“Your mama black? Your daddy black?”
The answer seemed, suddenly, a matter of great urgency. The cluster of second-grade classmates waited.
“I, I don’t know,” I said.
I knew I wasn’t, but somehow I hoped I was, in some way, or nobody would notice I wasn’t, or maybe somehow I could be, simply by wanting it enough. Black, after all, did not look like just one thing. It could be near-purple or a yellow so pale you could see veins, green and thin. It could be any of a hundred gradations from honey to coffee that I saw in the faces of my schoolmates every day. Somehow they were all black. Why couldn’t I be, too? Everything depended on it at St. James School on the South Side of Chicago in 1976, where every student was black. Every student, that is, except for my sisters and me. I searched my brain for an answer my classmates could believe.
I’d seen it done, this transformation from what you were to what you needed to be. My grandfather, Pasquale Francisco Catania, was born in Calabria, Italy, brought to America in 1912, and thrust into an alien world when he was even younger than I was now, standing in this classroom. I don’t know how he made it through those early years, but the Grandpa I knew sold soda pop, refused to speak Italian, and made everybody call him Frank. The point was to blend, to meld, to pass. I decided to be vague.
“I’m not sure,” I tried. “I think, um, maybe my uncle, or something.”
A skinny girl with bony elbows stepped forward and aimed a finger at my chest.
A boy with large, worried eyes compared the skin on my arm to a crayon and informed me, apologetically but with scientific clarity, that my skin was “peach.” Black could be many things, but it could not be peach. “Peach,” which, in the 64-color Crayola box, stood somewhere between “pink” and “tan,” could only be white. According to Binney & Smith, the Crayola company, “peach” had originally been called “flesh,” and had first appeared in 1949. The name was changed, in 1962, “partially as a result of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.” At St. James, black — in Crayola-speak “mahogany,” “copper,” “brown,” “sepia,” “raw umber,” or “raw sienna” — was beautiful. White was not. It was a slur, far worse than “fatty” or “retard.”
The skinny girl turned away. The others followed.
For more than two years we’d coexisted peacefully, despite knowing, as the alphabet poster of the red-turtlenecked woman with the enormous halo of hair informed us on the first day of kindergarten, that “A is for Afro.” I knew my hair could never grow that way but hoped it didn’t matter. I thought I could somehow obscure the color of my skin by ignoring it. If I didn’t mention it, no one else would.
But by second grade, a person needs to know where she fits in. This was the era of consciousness-raising and the politicization of racial pride, and at St. James race mattered more than anything else. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in 1968, eight years before, the year we’d all been born, and our lives were marked and defined by his death. At school assemblies, we joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” No one wished for this more than I, though the verse in our version declaring “black and white together, someday,” with its resolution fixed on some eternally future date, was cold comfort to a child compelled to confront it now.
It was recess and a group of us had been lounging around a desk, bored. Our teacher was Mrs. Lillie Earls, a tall black woman with a long, elegant neck, an encouraging manner, and a tinkly, merry voice that reminded me of Glinda the Good Witch. Mrs. Earls was not one to overprogram. She believed in allowing children the latitude to devise their own means of entertainment — albeit monitored from the teacher’s desk. So there we were, with no spoon-fed activity, and at some point somebody started talking about color. Pretty soon all the kids were recounting what they knew about where they’d come from.
“My mama’s from down South,” said a boy with butterscotch skin. “Her daddy’s mama’s daddy was white.” The other kids nodded. They’d all, it seemed, heard stories or suspicions of a white person somewhere in their family history.
“Well my mama’s half Cherokee,” said a delicate-featured girl who was prone to exaggeration.
“Nah she ain’t,” said her friend.
Indian blood was rare and desirable and anyone claiming it was immediately challenged.
“Yeah huh, that’s what she told me,” said the girl, her voice rising as she crossed her arms and tapped her foot. Her gaze settled on me. “What about you?”
In the mid-1850s, when most blacks in America were still enslaved in the South and Chicago’s xenophobia was directed toward Irish Catholic immigrants, St. James Parish was founded. The church served about 25 Irish families in a South Side neighborhood known as Carville, named for the Illinois Central Railroad carbarns where most of the residents were employed. Initially, congregants met in a borrowed classroom at a neighborhood orphanage and later at a wood-frame chapel. After the great fire of 1871, displaced families — many of them Catholic — moved south, the affluent among them building stately dwellings along Prairie and Michigan avenues. As the mansions rose, so did the fortunes of St. James Parish.
These new parishioners wanted a church that exemplified and defined the neighborhood in all its new wealth and aspiration, and they poured money into its construction. The archdiocese selected Patrick C. Keely, known as “the patriarch of United States Roman Catholic Architecture,” to do the job. His formidable neo-Gothic design incorporated sandstone steeples, pointed arches, and hand-hewn pews to accommodate 1,100 of the faithful. The stained glass was Tiffany, the stations of the cross Munich cut stone, the altars white Carrara marble railed with onyx and gilt bronze. In the choir loft sat a rare Roosevelt tracker pneumatic organ, secured for the church after it won a prize at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Church construction, completed in 1885, took nearly six years and $100,000. Colleagues raved about this grandiose “achievement in art.” It was a testament to Irish Catholic pride. “So many people have their roots in this parish,” one “old-time parishioner” enthused in a liturgical reenactment of St. James’ history written by parish priest Larry McBrady in 1983. “It’s often been called ‘the Mother Church of the South Side.'”
At St. James i learned through the prism of black experience: Poetry was Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Phillis Wheatley; American history was Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; science was Booker T. Washington; politics was Shirley Chisholm and Ralph Bunche. For social studies we watched film reels of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, memorizing long passages. On a first-grade field trip to Operation PUSH, the Reverend Jesse Jackson stood onstage and urged us to stay in school. It was my introduction to the black church, to shouting and singing and dancing while praying. It was electric and affirming, and in this setting and at this age (I was six) I did not yet feel the self-consciousness that would soon come to define my interactions with my peers. The reverend intoned, and we shouted back: “I am! Somebody! I may be poor, but I am somebody. I may be young, but I am somebody. I may be on welfare, but I am somebody. I may be small, but I am somebody…. I am black, brown, or white, but I must be respected, protected, never rejected. I am God’s child!”
Even before the completion of the church, a group of nuns from the Ireland-based Sisters of Mercy had opened St. James School, serving 400 children from the community. The neighborhood was growing so fast that the sisters soon added a high school, a music curriculum, and a business college. In 1899 more than 1,400 students were enrolled in what was, according to the church’s official history, “the finest school in the city.” But as quickly as the parish had flourished, its fortunes began to turn. The advent of the automobile brought industrialization and easy mobility, and mansion owners sold their properties and moved farther south.
Meanwhile, demand for factory and service workers surged, and thousands of Southern blacks headed north — between 1916 and 1918 around 50,000 landed in Chicago alone, more than doubling the city’s black population. Many settled in an area known as the “black belt,” a slender finger of modest South Side walk-ups initially bounded by 22nd and 31st streets to the north and south and State and La Salle streets to the east and west. St. James was situated at 29th and Wabash, a block east of the belt’s narrow confines. The Great Migration stressed these boundaries, considered by many whites to be sacrosanct, and as the black families moved in, the white families moved out. At the close of World War II, the neighborhood around all-white St. James had become nearly all black. Still, blacks were not allowed in either the church or the school. In Fr. McBrady’s church history, the narrator acknowledges that “In the movement for justice and peace, alas, our parish faltered.” It goes on to this passage, spoken by a “migrant from the South”: “I’ll never forget the Sunday morning I came to see St. James Church. It was about the biggest church I had ever seen — much larger than the churches in the South. As I entered the building, an usher came up to me and told me that I had to go to St. Monica’s Church over at 36th and Dearborn — that was the colored people’s church. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
One of my few grade-school keepsakes is a portrait of my kindergarten class. It is surprising, given how different I look from my classmates, with my stringy light brown hair and rosy cheeks, that it took them so long to confront me. I’ve examined this photograph many times, scraping at memory for names and personalities, trying to divine some larger meaning from an experience that seems, from a distance, difficult to fathom. Recently I saw something new. As a child I’d penciled in check marks atop the heads of my three dearest friends. All girls, of course. But also, as I now noticed for the first time, the three girls with the lightest skin and the straightest hair. Did I choose them as friends because they looked the most like me? Because their lightness and straightness would make mine stand out less?
In 1974, the year I completed kindergarten at St. James, a two-hour television special aired called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. It was a fictionalized account of a black woman who was born a slave and went on to become active in the civil rights movement, enduring multiple torments at the hands of whites all along the way. It was based on a novel by Ernest Gaines and starred Cicely Tyson. Most kids I knew were too young to have seen it when it came out, but it was one of the few sources of audiovisual narrative that tied together the stories of slavery and civil rights, and when it became available on film two years later, the teachers at St. James eagerly arranged screenings.
My second-grade classmates and I watched it in the lunchroom, enveloped in the smell of sour bread and scorched meat. Maybe that is partly why I remember one particular scene. I have not seen the film since, but here is how my memory has arranged it, 30 years distant: Young Miss Jane and her brother, having escaped from slavery and having walked for days, are starving and desperate for water. They happen upon a house in the country and beg the old white lady at the door for something to drink. She resists. They persist. You can tell she doesn’t want to give it to them. In the end, she takes a cup to the well and pumps some water. Before handing it to the children she spits in it.
Watching in the darkened room, I felt a nausea that only worsened as a grown-up Miss Jane’s murdered husband was dragged home to her behind a white horse, as Miss Jane was refused a drink, this time at a “whites only” water fountain. By the time she died, at age 110, Miss Jane Pittman had finally been recognized and celebrated for her life of heroism. The credits rolled, and the lights came up. And there we were, all the black kids and me.
I pulled my gray uniform cardigan across my chest and concentrated on making my face bland.
“Look at Sara, she’s all red,” someone announced.
All eyes turned. My face burned.
“Uh-huh, you right,” a boy concurred.
A high-pitched whine gripped my skull. My eyes started to smart. I closed them and held my breath. Mrs. Earls came over to me, sat down, and put her arm around my shoulders.
“Sara,” she said, in a voice so gentle it released the tears I’d been struggling to conceal. “Are you all right, baby?”
“I have a stomachache,” I exhaled, as the first salty drops ran into my mouth. “Can I go home?”
Mrs. Earls readily agreed, which meant that Hattie had to come and get me. In the parlance of the day, Hattie Bailey was our housekeeper. She cooked our breakfast, washed the dishes, and made our beds. She made sure, when we came home from school, that we stayed out of trouble until our dad returned from the office (he kept regular hours, while the comings and goings of our mom, a politician and crusading feminist, were less predictable). She took care of whoever was too young to go to school at the moment. At this moment that would have been one-year-old Annemarie.
Hattie had come to Chicago from Georgia many years earlier, as a teenager, and immediately found employment as a domestic. We were her fourth family, and, if her account was accurate, by far the worst. Each day she’d pore over the help wanted section of the newspaper, carefully circling job leads and swearing she’d quit the first chance she got. She would, from time to time, share with us photographs of her prior, better families and recount their kindness, their generosity, their cleanliness. By comparison we inevitably came up short. Too many kids, too much mess, too many stairs. She had asthma and her knees were giving out, and every movement up or down in our three-story row house was a painful reminder of her failing health. Needing to be fetched from school was more than a bother. It required Hattie to load Annie into the stroller and walk over to the school — she did not drive — her knees complaining every step of the way.
I knew all this and found it a powerful disincentive to ever leave school sick. On this day, though, I did not care. Walking home, Hattie grumbled her suspicion that I was not really sick at all. I followed along quietly, just happy to be out of school. At home I put on my pajamas and slipped under the covers. Hattie brought me Campbell’s tomato bisque and Ritz crackers on a tray. I ate it all and slept deeply, until my sisters returned that afternoon.
During the civil war, priests from St. James ministered to captured Confederate soldiers housed at nearby Camp Douglas. One pastor baptized more than 250 prisoners in two years. My parents’ first home together — where I lived for the first two years of my life — was an apartment on the 16th floor of a racially integrated development called Lake Meadows, built near the site of the former Camp Douglas as part of a massive urban renewal of the area that began in the late 1940s and continued for the next 20 years. Entire blocks of mansions that had declined into barely livable tenements were razed, replaced by towering public housing projects and market-rate apartments.
In 1968, as part of that redevelopment, a new neighborhood of tidy row houses took shape a few blocks northeast of St. James. My parents moved there in 1969, when I was a toddler. South Commons was specifically designed and marketed as an experiment in interracial living, an antidote to the racist real estate covenants that prevailed in much of the city. Our neighbors were young families, black and white, Jewish and Protestant, hopeful and idealistic. We were among a very few white Catholics, most of our ethnic brethren having long since fled for suburbia or hunkered down in white urban enclaves, some resorting to violence to keep blacks out.
Part of South Commons’ appeal was the promise of a new, integrated public elementary school across the street, alongside a high-quality supermarket, drugstore, and restaurant. This was to be a real neighborhood. But the will to sustain it in a city in the grip of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine never materialized. Within a few years the school was gone and the retail soon followed. With them went the white families. By the time I was 10, my six sisters and I were the largest integrating youth force in all of South Commons, and the only such presence at St. James School.
For my parents, St. James was the natural choice of school. My father was a firm believer in the value of a Catholic education, and the Sisters of Mercy, the order that ran the school at St. James, had a reputation for academic excellence. My mother was drawn to the nuns’ emphasis on equal education for girls. By their choosing to live in South Commons, it was clear to me that my parents were committed to racial equality. They hoped that our tenure at St. James would sensitize us, doubly, to the experience of being a minority. But I don’t think matters of color were their top concern. For my father, a proper moral upbringing was paramount; for my mother, gender equity. They agreed that St. James promised the best opportunity for a solid foundation in both. I don’t think they ever truly realized that at St. James, race far outstripped either of those considerations.
“Hey Sara, do the white boy.”
The “white boy” was an inside joke, from a film our teacher had shown documenting the influence of blacks on white culture. White kids in bobby socks and pompadours flailed about, joyfully but awkwardly, to Little Richard tunes. It was a particular favorite of a girl known for her gum-cracking expertise and for her mastery of a suggestive hip-sway walk called “switchin’.” To approximate the “white boy” she would hurl her arms in the air and rock stiffly. She never failed to get a laugh.
By second grade two of my three kindergarten girlfriends had moved away and only Stephanie Brown remained. She had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen and her hair was always arranged in various ponytails and braids tied with pink satin bows. The thing I think I loved about her best of all was that she was all mine. I was one of six sisters at that point — in the end there’d be seven of us — and amongst us older girls there was plenty of competition for the companionship of the kids in the neighborhood. For me this fight wasn’t just over friends. Being one of so many, with everything shared, from clothes to food to beds, I had a need for experiences that were private and apart from everyone else.
At school, what friends I managed to make I could keep for myself. In second grade Stephanie Brown invited me to my first sleepover. Her house was in Lawless Gardens, a subsidized high-rise that was part of the neighborhood’s redevelopment, situated across the street from the Kentucky Fried Chicken. Stephanie’s mom had to work late, so her grandmother came and sat in the living room watching TV while Stephanie and I went to play in her room. Her own room, with a bed that wasn’t a bunk and an entire closet all to herself. She also had her mom all to herself — the two of them lived there alone. I could not believe her luck. Stephanie had a balcony that was so high up it made me dizzy. She showed me a little box under the bathroom sink. I stooped down for a better look. “Roach Motel,” it said. “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out.” I thought that was incredibly funny, and Stephanie laughed at my pleasure in the joke. The motel was empty, but Stephanie said that they had caught a spider in there once. Her mom had a record player and records that Stephanie was allowed to play. We put on “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by the Captain and Tennille, and played it about 200 times. When Stephanie’s mom came home at 2 a.m., smelling like cigarettes and medicine, we were in her room, trying on different kinds of perfume. She kissed us both and sent us to bed. Tucked into my sleeping bag I felt a kind of desperate euphoria — I could not have imagined a more perfect day, and I did not want it to end.
The next morning Stephanie’s mom made us breakfast: fried eggs next to something soft and white with a puddle of butter in the middle.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s grits,” Stephanie’s mom said. “Ain’t you never had grits?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Child, you missin’ somethin’,” she said, and gestured for me to take a bite.
They were salty and grainy and creamy and a little sweet from the butter. I ate them all and asked for more. She laughed and scraped the last of them from the pot.
“That’s real good for you,” she said, taking a drag off of her cigarette. “Ask your mama to make you some.”
I said I would, but I knew I wouldn’t. These grits were mine to keep.
By 1935, St. James’ high school and business college, vacant and dilapidated, were demolished, and enrollment at the elementary school, housed in a deteriorating old schoolhouse, had fallen to a fraction of its former size. The church tried to raise funds by hosting concerts, boxing shows, and card parties. But the congregation had dwindled as well — fewer than 100 people attended Mass. The Sunday collection often amounted to less than $15. A letter written around that time by Charles P. Hughes, a former altar boy and student who had returned to St. James to help raise funds for the parish’s 60th anniversary, describes the desperate conditions: “Arriving too early for the meeting of the committee, I entered the church. The Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help was in progress. I sat in the very last pew of the center aisle. I had a choking sensation and my eyes filled with tears — tears of joy, intermingled with tears of sadness. It was the same sensation one might have who has been away from home for a long time and suddenly returns after the passage of years to see the old home a shambles…. There were exactly twelve people in the church. It was so cold I could see my breath…. By the time the collection basket reached me there were exactly 38 cents — I was interested enough to count it.”
The summer after second grade Stephanie Brown moved away, and the comfort and protection of her friendship vanished with her.
“Hey white girl.”
Recent sociological excavation has revealed that “honky” evolved in the 1930s from “hunky,” a slur against Hungarian immigrants who worked alongside blacks in urban meatpacking plants. This etymological nugget suggests a deeper truth — that racial animosity in Chicago at that time was fueled perhaps as much by on-the-job tensions between migrants and impoverished immigrants (Southern blacks and newly arrived Europeans) as it was by the traditional owner-slave dynamic.
Not that this distinction mattered much in practical terms, especially once Roots came out. The 12-hour miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel about his African, and American slave, ancestors, aired on ABC for eight consecutive nights in January 1977. The popularity of the show took everyone by surprise. Nearly 85 percent of all homes in the United States with a television saw at least part of the series. Almost half the country — 100 million people — watched the final episode. “The show defied industry conventions about black-oriented programming,” according to a recent assessment by the Museum of Broadcast Communications. “Executives simply had not expected that a show with black heroes and white villains could attract such huge audiences.” Vernon Jordan, former president of the Urban League, called it “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America.”
Anthony, the bully of third grade, was big and strong and had a brilliant, dimpled smile. Every day he donned a pair of enormous padded oven mitts, pulled the trays of hot lunches from the lunchroom oven, wheeled them down the hall on a huge cart, and carried them into the classroom. One morning during Roots week when he walked in I happened to be standing by the door.
“Hey,” he said in a friendly voice that made me instantly grateful. “Hold this for me?”
I reached out to oblige, then recoiled, hands singed, as smashed foil lunch packs oozed sloppy joes onto the glossy green-and-beige linoleum floor.
“You got us,” he said, flashing his winning smile. “It’s our turn now.”
In 1942, the principal of St. James School, Sr. Paulita Morris, decided to make what the parish history calls “a bold move.” She and the other nuns began knocking on doors, inviting families to enroll their children at the school. All of the families were black and few were Catholic, but the nuns — all of them white — didn’t care. Their mission, as they saw it, was twofold: to serve the community, and to save their school. The nuns worked their way through the once-grand mansions that now housed black families unwelcome anywhere else. The narrator in Fr. McBrady’s reenactment describes the scene: “The stately old homes had been divided into dingy, rat-infested rooms in an area the U.S. government declared to be worse than Harlem. Ten people living in one room. Twelve families sharing a single bathroom. The fruits of oppression.”
As the black population surged, the original “black belt” had pushed outward. Land speculators warned affluent white families of this encroachment and bought their properties for a fraction of their value, selling or renting them at highly inflated prices to the black families who moved in. By the early 1940s restrictive covenants governed as much as 75 percent of the city, forcing blacks into a few squalid areas.
The response to Sr. Morris was swift, and enrollment at St. James shot up. By 1950 the nuns had been so successful that they were able to fund the first of two buildings that would become the new school. The new St. James School was one story and horizontal — a design that could not have been more different from the fortresslike, skyward-reaching church next door. It was midcentury modern, with a gently slanted roof, sweeping wood beams, and walls of windows that announced openness, simplicity, and an architectural optimism that belied the neighborhood’s desperate circumstances. A marble plaque was embedded in the wall just inside the entryway bearing the name of the city’s archbishop and the parish pastor (though not the women who had led the effort and saved the school. Neither Sr. Paulita Morris nor the Sisters of Mercy are mentioned on the plaque).
That same year, just past the El tracks and across the street, the city of Chicago built Dearborn Homes, one of its first mid-rise housing projects. By the time the second phase of school construction was completed, in 1961, nearly half of St. James’ students came from Dearborn Homes, and the entire student population was black.
Every day my sisters and I walked the four blocks to and from school together. I would have preferred to walk with a friendly classmate or two. My sisters felt the same way, but our parents made us stay together. I’m sure they took comfort from the belief that, once beyond the protection of the nuns, our numbers would be our strength. In fact, our daily migration created the opposite effect. For those kids inclined to taunt, one white person was a tempting target. Two or three or four presented all the greater provocation — a flaunting of whiteness, an intentional drawing of attention.
Whoever got out first when the 2:25 bell rang stood across the street, on the southeast corner of Wabash and 29th, and waited for the others. We all had to stay there until the entire group had assembled. We then made our way east on 29th to the broad and busy Michigan Avenue. Some of the more affluent kids who went to St. James — those whose mothers were teachers or fathers were firefighters — continued east to the high-rise apartment developments of Prairie Shores or Lake Meadows. Others stopped at Michigan Avenue and waited for the public bus to take them north to the government-subsidized apartments on the long stretch of nothing between our neighborhood and downtown. We walked north a block to South Commons. Ours was the first house in the row, the one closest to school. There were a few other St. James kids who lived in South Commons, and a few who lived in Prairie Courts, the housing project just beyond it on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Our goal was to walk swiftly and make it home before they spotted us.
When I was in third grade, our group included Suzy, who was in seventh grade; Rachel, who was in fifth; and Melissa, the second-grader, for a total of four. The taunts were not always overtly racial, and sometimes this was a relief — to be singled out for something, anything, other than race. It could be “Hey ugly,” or “Look at you, with your hand-me-downs,” regarding a sister whose uniform was a little loose, or whose blouse wasn’t ironed, or whose white kneesocks had lost their elastic. “Y’all poor or something?”
To stave off the insults, and to make inroads to actual friendship, I’d decided to try a simple bribe. After school, candy was the currency of choice, and one in particular was incredibly popular, wax-paper-wrapped squares of sweet-and-sour taffy called “nihalators.” From what I could tell, if you had a pack of nihalators, you had friends — at least until your supply ran out. I searched the drugstore in vain for this elusive candy until finally one afternoon I got someone to show me the outer wrapper. “Now & Laters” it declared, beside an image of a grinning, freckled boy and a girl with bangs. That afternoon I bought a pack, flavored grape, and could hardly wait to break it out on the walk home the next day. The candy worked beautifully, meaning I had a cluster of kids around me until the pack ran out. A few of the kids noticed Melissa’s recently fallen-out front tooth, provoking a round of “snaggletooth.” I joined in the laughing, and, intoxicated by the camaraderie, briefly wandered off with the instigators. I was dutifully reported at the dinner table.
“You stay with your sisters,” my dad said, then turned his attention back to the newspaper’s bridge column. The subject was closed.
“I want to be with my friends.”
He peered at me over his glasses.
“You can see them at school.”
I frowned. “But…”
“You are responsible for each other. You take care of each other. Family is the most important thing.” My dad was one of nine kids. He and my aunts and uncles would sit around at my grandparents’ house for hours, shouting and playing bridge and eating my grandmother’s mostaccioli. “Blood,” he concluded gravely, “is thicker than water.”
I’d never heard this expression before, and I immediately imagined a cup of blood and a cup of water being poured out side by side, one running clear and quick and the other red and sluggish. I had no idea what it meant.
Another reason for his insistence, I’m sure, is that Suzy had epilepsy, the kind that caused her, at unpredictable moments, to fall into seizures, always preceded by a hazy, faraway look that we’d learned to spot. We knew to get her comfortably seated so she would not stumble while her body writhed beyond her consciousness; to sit with her, gently holding her arms, for the one or two minutes it took for the synapses in her brain to realign. Often she’d immediately fall asleep. Sometimes she’d jump up, startled, only to be forced back down by dizziness.
The days when she had seizures at school were hard for all of us — as soon as the bell rang and we were outside, kids would hop around us, yelling, “Contaminated! Contaminated! Get away! Don’t give me that disease! Y’all diseased. Unh! That’s the honky disease!” A girl in Suzy’s class, one who lived in Prairie Courts, was invariably among the name-callers. Sherida was large and round and had a voice that could get very loud. That her blouses always seemed to be straining against her girth only made her seem that much bigger. The day after the first night’s airing of Roots, Suzy had a seizure in class. When the afternoon bell rang, Sherida was ready. She whooped and hopped alongside us all the way from 29th Street to the gate of our yard. We opened it and crossed inside. Sherida picked up a shard of broken pottery and stood outside the gate, waving it.
“Y’all do all that to us, but y’all chicken now,” she said. “I wish I had a whup right here, I’d whup all a y’all.”
I stood transfixed, wondering if she would throw that shard at my head. Suzy had gone inside. Melissa ran to get Hattie, who appeared on the balcony in her white uniform, all 6 feet of her, seething. “Chile, you better get yourself out of here,” she commanded. “‘Fore I call the po-lice.”
Sherida stared for a moment, considering, perhaps, the oddness of the situation. Here she was, in her mind avenging the wrongs done to black folks, being chased off by one of these very same folks, who was up there defending, of all things, the white people who were the cause of her oppression. “You one sorry-ass Tom,” Sherida said. She opened her mouth as if to add something more, then dropped the shard and walked slowly, deliberately, away.
In 1969 the archdiocese of Chicago assigned St. James its first black pastor. Though Fr. Rollins Lambert had been ordained 20 years before, he remained one of only a handful of black priests in the city, and the church was still widely regarded as white and racist. Sr. Margaret Lyons, who was principal at St. James while I was a student there, told me recently of a woman she’d met before she came to work at the school. The woman, who was black and Catholic, was a daily communicant. One morning she was running late for her job as a housekeeper in an affluent neighborhood. Having missed the morning Mass at her own parish, she stopped in to take Communion at a church near her employer’s home. But when it came her turn to receive a wafer, the priest passed her by. This was the context in which Fr. Lambert was sent to St. James. Because black Catholic priests were a rarity, their services were in high demand, and within nine months Lambert had moved on. But his effect was permanent. Although those who took his place were white, their approach was post-Vatican II: ecumenical, with an emphasis on New Testament love and forgiveness. They taught the students of St. James about a Jesus who was a radical seeker of social justice, challenging the foundations of his society and his religion.
The only thing worse for a child than being taunted is being ignored. The meanness came in waves, but my irrelevance was constant. Not being black, I had no value. Not for playing double-Dutch jump rope (I was deemed irreparably “double-handed,” hence unable to keep the beat) or for talking about TV shows (I wouldn’t understand) or for recommending music (I once asked a girl in my class what radio station she listened to and she rolled her eyes). Not for sitting together at lunch and sharing recollections of Head Start (I had gone to nursery school) or planned vacations, which invariably occurred “down South” (my grandparents, to my consternation, had a summer home “up North” in Wisconsin).
One of my most egregious failings was that I was not tough. I had not suffered and lived to tell the tale.
“My daddy, he whupped me with a switch so I was screamin’ and cryin’, ooh-ee.”
“Well my daddy, he took the cord and ripped it out the wall so hard, it up and broke the lamp. My mama tol’ him to quit it and he just smacked her upside her head and then he whupped me good.”
The girls started laughing and slapping one another five.
These boasts were a regular occurrence. How much was true I did not know, but I did know I could not begin to concoct such stories, could not grasp the humor in it. I’d received my share of spankings at home and even, once, a ruler whack on my open palm at school in front of the whole class. There was nothing about those experiences I had any interest in discussing. On this point my classmates were right: I had no concept of a pain so bad you could only laugh, and I did not understand the solidarity that came from it.
Perhaps because of my own isolation I was keenly aware of another solitary figure at the school. For me the enduring image of Homer Wilson is of a man in baggy trousers and shiny shoes ambling down an empty hall with a mop and a wheeled bucket. I’d seen him pull chewed gum from the undersides of chairs, mop vomit from the green tile floors, and peel toilet paper off the bathroom ceiling, where it had been tossed in soggy wads. Homer Wilson had been raised Catholic, a status that brought him an extra degree of scorn, both from blacks who felt he had abandoned his spiritual roots and from whites in the church who did not want him there. His experience was one of struggle and rejection, and for that, at St. James, he was honored and respected. His name was spoken with reverence, and the teachers, nuns, and priests held him in high regard. He walked alone, but his aloneness seemed somehow regal and contemplative, while mine felt isolated and pathetic.
Looking back now, I realize that Homer Wilson was the only black man in the building — all the teachers and staff were women, all the priests were white. In this way, what was invisible elsewhere became not just visible but celebrated. I can’t say Homer and I ever had a conversation that went beyond hello, but as a young student I attempted to adopt his posture of equanimity. Once, for an in-class exercise, we were asked to talk about our parents’ jobs. I was not quite sure what my dad did for a living. I knew only that he left for work early and went to an office. So I conjured up the most exalted job I knew, one whose name itself sounded beautiful to me, and proclaimed that my dad was a janitor.
In the spring of 2005, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that St. James was one of 23 schools it was closing to cut costs. Alumni at some of the schools were able to fend off the closures, often with the help of church congregations, but at St. James the effort never gained momentum, and at the end of the term it was shut down for good. By September the parish had leased the buildings to an education agency that contracted with the city to operate them as an alternative school “designed to reclaim youth between the ages of 12 and 21, who have not been successful in traditional educational settings.”
In other words, poor black kids who had failed to overcome their circumstances, a student pool that overlapped substantially with that previously served by St. James.
For years after I’d graduated eighth grade, and had the luxury of leaving, I wanted only to forget about St. James. But eventually I came to realize that inside the pain was a purpose, a knowledge of what it feels like to be treated as less. Less beautiful, less valuable, less human. That awareness has come to me over time, until now it is as much a part of me as the color of my skin. I went back to Chicago to visit the school in February, hoping to get in touch with some classmates, to see through their eyes what those years were like, and whether our lives in the three decades since had taken on any parallels traceable to our shared origins. I’d also hoped to coax someone to go with me to St. James.
Most of all I’d wanted to find Stephanie Brown. I’d talked with former teachers and the school secretary, but the face and the name did not register. Had Stephanie Brown called them as I had, they would not have known who she was as they’d immediately known me, would not have had that instant image of her face in their heads, that cry of recognition in their voices, that story or three to recall. In part because her tenure at St. James was brief, but also because she had, through the commonness of both her name and the color of her skin, achieved as a child the anonymity I had ached for. I called a dozen Stephanie Browns listed as living in Chicago. Three had taken Brown as their married name. Three calls went to voice mail (none of them sounded the way I remembered Stephanie Brown sounding) and were never returned. Four phones were disconnected. One rang endlessly without answer. Stephanie Brown No. 7 was sympathetic. “I understand the need,” she said to me. “I do, I do.”
Even those classmates the teachers could recall by name proved elusive. Edwena Brunell, my kindergarten teacher, who is white and who taught at the school until it closed, scrutinized the class portrait I’d brought and shook her head. Some of the boys had done well, going on to jobs in banks or on the police force. With others, she said, it was hopeless. One boy had had a brother shot dead in a brawl. Another came to show her his fancy car; he wouldn’t say how he’d paid for it. Some of the girls had had babies, moved. Some had gotten married, changed their names. She’d lost track of them.
I arrived at the doors of the school alone. The last time I’d been inside was in 1981, for my eighth-grade graduation. Though the program now housed there is nondenominational, a slender cross still hangs on the flagstone facade alongside “ST JAMES SCHOOL” in all-capital, brown-painted metal letters. A student was standing out front, smoking. He regarded me with that familiar mixture of curiosity and hostility that says, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong.” He took one last drag, dropped the butt, and mashed it into the cigarette-littered steps. I followed him in. The school day was officially over, but two women still sat behind the counter, answering phones and staring into computer screens, and students wandered in and out. Everybody was black.
The director of the school, a man named Travis Baldwin, emerged from what used to be the principal’s office. I’d explained to him on the phone that I’d been a student at St. James. If he was surprised to see that I was white, he didn’t let on. He shook my hand and then followed me as I drifted in and out of classrooms. In the former kindergarten, where my tawny-skinned Afro lady once presided, was a poster of Alicia Keys in a strapless gown, bearing a seductive pout. With her honey-colored skin and sleek hair, she could have been the grown-up version of one of those kindergarten class portrait girls I’d marked as friends.
Shuffling and shouting from the hall.
“Hey, nigga, what up?”
“Shee-at, bro, where you been?”
Baldwin cleared his throat, leaned his head out the classroom door.
“How is everything?”
Thirty years ago, the only black man in the building scrubbed the floors. Now one was running the school. Baldwin’s voice was calm, authoritative, as he regarded the man-boy students with their bald heads, baseball caps, and baggy pants, one with a toothpick in his mouth, in the midst of what was probably a routine greeting but one that Baldwin’s tone suggested he’d prefer be conducted beyond the hearing of an outsider.
The toothpick rolled back and forth as its owner considered the question/request.
“All right,” he conceded, and then, with his friend, turned and walked out the door.