“What? I have a soul!” I wasn’t being purposefully obtuse. It was 1968, and I’m sure Andrette thought I was just being another uppity, entitled, white girl, but at that point the only soul I knew of was the one Reverend Welch had assured me would burn in Hellfire if I kept on asking-those-questions during Sunday School.
Here is what I found out later: Andrette’s father, the Dean of Students at (then) Tuskegee College, wanted her to experience a broader vision of what white people were like, so he sent her to a Quaker boarding school up North. My own folks wanted me in a place where Future Farmers and Homemakers of American were not the go-to clubs, where critical thinking was a valued skill rather than a suspected Commie practice meant to foment revolution.
There was a weak family association with Tuskegee. For a number of years we had lived in Kaimosi, Kenya under the care of the American Friends Service Committee. Some of my parents Kenyan colleagues, at the Teacher Training College in Kaimosi, had gotten degrees from Tuskegee. By the time I was fourteen, we had been back in the States for two years. Because of this, the people in charge of room assignments thought it would be a good idea to place us together. (Although that may have been a story my parents may have put forth to encourage me to take the high road.)
In any case, my experience with Kenyans did not translate well to Black American culture. Could I have known better? I must have been aware that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, because I remember Moms Mabley singing about it on the Smothers Brothers show. I was clueless about the 1968 Summer Olympics, or the Watts Riots. Andrette must have been raised with talk of Rosa Parks, Little Rock desegregation, the Montgomery Boycott, and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech the way kids today are kept aware of 9/11. I was clueless. I’d heard talk about Civil Rights and marches and busing, at potluck lunches with my dad’s graduate student friends in Ithaca, and murmurings against integration at church in the (now shockingly) white community of Marathon in upstate New York. Political talk, I’m afraid, nestled right next to football in my heart.
If I had been raised in the heart of American culture, I daresay I would have been aware.
Andrette’s explanation of Soul was not that far off from Reverend Welch’s, as far as I could see. In neither case did I stand a chance of being a real person, someone who could belong. The memory of that feeling of ostracism has stuck with me at a visceral level. I know, now, that she was taking a stand against a cultural posture that was pervasive. That, perhaps, turn about was fair. For my part, then, I was oblivious to anything except that, once again, I had fallen short and didn’t understand why.
When the family had moved back to the States, I found myself part of that Odd Family. I made a fool of myself buying milk at the Grand Union, unable to figure out the pocket full of change I had been given to make the purchase. The reappearance of snow in my life was both thrilling and weird. My sister, who had never really seen it, danced on the front lawn barefoot to celebrate the first squall of the season. Neighbors called my mother at school to tell her she needed to take a hand with yet another dim-witted child.
Far worse was music. I knew a variety of church songs in both English and Swahili. I bore a family reputation for randomly changing keys when I sang, as well as “infernal tuneless whistling,” and was frequently asked to stop. At school the “In Town Girls” group expected me to pick one of the Monkees to admire. What the Hell were they? There was lots of oo-ing about how cute they were, how lovely their hair, how dreamy their sound. I did not get it. Even being invited over to watch their show on Saturday morning did not help. The Monkees may have been too busy singing, but they definitely got me down.
Music became the turf which Andrette and I used as our battle ground. The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones were bad enough. With her I was introduced to a new palette of singers, The Temptations, The Supremes, Aretha, and, with a dreaminess that matched anything the Monkees had to offer, The Jackson Five with that adorable little Michael who could really bust some steps. All of these groups had Soul, which, I was reminded, I did not.
The last thing to come between us was Black Power. I was oblivious to the events at the 1968 Summer Olympics. At some point during the year, the music posters came down and were replaced with a giant fist and slogans. Apparently power was another thing Black people had that white people did not.
Should I have become politicized by this time, several months into boarding school? Probably, but I had not. My single foray into the political arena had been to participate in a march on the Poughkeepsie Armory. I had no clue what an Armory was, the signs and slogans seemed odd, I knew no one who was involved in Vietnam, and it was cold. I wanted hot chocolate. Yes, this was a Quaker school. Yes, they had done due diligence and had in speakers, people who were Conscientious Objectors, draft resistors, parents of people who had gone to Canada. I had heard it all, but it had not sunk into my fourteen year old head as anything that applied to me. I had gone on the march the same way as I went tobogganing at Hyde Park. I wanted to be part of the group.
If anything, it was Andrette and her message about my dual lack of power and soul that made even a dent in raising my political awareness. I tried a White Power sign to answer hers, and discovered a boat-load of grief. It was a friend who helped me out of that, a girl of an elegant mix of colors, a Townie though a boarder. She suggested that I add other signs, all the same size, in a variety of colors. So my wall was sprinkled with Yellow Power, Red Power, Spanish Power, Irish Power, Indian Power, Japanese Power. Power to the People.
Did I understand anything during all that strife? Not really, except that the year finally ended, and an uncomfortable truce was maintained for most of it. Mostly we talked at cross purposes. For me, it was actually the music. I was eventually told I would get a B if I would just stay away from chorus class. Why not try archery to fill the required activity slot? I wonder if Andrette ever saw my dislike of her music as other than a racist move against Motown. She was fourteen, too, far from home and in a new culture. Neither one of us at an age famous for empathetic understanding.
I look at the class picture from our Freshman year and see me in the far back and Andrette sitting in the second row. Although we both returned to school the next year, I don’t recall every really talking to her again. By our Junior year, I had returned to public school. In recent years I find myself wishing I could find Andrette and say “Sorry.” Sorry I was not, even remotely, a decent friend; sorry I couldn’t listen to her side, step away from my own fears; sorry I didn’t know how to take a breath and make amends.