Authors: Lorene Cary
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Cultural Heritage, #Women
“The African-American author typically publishes as a first book his or her autobiography.… This is as true for such contemporary figures as Claude Brown, Maya Angelou, and, more recently, Itabari Njeri as it was for such historical figures as Frederick Douglass.
“In her own debut, Lorene Gary takes her place in that remarkable procession. Clear and glittering as a New Hampshire lake in winter,
is an education in itself.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“Ripe with meaning … this work is honest and eloquent and ultimately optimistic.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
is a gift, a meaningful coming-of-age story told with remarkable candor and insight.… [It] is engrossing from page one, and is, in many ways, a paean to the human spirit.”
is written in a unique style that is beautiful, brisk and laden with keen insight.… Cary has touched the white world and broken it into a prism of color.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A true and beautiful writer …
, like Frank Conroy’s
or Geoffrey Wolff’s
The Duke of Deception
, is one of the classic modern memoirs of growing up in America.”
FIRST VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, FEBRUARY 1992
Copyright © 1991 by Lorene Cary
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1991.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
IRVING BERLIN MUSIC COMPANY
: Excerpt from “Anything You Can Do” by Irving Berlin. Copyright © 1946 by Irving Berlin. Copyright renewed.
Used by permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved
BUCK KILLETTE, SUNCOAST MUSIC (BMI)
: Excerpt from “Girl Watcher” by Buck Killette. Copyright © 1968. Reprinted by permission
MCA MUSIC PUBLISHING AND BOURNE CO MUSIC PUBLISHERS
: Excerpt from “Our Day Will Come,” words by Bob Hilliard and music by Mort Garson. Copyright © 1963 (renewed), 1976 by MCA Music Publishing, a division of MCA Inc., New York, NY 10019, and Better Half Music Co. All rights reserved.
Used by permission of the copyright owners
THE PUTNAM BERKLEY GROUP INC
: “I think I can, I think I can” from
The Little Engine That Could
is a trademark of Platt & Munk and is reprinted by permission of The Putnam Berkley Group Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Black ice/Lorene Cary.—1st Vintage Books ed.
1. Cary, Lorene. 2 Afro-American women—New Hampshire—Concord—Biography. 3. Afro-Americans—New Hampshire—Concord—Biography. 4. Concord (N.H)—Biography. 5. Afro-Americans—Education (Secondary)—New Hampshire—Concord. 6. St. Paul’s School (Concord, N.H.) I. Title.
373 18’296073-dc20 91-50489
To Laura Hagans Smith
Shall it any longer be said of the daughters of Africa, they have no ambition …?
Maria W. Stewart in
… There is a grace in life. Otherwise we could not live.
The Shaking of the Foundations
“Skin, skin, ya na know me?”
West Indian folktale
could see them from the dais: families and friends sitting on the risers, young students spilling out onto the grass, black-robed faculty members standing in front of their seats—all watching for the first graduates to begin their march down the grassy aisle between the folding chairs on the green. Someone let out a whoop as they appeared, the girls in their white dresses and the boys in their jackets and ties.
Fifteen years before I had walked down the same aisle as a graduate, and nine years later as a teacher. Now I was ending my term as a trustee.
I watched the black and Hispanic students, “my kids,” come to the podium to receive their diplomas and awards from the Rector. One young man named Harlem winked at me as he passed. His shoulders still rocked a little, just a little, like the shoulders of black men in cities, and he held himself up on the balls of his feet like the ballet dancer he had become while at St. Paul’s School. I remembered him as a Fourth Former, his head cocked to one side, asking, “I’d like to know: would you send
daughter to St. Paul’s?”
The other students had laughed in that way that teenagers do when an adult is forced to reveal herself. But we also laughed together as black people alone, safe for the moment within the group, the collective tensions and harmonic humor of it, relieved
for an hour or so from our headlong rush toward individual achievement.
“My daughter will have to decide that for herself,” I said. “Don’t you roll your eyes. I mean it. My parents did not make me come here. I was bound and determined. They
me, and it was not an easy thing to do.
“It won’t be the same for my daughter. Neither my parents nor I really knew what we were getting into. Once you’ve made the journey, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen, that everything’s like it was before except now you play lacrosse.”
I had pretended, myself; many of us had. I had acknowledged my academic debt to the boarding school I’d attended on scholarship for two years. But I would not admit how profoundly St. Paul’s had shaken me, or how damaged and fraudulent and traitorous I felt when I graduated. In fact, I pretended for so long that by the time I was twenty-six years old, I was able to convince myself that going back to school to teach would be the career equivalent of summering with distant, rich relatives.
Instead, I found my own adolescence, in all its hormonal excess, waiting for me at St. Paul’s: old rage and fear, ambition, self-consciousness, love, curiosity, energy, hate, envy, compulsion, fatigue. I saw my adolescence in my students, and I felt it burbling inside me, grown powerful by long silence. I lost control of it one night when a black boy came to me nearly weeping because a group of white friends had told a racist joke in his presence. He hated himself, he said, because he hadn’t known how to react. “It was like I couldn’t move. I couldn’t
anything,” he said.
I too had known that terrible paralysis, and when the boy left, I wept with remembering. I could no longer forget, not with Westminster chimes ringing out the quarter hours, the piney mist that rolled off the pond in the morning, and the squeaking boards under our feet as we crossed Upper Common
Room to the dining hall. I remembered the self-loathing, made worse by a poised bravado, as close as my own skin, that I wore over it. I remembered duty and obligation—to my family, to the memory of dead relatives, to my people. And I remembered confusion: was it true that these teachers expected less of me than of my white peers? Or had I mistaken kindness for condescension? Were we black kids a social experiment? If we failed (or succeeded too well) would they call us off? Were we imported to help round out the white kids’ education? Did it make any difference if we were?
In the aftermath of Black Is Beautiful, I began to feel black and blue, big and black, black and ugly. Had they done that to me? Had somebody else? Had I let them? Could I stop the feelings? Or hide them?
I knew that I was to emerge from St. Paul’s School changed, but I did not know how, and I did not trust my white teachers and guardians to guide me. What would this education do to me? And what was I to do with it?
A couple years after I taught at St. Paul’s, I was asked to serve as a trustee. During my term, I visited the school for board meetings, and I talked with the students. I could feel their attention one fall evening when I told them to try to think of St. Paul’s as their school, too, not as a white place where they were trespassing. The next fall a boy told me: “I
been thinking of it as their school. It was like I had forgotten that this is my life.”
Two years later that boy’s formmates elected him class president. At his graduation, Eric smiled broadly at me as he walked to the podium to receive the President’s Medal. So did a girl, an excellent and feisty writer, who was awarded the Rector’s Medal. I wondered if they knew, or if they would learn, that just as St. Paul’s was theirs, because they had attended the school and contributed to it, so, too, was American life and culture theirs, because they were black people in America.
Sitting on the dais, I recalled how wary I’d been of John Walker, the first black teacher at St. Paul’s, its first black trustee, and the first black Bishop of the Washington, D.C. diocese of the Episcopal Church. I remembered watching him walk with other board members and trying to deduce from his gait and the way he inclined his head whether the small man with the tiny eyes was traitor or advocate.
He was still on the board during my tenure, a quiet-spoken man who affected people deeply by his presence. John Walker spoke wisely and from experience, but more than that, he emanated both judgment and compassion. I saw him affect my colleagues. I felt him. He filled me with hope for my own racial and spiritual healing, and courage to look back. (John Walker died in September, 1989.)
I began writing about St. Paul’s School when I stopped thinking of my prep-school experience as an aberration from the common run of black life in America. The isolation I’d felt was an illusion, and it can take time and, as they say at St. Paul’s, “the love and labor of many,” to get free of illusions. The narratives that helped me, that kept me company, along with the living, breathing people in my life, were those that talked honestly about growing up black in America. They burst into my silence, and in my head, they shouted and chattered and whispered and sang together. I am writing this book to become part of that unruly conversation, and to bring my experience back to the community of minds that made it possible.
“You must really love the school to be on the board.” The students wanted to know each time I visited. Each time I answered yes.
“Did you like it when you were here?”
I made a sour face. They looked relieved.
had never heard of St. Paul’s School until Mrs. Evans rang to tell me about it one fall night in 1971. I had just come home from Woolworth’s, where I worked at the cheap-and-greasy fountain on Friday nights and Saturdays in a town my friends and I called “Tacky” Darby. I smelled as if I had scrubbed the grill with my uniform. My face shone with hamburger fat, and my Earth Shoes were spattered. At fourteen years old, I felt irritable and entitled to it, as adults seemed to be when they finished their work for the day.
Mrs. Evans’s voice brimmed with excitement and fun. She was our next-door neighbor, a retired kindergarten teacher married to a newspaper reporter who had been the first black man on staff at the Philadelphia
. Three years before, when I was eleven, he had given me my first typewriter, a straight-back, black Underwood. Mrs. Evans was witty and down-to-earth, firm but easygoing with children. Her eyesight was poor; she had a recurring tickle that caused her to clear her throat nearly to gagging; under her shiny skin her knuckles were gnarled—yet she glowed with health. My father said that she had better legs than most thirty-year-olds, and my mother asked her advice. My sister, Carole, ran away to the brick house where a plaster Venus arose from her seashell and dolphins leapt at half-moons in the cream-colored ceiling molding. It was a fairy-tale house, and Mrs. Evans was a fairy godmother to
us, distant and charming. I forgot that at first. Instead, I cradled the receiver on my shoulder and counted my tips while she talked, laying the coins silently on the kitchen counter.
Mrs. Evans had been told about St. Paul’s School by a “lovely woman”—I took that to mean someone white, but trustworthy. This “very exclusive boarding school” had recently gone coed, and they were interested in finding black girls, too, so they’d put out the word with alumni and friends. Mrs. Evans had never visited the school, but she knew that the campus would be beautiful, that there would be music and languages and the arts. She also knew that scholarships—generous scholarships—were available. Mrs. Evans gave me the phone number of an alumnus, a judge, to call for more information. I wrote it down, thanked her for thinking of me, and went upstairs. I didn’t need another school, I thought. I needed a bath.