I hadn’t really thought of it as a hardship until that very moment. But the first thing that came to my mind was the thing I always thought when she sat down beside me. I said, “She smells funny.”
It was true. I’ve got a real good nose, and I’d never smelled anything quite like that before. But I had never had to worry about straightening my hair to try to fit in with a bunch of stuck-up, ignorant white high school kids either, so I had not been exposed to the scent of chemical straighteners.
The other Mormon kids thought what I said was utterly hilarious, and I’m sure I was quoted for days or weeks thereafter. After all, nobody in our circle had been forced into such an (ahem) exotic situation before.
That whole exchange left a bad taste in my mouth, because even though I didn’t really know Brenda, it felt like I had betrayed her.
There is something about music, about the act of sharing a song with another human, that bonds you to that person spiritually. Even if you never talk to each other. You can’t sing with somebody and hate them at the same time – it just doesn’t work that way. And I had shared this bond with Brenda. Even though she smelled funny.
I sat next to Brenda in choir class all that year, and into the 11th grade too. By that next year I had all but dropped out of Seminary with the Mormons. There was racial tension on our campus, as in many schools that year. And Brenda had stopped straightening her hair. One morning she walked in with a righteous fro and I blurted out, “Damn, Brenda -- you look like Angela Davis!”
She grinned from ear to ear, struck a pose, and said humbly, “THANK YOU!”
She did, she looked amazing. And that smell was gone forever. By this time, I loved that girl.
One spring morning, we Mormonistas strode onto campus together before school, and there was a clique of black kids hanging out together, trying to look menacing – at least that’s what us white kids thought they were doing – and one Mormon kid spied Brenda in the black pack. “Hey Janice,” she teased, “there’s your friend. Why don’t you go talk to your FRIEND?”
Wow. That’s another moment burned into my memory. But this time I did the right thing:
“That’s a great idea -- Hey, Brenda! What’s up?” And I wandered over to where Brenda was standing with her friends, looking at me like I’d lost my damn mind. But she smiled and let me join their conversation.
I don’t know what the Mormon kids did next. I never even looked in their direction.
I guess news of this encounter eventually made the rounds of the Mormon parents. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for what happened later. My mom, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me weakly, “Do you really think you should hang out with someone like that?”
“Like what? Black?”
“Well … yeah.”
She didn’t press. She didn’t yell. She just – suggested. I told Mom Brenda was my friend, and she let it go at that. That really wasn’t my mom’s style, so I suspect this conversation was not her idea. I’d like to think she was at least a little bit embarrassed that she’d brought it up at all, possibly even glad I’d answered her the way I did.
Brenda didn’t have any kind of bad influence on me at all. I may have corrupted her, but not the other way around. We were partners in music and crime and hilarity, and after Brenda I knew most black people were probably not dangerous to my health.
My mother’s prejudice moved on to homophobia, but not until I had become best friends with a gay man. She had a reeeeally hard time with that, and our conversations on the topic did get heated.
Eventually Mom made up for everything, with credit in the karma bank before she died. Not only did she welcome people of every creed and hue into her home, she actually volunteered for several years at an AIDS hospice. I always felt like she took that assignment specifically because she regretted her history of homophobia. Mom redeemed herself.
My mentor in radio and activism, the late great Mama O’Shea, when she heard someone spew racism, would ask, “I’m half white, and half black. What part of me do you hate?”
I know both Mama and my mother would have loved Barack Obama.
Mom was pretty conservative and often voted Republican, but there’s not a doubt in my mind she would have voted for Obama. Might even have cut him a check. But she didn’t get the chance; she passed away in 2002.
I would like to have been able to share November 4, 2008, with Mom. It was one of the best days of my life, when Barack Obama was decidedly elected President of the United States. America was moving beyond race. Not only was Obama a historic candidate, he was actually the best man for the job.
The next morning I walked by an elevator as two men inside looked at each other, and I heard one guy say to the other, “It’s a new day for America.” There was an electric giddiness in the air for at least a week. I remember Jon Stewart on the Daily Show saying, “I think I can speak for all Americans when I say, ‘Can Obama start on the job early?’”
Maybe it's just because I live in super-liberal Portland, but after the election it seemed like everyone was filled with a sense of hope and possibility, like we might finally be able to turn this country around.
I can’t believe that in so short a time, from January to September, I have come to the conclusion that the United States is not ready for a black president.
Apparently, there is a sizeable number of Americans so profoundly ignorant and closed-minded that they cannot tolerate the possibility that a black person can be president. The very notion is unimaginable: he MUST be a non-citizen – a non-capitalist – a non-Christian. He’s SOMETHING, something scary, and he’s not the president. He just can’t be. It would shatter their entire belief system. That can’t happen.
These people clearly have never been exposed to a pleasant experience with someone from another race. They did not have the gracious good luck of singing next to Brenda Clayton in high school.
Is there a way we can ever appease these people?
Is there some way to cajole them back to reality in 2009? Can they, like my mother, see the error of their ways and seek to make amends?
I understand the impulse toward racism. I have felt it and even contributed to it. But I can’t begin to understand the fervor with which some people cling to their hatred. As putrid as their beliefs seem to me, I can’t even hate them nearly as much as they hate the idea of a black president.
I just wish they’d stop holding my country back. We’re trying like hell to evolve.
Oops. Sorry, never mind. Didn’t mean to bring up evolution.
As for me, I know I’m not completely cured of that inborn fear of The Other, no matter how much I may love specific humans from a lot of different races and backgrounds. So the only moral approach I can think of, the best I can do, is to act like I’m cured, and to hope that maybe I’ll truly get better someday -- or at least find a way, somehow, to eventually redeem myself.
An Essay by Janice Leber, Chopped Liver Productions
September 16 2009: In high school choir in the tenth grade, Mr. Teresi sat me next to Brenda Clayton. She was, like me, a strong second soprano. She was also the very first black person I had ever met, and as much as I enjoyed her voice and her spirit, her race definitely – dare I say it – colored our relationship.
I was a good little Mormon girl. There were no black Mormons. And when the other Mormon kids found out I was sitting next to a black person every day, they asked me what she was like. I remember this moment well: we good Mormon kids were walking onto campus together after early-morning Seminary, and they started laughing about my bad luck, having to sit next to Brenda.
"There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."