Page 21


me for an acting scholarship to an Eastern university. I got the scholarship. The backstage reception at the Alley had been cordial. The isolation of Race and Ideas had been broken for the moment. The energy to achieve that was derived from my anger and Nina Vance’s uniquelyHouston solution to the problem of segregation. She could integrate the theatre but not the theatre’s school. In 1961, Houston’s schools were not integrated. The Supreme Court decision recognizing that segregated schools did not provide equal education Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education was decided in 1954, as you’ll recall. There was some delay in Houston. To attend a racially segregated school in Houston, and be conscious, is to develop a permanent passion for the world of ideas, for freedom of thought, and for freedom of expression. One of the most popular television shows in Houston of the ’50s was the School Board meetings. Televised on the University of Houst6n station, the meetings were certainly educational.. Often, the subject of those meetings was what we should not learn. We should not learn World History. We should learn very little American History, and that late in our school lives. We should learn a great deal of Texas History. And we should never learn about the United Nations. I watched the televised battles because one of the stars shining forth with the credibility of honesty and truth White, the first black person elected to the Houston School Board. The 1958 election of Mrs. White was to me a personal triumph. Our family had a vested interest in Mrs. White, although I suspect this was true for all black families. My mother worked hundreds of volunteer hours as Mrs. White’s campaign organizer. My father nurtured me and the house while Mother engaged in political activity. And Hattie Mae White won! I could see her right there on television defending the right of “all Houston’s children” to know more instead of less. Mrs. White did not succeed in this goal; neither did Verna Rogers, a white trustee of the same era. But what was important to me growing up black in Houston was how hard they tried. Mrs. White and Mrs. Rogers represented those hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Houstonians who knew that the isolation of races and ideas and civilizations grew intellectual pygmies. They also represented those hundreds, perhaps thousands, who were learning that the fight for social justice is continual and worth fighting. One legacy of living in the Dark Ages is that you recognize the Renaissance. At least I did. One such Renaissance was a summer in a camp in upstate New York. I was 13 years old. It was 1959 five years after Linda Brown defeated the Topeka Board of Education one year after Hattie Mae White was elected to the Houston School Board. THAT SUMMER WAS a personal Renaissance. Never had I been exposed to so many people my own age who had enjoyed such an unfettered romp through the world of ideas. We read everything. We sang everything. We discussed everything. Nothing was banned except cigarettes. Never before had my own talents been so wildly appreciated. I played Dolly Levi in the camp production of “The Matchmaker” \(thereby beating Pearl by thought I was the best actress in the camp, regardless of race. For a while that summer I sensed that I was free from the barriers of race and ideas. One warm day, I stood outside the camp canteen collecting my mail, as did 150 other teens of various colors. The summer was coming to a close. A clipping from the Houston Post fell from the letter from my parents. The banner headline read something like, “Houston Ordered to Desegregate Schools.” My fellow campers said, “Hey, isn’t that great! Nice new school for you, eh?” This was all said in that naive way that northern liberals have. I told them I didn’t think the desegregation would happen in time for the fall term. It did not. In 1962 I graduated from a segregated school system. The point is that through being deprived of ideas I had developed an almost insatiable hunger for them. A hunger for both sides or the several sides of issues. A hunger for history of many perspectives. A hunger for books on any and all and every subject. A hunger for people from many backgrounds. And an understanding that the protection of these freedoms requires a perpetual fight. A summer job in 1966 put me in walking distance of that dreaded United Nations building in New York. There, I ate lunch sometimes. And wondered how all the bureaucrats in pin-stripes and saris and sarapes and dashikis could have been evil incarnate in Houston in the ’50s. Now, I think I understand. Though the United Nations has never and may never achieved its august goal, it carries the threat of all folk not only getting along with each other, but exchanging ideas and world views. Frightening indeed! The Dark Ages, remember, are not a particular time we live through, but times we live through periodically. And, it is our knowledge that there is a Renaissance for those born Negro in Houston that is the hard-won good news. It is that knowledge that keeps us going. I now live where it is almost totally white. North of North Dakota, not only are most of the people white, but snow covers the ground five months of the year. On our lone prairie stretches in winter we have “White-Outs” the snow, the sky, and the road all become indistinguishable and blind the driver with their glaring whiteness. And I still love and sometimes make a living performing. In the fall of 1984 I went to audition for a television drama to be produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the actors’ union advised me that two 40-year-old women were required by the script. Being 39 and a woman and an actress, I booked an audition. In the studio the following dialogue took place between me and the producer/director: DIRECTOR: I’m so glad you’ve come, and I would have you read these parts, but these people are white. Me: Are you sure? DIRECTOR: Yes and so is the writer. The writer was not in the studio. Later I telephoned her and learned that nothing in her script dictated that the 40-yearold farm women had to be white. The director has since explained that the characters have to be white because he has a “picture” of their being white in his mind. He has made the prejudgement that the characters are white. So, we have come full circle with my story. Had I not grown up Negro in Houston I might not understand this incident for the simple racism that it is. It has nothing to do with creative freedom; it has everything to do with racism. Without the lessons of Houston, it would be harder to know how threatened human beings are when we try to change their picture of who is real and when they think aliens are invading their territory. Through Houston I, and many others, have learned to bristle and bridle at the suggestion that there is only one interpretation of reality. The security of living in an all-black world, in an isolated society, provides the strength to fight through to another Renaissance, and the knowledge that in intellectual isolation the soul and the mind die. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17