About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

#5: The Black Girl Next Door

The Black Girl Next Door: A Memoir, by Jennifer Baszile (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Jacket Summary: "A powerful, beautifully-written memoir about coming of age as a black girl in an exclusive white suburb in 'integrated,' post-Civil Rights California in the 1970s and 1980s. At six years of age, after winning a foot race against a white classmate, Jennifer Baszile was humiliated to hear her classmate explain that black people 'have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people.' When she asked her teacher about it, it was confirmed as true. The next morning, Jennifer's father accompanied her to school, careful to 'assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, black, dangerous man in a first-grade classroom.' This was the first of many skirmishes in Jennifer's childhood-long struggle to define herself as 'the black girl next door' while living out her parents' dreams. Success for her was being the smartest and achieving the most, with the consequence that much of her girlhood did not seem like her own but more like the 'family project.' But integration took a toll on everyone in the family when strain in her parents' marriage emerged in her teenage years, and the struggle to be the perfect black family became an unbearable burden. A deeply personal view of a significant period of American history, The Black Girl Next Door deftly balances childhood experiences with adult observations, creating an illuminating and poignant look at a unique time in our country's history."

Opening Line: "On an early autumn morning in 1975, as fog rolled off the Pacific Ocean and covered the Vista Grande School playground, my first-grade girlfriends and I decided to squeeze in a quick foot race before school began."

My Take: Liked this one a lot. As I've tried to articulate why, I couldn't help but remember a poem by Pat Parker that I came across about a gazillion years ago, entitled "For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend." It begins,
"the first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black."
Sounds contradictory, of course, but after reading Baszile's memoir, I think I understand better what Parker meant. On one hand, The Black Girl Next Door has wide appeal; it tells the story of the author's childhood, from age six through the end of high school, through a series of vignettes. Many of these will resonate with anyone who grew up in the 1970s and '80s, particularly in a well-off suburb like Palos Verdes Estates: the pains our mothers took to make us presentable for picture day; the unscripted summer evenings playing Kick the Can until the streetlights came on; the excruciating self-consciousness of attending your first middle school dance; the endless pre-DVD-era road trips to spend holidays in a house crammed with relatives you barely knew.

On the other hand, for every forty-something who smiles knowingly and nods at these memories, the experience was just a little bit different. In Baszile's case, that difference often hinged upon being the only black family in her neighborhood, and close to it at school. For a well-intentioned white liberal like me, this makes her book a kaleidoscope, at once familiar and new. Baszile's second-grade picture captures a disheveled braid and a torn shirt, courtesy of the young thugs-in-training who insisted on fighting the [racial epithet] on the playground. One night of street games takes an unexpected and disturbing turn when the kids go inside, get into some old clothes in the attic, and Jennifer finds herself mimicking a poor, rural, Southern black woman she claims is her grandmother. And the middle school dance marks a fork in the road for Baszile and her (until then) similarly gangly and gawky best friend Amy. Before the dance, the girls hit the mall for makeovers, but only Amy is transformed; Jennifer, who slowly remembers that her own mother always needs to go out of town for makeup, comes away looking more like a kabuki dancer. Perhaps the most poignant illustration, though, comes with the Christmas visit to Mr. Baszile's tiny, rural home town of Elton, Louisiana. From their arrival, when Grandmother compliments (?) Jennifer and her sister by pronouncing them "perfect little white girls," the Louisiana Basziles seem both wonderfully exotic and alien:
"For all of the Christmas cheer, Dad was sullen and again stayed outside on the porch. He talked to everyone, but his nerves seemed flimsy like tinsel. Whenever he saw one of his cousins, he called Natalie and me outside to meet them. He held us up like shields to these people and put us on display. I knew Dad was proud of us, but it felt to me like a distraction even more than pride. When I wasn't being paraded out to meet people, I mostly sat on the edge of the bed where I had slept, out of the way; I didn't want to met anyone else. I didn't want another kiss on the cheek, another stranger's hug, or another person's comment about my 'funny' California speech."
Later, when an argument between Jen's father and his brother Sunny gets a bit heated, she observes:
"No one cheered for Dad, even though we were related to nearly everyone there and he was right to defend me. I couldn't figure out why. ... Suddenly I felt the way I often did in California, like it was the four of us against everyone else. I didn't expect to feel such a thing among all these relatives. ... I stayed on the porch, afraid of what I wanted to do to them. The magic had disappeared for me. This had been a strange and terrible Christmas, maybe the worst one ever. I wanted to go to bed and then back to California."
If this makes it sound like The Black Girl Next Door is one complaint after another about how racism traumatized Baszile, it's not. Like anyone's childhood, Baszile's had its ups and downs; some of these were related to her ethnicity, but some weren't. Readers of all hues can cheer Jennifer on when she makes lemons out of lemonade at the dance. When Amy abandons her to dance with a boy, she remembers her mother telling her that she went there to dance, not to get a boyfriend -- and asks one male wallflower after another to join her on the dance floor until someone accepts. What young woman hasn't had a welcome-to-the-club trip to the beauty parlor that didn't quite go as she'd expected (even if she decided in the end that it looked pretty good anyway)? And I'm sure I'm not alone in cringing and wanting to shut my eyes when Jen and her dad have their climactic fight towards the book's end.

One criticism Dwight Garner raises in his New York Times review is that Baszile's memoir lacks "adult wit and complexity," and that her decision "to write almost entirely from the necessarily blinkered perspective of herself as a girl" proves detrimental to the narrative. I can see his point -- I, too, would have liked to know more about where Mr. Baszile went on Friday nights and why Mrs. Baszile seemed so cut off from her family in Detroit -- but saw this as a reasonable choice on Baszile's part. There are memoirs aplenty on the shelves whose authors retell their stories from an older, wiser adult's perspective; I found it a refreshing change to read one that felt more like I was there beside the 6-, 9-, and 12-year-old Baszile, without a grown-up narrator looking over our shoulders.

The author's own web site indicates that her next book will pick up her story at Columbia, just after this one leaves off. I, for one, will be eagerly waiting.

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