Across the Racial Divide, — a Discussion
February, 2005


Chude Pam Parker Allen  
Cathy Cade
Miriam Glickman
Bruce Hartford
Sheila Michaels
Pat Yorck

Chude: Pat, I realize now where I met you. It was at the radio station for that BBC [interview]. I came in when they were finishing up with you. This was the ["Sleeping With the Enemy"] series BBC did on relationships across hostile groupings, as it were. So we, of course, were about inter-racial relationships [in a time of Black Separatism] and I think that for all of us, — in my experience now being in the veterans group, with both Blacks and whites, — separatism was very painful. And that's not said out loud very often.

In '89 Cathy and I heard Hardy Frye say it, — the first time we heard it, — and what he said was that people think it was hard for whites, but it was also hard for Blacks. Even if you felt it was necessary to do it, — that in that historical period separatism was the right thing to do, — it didn't change the fact that you lost friendships, you lost love, people lost lots and lots. So for myself, the going back in the memoir work on the personal level is partly about loss. And why [recalling the memories is] so hard, and why for all these people [it brings up] the loss of the Movement, and the loss of relationships.

Sheila: I just think that the separatist movement was kinda evil. I can't help feeling still that maybe the seeds of it were there, but that it was a dirty trick. That it was fomented by right-wing, — now we're calling it right-wing but it was fomented by government agencies at the time. I mean, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) being taken over by Roy Innes who was reputed to be a government agent, and he became head of CORE and he still is. And it's now a Black Nationalist group, — no, it's a Roy Innes group. They're thugs. But I think that wasn't the only one. I think they were all over.

I feel that maybe there's a natural inclination of people to want to separate and be me, and be more important, and I can do it better myself, and the other people are distracting me from my great mission in life, or whatever it is. But I just feel that that was exacerbated. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I just think that we were done in.

Cathy: I was hurt by the Black separatist movement, but I can't condem it, especially because of my experience in the early '70s, being in the women's liberation movement and then coming out as a lesbian. After I'd been out as a lesbian just a little bit, I really felt the need not to be around men because every time I was around men I would do all this sexist behavior. So, for ten years, I really didn't have very many men in my life. I wasn't a rabid separatist, I didn't spout the rhetoric about it, but I really felt the need to limit my connection.

Bruce: My impression was that in the Civil Rights Movement the impetus for the nationalism came not from southern Blacks who had lived under segregation, but from northern Blacks who lived under, — I guess a different kind of segregation, not the legally-enforced segregation. From what I could see, Blacks who had grown up under legally-enforced segregation, — which now that I think about it actually took place in very integrated communities, — they were not the ones who were the most, the strongest of separatists.

Chude: There probably were incidents where there were agent provocateurs making it worse, — why wouldn't there be, they were every place else, why not be there? There were certainly people who were touched and opened by the "Black is Beautiful" aspect of nationalism, and it was healthy for them, like it was for us in the early women's liberation movement where, — something was different in that room when there were no men there and I'm sure something was different in the room [for Blacks when no whites were present]. I think there's a third thing. I think we were young, and sometimes you handle things badly when you're not mature.

Sheila: Sometimes you handle them badly when you are mature (laughing)

Chude: I think some of the things that happened to people happened because we didn't know how to handle our feelings. How do you carry contradictory feelings at the same time in a culture that doesn't teach you that. And what if you love, — if you're talking in terms of separatism, — if you love some white people, you worked with them, you trust them, and yet you truly believe that at this moment the best for the Movement is to be all Black. If you're mature and if you're really clear, you can have really solid, comradly understanding about the shifts. But if you're really torn, and you're making yourself do something you're ambivalent about, you're more likely to strike out at the people to get them away because you don't know how else to do it.

And then of course at times you're just self-indulgent. I know this happened in the early women's movement. There were times when men just pissed me off. "They can all go fuck themselves!" And I think that's there too. I think all these things at the same time.

For my own self, — because I was interracially married, — what does it mean to have fallen in love across that color line, and all the things that happened in the various ways they did? I can remember in the mid-60s in New York, how tense it was. That's one of our stories.

Sheila: Oh, God, yeah.

Chude: And how isolated. Most of my adulthood in some ways I've been very isolated because I've been interracially married. I didn't have a community.

Sheila: Strolling down the street was so fraught, — Miriam and I were talking about this yesterday. Just walking down the street in an interracial group or as an interracial couple, it was mortifying. It was calling attention to yourself. It was just something that you wanted to hide. Or not be seen, or be invisible, or something.

Bruce: Because of hostility from whites?

Sheila: Because of everybody staring at you as you walked down the street. We're talking New York, we're talking 42nd Street, in New York City. You know, going to a meeting. Or coming back from a meeting, or having a drink somewhere. When the CORE meeting was there and I was going with somebody. And you go out on the street and almost, — not being apart but not being together. It was just, embarrassing.

I remember one place I went in the Village, somebody took me to a kind of a back garden room in a restaurant that's not there any more, and it was all interracial couples, and it was like (Whew!), you could relax. This was a club that was only interracial couples.

Chude: And you're saying either way, whether it was the Black community that was staring at you or the white community...

Sheila: Mostly the whites, occasionally some Black people would, "What are you doing?"

Cathy: My only thought is to remember that the most threatening stare coming at me, at least what I remember now, was walking in a park in Oakland in the 1980s with a black lesbian friend and getting an extremely hostile stare of rage from a black man. For a brief moment I thought the guy was going to hit me. At the time I thought the man was furious at me for "stealing" a black woman, but that may just be my projection from years of being accused of "stealing black men". My friend made a brief remark to me indicating that she was used to hostile reactions like this from black men.

Pat: [For me] it wasn't people in the street, it was my family. My mother would come to visit, she'd time her visits so my husband wouldn't be there. I had a baby and she would never even look at the baby, talk to her or hold her, — nothing.

Shiela: Your mother was a liberal.

Pat: Yeah. (laughter) "Liberal" was never a very positive word in our vocabulary, I remember. And my parents were very liberal in other things, they just weren't liberal about being married to somebody Black.

Miriam: How old was your daughter? [Tanya was about one, then. After Pat & Whitman separated, Pat moved to the Bay Area & the Northwest]

Pat: When she was about 5 or 6. I was living down in Central America and one time we came up to see her father in New York and somehow my parents decided they wanted me to come and stay with them for a couple of weeks.

Sheila: And you your father didn't come at all [when Tanya was an infant].

Pat: No.

Sheila: And his first wife was Jewish.

Pat: Yeah. She was living down on Cornelia Street. And she came [to see the baby]. That was the one who accompanied him to Britain from Germany in the '30s.

Chude: I don't know what your years were, what were the years you're talking about?

Pat: Late '60s.

Chude: I think one of the things that was difficult is the isolation. That somehow we didn't have a way to connect with each other. I mean, I know that experience. I've occasionally been in a situation where all of a sudden you found out there were other interracial couples, but in my case they were older than us. So I didn't, any, — it wasn't like we had any way to help each other out.

Cathy: I've been in a relationship with a Chicana woman for nine years, and that relationship just ended. I've been realizing that I never really lived in a Chicana community so that my experience, not totally, but a lot, — of the Chicana culture was just from my partner. That's very different than my experience [of Black communities in the South], because I lived in a Black community, and all this stuff that was happening I got from a lot of different people and from the whole community. It put me in a lot better situation than the two of us have been in trying to make our relationship work. It's not like living in the heart of the culture, like we got to do, when we were in the Movement. The Movement cut down the isolation of the interracial relationships.

Chude: And then when separatism happened there was no basis, there was no movement, there was no place where you fit.

Pat: Right, right.

Chude: [No place] where you could support each other and learn from each other.

Cathy: And learn from other people too.

Chude: And also just the parent stuff. Did you have other people to talk to about how did you deal, — did she ever come to the point where she [Pat's mother] could accept? Those conversations for a lot of people didn't happen. Now a little bit older than us in New York, I knew women, Black and white, who'd been interracially married and they would find they had each other. Like 5 years older. They already had kids and I'm not saying that they didn't have a hard time, I'm just saying they had each other, right. It was different.

An email postscript:

Chude: I think there's a lack of clarity in our discussing being in interracial relationships. Specifically Sheila, as it stands it sounds like you were a naive white girl that didn't know there was racism in the world and, therefore, was shocked when white people stared.

So could you elaborate on what exactly you meant? You'd worked in the South, you'd lived in the Black community, you were anything but naive about racism. And yet, something about walking down the street in NYC with a Black man threw you.

Sheila: Basically, that was at the very beginning of my Movement activism: when NY-CORE was on 42nd Street in 1961. And I was a very very shy & timid & quiet girl. My aim in life (thanks to my stepfather & his family) was not to be noticed at all, which was difficult because I was a big, messy girl.

Chude: Oh, that explains why it threw you! But I do want to acknowledge that we are speaking here of defying taboos and crossing barriers. Walking down a street when you were a white woman and he is a Black man raised the question of interracial sex and possibly marriage. Even if you were not a couple, people had these thoughts.

As a white woman in the southern freedom movement I felt oppressed by the assumption I'd come to sleep with Black men. It was the first time I was aware of being sexualized. My convictions and beliefs, my intellect and abilities were all secondary to the question of who I was sleeping with.

Even today people sometimes stare. I'm white and my husband, Norris, is Black. People notice us. When they have strong feelings, those feelings wash over us. Sometimes it's curiosity and/or ambivalence. Sometimes it's hostility and perhaps even revulsion. Sometimes people make a point of nodding to us.

But we've found that the hostile people change in their response to us once they get used to seeing us. Even the old white men, who clearly had trouble with us at first, started nodding to us and saying hello when we'd see them on our walks. Whether they approved of us or not, we stopped being strangers.

Cathy: Chude, I like what you've said. My only thought is to remember that the most threatening stare coming at me, at least what I remember now, was walking in a park in Oakland in the 1980s with a Black lesbian friend and getting an extremely hostile stare of rage from a Black man. For a brief moment I thought the guy was going to hit me. At the time I thought the man was furious at me for "stealing" a Black woman, but that may just be my projection from years of being accused of "stealing Black men". My friend made a brief remark to me indicating that she was used to hostile reactions like this from Black men.

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