OK, we’ve looked at the volatile relationship between her parents as one factor in Peggy Ann Freeman’s teen decision to mold herself into “Donyale Luna.” Today we’ll look at the other: racism.
Full disclosure first: I’m a honky. My mind and capacity for empathy allow me a degree of understanding, but I was on the other side of the Black experience of the 1950’s and 60’s.
That said–racism is a huge topic in Donyale’s life and we’re opening a potential Pandora’s Box here. This inaugural post is up close and personal: four stories from my time with her in 1964. Remember, although Donyale and I informally “went together” for four or five months, I learned only last year that she was “colored.”
First story: I took Donyale to dinner at The Famous Italian Cafe, where I worked part-time delivering pizzas. The next night when I showed up for work, feeling proud, I asked one of the waitresses what she thought of Donyale.
“We don’t like ‘them’ in here,” she sniffed.
I was taken aback. “She’s not Negro, Kay. She’s Polynesian.”
“We still don’t like ‘them’ in here,” Kay repeated.
Second story: I lived in a seedy apartment building off-campus with a lot of sad tales. It was a tough neighborhood and Jimmy, the manager, locked the door each night about midnight. One night after Donyale and I left Verne’s Bar, I brought her over to my place. I knocked until Jimmy let us in.
The next morning Jimmy told me, “We don’t allow ‘them’ in the building.” Yep, same word. Same inflection.
Same reaction from me: “Jimmy, she’s not Negro. She’s Polynesian.”
“So she says. We still don’t let ‘them’ in here.”
A few mornings later, Jimmy told me, “That colored girl came over to see you again last night. I didn’t let her in.”
Of course Donyale never mentioned it. What, did she want me to suspect she was Negro? And I didn’t mention it to her: I felt embarrassed, bad that I missed her, but basically I was clueless.
Third story: Donyale never said no when I suggested going anywhere or doing anything. The only time she even hesitated was when I invited her to an overnight visit to Albion College (all-white, I realized only when I re-examined this last year), where I had attended the year before. “Where will I sleep?” she asked me. I figured she was afraid I was trying to trick her into bed. “I’ll call my friend Ann. Somebody in the dorm is always away, and you can stay in their bed.”
Ann said sure, no problem. There never was.
We arrived later than planned, just before the girls’ 9pm curfew. Ann was less overjoyed to see us than I expected: I figured because we were late. She said she thought she could find a bed. (What, she didn’t have one lined up?) I couldn’t stay to make sure; boys had to be off the premises at 9pm. I told Donyale to call me at the frat house if there was any problem.
The next morning I asked her how it went.
“OK, I guess,” she said. “Ann brought me a blanket and pillow and I slept in the lobby.” Again, clueless, I heard her “OK” and figured the dorm was uncharacteristically full.
We were going to stay the day. But a few minutes later Donyale said, “Let’s go home now.” My plan hadn’t been very well-conceived; I had nothing specific in mind for the day anyway.
“Let’s have breakfast first.” We ate and drove home.
Only last year did I put myself in Donyale’s shoes (she did wear them, mostly) and feel the heart-stabbing grief that must have gnawed at her heart–the rage at being turned away from the door of the guy she was sweet on because someone thought she wasn’t fit to enter; the shame of having to sleep in the lobby because no white girl would share a room with her.
I can only guess at the awful patterns created in her mind and heart, the same self-deprecating–even self-loathing– patterns that governed Negroes everywhere at that time. I can begin to understand the black man who told me recently that he watched Leave it to Beaver and wanted his mother to look like Louise Cleaver. “I know white supremacy is real,” he said, ” because I’ve been a white supremacist, although I’m in black skin.”
And only now do I see the culturebound racism inherent in my response to Kay and Jimmy. True, I thought Donyale was Polynesian. Nonetheless, today I’d jump all over their racism. Back then, although I knew their attitude was wrong, the idea of challenging it just didn’t exist in the white world–in my clueless world, at least. I had heard about Malcolm X and his murderous Black Muslims out in California (I didn’t even know he was from Detroit). Even while Abbie Hoffman and other prescient white youth were getting their bones broken by Jim Crow lawmen in the South, I watched a Negro rally march along Woodward Avenue past the Famous Italian Cafe (along with the rest of the crew, including Kay) and didn’t know what I felt about that: the idea of Negroes marching was a new neuronal implant to me.
For the era, I was relatively unprejudiced: my parents fought for Negroes in the unions, and I went to a well-mixed high school. I dwell on myself here to illustrate the pre-civil rights white mindset –even the liberal white mindset–to balance what I’ve imagined of the Negro mindset.
Now for the final story.
Jimmy’s three little words: “So she says,” got a little toehold in the back of my mind: was Donyale a Negro?
One day we were sitting on a bed in a friend’s house. Donyale was knitting, smiling her perpetual smile. I felt I had a right to know. “Are you Negro?”
The needles clacked; behind the smile was an almost imperceptible tightening. It was the only time I ever felt tension between us. “I’m Polynesian,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter to me if you are Negro,” I said. Was that true? Yes: what prejudice I held was all unconscious. It would make her slightly less exotic to me, but she’d still be the most exotic woman I’d ever met.
“I’m Polynesian,” she repeated.
About a month after I stopped seeing her, I saw her with three Negro men at the Little Theatre at Wayne State.
What got into me? I greeted her and said, “You said you’re not Negro, but I see you hanging out with Negroes. Are you sure?”
Graceful as always, she replied: “I seem to get along with them. I like them and they like me.”
Last year her sister told me Donyale was heartbroken over a white boyfriend who accused her of being black. “She cried and cried,” she said.
I cried too–45 years too late.