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? for insights about white racial identity. If I ever hear her read, I'll be sure to have her sign my copy of the book.)


Catherine Stine said...

Yes, I also admired the strong Black" identity" of the scholarship kids. In fact, my first serious boyfriend was from that group. He not only had that "cool" and athletic grace, but he was very smart, and savvy about how to infiltrate the ranks of the white prep scene. He also sort of saved me from myself during some family traumas.
That said, he told me years later that he actually felt anger, at being the token success story, and as if his former closeness with his white classmates, was an illusion.
Some years after expressing that to me, he said that he had come to a second awakening--that his cynicism was a smokescreen for his fear that, meeting those people again, he would be harshly judged.
He may have had the "protection" of his tribe, but it didn't prevent him from all kinds of uncomfortable emotions and self-doubt.

HelenQP said...

Yeah, it was an interesting mix of kids all right. I know I was clueless re: what the scholarship kids actually experienced. I'm glad your friend grew into understanding about the whole scene--and that you could have a conversation about it.