One of my Winter Break reading pleasures was Jennifer Baszile’s The Black Girl Next Door, a memoir of growing up in Palos Verdes, California in the 1970s and 1980s as the youngest daughter of the only black family in her neighborhood, and one of only a handful of African American children and teenagers in her schools. This title piqued my interest for a few reasons: first, I should say that I met Baszile through a good friend and had friendly conversations with her when she was at Princeton in the 1990s, although I doubt she would remember me. She was training as an early Americanist there, another point of common interest, and wrote a fine dissertation on colonial Florida using French, Spanish, and English-langage sources. Finally, she’s just a year younger than me, so I was interested in a memoir by someone in my generation who wasn’t the son or daughter of a famous writer or other celebrity–someone who got a book contract because she had an interesting story to tell, and she tells it well, with evocative details and striking originality.
Baszile’s experience introduces us to a rich and important subject, the first generation of African American children to be raised in integrated schools and neighborhoods. Her book is especially poignant as she develops and explores the breach that separates her sister and her from her mother and father, who had grown up in segregation in Detroit and Louisiana, respectively, and who strove to live the American integrated dream for their daughters’ sakes. But there are troubling silences when, for example, racist graffiti was sprayed on the street in front of their house and a cherub on a fountain in their yard is painted black. Young Jennifer wants to talk to her father about this and to ask questions, but knows somehow that questions won’t be welcome, just as she knows somehow that putting on a wig and glasses and performing a pantomime as her “country granny” for white neighbor children one afternoon won’t be applauded by her parents the way it was by her white friends.
The tensions Mr. and Mrs. Baszile and their children attempt to navigate, between integration with their affluent white peers and affiliation with other middle-class and wealthy African Americans, and between their hopes for racial equality and evidence on their own doorsteps of the persistence of white racism, erupt strangely on a family vacation, when Jennifer and her sister are instructed to get to know every single black child on the ship and to bring their parents a report before dinner. Some of the saddest and funniest passages of the book are on Jennifer’s teenage years as she wonders whether love will ever come to her as the not-as-pretty younger sibling of her glamorous and accomplished sister. First, she realizes that she’s being treated like an exotic by her white classmates: white boys flirted with her but told her that if they dated her their parents would “kill” them. She then agrees to be set up on a series of dates with extremely awkward (or just plain weird) young black men, and spends most of high school thinking that she’ll never be kissed (by anyone she wants to kiss, that is.)
Through it all, she understands implicitly that she is never to complain or question her parents’ decision to live the American integrated dream–Baszile realizes how fortunate she is by comparison to her parents, who grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana and in the enduringly segregated city of Detroit, and she’s grateful for the opportunities they gave her. But she chafes at the silences, and wonders about all of the things she knows she can’t ask her parents.
This book will be of interests to feminists and women’s historians for many reasons, but one highlight for me was the education in hair maintenance Baszile offers to those of us who don’t have black hair. Her descriptions of the methods, tools, and solutions her mother used to “cook hair” for her and her older sister are harrowing, as is the story of her first relaxer in a salon. (As the victim of a few bad perms in the 1980s myself, I could identify a little bit with some of the pain she describes, but I’m guessing that most white women have no idea about the amounts of time, energy, and money that black women spend on their hair.) There are other passages relating to adolescence and self-consciousness about beauty and appearance. The story of her middle-school “makeover” at the makeup counter of a local department store that didn’t stock makeup in tones that matched or complemented black skin elicited in me all of the humiliation and outrage she felt at the time.
The Black Girl Next Door ends with Baszile’s high school graduation and acceptance to Columbia University. Her conclusion suggests that she’s writing a follow-up book that will cover her college and (I hope) her graduate school years and her years as the first black woman on the Yale History Department faculty (from 1999 to 2007). You can be sure I’ll review it here as soon as it hits the bookstores!