White Girl

Suddenly, there was Regina Louise Washington. Her appearance came during my senior year in high school, and there had already been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King had become a real person to me. It didn’t matter that I’d never met the man. I had listened to his voice on T.V. I had seen those police dogs chasing those civil rights marchers even though my mother had commanded, “Margaret Ann, turn your head away.” I had heard my father refer respectfully then to this man as “Dr. King.” Yes, Martin Luther King was as alive and vital to me as if he walked the streets of Harrison, my hometown. As if he could and would one day walk right up to the edge of “that part of town,” where my grade school friend’s, Anna Jane’s family had been forced to live, she said due to “high rents” everywhere else.

In grade school, the other kids had looked down on “one of our own,” a “Caucasian” girlfriend of mine, because she’d lived on the edge of “that part of town.” I, myself, had liked Anna Jane because she had chosen to share a pet lizard she had found on the playground with me, and then when someone had stepped on that lizard, together we had plotted revenge.

I don’t remember the first African-American I ever saw. A little girl in the 1950s, I surely must have noticed Frank who worked as the janitor in the bank on the square. (Frank, we later learned, had a college education.) It seems I remember my mother bending down to say something about “that man” to me, something about not being afraid of the dark. Or is it just that I remember all of our dark shadows on the wall?

Harrison was a small town, and I guess my impression as I grew up was that there weren’t all that many “colored people,” as most called them, in our town. Or on earth for that matter. I knew there were black people in Africa, of course, because of our missionaries who went there. I had learned all about them in Sunday School.

To tell the truth though, I simply had had to keep on being Anna Jane’s friend right up to the moment her family moved away. I had to continue being her friend even after I’d learned where she lived, because that was “the only right thing to do.” If Anna Jane was thought not quite as good as me, that was just too bad. My parents and Sunday School teachers had done much too good a job, had taught me much too well evidently. I intended to do what was right. (Already the little do-gooder.)

Anyway, I had never noticed that there were no black children in my grade school. I did notice this, however, when we all got to junior high, because suddenly then, there were black students. My liberal father explained to me calmly that once there had been a separate school for “the Negro children,” that’s the word he said instead of “colored,” and now there wasn’t a “segregated school” anymore. I’d said, “Oh,” while he’d explained to me he thought that now such people wanted to be called “black.” These students were simply of little concern to me as they were not placed in any of my particular classes. I was considered “gifted,” and at least according to the school officials, these students evidently were not.

In high school though, I did see more of the black students, though always off in the hall to themselves. Marshall Jordan, who played basketball, was the only black student highly visible and, at that time, known to all. Then one day, Regina Washington and another girl walked very quietly onto the ward where I worked at the hospital. I was a senior volunteer there, a candy striper. And once again, I had never noticed until Regina and her friend walked, that there had been no black candy stripers before. No black volunteers.

The supervisor introduced the two as Regina Louise Washington and Paula Lorraine Jones. They were the first, and I, Margaret Ann Anderson, was overwhelmed.

Regina usually worked with Paula, but occasionally, she and I would end up in the same room together, changing the water carafes or the bed linens. I’d watch Regina out of the corner of my eye. She smiled once, and I blurted out, “Hi.” Both my heart and my voice were too loud. I wanted to tell her something like I thought she was very brave, but Regina had already answered, “Hi,” and then gone on with her work as if nothing important had happened.

I watched both girls carefully and decided I like Regina best. I’d found out Regina’s father was a minister, and somehow in my little white mind, this fact tied her to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Also, Regina had a thin scar on her left cheek, and she was small and a little awkward. A little more like me. Me, the one with the freckles still on my nose even though I was too old for them now, and me, whose clothes never seemed to fit quite right. My mother was always complaining that she could never find clothes with sleeves that didn’t come down over my wrists or slacks that didn’t drag at the ankles. Regina was a little more like me.

One day, I saw Regina coming toward me in the hall at school, and I felt the decision make itself inside of me, as well as the panic that Regina was going to get past me too soon and so I’d miss my chance—

“Hello!” My voice boomed out over the clatter of other students passing us. “Remember me?”

Regina stopped dead still in the middle of the hall. She didn’t answer, but nodded and smiled uncertainly. The tiny scar had stretched tightly over her cheek. My face felt hot. I just knew everyone was watching us.

And then there’d been Sunday. My parents sometimes did not attend church if they’d had a busy week. They’d then let me take the car, though, and go along with my younger sister. However, on this particular Sunday, my sister had been sick and so I just said I’d run along without her. Of course, I had no intention of going to my own church. I was going to Regina Washington’s church in “that part of town,” going to that church where her father preached.

After all, I’d thought it all out; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live in Harrison. In fact, he’d probably never even come here. From the T.V., I’d gathered that everything that was happening in civil rights started off in the churches, and so I was evidently just going to have to drive right up and into “that part of town” and get in on things. I wanted to “do what was right.” The time for integration was now! How many times had I heard leaders say this, and so I would cross right over and join the ranks. (My liberal father would have killed me had he known of my plan; my less than liberal mother would have cried.)

I was late for church, of course. Also of course, the door squeaked loudly. My first impression of the congregation was: THESE PEOPLE WERE ALL BLACK AND THEY WERE ALL LOOKING AT ME.

So this was how being in a minority felt? I took a seat in the back row. It had one room, a piano instead of an organ, and a small lectern for the pastor. The pews were unpadded, and mine creaked as I took a seat. Sunshine streamed through beautiful stained glass windows though. Ours had been a rainy spring, and this was the first sun we’d had in a few days. I spotted the traditional choir loft up front, and the choir wore crimson robes. The color was a far cry from the silky blue of the Methodist church uptown.

Regina sat up in the choir. She saw me, she recognized me, and then she looked very quickly away.

Dressed in a suit and tie, the man next to me gave me his hymnal. I found the gesture reassuring, but I could not find the right page number in time to join in the hymn. I caught Regina looking down at me, but her eyes then turned toward her father, the Reverend John Washington.

Regina’s father rose and walked to the lectern. He was shorter than Dr. King, I thought, and thinner. “Welcome!” Reverend Washington’s voice boomed though. Regina’s father did have a beautiful and deep voice.

“Welcome to God’s house in this sunshiny morning! I know we’re all finally glad for such a shining morning. We’re all glad to see each other and glad to welcome our guests!” Reverend Washington pointedly smiled at everyone and then he smiled pointedly down at me. I noticed he had a moustache. I had never known a minister with a moustache.

I also noticed that the church was not well-ventilated. I felt warm. I smiled, but sat as still as possible in my pew. I was thankful when we finally got to a prayer. I could hear the women around me fanning then. They were using those stiff, brightly colored funeral parlor fans. During the offering after the prayer, I fumbled with my billfold, but got some of my allowance into the plate. (Margaret Ann indeed noticed she was suddenly having trouble performing the simplest of tasks!”)

Later, I could never remember anything about the sermon that day. I did notice a woman who sat next to me. She was older, and I decided that she didn’t look all that different from Eva Simmons at my own church. This woman, much like Eva, listened very intently to the preacher, as if she was trying to memorize every word. She wore glasses that slipped a little down her nose because of the late spring heat and its moisture. Her hair was well-dressed, she wore a dress with flowers, and like Eva Simmons, this woman carried a black handbag and held a stiff lace-edged white handkerchief. One that had been pressed and starched. Unlike the very proper Eva, though, this woman kept raising her arms and shouting “Hallelujah, Jesus!”

“Amen” called a man from across the aisle. “Yes, Lord!” A young woman in the choir raised her hand toward the ceiling as the pitch and tenor of Reverend Washington’s sermon rose higher and higher. Again, all a far cry from the Methodists I’d known.

In fact, all of the words seemed to blur together for me. Now, I felt cold all over. Chilled. Also, I noticed that I, Margaret Ann Anderson, had worn my blue-trimmed, white pants suit with the little anchors on the collar, to church. All the other women and girls here wore dresses. Me, I looked like a sailor.

“Shall we gather at the river then, the river of forgiveness and no more regrets? Join me, brothers and sisters, in the hymn on page 232!” Reverend Washington beamed.

The congregation stood and sang. Someone jostled me, finally touching me, and church was over. The man who’d given me his hymnbook smiled, “Welcome, young lady, and what church would you be from?”

I realized only then that I’d been afraid to move. I had been afraid. Me, the one and only, though probably not the first at much of anything. Then Reverend Washington arrived to take my hand. His voice was very kind, “Glad to have you with us today. I think you’re probably a school friend of Regina’s? She just told me your name was Martha?”

“Margaret,” I corrected. I liked the fact that the reverend’s palm was a little papery, a little wrinkled like my own father’s. It dawned on me slowly that Regina Washington had evidently not even known my name.

“Well, Margaret, I’m Regina’s father, John Washington, and I’ll bet I don’t have to introduce this young man to you?” Reverend Washington’s voice boomed.

Marshall Jordan, who played basketball, now stood beside the minister. Marshall was a tall, very good-looking young man that morning in a shirt and tie.

“Hello, Marshall,” I smiled up at this basketball star who certainly did not really know the likes of plain little old me. Marshall Jordan certainly did not know my name at all. Marshall smiled politely down on me though. One more little white admirer, I reckoned.

“I’ve given Marshall my car keys,” Reverend Washington was explaining. Other people kept moving past me, and I just knew they were trying to listen to us. Also they were probably watching us, Marshall and I. They didn’t think I’d come to see him, did they?

Reverend Washington continued, “Marshall’s just going to follow you for a bit, to make sure you don’t get lost going home,”

“Oh, I know my way. I won’t get lost!” I protested breathlessly.

“Why, some of these streets down here don’t even have street signs!” Regina’s father frowned deeply, “I even get lost myself!” He turned to greet someone else. “Mind you don’t go too far and come right back, Marshall.”

“The Reverend’s right on this,” Marshall was saying while tossing the keys up and down. He seemed nice and easy-going. Of course, I absolutely refused to look at him in the eye.

I was so ashamed. Ashamed because I knew Marshall Jordan was probably being made to follow me so I wouldn’t be hurt—in that day and age, a white girl who was not supposed to be found in “that part of town.” Not by anyone, white or black. Goody-two-shoes Margaret Ann wasn’t exactly sure who all it was she should be afraid of—black people, white people, dogs, marauding gangs or the good ole’ boys. “Tell Regina I’ll see her at the hospital this week,” was all I could manage.

When I had driven into this part of town, I had realized, of course, that it was part of what was called “the poor side of town.” The houses were small and close. However, I had been so intent on finding Regina’s church, I hadn’t paid much attention to detail.

The first thing I noticed on the way out was that even though I thought I knew my way in this small town very well, and even with Marshall following me, if I’d gotten distracted by looking, I could very easily have gotten turned around here. The city’s tax money had evidently not made its way here, and so not all of the streets were marked or even straight. Much of this section of my town became a tangle of streets and alleys, to an outsider, that is. Not all of the houses looked all that bad even to a teenage Margaret Ann though. No, some seemed quite neat and well-kept. Perhaps at least some of these people had just been kept poor, I thought.

Of course, there were those houses too with porches propped up with a stack of red bricks, the corners and the steps reinforced, even windows boarded over as if the owners were trying to stave something off. Also, perhaps because it had been such a rainy spring, and this the first sunny day all week, even on Sunday, someone had gotten up and gotten the wash outside early. A lot of some ones. There were blue overalls, plaid shirts, flowered housedresses out flying between the houses. Beautiful and terrible.

There was a struggle going on here all right. I thought I was trying to understand it all though. Of course, I couldn’t really figure out what I’d expected. No T.V. cameras for one thing. Finally then, I was at State Street.

Anytime I used to think of “going home,” I’d always thought of my own room. I had my own bedroom. A cheap bureau and bedroom set to be sure, but my own soft blue room. State Street was the dividing line in Harrison. Marshall followed my car only up to this stoplight. Then he honked and turned back as I went on straight. I watched his hand wave at me through the rearview mirror.

Well, it wasn’t as if I were Meredith Renee Johnson, I’d tried to reason that day. Meredith Renee Johnson was the most popular cheerleader in school, her father was a judge, and she’d received a red convertible for her sixteenth birthday. For free, as her father had just given it to her. I wasn’t as bad as her, I tried to tell myself. It wasn’t as if I, Margaret Ann Anderson, went around school looking down her nose at everyone like she did.

It had finally occurred to me that Regina had not invited me to her church and probably was not all that thankful that I’d come. I had been neither invited nor drafted. Indeed, I had probably embarrassed this girl whom I, in truth, hardly knew.

Also, I, Margaret Ann Anderson, had grown up on Main Street in Harrison, our hometown. I lived in an old, but shaded house with a long green lawn. I had always liked it that we lived in an old house. When I was a child, I had fantasized that our house was so old it had probably been there before the Civil War. There were these secret rooms and passageways down in our basement, and I’d dreamed maybe runaway slaves had been hidden down there. So exciting. Why little goody-two-shoes Margaret Ann would have helped them to hide too. Such danger and intrigue for the little white girl.

“How was church?” My mother called to me from the basement. She was down there drying clothes in our electric dryer, down there near our runaway slave passageways.

“Fine.” I went straight to my room and closed the door. I hoped I’d never see Regina Washington again. I feared I’d run into Marshall Jordan in the hall and he’d laugh and wave at me. The Anderson household was very well-ventilated. I still felt warm. I covered my face with my pillow and listened to the cars go by on Main Street.

“Hello there,” Regina said to me the following Friday afternoon at school. Our meeting had been unavoidable. When I’d come out of the locker area in P.E. class, there she’d been in front of the mirror.

“Hi,” I smiled at her reflection in the mirror carefully. Regina eyed my own reflection just as carefully.

“Could you believe old Lowell’s history class today?” Regina asked the question while concentrating on arranging her hair. I tried not to stare.

“Pretty boring,” I ventured. My face was beginning to feel warm again.

After a pause, Regina explained. “This is called a pick, Margaret.” She motioned her wide-toothed comb toward me before she snapped it back into her purse. I blushed, but then she tried, “Is that a new lipstick you have there? What color do they call that one?” Regina tried to continue the conversation.

“Peach. Misty Peach.” I was anxious to explain. Evidently, those Sunday School teachers had gotten to Regina Washington early in her life too, though, because I, Margaret Ann Anderson, was grateful she was deigning even to speak to me now. She was turning the other cheek.

“I’m not sure it’s exactly the right shade for me though,” I finished my sentence lamely.

Regina crossed her arms and drew back. “Oh, I’d say Misty Peach is a good color for you, all right.” She turned back to the mirror. “You know, I don’t know about you, but I’m always having these arguments with my dad bout wearing too much makeup.” Regina informed me,” I have to sneak out and around about wearing my lipstick.”

“I’m not supposed to wear this much eye shadow,” I confided. “I’m not supposed to wear certain colors or shadows at all!” (Margaret Ann was just beginning to wonder who’d invented the English language anyway.)

“So when can you sneak that black shadow on, Margaret Ann?” Her eyes crinkled, and she laughed. “Is that supposed to be the bad stuff?”

“I put it on in the bus,” I nodded ruefully.

It would certainly seem people did somehow get strange ideas into their heads. At the same time, I was struggling to remember old Lowell’s history class more clearly so that I might make a comment, but hadn’t the coach just droned on and on today, like every other day, about some battle or other, some victory or settlement of the land, and then some white guy’s rise to the presidency? That same old history stuff? No one could comprehend or care about all that old stuff.

“The bus,” I continued. “I’ve learned even how to put on my mascara while being thrown around in a bus?!”

Regina shook her head, but laughed ruefully, “So you and I’ll end up blind one day, and then what’ll our daddies say? All that sneakin’ around we have to do! What will they have to say for themselves then?”

“Well, as long as the bus doesn’t go off the road and I don’t die in too much makeup. That’s probably the main thing!” I shook my head and laughed ruefully too.

“Yes sirs, we’re just a couple of bad girls!” Regina commented and the teenage Margaret Ann was delighted at the thought.

After all that had happened in our own lives and in the years before our lives, there we stood. Regina Louise Washington and Margaret Ann Anderson, probably not the first, nor were they the only, and history class, no class had taught us even so much as the real language we needed to talk about the way we made up our faces. The faces we presented to the world and to each other, the makeup with which we were already seeking to accent our loveliness, already learning to hide both our tears and our scars. Two girls in the light of a mirror, we struggled not-so-simply then to set off on our own.