A portrait of the artist as a young sandwich cookie
Growing up, I was the girl who blasted Bon Jovi in the tiny subsidized apartment I shared with my mother, the one who preferred Friends to Martin and John Hughes to Spike Lee. Is it any wonder, then, why my mother would set me up on a Black Friend Date?
Picture it: summer, 1995. By the grace of God and remarkable ACT scores, I am a newly minted freshman at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, a school known for producing Dennis Franz and underaged binge drinkers. It’s mid-September and my mother, who now calls every morning to make sure I get to class on time, is grilling me about my new friends -- all of whom happen to be white. Her concern grows with each conversation.
“How are you? I miss you. How was class? Have you made any black girlfriends yet?”
(The last question was always delivered with rapid-fire speed.)
“No, but Muffy and I went to the mall an--”
“...Oh. That’s nice, baby.”
In retrospect, I understand my mother’s concern. She bore the scars of Jim Crow, and grew up in an era where the number of white people she could trust were few and far between. An only child, she relied on -- cherished, even -- the bonds she made with other black women, the ones who supported her through messy divorces and unexpected pregnancies. The ones who encouraged her to finish her G.E.D and explore her spirituality. The ones who -- like her -- knew what it felt like to come off a 10-hour shift to a home where your only support system, your only lifeline, is running around in her Underoos.
These connections may have formed because of a shared identity, but it was much deeper than that.
After each uncomfortable exchange, I’d make it a point to smile at every black coed I passed on the quad. I’d usually get a frown or scowl in return. I would volunteer time raising money for students attending the Million Man March. I’d audition for an all-Black play. No dice.
To cope, I’d write about the encounters in my journal, or call my best friend who was upstate at the University of Illinois-Urbana having the time of her life, or the hometown boyfriend I would eventually cheat on and dump three months later. The latter two were sympathetic but couldn’t really understand, for they had long mastered what I would not for another five years: the art of codeswitching.
For inner-city brown kids, codeswitching is a survival skill. It allows one to navigate both the treacherous terrain of graffiti-strewn boulevards and AP classes.
Some say it’s a byproduct of the DuBois “double consciousness” thing, the ability to communicate both with our own and The White World™ in a relatable, non-threatening manner. It was also something I was completely clueless about.
While I wasn’t quite at the level of Carlton Banks awkwardness, I was close.
My own best black friend
Despite this, I managed to collect a few girlfriends and a good number of gentlemen callers. My naivete led me to believe that befriending another group of girls would be easy peasy.
In the meantime, I spent my weekends in the company of white girls from various Illinois towns. Stephanie, from Bethalto. Marta, from Collinsville. Jessica, from Mahomet. Krista, from Dwight. The set of chavs from Rantoul. They would introduce me to my first beer, my first frat kegger and my first white boy. Life was good, identity crisis aside.
Then I made the mistake of telling my mother about my plan to rush a predominantly white sorority.
The silence on the other end of the phone? Deafening.
And then, a sigh. “OK, baby. If that’s what you want to do.”
Two days later, she would call again.
“Hi, baby! How are you?! Minnie says hi! You remember Minnie, don’t you? She’s got a daughter about your age down there. Sophomore. Raven? Ravinia? Raneesha? Lord, I can’t remember the child’s name. Anyway, Minnie says she’s interested in meeting you! Here, take her number down.”
I did as I was told, and called. RavenRaviniaRaneesha was...well, less than enthusiastic about the proposed meet. Nevertheless, we decided to link up at the Student Center the next day.
Admittedly, I was nervous, so nervous that I spent the rest of the evening picking out the perfect ensemble. My wardrobe being more Freddie Brooks than Whitley Gilbert, I decided to go with my least-threatening Beavis and Butthead T-shirt and the “fancy” pair of jeans.
Twelve hours later, I made my way toward the Student Center, the Gin Blossoms playing full blast on my weathered Walkman. I grab a seat near one of the dining areas playing the latest episode of "One Life to Live" from a large television mounted in the corner. Twenty minutes later, RavenRaviniaRaneesha arrived fashionably late (even by my tragically C.P.T. standards) and with not one, not two, not three, but four-count ‘em-four other broads, all wearing the same look of amusement on their faces. If this was a gang initiation, I was fucked.
RavenRaviniaRaneesha introduced herself and the rest of the Ravenettes and had a seat.
What happened afterward was the most awkward 15 minutes of my life, not counting the time I brought an ex-boyfriend to my new boyfriend’s house in 11th grade.
To this day, I cannot tell you what was said; hell, I barely remember what she looked like. But I remember the pained expressions, the awkward silences, the foot-shifting and her crew giggling in the background. For a moment, I flashed back to Homecoming 1993, when I watched Helen Ferris, school pariah and The Girl Most Likely to Destroy People with Her Telekinetic Powers, dance around the gym to Naughty By Nature, oblivious to the people looking on with bemused pity.
I was Helen Ferris. Fuck.
We promised to stay in touch. Of course, I never saw her again. I would leave at the end of the school year befriending one black person. Much to my mother’s dismay, he had a penis.
A year later, I’d find myself at a school back in Chicago, my mysterious sistafriend problem a faint, unpleasant memory. I rarely, if ever, talked about it. For a while, it was a little painful to share. That it happened during one of the most vulnerable stages of life didn't help my self-esteem. Seventeen years later, I’m able to find the humor in this bizarre story.
Thirty-five year-old me has a Rainbow Coalition of girlfriends who love and accept me as I am. For that, I’m grateful.