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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Neale had opened to me a treasure of African-American literature—Countee Cullen, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. We read aloud to each other, nights and Saturday mornings, propped against our twin reading pillows, and also on road trips. I remember exactly when and where we read Alice Walker's Meridian. We were driving to San Antonio, Texas, to visit friends for Thanksgiving. Somewhere between Artesia and Carlsbad, under a fine autumn rain, my voice broke, and I couldn't read more for grief. I don't remember now specifically what I was grieving. It could have been the troubled relationship between Meridian and her mother, the relationship that made Meridian feel she needed to ask forgiveness because she existed—not unlike my relationship with my mother. It could have been for the way we humans in our deepest intimacies are capable of such hurtfulness. It could have been for shame and hopelessness over the way race has become an excuse for not extending ourselves in love. Whatever it was, Neale pulled our sky-blue Beetle onto the desert shoulder and held me while I sobbed.

In New Mexico Blacks represented less than two percent of the population in the seventies. "Just because we're only two percent of the population doesn't mean we're not here," Neale complained. "They need to stop calling New Mexico the tri-cultural state. Native American and Hispanic, yes. But there's no such thing as a White culture. There are Dutch and Italian, German and Polish cultures, but not White culture. And just because the black presence is small, doesn't mean we haven't been here contributing. We've been in New Mexico since before the Civil War as cowboys and during and after the war as soldiers."

The size of the Black population meant we spent hours searching for Black hair products, and we were jubilant when we finally located a store on South Broadway in Albuquerque that stocked them. We searched until we found a Black barber in the same neighborhood to trim Neale's Afro after a Gallup beautician and I had both made her look less than presentable. I asked the barber if he knew how to cut "White" hair. "Of course," he said. "That's all I learned in barber school. I had to teach myself how to cut Black hair."

I found out that's how a lot of things are, how Black people, raised in the dominant culture, know so much more about White people than Whites do about Blacks. I saw that it wasn't very different from growing up lesbian in a straight world. Raised to be straight, I knew more about what it meant to be heterosexual than about who I might be in a gay world I knew nothing about for the longest time.

I experienced the odd effect of living in photonegative when we visited Neale's family in Brooklyn. At home in New Mexico, I sometimes felt that I lived in Neale's shadow. People who forgot my name always remembered hers. They remembered things she'd said; next to her I often felt small and, well, colorless. Intellectually sharp, a voracious reader, charming and outspoken, she was a presence to be reckoned with in any setting. It wasn't until we visited Brooklyn for the second time that I realized context had something to do with how memorable each of us was to the people who met us.

We were upstairs in Neale's sisters' bedroom, dressing to go out. "You know what?" I said, amazement in my voice. "Those people who came to the party this afternoon, they all remembered my name from when we were here last Christmas. They remembered things about me from our last visit. I couldn't believe it. Usually it's you that people remember."

"That's because in New Mexico, I'm the one who's different. Here you're the one who's different. That's all. It's not that I'm more memorable. I keep telling you that."

Our early educations also showed up in silver and black. In the public schools of urban New York with their high Black enrollments, Neale had never once had an African American teacher. My first teachers, on the other hand, were all Black. Growing up in Teec Nos Pos, deep in the heart of Dinétah, my first school, which ran from kindergarten through second grade, was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In the early fifties the federal government was one of few equal opportunity employers, so most teachers in the BIA schools were Black and came from places like Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia to pass on the soft, round English of the Black South to Native American children who were just learning the language.

My first crush was on my younger brother's caramel-colored teacher who wore lipstick and smelled like perfume. I was looking for the mothering that my own mother seemed too busy with her five other children to give, and Miss Huff patiently listened to me chatter every afternoon after school, even letting me visit her tiny round-ended trailer while she cooked supper. Before I fell asleep at night I imagined burying my face in the nubbly roughness of her knitted, ribbed beige dress and breathing in her smell while she cupped the back of my head in her hands.

I can only imagine that in the evening, when they spent time together, the teachers used words like the ones Neale would teach me—among them, nappy and high yellow. But in public, which consisted of the school, our family, and the traders' families, they lived the assimilated lives of professionals. They called themselves colored and were more refined by middle class, White standards than my mother was.

Of the two of us, Neale would undoubtedly have benefited more from having African American teachers, from seeing women whose careers might tell her, "I did it, and you can too." Although they taught me nothing of African American culture and never spoke in front of me about the racism they'd experienced, though they appeared to be part of whatever I knew of mainstream culture, they might well have related differently with Neale and other Black children. Nevertheless, I benefited from these teachers in some different ways than Neale would have.

One day when I was in second grade, we were called out of the classroom, one by one, to a room that looked like a little clinic. I had never been in there before, so I looked around with interest at the examining table, the scale, the jars of cotton balls, tongue depressors, applicators and medicines. A chart with rows of the capital letter E hung on one wall. The Es were placed upside down, backwards and sideways, and as they moved down the page, the letters got smaller and smaller.

Miss Huff was already in the room, sitting at a desk with a clipboard and pen. She told me to cover one eye with my hand and use the other hand to show the positions of the letter E. I moved my hand up and down and sideways with ease, sure that I was doing a fine job. The teacher-principal, Miss Holbrook, also Black, came in before I'd finished and stood beside Miss Huff. By this time I had covered my other eye and was confidently showing the positions of the Es with my other hand. Miss Holbrook whispered loudly to Miss Huff, "Look at those hands, so white and skinny, compared to the brown chubby ones."

As soon as she said it, my stomach knotted up, and my fingers turned cold. I wanted to hide my face, and in a way I did, by not showing that I had heard. I finished all the rows, but my feeling of accomplishment had vanished. Back in the classroom, I held my fingers below the top of my desk and stared at them. I knew there was something wrong with them, something wrong with me, and it was about the color of my skin.

I was one of three White children attending the school, and all the personnel were either Diné or African American. Ever since we'd moved to Navajo Country for my parents to take up missionary work when I was three, although I was racially part of the American majority, I almost always found myself in the minority. It was something I was accustomed to, and now I would say that being in the minority from day to day enriched my life. Even Miss Holbrook's words, while painful to hear, enriched me, helping me later to empathize more deeply than I otherwise might have with anyone who suffered discrimination. Those early experiences were like an alcohol swab, preparing my skin for that first needle prick on Old 66.

True naturalization takes place over time, through the mundane, through the breaking of bread, through experiences that enter one's consciousness slowly, often in such small increments that the events are scarcely noticed or recognized as bringing about deep transformation. Neale and I brought our family recipes to our kitchen, but it was when I ate with her family that I noticed some of the differences in how our families cooked. Her West Indian grandmother made turkey for Christmas dinner, but the gravy had a tomato base, and golden rings of onions floated in it, instead of the giblets in brown sauce that my mother made. Neale's stepfather, in a very big production, made peas and rice with pigtails, and I was amazed to see how long a pig's tail really is—more than a foot. Back at home I learned to cook collard greens in pot likker until the tastes of ham and brown sugar and greens had married into an irresistible mix of flavors and textures. I replicated Grandma's gravy when I roasted a chicken. I did not think that I was drawing sustenance from another culture and becoming part of it at its edges; some habits changed without Neale or me or anyone else taking notice.

I knew I had truly arrived in my adopted homeland when Neale said laughingly, sounding surprised at herself, "I almost called you niggah just now. You know, in the way only we can call each other that." A couple of days later, it happened; in a moment of hilarity she called me the word I always referred to as the N-word. Maybe she couldn't do it without first preparing me. So I would know it was a good thing, a sign of belonging.

Often the things that knit us most tightly together are less the joys and more the difficulties we survive together. It makes some sense then, that I mark the beginning of my naturalization process at that motel on Old 66, with Neale's and my shared humiliation and anger. Much later, when Neale was trying to get into medical school, she paid a visit to the dean at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Afterwards, my hopes for her took a slide when she came home with a grim face. I poured tea and held her hand at the kitchen table  "The woman barely even let me say anything. She took one look at me and said, 'We already have one of you. Why don't you try the law school?'"

Perhaps the greatest agent of naturalization comes from deep bonding experiences brought on by shared tragedy. One morning when we were getting ready for work, the phone rang. It was Neale's mother, calling from Brooklyn. She told Neale that her stepfather had died the night before of a heart attack. We decided we couldn't afford two plane tickets, so we made flight arrangements, and I drove Neale to the airport. When I got home that evening, she called. She sounded almost as if she were choking as she told me that Harold hadn't had a heart attack. A family member had stabbed him. "How long did my mother think it would take me to find out what really happened? It's crazy here." Neale's voice broke.

"I'm coming there," I said.

Neale protested for about a second, then sounded relieved.

I arrived in Newark at noon the next day. Neale was right. It was pretty crazy, and I dove into the craziness, trying to help, to be a support. The party where everyone remembered me was really Harold's wake. Some of the guests continued to go along with the pretense that he had died of a heart attack. That was crazy in itself because Harold was a retired police officer, and of course his police brothers knew all the details.

I helped to serve the food people brought—hams, turkeys, casseroles, sweet potato and bean pies. I visited with the people who remembered me. I sat with the family at the High Episcopal funeral service and watched the police honor guard bear the casket out to the hearse. Afterwards we drove for miles and miles through glorious red, yellow, and rust foliage to the cemetery in Long Island. And for days we ate leftover black-eyed peas and collard greens and turkey.


©Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To Be Continued on Monday, 3/25/24

If you are just joining this serialization, you can use the Table of Contents to find your way to the beginning and follow sequentially.


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