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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Voice, and Melba Pattillo Beals, who integrated Little Rock High School, and --"White Is A State of Mind"

Melba Pattillo Beals' memoir, "Warriors Don't Cry," is a seering roller coaster of a memoir. Reading it, you will never underestimate what the Civil Rights battles cost those who fought them, even those who were too young to understand what they were really taking on, like Melba, when at age twelve, she threw her name into the hat for integration, thinking it might be fun to go to that fancy, big Central High School. 




Her follow up memoir, White is a State of Mind, is more challenging, and to my way of thinking more illuminating. When Melba leaves--after hearing from a cousin who is not only passing for white, but a sheriff in a small southern town, that a bounty of $10,000 has been placed on her head--she is greeted by the Santa Rosa, California NAACP--a sea of white faces. When they put her in the car of one of their members, she is terrified, certain she is being kidnapped by the Klan, to be lynched or worse. 

And when she is dropped off at her new high school, Montgomery, she is so overwhelmed by terror, that she runs away, in a panic. She is not only walking into an all-white school, but she is doing so alone, without the press watching her. Surely, she believes, those students will murder her, as the Little Rock students would have done had they succeeded in their worst plans. 


Montgomery's student body, like much of Santa Rosa, is 99.9 percent white. The two other black students have little interest in being friends with her. Why should they, when they've been so successful fitting in? 

She is settled with a white, Quaker family of four, and cannot believe that they will not use her as a cheap slavey. In fact, this family welcomes her as family. Here, she learns that white people can be kind and loving, that cows like classical music, that dinner table conversation doesn't have to revolve around staying alive, and that young people can disagree with their elders without being disrespectful. 

When she goes home, she is stunned to return to a community. Her mother treats her like a child, her religion feels stifling and controlling, but most of all, life in Little Rock for people of color is one of terror--literally, they are terrorized by terrorists, because lifting her eyes to look white people in the face could result in her death, and every conversation with people of color revolves around sheer survival, whether that is financial or not getting murdered, as the integration of Little Rock High continues. Melba cannot wait to return to California, where the pressure is lifted and her opinion matters to her foster parents. 

When she has to leave this loving family, she is settled with an African-American professor and his wife who are far from friendly, and make sure that she realizes she is a temporary visitor who should keep to herself. 

Of course, this is before the days when African-American is the appropriate phrase. In fact, this professor sits Melba down and lectures her about how she must no longer use Negro or colored when talking about herself. The new, appropriate word is "black"--from which she recoils. Black in her home community is used as an insult.

But no, he explains, "black" is what we must use, to imply that we are proud and that this is our choice of a word. In a scene with hilariously patronizing undertones, he makes her parrot back his reasoning. 

And here's where the idea of voice comes in. Ms. Pattillo Beals is a wonderful writer with an incredible life story to tell. I'm sure she was a stunningly good journalist. And--if I were telling her story, I would have leapt into the humor, lean into what could have been outrageously, painfully funny scenes--like this one. 

Another scene I wish I could rewrite has Melba trying to fit in at her new high school, whose mascot is the Vikings. The girls, including her foster sister, Joan, take Melba to make Viking helmets for a pep rally. There's Melba, being presented with yellow yarn, to make the hair that goes under these helmets. Her foster father saves her from complete humiliation by taking her to buy dark yarn, so she does not feel like a complete idiot. Imagine that one written to emphasize both the comedy and the pain. 


Or Ms. Pattillo Beal's wedding night. In a recreation of her gratitude and admiration for the 101st Airborne soldier who saved her life and taught her to put feelings at bay when in a battle zone, Beals has fallen in love with another white soldier, John Beals (called Matt in the book) who has courted/stalked her with incredible patience combined with the allure of having someone to take care of her and protect her from everything. 

On their wedding night, she is rigid with embarrassment and fear. He takes out a textbook on close fighting, called "Kill or Get Killed" (she remembers it as Kill or Be Killed.) He reads this book aloud to her, while demonstrating the karate holds on her as an excuse to get her used to touching all over. 

Pattillo Beals tells us this touching story and moves on. I would have leapt all over that thing, hoping to write a combination of slapstick comedy, eroticism, and a hell of a lot of foreshadowing. Do you really think that a marriage consummated with the use of a textbook called "Kill or Get Killed," is likely to be successful? 

Racism follows Pattillo Beals to California, particularly when she is around the police, who are infuriated at a mixed race marriage. During a traffic stop for her husband's driving while being married to a black woman, the police almost cause Pattillo Beals' death and make her give birth prematurely when they partially separate her placenta by slamming her pregnant belly into a car.

And some of the greatest insights come in little clues--like after her husband abandons Pattillo Beals and baby daughter and she winds up at public housing in Oakland, befriending someone she does not know is a hooker, almost getting shot in the near-weekly violence, and being instructed how to deal with the Black Panthers--as per instructions,  when they come calling, she opens the door on these "angry men" heaps praise on them, (like she might on dangerous little boys) telling them she can't help right now, and shutting the door as quickly as possible. 

Voice. I love Pattillo Beals' poetic, thoughtful one. I love her faith. I love watching her struggle to find value in a challenging And part of me longs to rewrite her story with my own irony, comedy and questioning. 

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