November 6, 2014KR OnlineEssay

From the Black Notebooks

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Fall 1991, Vol. XIII, No. 4

Introduction
The following selection of autobiographical prose is taken from The Black Notebooks, which I began writing in 1974 when we became one of the first black families to move into Upper Montclair, New Jersey. I began keeping journals in order to understand my inner responses to living in this environment which some part of me had been taught to think of as ideal: my feelings of depression, shame, anxiety, self-hatred, fear, isolation, as well as my desire for love and intimacy. Part of the complexity of my situation had to do with the fact that I appear to be white. I hoped that writing my feelings down, especially the ones which were the most disturbing, would exorcise their power over me.

Though the writing began strictly as a personal document, after several years, I came to think that the work probably had value for others too. Perhaps hidden fears and longings are under the surface of much behavior between blacks and whites, and many people are either unconscious or too ashamed to bring these parts of the self to light. Further, I came to believe that racism, and all its manifestations, is a reflection of deep psychic structures that have to be uncovered, addressed, and restructured before changes in the external world will be lasting.

Teachers Workshop
Today I did a teachers’ workshop in a small town in New Jersey. Just about 99 44/100% “pure.” I explained how I have the children write poems using oxymorons: “Think of something you can see very clearly, or feel very strongly. Now think of its opposite; like— Sun. Cold Sun. Or— rainbow. Black rainbow.” One teacher said, “That’s negative thinking. I don’t like negative thinking. I want my rainbows to be colored good colors. Pretty colors. Not black. I don’t like all this negative thinking.” Immediately another teacher chimed in. “Yes. And what has happened to meter and rhyme?”

My stomach knotted up. They’ve found out what I am, what I bring to this lily-white happy town. Not that they know I’m black. But something subtle and unseen, something that comes out of my blackness. I bring the dreaded disease. I encourage their children to open their hearts to the “dark” side. To know the fear in them. To know the rage. To know the repression that has lopped off their brains—just as it has lopped off the brains of the children in the ghetto. But theirs is a painless death, the victims so anesthetized they don’t kick.

The Woman from Audubon
Yesterday I did an in-service in Audubon. Afterward one of the teachers who spoke most intelligently during the meeting came over to speak to me. I was enjoying her remarks and, as we were talking, became aware of the tiny gold Star of David around her neck. This town is white. When I say white I mean white. The closest thing they have to something colored is an oriental restaurant. I have the feeling that Jews are rare. Why would she wear that, I thought.

For several years, I wore my identity like a banner. “Hello, I’m Toi Derricotte, I’m black.” My black friends laughed at me and told me to grow up. But I was tired of the pleasant conversations at the bus stop with the white person who finally said: “Isn’t it terrible? These colored people are taking over everything.” I didn’t want to get close and then be hurt. Better to put the truth out front.

When Bruce and I were looking for a house, I answered an ad for a rental property that I assumed was in an all-white neighborhood. I met the man who owned the property (I never take Bruce because I know from experience that if he comes, since he’s obviously black, we never see what’s available—only what they want us to see), and we drove to the house together. The lady who lived there, plump and matronly, became friendlier and friendlier as she took me through the rooms. Finally we sat down on the sofa and relaxed.” You’re going to love it in this neighborhood,” she assured me.

“Will I?”

“Oh yes,” she answered. “You’ll fit in perfectly.”

Before I could imagine what she was talking about, she went on. “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” I was floored. Nobody had ever guessed my religion before. I felt strangely flattered. Did I have a halo coming out of my head like the Blessed Virgin?

“I am Catholic,” I said. “How did you know?”

“Oh, I’m just good at that sort of thing. What are you, anyway? Italian?”

Click, click, my brain went. So that’s where she’s heading. I had never had it done like this before—a real pro. OK, you bitch, I thought. I can play this game too.

“No,” I replied politely.

A pause. She was waiting for me to volunteer.

“Are you Spanish?”

“No.”

Another pause.

“Are you French?”

“No.”

Another pause.

How many nationalities could she come up with?

“Are you Portuguese?”

“Syrian?”

“Greek?”

“Lebanese?”

“Armenian?”

“Turkish?”

“Are you Druze?”

She began naming sects I had never heard of.

“I’m black.” Her face turned red as a hot towel.

“I didn’t know blacks were Catholic!” she stammered.

I burst out laughing. She couldn’t have said anything more able to defuse me if she had thought about it for months.

I wonder how many such situations have assaulted the woman from Audubon. Suddenly I feel a pang of desire that I should have a cross, a star, some sign of gold to wear, so that, before they wonder or ask, I can present them with evidence of my choice, a dignified response to the world’s accusations. What would such a sign be for a black person? There are buttons: “I’m black and I’m proud.” But I want something subtle, like the gold ornament, but able to be discerned, even if subconsciously.

Now I remember that the famous artist and naturalist Audubon, the man the town must have been named after, was rumored to have been black. The irony! How many of us are out here, with or without signs, moving back and forth over the line of sight?

Clarissa
Last night my friend Mady said how disturbed she is about racial problems in the small town she’s teaching in. The community is largely white and upper middle class. However, there is a poor black section. Many of the mothers in this section are maids of other children in the school.

In each class there is one black child, and this child is also outstanding in terms of behavior. In one class the girl is super bright, super personality, in another the girl is the slowest. When asked to write something about her hand, she wrote: “My hand is clean.” The teacher said: “That girl comes to school every day smelling and dirty.” In the other classrooms, the black children are either the clowns or the “bad” kids. Almost all of them are far behind the whites in reading, writing, and speaking. When Mady talked to teachers, they looked at her like she was crazy. “There’s no racism here!”

I remember Clarissa, that black girl who came to school each day starched and pressed all over—her kinky curls, her pinafore. I think of her oiled gold skin, her knobby knees and thin calves like a filly. She always talked at the wrong time, stood up at the wrong time, had to go to the bathroom. “Clarissa, didn’t you go when the other children went?” And no matter how clean her mother sent her, no matter how many times she brought home bad reports, each day Clarissa screamed in class as if possessed.

I think of the teacher lifting her, screaming, away from the dollhouse where the other girl said: “She’s taking my doll,” holding her kicking feet away, carrying her as if she has the plague. Clarissa screams for her body lifted against her will, screams because her mother will beat her, screams because she will sit all morning in the window of the principal’s office where everyone will look at her.

How did this happen, so that by the first grade it is already too late; and, in spite of her mother, who spent her maid’s paycheck on a white pinafore so that Clarissa would fit in, she doesn’t fit in. And her mother isn’t strong enough to beat that devil out of her.

What makes Clarissa jump out of her skin?

Kinship
A black boy in the fourth grade said to me: “I’d like to be your son.”

A white boy sitting near him responded: “You could never be her son.”

“Why not,” I asked.

“Because he’s black.”

“But I’m black too.” He looked at me, his eyes swimming with pain and confusion.

It occurred to me that white children might have a more difficult time forming a concept of kinship to people of different colors than black children. Black children grow up in families where there is every conceivable color, texture of hair, thickness of feature. In white families there is much less variation.

I decided to test this. I asked the children: “How many in here have people in their family that are all different colors, some people as light as I am, some people as dark as Sheldon?” All the black kids raised their hands. “How many in here have people in their family that are all just about the same color as you are?” All the white children raised their hands.

Schools with predominantly white children want to teach the concept of the human family by including pictures of black people in textbooks. But valuing the other, learning we are all the same blood, is not a lesson one learns with the mind, but with the body—the way we first learn love through physical closeness.

I remember sleeping over at my best friend Amanda’s when we were ten or eleven. We kicked her older sister out of bed, and talked far into the night. Summer nights I remember most. We would swing open the large door of the screened window; sometimes the moon would be out there with its shattering white grin. We would lie at the foot of her bed in a puddle of brightness. Her almond skin shone—as if a kind of luminous breath shined out of her.

She would soon go to sleep, but I would stay awake for hours, exuberant. Already I had sensed the darkness beyond the window, beyond the moonlight, and I was comforted. I was not alone.

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Toi Derricotte is the author of The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and four earlier collections of poetry, including Tender, winner of the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton), received the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her honors include, among many others, the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes and the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists. Derricotte is the co-founder of Cave Canem Foundation (with Cornelius Eady), Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.