New beginnings. Or at least I thought that's what was ahead of me.
I was a single mom in 1976, a time when some people wouldn't even rent an apartment to you if they thought you'd never been married (I actually changed my last name so I could lie about it). A single mom with a little brown baby, in a town where the white boys would drive by the bus stop and spit at me “Niggerlover!” My best friend, Lysistrata, a mixed breed lab who'd been with me since I was 13 had disappeared. Somehow I just knew she was dead, and I was heartbroken. She was the only real friend I ever had, so now there was absolutely nothing keeping me from the land of my dreams, from that place I always knew I was destined to go...Hawaii.
I don't know when the notion of Hawaii began, but I'd been sure of it as long as I could remember. Probably because except for Lysistrata, the television was my only other real friend growing up. Growing up in a dark rainy climate, always getting bored and trying to think of things to do. Three network stations and one UHF...it was bliss. But it also turned out to be a source of naivete for me that would extend to far more serious matters of race and racism...but that came later.
I think it was Donovan's Reef with John Wayne that made the biggest impression on me. But there was also Elvis in Hawaii, and when I was in fourth grade, I read the biography of the last true royalty in my world, Queen Liliʻuokalani. Granted, it was a version written for little white children on the mainland and told only the story of the young girl who was to be queen without telling about all the really bad stuff that happened later, but she seemed so lovely to me, I wished I was her. Sometimes I tried to imagine I was her. Her kingdom was so lovely. And all the descriptions of Hawaii were lovely.
And then there was the music. The music had always been there, and I think now it may have been the most powerful driving force for my fantasy. When I was really young, my mother bought this record of Hawaiian music by Don Ho, and when I played that record, everything was right with the world. I was always asking if I could play her Don Ho record. The music would come on, and I could close my eyes and see what it was like in Hawaii. I could hear the birdsong and feel the sunshine and the ocean. The happiness of Hawaii and her lovely warm people, her lovely warm everything. No more darkness and rain, no more clouds and cold, no more loneliness.
One day I asked my mother why that record had somehow disappeared and she responded "You wore it out honey. Remember when you made us play it over and over when you were delirious with the measles? It just finally wore out.”
The measles. I remember that. I almost died, and my mother blamed herself because she'd heard there was a vaccine but hadn't pursued it yet. Of course after I got sick, my brother and sisters were immediately rushed off to be vaccinated. But it was 1962. A time when your parents came from a generation where the angel of death had taken so many children so often from illnesses no one even hears about anymore, that it was unthinkable not to welcome any vaccination that was available for them.
My fever was almost a constant 103-104, and apparently the doctor's only advice was to give me aspirin and put cool rags all over my body to try to keep my temperature down. The fever was the dangerous thing, and what was probably three or four days seemed like an eternity to me. That case of measles was the only time in my life I ever experienced being delirious, and I will never forget it. I will never forget the spinning ceiling or the frightening things I imagined in my delirium. And yes, I do still remember laying on that old burgundy-colored couch and asking for the record of Hawaiian music to be played again and again. I wish I would have thought to thank Don Ho for that music in his lifetime. So what if I developed an unreachable fantasy about this place called Hawaii? Anthropologists tell us that hope for something is an emotion actually necessary for the survival of all human beings, and Don Ho insured that an absolutely terrified six-year-old would have hope for the future - if she could just hear that music one more time.
But in the same was as my impression of Hawaii as paradise came from television and movies, so too did my impressions about race and racism. It was very white where I grew up. There were no black children in my school or in the neighborhood where I lived. I never saw anyone black when we were at the grocery store or the department store, and in fact, the first black person I ever remember meeting was when I was about 10 years old and my father brought a co-worker home for dinner.
The television taught me that racism was a big problem in the south, but we weren’t like that here (in the north). We were liberal and forward-thinking. We were kind to others and would never do mean things to someone just because they were a different color. Yes, all the way into my adulthood, racism lived only in the south. It lived in fat, tobacco-spitting, red-faced sheriffs, who said “boy” and looked the other way while young black men were lynched because they dared to go out at night. Why did they do that I wondered? If you were black and you lived in the south, why would you ever go out at night?! It seemed like there were already so many things to be afraid of in my young life – communists, nuclear war, the Vietnam draft, and now these redneck sheriffs in the south. I was so glad I didn’t live there.
I was only 19 when my son was born, and I still knew I needed to get to Hawaii somehow. I remember my mother at the airport trying not to act terrified that I was getting on a plane with my young baby and only $40.00 in my pocket with no better plan than to temporarily stay with my sister, who had been working her way through college there. When my sister had wanted to escape, I was the silly-billy who suggested she go to Hawaii (living vicariously through others, I suppose?) And so she did. But she only had a tiny studio and could barely survive herself, so it wouldn't work for long. Still I was certain I’d find work quickly, and everything would be fine. I would make it fine. How could it not be? It was Hawaii.
You probably guessed the next part. It wasn’t exactly paradise. It was an impossible struggle with prices three times as high as the mainland, and wages even lower. I met some of the nicest babysitters that I would ever encounter in my life (I think now maybe because they were brown too), but I could never make enough money to survive on my own working at the jobs I was qualified for. I had to face that it was hopeless. And then just before the end...there came a silver lining. Only two days before I was scheduled to fly back to the mainland in shame (meaning I would have to stay with my grandmother until I could get back on my feet), I met the love of my life, Billy. Billy from Baltimore, stationed there in the Navy. And that’s what this story is really about... how I learned to braid hair.
I had two nights left on the island. My mother was visiting my sister, and she said she’d watch the baby for the night (he was two by then), but here comes the part I always avoided when the kids would say “How’d you meet Daddy?” I went out to a bar that night, sort of on a “goodbye Hawaii” kick, and that’s where I met him. Yes, at a bar. But there was that one moment, you know, where we just saw each other, and then he came and sat down beside me and started flirting, and the rest is history. We exchanged addresses and wrote letters for over a year while he was out to sea. Occasionally, he would manage to call me from a pay phone on the ship, and I would send him all kinds of creative little care packages. I was so in love.
When Billy finished his tour, I met him where his ship was docked in Virginia. We were married there, and then we went back to live in Baltimore, where our daughter was born. He legally adopted my son, and because Billy was black, the people around us never knew that both children weren’t his (that kind of thing mattered a lot more in those days too). He gave my son a real name both for himself and his birth certificate, and a real father to remember. He was a good man. And although he died only a few years later, I believe he was the only man in my life that ever really loved me, even though for his own sake, he never should have.
So about the braids. After grandma’s house and before Billy and I were married, I stayed with my friend Susan for awhile, or at least until we almost weren’t friends anymore (nothing has the potential to break up a friendship like moving in together). She was a fascinating person, a true intellectual whom I just loved to listen to. She was about 14 years older than me and had taken me under her wing back when I was a single-mom-pregnant-with-my-son, and pretty naive about how to survive with a baby on my own. I was 18 when I met her, and like I tried to explain earlier, pretty naive about the real world. She was a real live 60’s activist. You know, like the kind I'd seen on television shows like Mod Squad...like Angela Davis with her fist in the air - except Susan was white. But she cared. She really cared about everyone.
When Susan was in college, she worked with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a group which was often accused of being run by communists (and which she laughingly told me one time was pretty much true), and then she was married briefly to an activist and American member of the CWP and joined the Party herself. She didn't stay for long though, and when I asked her why she quit the Party, she laughed and said “They weren’t radical enough for me, they weren’t doing anything.”
For Susan, activism was a birthright, and I really respected her for it. As the daughter of one of the growing group of post-WWII Americans who had turned to the communist party for social justice (before McCarthy came along and terrorized everyone), she once told me that her father had actually been summoned to testify at the McCarthy hearings, but after riding around on a train paid for by the government for a couple of weeks, he was sent home without explanation. She said when she was growing up that every night at the dinner table, her father would deliver these stern, important lectures to her and her siblings about social and political responsibility and justice, about the importance of worldview, and the danger of religion.
Sometimes I wonder if there may have been times when she really didn’t want to be responsible for the whole world, but if there were, she never let on. She always treated me with kindness, generosity, and dignity, but we lost touch probably 15 years before I heard she passed away. The Susan I knew never failed to reach out to anyone who might need help, and it just so happened that one of the projects she took on in the late 1970s was a man fighting extradition back to the south.
Susan was no stranger to a fight against extradition. Her husband, Ronnie, (Ronald Williams) was also from the south. He was from Birmingham, Alabama, and although I don't remember just what she was working on there at the time, they somehow met, and in 1972 he fled with her to Oregon while out on bail on charges stemming from the 1970 'shootout' between the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department and the ABLF (Alabama Black Liberation Front). I say 'shootout' in quotations because as far as I know, no one in that house ever had any weapons. When I searched on the internet, I found there are still conflicting stories about who was ambushing who. But I knew Ronnie for a long time, even after he and Susan split, and he said they were unarmed in the house of this elderly lady, and the police just opened fire. That also happens to be the same account of 'shootout' I heard from the widow of a Los Angeles Black Panther Party leader who I met years later while I was working for lawyers in D.C. But things went down like that a lot in those days, and I'm certain Ronnie's account was the true one.
And I wasn't the only one. In 1973, after receiving letters from all over the world on Ronnie's behalf, including from the ACLU, the NAACP, and Amnesty International, Governor Tom McCall refused extradition (as described in more detail in Robert W. Widdell, Jr.'s book, Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle). Ronnie would later tell me that freedom to live out his life as a black man in Oregon was no kind of freedom at all, and that it was, in fact, a prison sentence of its own (in his more dramatic moments, it was a death sentence, he would say), and there is definitely truth in that. I understand that when he died, his family shipped him back home to Alabama to be buried, and I was relieved to hear that he finally got to go home.
I so admired that Susan had been everywhere in those days working for civil rights. She'd even been to the march on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech. When I met her, I'd never heard of the SDS, and didn't even understand that you could be an American and be a member of the communist party and not just be arrested for it or something. But I knew all about Dr. King from my mother. My mother told me he was a great man because he believed in peace and forgiveness, because he made wrongs into rights through peaceful protest and non-violence. It was amazing to me that Susan had actually been there.
Unfortunately for the fellow she tried to help in the late 70s, the governor at the time had no interest in the case, and granted extradition. But his wife was a lovely person who was very kind to me, and while they were here, she was the one who taught me how to braid hair. She had a little girl, and she would sit and braid hair while we watched television.
Back then, I was often reminded of that Oprah episode I saw once, where there were these black ladies yelling about white women who come around having mixed race babies, and then are too clueless to teach them that they're black. Or the complaints I'd heard that white women with mixed race babies always ruin their hair or cut it off, because they just can't figure out how to manage it. The Oprah show ladies though, they also said that because of our cluelessness, we were saddling the black community with the burden of raising our children. That was pretty harsh I thought, and I was a little dumbfounded to imagine that there were these women out there who might be that mad at me for those reasons even though they'd never even met me.
Was I doing a terrible job of teaching my son to be black so these ladies would somehow end up being burdened with him? Despite all the advice I kept getting from black people that I would be crippling him if I didn't properly teach him what it was to be black (meaning that when you are mixed race, the world sees you only as black and is going to be set against you so you need to deny your whiteness for your own good), did I personally have any intention of doing so? No. Would I teach him about racism? Yes, of course, for his own good. But I wasn’t going to teach him to be black or white (as if I even could). It didn't make sense to me, and in the end it actually turned out to be the right thing, because he's over 40 now, and he's lived in the real world with real racism and he knows what reality is. But if you ask him today if he identifies as "black", he'll tell you just as frankly and honestly as he told me when he was a kid “I’m not black or white, I'm black and white – duh!”
So I finally just asked her (the wife of the man fighting extradition) "Will you teach me how to braid hair like that?” I felt kind of embarrassed because I didn’t have any children whose hair needed braiding, but she was very kind and lovely to me and helped me learn how, and even let me practice on her daughter for a little while. Even her daughter was patient with me, despite the fact that I was terrible at it. It would take more practice to get good at braiding hair, but I would have plenty of time, and I wasn’t about to be labeled as a clueless white lady.
After our daughter was born, braid I did. I braided and braided, and one day in a snowy field in a mostly empty resort where we'd booked rooms because they were cheap in the winter, I saw my daughter crouch down in her galoshes and reach to pick a little orange winter flower that was pushing up through the snow. "No! hold it right there, don’t move, don't pick it yet!” I shouted. And in that moment, I grabbed my camera and snapped the photo that New Beginnings was made from.