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Poetry in Black and White

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In 1972, after four years of teaching English at Berkeley High’s ninth-grade West Campus, I quit. Cleaned off my bulletin boards and returned to Arizona. Packed away my experiences and sealed them tight. Twenty-two years later, I peeled off the tape and began to remember. I distilled those memories into a book of prose poems, Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years, published last year by Del Sol Press.

The narrative of Nothing Between Us is based on my own experiences, but as the poems began to collect and as I saw a narrative building, I realized the book needed to be set free as fiction. Names are changed throughout, and characters are loosely drawn from memory. A number of incidents are imagined rather than recalled.

I could not have composed a chronologically driven narrative. I’ve never thought in terms of plot, but rather in images, metaphor  and sound. The prose poems that eventually comprised the novel came like memories burbling to the surface, one bubble at a time. Why prose poems? I’d been reading and writing them in the early 1990s, fascinated with the way they didn’t depend on line breaks, the way they’re self-contained, using poetic strategies but relying on the pacing and rhythm of sentences. A hybrid form, the prose poem blurs boundaries.

In 1968, along with throngs of young people who flocked to the Bay Area, I moved to Berkeley. I had begun my teaching career in Phoenix, where the Beatles had hit, and Aretha and Ray, and a little dope, but not much else. It was the year of the Chicago riots and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. And 1968 was when the Berkeley Unified Public School District became one of the first in the country to desegregate its schools voluntarily.

I wanted to go to Berkeley to make a difference. I had wept along with millions of others when I heard King in 1963. As a white person, I wanted to share his dream. I’d admired Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, and I’d taught To Kill A Mockingbird during my two years as a beginning teacher at Saguaro High School. I believed I was not a bit racially prejudiced. I had no idea how challenging my new teaching assignment would be. Nothing prepared me for the move from suburban, WASP Phoenix to urban, hip, rainbow-colored, let-it-all-hang-out Berkeley.

I began teaching at West Campus, a diverse, all-ninth-grade school in a primarily African-American neighborhood on the west side of Berkeley. The school I had taught in previously was entirely white. That first fall, I felt surrounded by black faces, and at times I was downright frightened. The Black Panthers’ national headquarters was a few blocks down the street in Oakland. Many kids were justifiably angry and were finding an outlet. At times I became the focus of their rage, as I describe in this passage from the prose poem “Half and Half,” which is from Nothing Between Us (along with the rest of the poems in this piece).

Naturals swirled black halos around me till even at home at night I thought I would disappear. By Halloween I knew it was more like half and half. That was around the time I heard the whispering outside my classroom door after everyone else had gone home, felt afraid as I had during the riots in South Side Chicago. The whisperings grew louder, what they would do to me. I stood up from my desk and walked right past them and down the hall to the principal’s office before I started to cry.

Friendly gestures I tried failed because of my cultural ignorance, as the poem “Folks” suggests:

I didn’t know what I’d been doing wrong in the Track 2 class. Till one of the counselors told me to stop saying folks. Not a friendly word, especially since the assassinations, Martin Luther King and Malcolm. Almost as bad as coloreds, nigras. Didn’t even realize I’d been saying it—okay folks, time to get out your pencils. Thought of it as a neighborly word, an offering, sort of like a covered dish at a pot luck. A long way from my own folks in Phoenix. Family. During that first semester James Carmichael would stay after second period and help straighten the desks. Don’t you worry Miss, he’d say, they’ll most of them be fine. Just take them a little time to get used to you.

One Friday around the middle of October, Calvin Jones cussed so much in class I led him out to the hall and leaned into his face: look at me, look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you. At lunch the other teachers told me he was just being polite—you looked down, showed respect, never looked straight into the eyes of your teacher, especially your white teacher, especially your white woman teacher.

It was later in the year that James Carmichael joined the Black Muslims. New black slacks and tie, stiff white shirt. He’d been right, most everybody, even Calvin, had come around. But James had stopped smiling, his eyes gone somewhere else. He still turned in his work on time, still made B’s. But there was nothing between us, never had been.

Among the people I learned I could count on for support were the hall guards, three big guys who could talk the talk with black as well as white kids and who kept the halls from churning into chaos. One in particular gave me advice, made me feel safe. And attractive.

In my mid-20s and married, I not only believed in absolute monogamy, I was barely aware there was an alternative. I had never thought of myself as pretty—so when the boys’ PE teachers moved through the halls “like syrup through a snow cone,” as I say they did in “After School,” I was amazed and flattered by their persistent attention. I ultimately entered a long relationship with the school’s African-American tennis coach. Nothing Between Us traces the development and ending of the affair.

Remembering that intense relationship is painful. At the time I had wanted to leave my husband and marry “Ty,” as I call him in the book. But as Ty says to the narrator in the poem “Bullshit,” “I don’t think you know how hard it could get.” Not until 1967, after all, had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled interracial marriage legal in all 50 states. The tensions surrounding race often entered our most intimate conversations. One of those discussions is evoked in “Bullshit.” Here is the poem:

You shouldn’t listen to that bullshit, he said. I was lotioning my legs. All those guys are full of bullshit, they’re just trying it out on you, see how far they can get. You shouldn’t listen to me either. I pulled on my pantyhose, up to my waist. Is it bullshit, then, everything you’ve said to me? Ty looked down at the bed, top sheet mostly on the floor. No. But it was at the first. You shouldn’t have listened. You should stay with your husband. I zipped up the back of my dress. He moved away from the jungle sheets, brown, yellow, black and white tigers, giraffes, panthers, and stood over me, his head bent down to my eyes. His index finger brushed my chin. I didn’t expect to be feeling this way about you. Get it? I didn’t expect. You just looked like some good pussy. You hear me? You should stay with your husband, have some nice white babies. I turned to the mirror, put in one earring. Tiny ivory flowers. Bullshit, I said. I put in the other earring and turned around. Tell me something. What do you mean when you ask if it’s your pussy? His arms were around me, stroking me, and he rested his cheek on the top of my head. Fingered my left earring, swaying it back and forth. Stroked my cheek. You be here. That’s what it means. Doesn’t sound like bullshit, I said. Doesn’t sound all that hard, either. His mouth was moving my name through my hair. I don’t know, he said. I don’t think you know how hard it could get.

In “Clay,” when the novel’s narrator plunges her arms up to her elbows into brown clay, “not thinking of what could be made with the stuff,” metaphorically she is trying on how it would feel to inhabit a dark skin. As relationships with Ty, her colleagues, and her students deepen, she empathizes, even at times identifies, with their points of view.

But over the four years I taught at West Campus, I could never forget I was white. Every year it took a full semester to win the trust of many of those kids. The issue of race made continuing the relationship with “Ty” all but impossible. I became intellectually frustrated, wanting to teach novels and poems I was eager to read but that would be unsuitable for 14-year-olds. I needed to get myself back to grad school, aim to teach in a university.

Strange that it wasn’t until 1994, while a Rockefeller fellow at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, that I finally began to write about these years. The impetus came during a discussion about the functions of poetry. I confided to a colleague, a distinguished economist, that there was a subject I wanted to write about but felt was too controversial, probably politically incorrect, even offensive. After I’d described the subject matter in more detail, my friend practically shouted, “Hang incorrectness! You’ve got to write about this.” The next morning I began.

Maybe the memories flooded back because the flowering hills around Lake Como reminded me of the azaleas and camellias, the fuchsia-covered hills of Berkeley above the San Francisco Bay. Maybe the lush surroundings of the villa reminded me of my grandfather’s garden in New Jersey, which, for a toddler, was a paradise of daffodils, tulips, and roses, one place in my childhood where I felt secure. Somehow, at Bellagio I felt safe for the first time to revisit those years when, as I say in “After,” “the students swirled like uprooted flowers, seeds with no good dirt to drop down into,” when Ty and I would “spend nights, go out for ice cream late. 31 Flavors.” The years when “Double cones rose from our hands, so many, so many possible combinations.”

Wendy Barker is poet in residence and a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Nothing Between Us is her fifth full-length collection of poems.