Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South

“From the day I was born, I began to learn my lessons.”
—Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream


autobiographyIn any self-portrait from the ’50s, you’d have to see the me
that was not me: the black girl trudging along the side of the road
while I whizzed past in my daddy’s car. Or the not-me
girl in the bushes, peeing, while her mama kept watch
and I relieved myself inside, daintily, in the sparkling facilities
of the Southside Esso, labeled WHITES ONLY. All those
water fountains I drank from unthinkingly, the lunch counters
where I disdained my lunch—she was there on the wooden benches
bleached by sun out back of the store, or squatting on a curb
sipping from a Mason jar of tepid water lugged from home,
or eating her sandwiches of homemade biscuits and a smear of fat.

From the beginning, then, there were always two: me and not-me.
The one I was, white and skinny, straight brown hair. And the one
I wasn’t but could’ve been—that black or brown girl, hair coarser
than mine, eyes darker, skin gleamier and smooth, free of freckles.
I didn’t even know where she lived, only saw her in public
when she stepped up on my granny’s back porch with a paper bag
of okra, accompanying her mama, selling turnips and tomatoes,
or her daddy, with his tools, come to sharpen the knives.
Then, we eyed each other, I recall, hands behind our backs,
faces solemn and shy, our hair plaited, mine in one long, compliant
tail—but hers in a dozen marvelous sprouts, each tied off
with colored twine. Now, I think it’s odd, cruel even,
I never shook her hand, showed off a toy, or asked her out
to my special place in my grandmother’s yard,
the powdery patch of gray dust beneath the cherry tree,
where blossoms plopped down in tiny clouds of air and color.
There, cross-legged, knee to knee, we might’ve touched
each other and satisfied our terrible curiosity—
whether she, in fact, was just like me, and I, like her.
For a moment, sheltered by the blossoms of a flowering tree,
the universe might have seemed to us like the garden
it once was—various and multitudinous, aswarm
with rich textures, interesting odors, a wide palette of color and hue.

Instead, I kept my head down and watched her toes, bare and curled
in the powdery gray-brown dust, and felt envy for her going free
of shoes, and had no idea of the images that might be passing
through her mind. Then I heard my granny’s much-loved voice,
calling from the porch, to come away and go inside. She sent away
the not-me’s daddy without a sale, and chastised me throughout our lunch
for what she called “familiarity.” And through the back screen door,
I saw the not-me girl, walking away behind her daddy, not
looking back, and I heard his voice, querulous, too, chastising
her, as well, for something bad, whatever it was we almost did
but didn’t, finally, dare to do.

Reprinted with permission from Kate Daniels’ fourth collection of poetry, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (2010, Louisiana State University Press). Daniels is an associate professor of English.

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