I was recently having some interesting conversations about race and was reminded of this story from my youth. The essay was written several years ago and published in Cimarron Review.
The Heat Is On
In the summer of 1976, my sister Jenny and I learned to adapt to a life where we were playing Barbies with the nice Lutheran girls across the street one day, and trying to shake, shake, shake our booties at loud, multi-racial gatherings the next. Our parents had separated so completely that it became impossible to imagine they had ever been together. The divorce wasn’t legally final but the changes were irrevocable. My white father stayed in the very white suburbs he thought were safe, and my white mother moved to the very black inner city of Detroit where she could afford to live and go back to school.
That August, in the midst of fluctuating custody arrangements, Jenny and I were sent to a summer camp while our two younger brothers were shuttled between parents. “Urban Third World Camp” was arranged by an anti-racism group called People Acting for Change Together (PACT). The camp’s name was to recognize the low quality of life in the ghetto.
Mary and Sharon, a couple of the PACT members, were friends of my mother and had recently divorced, gone back to school, and become politicized. Both women were tall and whip-thin, had long, blond hair and wore large, wire-frame glasses. They tended to wear tight-fitting shirts that snapped at the crotch and skin-tight jeans that ended at like-colored boots or sandals. The overall effect from afar was of two streamlined swathes of color striding across the horizon. Up close, their pale selves were often serious. In the presence of black people, however, I saw them get giggly and shrill with what I assumed was excitement at the voyage away from the stifling suburbia where they’d cocooned for a decade or more. Also, I believe that they truly did want to change the world. The proximity of black people might have caused a giddy sense of efficacy simply because it unequivocally signaled being in, or at least near to, the trenches.
My mother admired and, to a certain extent, emulated Mary and Sharon, but they were older than she by just enough that she was always odd-woman-out. She was also shorter, more insecure, and tended to wear brighter colors. Plus she had just become single mother to four children, one of whom was a recently weaned infant.
Their children being older, Mary and Sharon had a lot more time to be political; they would be administrators at the camp. They each had one teen-aged child who would be a counselor and one younger child who would be a camper. My mother enrolled my sister and me with a logic that she now admits was ‘dichotomous thinking’: Anything the reverse of what was must be better. I was ten and my sister was nine years old.
On a hot Sunday, we were loaded onto one of three rickety busses along with a contingent of Detroit’s underprivileged youth. We were the only two white kids on our bus. There were well over a hundred campers; of these, four campers and two teenaged counselors were white and from the suburbs. The other hundred-plus were black and from the ghetto. Among the staff of perhaps twenty teachers and administrators, Mary and Sharon and a man named Mr. Bates were white. Everyone else was black.
According to sociologists, it takes a minority presence of at least 4-5% in a mixed group for the minority to begin to feel comfortable. We white kids were teetering at that margin and had never before experienced being in the minority. Just like us, the black kids were used to racial homogeneity in their day-to-day lives, but they could never escape their minority status in the larger world.
On the bus, I sat next to Jenny listening to rowdy outbursts from the back and the whisperings closer to us. I feared, absurdly, that our two suitcases would be lost and we would be wearing the same underwear for two weeks.
Almost immediately came the panic of group interaction. One of the adults began the singsong “Roll Call.” Starting at the back of the bus, each person sang about him- or herself while everyone else clapped and then the group sang a chorus. There was posturing in the bus aisle, self-aggrandizement, exaggerated reactions. Some kids even went twice.
The song went like this:
“My name is ______
my sign is _____
(free-form statement about self)
so check it out!"
The group responded: “Roll call, sha-boogie! Check, check it out!"
My sister and I were completely unprepared to perform like that, a feat that would scarcely be acceptable in our own bedroom let alone on a rolling bus in front of unpredictable strangers.
“My name’s Simone,
and I’m a Virgo.
I dance like Soul Train
so check it out!”
Neither one of us can remember how we got through it. My guess is that the adult in charge recognized our fear and either skipped over us or did our parts themselves.
We rode for about an hour to ‘the country:’ a litter-clogged river along which cabins squatted by skinny trees, weeds, and the occasional towering oak or weeping willow. Near the entrance stood a large auditorium, smaller classroom buildings, and staff lodging. At one end of the row of cabins was a girls’ bathroom and, at the other end, the boys’.
In the festive air of our arrival, we were given cabin assignments and clambered over each other in the dirty patch of grass where our luggage had been deposited. What had happened subtly on the bus happened freely now during this melee: hands reached out and stroked my hair. When I turned, I saw only arms, blank faces, the backs of heads. No one laughed as if it was a joke and no one ever pulled. I suppose our hair was our whiteness manifest—straight, long, blond—and while their lives had been flooded with images of white people, they’d possibly never touched one of us. I didn’t appreciate the novelty of my own hair until I thought about learning what their hair felt like. I stopped turning around to see what was happening and let them touch my hair. Later, in the cabin, I touched theirs. So soft.
Jenny and I never did anything to our hair except wash and comb it. By contrast, the girls in our cabin worked at each other’s hair with focus and intensity, sectioning and pulling tight, braiding in tiny cornrows. Their scalps gleamed where the hair was pulled back.
Occasionally someone would yelp at the pain, but mostly the girls sat quietly, even when their heads were yanked back by the force of the pull. Caught halfway through the procedure, a girl might have half her head tight in braids and the other fuzzy, with a comb or pick sticking out, stowed there by the hairdresser.
Instead of cornrows, they sometimes had multiple segmented ponytails or else put the whole thing up in a scarf. For larger sections of hair they used the kind of rubber bands that come with two colored beads to wrap around and lock in place. For cornrows, they used really tiny bands, like the ones that come around green onions or radishes, and sometimes they added beads at the ends.
Watching these beautiful girls, I felt washed-out and boring. I was torn between wanting some of those options for myself and gratitude that I didn’t have to sit still for so long.
After a day or two, a girl named Desirae asked if she could comb my hair and in return I tried to comb hers. I was used to long comb strokes and kept accidentally snapping the pick out of her hair. Her method of smaller flicks ended up teasing my hair rather than untangling it. We both improved with practice.
“It’s like corn silk,” Desirae said.
“But yours is like a cotton puff.”
Mostly, in moments like that, the curiosity was innocent and the questions and comments were free flowing. But there were also girls like Simone, tough girls who approached us with animosity and didn’t seem to ever warm up. When she came to our cabin the black girls shut up, but Jenny and I practically crawled under the floor. She was there to see us.
“Hey white girl. Who you shakin’ your hair at?” she’d ask us. Or: “Whachu got in that suitcase? Anything good?”
Jenny and I blushed and hid our faces. It seemed like she set the rules. We never would have waltzed into another cabin and started asking questions, rifling through stuff. It was so unthinkable that we had no strategy for responding; we simply watched in fear and fascination. When Julie, Sharon’s daughter and our cabin counselor, came through the door, Simone played nice, but not so nice that we didn’t fear her return.
I hadn’t experienced diversity before because I’d never been so unequivocally different. At camp, I had a two-week experience of being in the local minority, but I would never claim to fully understand my co-campers’ life experience. While there, I sensed some antipathy directed toward me, but mostly just curiosity. I wouldn’t say I experienced prejudice or racism or that I could approach an understanding of being non-white. But I did learn a lot about being white.
The director of the camp was Bill Saunders (Mr. Saunders to campers). He had two children who didn’t live with him but who were there as campers. Mr. Saunders used to make great show out of martial arts demonstrations with them. He wore leather armbands studded with silver, neck chains, and a link from his wallet to his jeans pocket. A chain ran under the bottom of his motorcycle boots and up around the ankle. When he made the abrupt, powerful movements of the forms, he clanked forcefully.
His daughter, the older of his children, followed the moves with precision. His son hadn’t quite mastered the fine motor skills but there was no mistaking the fierce look on his face. Mr. Saunders would call out numbers and the three of them would thrust out an arm with the fist clenched, then, depending on the next count, give a high kick or a lunge. We didn’t learn that.
In our daily sessions, we learned African dance and African history; we went through awareness-raising exercises. There were art classes and prayer sessions, and also a good deal of free time. We ate our meals in the large cafeteria where, not surprisingly, the six white kids sat together. Satellites from other groups sometimes approached with songs or teasing or some sort of rap. Occasionally we had an idea how to respond and entered into self-conscious conversations. I tried to be bold, especially with the kids younger than I was, but I still felt fairly certain that they were laughing at me later.
Every night there was a dance in the auditorium with someone spinning records and occasionally exhorting the crowd into more frenzied dancing. The girls primped and swapped clothes freely beforehand, but I never saw them practice any of the steps they executed on the dance floor, moves that my body couldn’t begin to replicate. My sister and I were happy to learn a couple of stock patterns that we hoped kept us respectable.
On the first night, we faced the humiliation of being the only two people in a crowd who couldn’t clap on the downbeat. CLAP! clap. CLAP! clap. CLAP! clap.
Our habit was remarkably resilient. I remember looking in wonder: How could they all be so off?
We muted our clapping and watched. Listened. Without our jarring counterpoint, we could begin to feel the groove. On the stereo, the Isley Brothers sang “Fight the powers that be.” We began to feel a little funky even. “I try to play my music, they say my music’s too loud. I try talkin’ about it, I got the big runaround. And when I roll with the punches I got knocked on the ground by all this BULLSHIT goin’ down.”
On the dance floor, bodies twisted, feet stamped the floor, voices confirmed that bullshit was definitely goin’ down.
We tried a couple of claps with the crowd and it felt really good. “The heat is on,” the Isley Brothers told us. Since that lesson, I can barely force myself to clap on the white beat.
I spent my free time at camp writing poetry in a spiral-bound yellow notebook and feeling very deep and political in a way that I hoped would please my mother. To my surprise, Mr. Saunders began seeking me out and he spent quite a bit of time with me, reading and commenting on my poetry, asking about my experiences at the camp, and generally giving me support I sorely needed.
In the couple of months before camp, my life had become unpredictable. The attention of an adult gave me glimpses of calm and order, a vague idea that someone was in charge and looking after all the details. I didn’t witness Mr. Saunders spending that kind of time with other campers, besides his own children, and I confess that I didn’t even question it. I needed it and I just took it in.
The notebook is long gone, but I remember the gist of two of the poems in particular. One was a fable lamenting the fact that no one mourned when a ladybug died even though that bug was probably very important in its own insect community. The other was an allegory using a banquet table to represent the world’s abundance and spoke in despair of the people who had no food. Mr. Saunders told me that I had a real understanding of downtrodden people.
I can see now that I was a small replica of Mary and Sharon, right down to the wire glasses and white guilt. I don’t know what motivated Mr. Saunders. I don’t know what propelled Mary and Sharon or what pleased me so much about Mr. Saunders’ attention, but as an adult I can assume that we were powerfully attracted to a black man who forgave us for being white.
I had read The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass and railed against the nonsensical cruelty he experienced. I remember trying to get my mother to explain how slavery could ever have happened, which of course she couldn’t do. The only relief came from thinking that it was all a long time ago, unconnected to anyone I knew or could imagine knowing. At the time I read that book, my family did not really know any black people. But neither did we know any racists, except for Grandpa and he was just wrong about everything and lacked any power anyway.
When I wasn’t writing, I often lay on my bunk and looked out the window toward the river. I didn’t feel confident enough to go swimming without the backup of the other white campers; neither was I keen to wander aimlessly, especially after I had stumbled upon a couple of boys smoking behind one of the buildings and been chased back to the cafeteria.
One day near the end of camp, I stared distractedly out the window wondering what my life would be like when I returned home, whether all the kids in my class would know about my parent’s divorce, or if I would even go to the same school. Then I realized that I could look through the window, but I could also look at the window and see the dust and insects, the web strings and bird droppings. At the window. Through the window. I thought I might have super powers, but kept it to myself. The focusing and re-focusing occupied me until everyone else returned to the cabin for rest period. Then I lay awake and wondered how to do good for the world.
During the two weeks, my sister and I had been sort of ‘courted’ by two of the boys. It was flattering and I’m sure harmless, but completely different from what we’d ever faced at our elementary school. The boys we knew might pass notes saying something cryptic like “do you think girlY296 is cute?” The boys from Urban Third World camp came at us directly and urgently, the way we imagined men went after women when they wanted something serious in return.
In that sense, it was frightening. My classmates would never admit to ‘liking’ a girl, let alone yell out “I love you!” in front of a crowd. Jenny and I had no experience being the recipients of such concentrated, incontrovertible attraction. Nor had we ever been in a position to actually do anything about the feelings we had for boys. The surprising energy behind the camp boys’ approach made us careful to be noncommittal, but they were cute and often funny and I’m sure we smiled a lot.
One day at the end of camp, as we walked back to our cabin, the two boys circled us, calling out questions and trying to provoke a response.
The boy in the purple sweatshirt said: “You my girlfriend. Hey! You my girlfriend. If you don’t say different I’m’a tell ever body.”
Then to his friend: “She my girlfriend now. She mine.”
I blushed and sputtered something inconclusive and probably unintelligible. He had been carrying a stick with which he swatted the weeds. Now he used it to gently touch my head, as if in blessing, and said: “You IS my girlfriend.”
Jenny and I ran back to the cabin giggling.
That evening, while we gathered our stuff to shower before the dance, Simone swished into our cabin with a group trailing after her.
“I heard some girl got raped,” she announced.
No one moved.
“I heard it was a WHITE girl.”
Everyone looked at my sister and me. We looked at each other, just to be sure.
“No one touched us,” I said.
Simone looked at my sister. “Whachu lookin at, Nosy Rosy?”
Jenny lowered her eyes.
Simone checked herself in the mirror before sauntering out, her posse snickering and whispering behind her. Desirae looked at me with wide eyes and I shrugged.
It was a stiff and complicated moment, but we’d been through enough of those in the last several days to shrug it off and keep going. Banking on cabin unity, we proceeded to the showers, shrieking and grabbing each other at any noise that we thought might indicate a rapist. I did know the basics of how sex happened, but didn’t really understand rape except that it was supposedly the worst thing that could happen to a girl.
Although it sounds counter-intuitive, I felt a greater sense of privacy in the shower than I did at other camp times. Standing under the water, my sight and hearing obliterated, I could make the world disappear in a more complete way than even when I slept. I was under the water and unmindful when the counselor from Simone’s cabin came into the shower room.
“Mr. Saunders want Kristy,” she announced.
I didn’t hear her at first, but she repeated her demand and I became aware that all conversation had stopped. I listened, re-focused, brought myself back. As everyone watched, I took my naked white girl self over to my pile of clothes and pulled them on without drying. The room was silent but for shower spray when I followed the counselor out of the bathroom.
At the auditorium, she pointed to a door beyond which I heard Mr. Saunders’ booming voice. I peeked in, certain that there had been a mistake, but Mr. Saunders motioned me over, then held up his hand for me to stop halfway between the door and his lectern.
In front of me, on rows of folding chairs, sat every male camper. Some had their arms crossed over their chests or a leg sticking out into the aisle. Most looked angry; others scared. Mike, Sharon’s son, stood out like a piece of rice in the black bean soup.
“Which one of these boys hit you on the head with a stick?” Mr. Saunders asked me.
“No one hit me on the head with a stick.”
The boys were silent. “I got a report,” Mr. Saunders challenged, “that some boy clobbered you over the head with a stick and then you ran away.”
I remembered the boy in the purple sweatshirt. “Oh, no. It wasn’t like that. He was just teasing—”
Mr. Saunders held up his hand. “It does not matter what really happened. What matters is that I got this report. Now which boy hit you?”
I looked out at the faces. “But no one hit me.”
“You know what?” he said. “It’s irrelevant who it was at this point. Just pick someone.” He made all the boys stand up and then he walked over to stand next to me.
I looked up at him in shock. I felt the laser-eyed hatred of at least 60 Black boys threatening to turn me to dust. They were afraid of me and they hated me. But officially their faces were blank.
Most of me wanted to prostrate myself and confess that I didn’t understand, I hadn’t been told, I hadn’t done anything except to be the ten-year-old girl I’d been trained to be. How could anyone be afraid of me? The rest of me felt angry and violated and misunderstood.
Unfortunately, the look on Mr. Saunders’ face told me that I had no choice but to pick some boy.
My ability to look through and then at a window had not developed into super powers, but I was learning to recognize the filters and lenses that come between the world and me. Right then, I realized one inescapable truth: I will always have the white power structure behind me like a bear on its hind legs. That’s what the boys saw when they looked at me—not a scared 60-pound girl, but an all-powerful beast ready to eat them for dinner.
I considered picking the smallest boy because he would be the least likely to try to beat me up later. I thought about pointing to one of the big mean ones who had chased me, just to show him something. I could always point to Mike and deal with the consequences later. In the end, I saw the boy in the purple sweatshirt looking at me with sad eyes.
“It was him,” I said, “but it wasn’t hitting.”
Mr. Saunders had everyone but the one boy sit. I felt a vortex of hot shame that practically dried the wet clothes on my body. The boy and I stood across the room looking at each other. I hoped my eyes told him something positive. Mr. Saunders returned to his lectern and began a speech.
“You see, it does not matter what is the truth. The truth has no place when it comes to white girls and black boys. I heard that she was clobbered on the head with a stick. Give that news enough time and she would have been raped. By a black boy. End of story. End of your life.”
I could not understand his insensitivity towards me. His negativity about the boys’ futures was depressing and confusing. If insignificant contact between a black boy and a white girl could lead to such a dire outcome, why were we even allowed at the camp? Why were Mary and Sharon and Mr. Bates so invested in spending all their free time around black people?
I didn’t understand then that Mr. Saunders’ warning came from such a powerful and deep place. We kids didn’t know that we were acting parts in his personal drama, but the story was archetypal enough that we had no problem finding our marks.
The end of the story is this: Not long after camp ended, Mr. Saunders became romantically involved with Sharon and moved into her suburban home. Some years later, he shot and killed himself in her bedroom. I don’t think he was referring to suicide when he declared that clobbering a white girl on the head would be “the end of (the boy’s) life,” but metaphorically it fits.
Eventually that night I was allowed to leave the auditorium. There was no dance. With no other energy outlet and with everyone supposedly confined to their cabins, the camp writhed like a snake under a forked stick. I was exhausted but I was the one person no one was going to let sleep.
Despite curfew, Simone kept showing up at our cabin door, asking who had done what to whom. Over and over, I said that nothing had happened, no one had hit me or raped me or done anything else to me.
“Make me about want to pop her one,” Simone said, “way she don’t say nothin’.”
She reported that the boys were still in the auditorium and that she had heard Mr. Saunders yelling. I remember some speculation about whether or not I was a virgin and had anyone seen any blood? This was followed by more whispers and glances toward me, lying on top of my sleeping bag staring at the underside of Jenny’s bunk.
After the official ‘lights out’ the boys were released from the crime tribunal. We could hear the camp come alive with whispers. Mr. Saunders clinked by in his metal and leather stamping out all noise so that, presumably, everyone could sleep. And I must have slept, because I didn’t hear anything before the broken window.
Some time after midnight our cabin was hit by bb pellets and one broke a window. The glass broke inward, falling onto the cabin floor in large and small shards. Someone turned on the light and then someone else screamed to turn it off, that it only made us more visible.
The broken window was midway between two sets of bunks and the glass had hit no one. Each of us slept next to a window, however, and we wanted to get up and run.
Julie somehow remained cool. “Everyone on a bottom bunk,” she whispered, “get on the floor next to your bed and pull the mattress down. Lay flat on top of it. Everyone on a top bunk, climb down the outside of your beds and lay on the mattress with them.”
Outside, a girl yelled, “Someone’s been shot!”
“No one’s been shot,” Julie screamed back.
In my sleepy delirium, I heard “No one” as a person’s name, as the person who had been shot and raped and clobbered on the head with a stick. The person who represented black rage against whites, white fear of blacks, sexual tension, white guilt, the loss of innocence, the flayed raw skin of everyone chafing against everything.
It was our last night at camp. With our mattresses pushed to the middle of the cabin, we huddled close together.
Julie said she would go check on the situation, which caused the rest of us to panic. Since the only alternative was going with her, we stayed put. There was no noise except the sound of Julie trotting up the path and then knocking at the door to the building where the staff stayed. Sharing my sleeping bag with Jenny, I tried to stay awake but couldn’t.
The rest of the story came in snippets that night. Every time the light came on we raised our heads and clutched our blankets. Julie reported that the shots had come from across the river that ran behind our cabin. The next time she said that no one was sure if it was private land or owned by the camp. Another update told us that according to all stories, everyone in the camp had been asleep except for the staff members who were celebrating their last night with music and jugs of wine. The police had not been called.
Julie returned for good in the middle of the night with the guarantee that nothing more would happen, that it was probably a fluke, probably kids who lived nearby, probably they were racist and didn’t want blacks at the camp. It made just enough sense. We were too tired to wonder if they’d been aiming at whites or blacks, girls or boys. We nodded and went back to sleep , our heads nearly touching in the middle of the room.