I’ve been whining in this space about my job hunt. No news yet about any of the recent applications I have submitted. But the one I am most excited about would—if I were to be fortunate enough to get the job—be a very different experience for me. Already employed in my would-be division are several Black women. Like, more than three. So my addition to this team would mean that we’d basically be a unit chock fulla Black women.
I admit that the thought of that has got me thinking.
For most of my professional and academic life I have been The Only One. From first through fourth grades there was me and Baker Morton (*not his real name) as the only two Black kids in our whole grade. All the other kids assumed we were either brother and sister or, come third grade or so, boyfriend-girlfriend. I heard about me and Baker sitting in a tree kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-en-gee so many times it is ingrained on my ear drums. Baker avoided me like the plague.
In high school, my parents gave me a break. We moved to a mixed race neighborhood. When Mom and Dad found out that I was to be bused to the majority-White school in the system we had just moved from, they marched me down to the administration offices and demanded that I be allowed to go to the 60%-40% Black-White school 15 minutes away from us. My father had said to the confused administrator, “Don’t think of her as a Black student who needs to have experience with White kids; think of her as a White kid who needs to have experience with with Black kids.” I was allowed to go to the 60-40 school. It saved my social life. (I would also meet my future husband there. Another story.)
In this new high school I had my first Black female friends.
On the eve of my first day of school, I had images of tough, street-wise girls with Angela Davis afros, switchblades stuffed in their socks and packs of cigarettes in their designer purses. I didn’t see anyone exactly like that my first day. But still these Black girls in high school were something else. Louder than I had been used to. More confident-seeming. Hair styles that looked as if they just stepped out of the beauty salon. They looked, physically, more like women than girls.
My first Black female friend I met while sitting alone at the lunch table. She came over and sat down and introduced herself. We found out we shared the same first name. She was holding a bible and began talking about how much she loved the stories, mentioning in particular all the “sexy stuff” that could be found in its pages. As unfashionable as I felt—with my too-new clothes that may as well have had tags screaming “BACK TO SCHOOL SALE AT J.C. PENNY,” she was even less fashionable. Her clothes looked as if she had sewn them herself using patterns borrowed from “The Little House on the Prairie” wardrobe department.
Great, I thought. My only friend for the next four years is going to be this outcast.
But that friendship only lasted a week or so. I still feel a slight rush of hot shame when I think about how I dumped my like-named first friend once I had made real friends. Actually, it’d have been better if I had dumped her. Instead, I just sort of…went out of my way to make sure our paths did not cross, spoke fewer and fewer words to her, “forgot” to meet her at her locker after English class…until she figured out on her own that we were no longer friends and she stopped talking to me.
I needn’t have worried about trying to fit in once I had my circle of “real” Black female friends. They were a pretty diverse bunch. One lived on the other side of town in the projects, getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and transferring buses twice in order to attend this better school. Another lived in a stable, working class neighborhood. Another was the daughter of a Black professional and had a mother who was the only stay-at-home Black woman that I had ever met. They wore all different styles of clothes, though mostly the “preppie” fashions that were then in vogue more so amongst the White kids than the Black ones. Musically, they liked Prince and Rick James and P-Funk—but could groove to Elton John, too. There was no need for me to try to “talk Black” around them, and they were in the same advanced classes that I was in, so no need for me to play dumb.
Not being The Only One allowed me to develop an identity as a Black girl/woman in the context of other Black girls. I was the only one in our group who was born in another state, had lived in other cities, and had experienced a kind of bohemian upbringing. Thus, I became The Worldly One. I had a musician mother and had been on the inside of nightclubs so, even though a couple of my other female friends were in Jazz and Marching Bands, I was The Musical One. We were all in the advanced classes and were all well-liked by our teachers, but because of the special composition awards I received I was The Writer One. On the romantic front, I was not the cutest or the prettiest, or the most popular with the fellas, or the most experienced at flirting and whatnot. But, perhaps because of my utter lack of natural opposite-sex interactive skills, I developed a somewhat of an allure: I was The Elusive and Mysterious One. As the only one of us who had come from majority-White school settings, my born-again Blackness was intensive and all-encompassing: I was The Militant One.
Despite highly achieving, my high school years were not without a certain mid-level mischief. Still, I developed into the one who could best keep track of curfews, organize alibis, and keep my wits about me in wrong places at wrong times: I was The Responsible One.
You would think that this experience during my teen years would be the perfect foundation for a lifetime of positive working relationships with other Black women…for sharing in the workplace with other Black women a sisterhood, a sense of shared goals and common destiny, and a respect for our differences…for an immediate ease of interaction with other Black women, a sense of comfort in me with them and them with me.
You’d think, maybe. But you’d be wrong…