By Alana Jenkins
“It seem that whites have not yet been able to realize and understand that these people in striving to better their physical and social surroundings in accordance with their financial and intellectual progress are simply obeying an impulse which is common to human nature the world over.”
Excerpts from The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: James
Weldon Johnson (1912)
“Only or-e-oes do that skiing stuff.” Her name was Vanessa, they called her Nessa, and she was fat and short, and sometimes smelt of bologna. She was the kind of girl who gave everyone ten chances, and if they lost all their chances the consequences, though never realized, were always dire—she threatened with the ironed fist of friendship. And me, with my trips to Colorado, dance classes, and etiquette lessons had already lost the mighty battle. Looking back on it, I might spitefully say she was jealous, but as a small 2nd grader, I knew her as mean.
There were more people than just Nessa; she had her crew. These were the girls who wore barrettes to match their outfits and who had big sisters to pick them up from school. I was the girl in red high top Reeboks, whose babysitter, Cassie, would pick her up. I, the same girl who was shuffled from activity to activity by loving familiar hands, and found solace in books—books and the Spice Girls.
I was the daughter of Ken and Debbie, two kids who fell in love thanks to a blind date and a hoopty, who were smart enough to wait some before having kids. Waiting for the securities of suburban life to build up upon itself in Yonkers, NY. Starting first with the new car, then the new job, and then with the house with red door. A life waiting to be filled with slapping baby toes and overstuffed toys. I’m not sure if it was my mother’s need for perfection or my father’s need for stability that keep them childless for the first ten year’s of their marriage, but whatever it was they were happy with the little girl.
My earliest memories aren’t my own, but they are through photos and stories. A blood-shot eyed, near 30 year-old Ma, holding tight to a bundle of me, Daddy the only one looking at the camera, his snow covered gloves in hand. There was a snowstorm that December 28th, and he hadn’t made it to the birth, but he made it to the picture. My father proudly recounts the story of a fearless wife who wouldn’t waste time or money on a late ambulance and drove herself the 15 miles to the hospital as he lingered behind in the slow, northbound traffic from Wall St to White Plains.
Or that same dark-skinned Daddy standing at the head of a table, making some candid powerful motion while still feeding the pink ball blankets in his arm. And then the 3 year old in a black dress and patent leather shoes, pulling a trash can, sucking at the passie in her mouth. A frame that proved the innateness of politics in my blood, showing that even before I knew it I was in it; learning without knowing the power of cultural capital. There where always a lot of photos, they were kept in a basket. Hidden between two plus leather sitters, grazing the hardwood floors. The basket was part of the house, not covered for safe-keeping, the photos randomly mixed together.
Being that my parents were products of apartment buildings and blue collar careers, they were well aware that their own master’s degrees and six-figures would bring about a different type of life for their own children. That said, they made sure my culture was lived—from fish and grits breakfast to 12-hour car rides to see Pop in Savannah—they knew Black was privilege, so they were sure it had a weighty influence on my life. Books were made starring a little brown girl named Alana, as she fought magic monsters, loved her hair, and even discovered Kwanzaa. Until about middle school, I always found it weird that I never had another Alana in my class, being that, from the books that lined my shelves, it was such a popular name.
When I was about 10, my grandfather, a retired NYC train conductor from Savannah, presented me with an accordion folder. He had collected Black popular culture in the form of Jet and Ebony magazines for as long as I could remember. They often acted as a tablecloth for the coffee table—right next to the butterscotch and peppermints. He loved his culture, I always imagined him in the 60s, a black beret cocked to the side over his small fro; he once told me he was stabbed in LES. I like to believe it was due to his progressive activity. Well, in the accordion folder there were photos, clip outs, and articles and on the back of the lid where he taped down a lined sheet of paper with packing tape: Your Inspiration.
He smiled his big country smile as he handed me the folder. In his day, he would say, there wasn’t folks like us to look up to. He was so proud of my mom when she graduated high school, and even prouder when she and my two uncles became college graduates. He had come to New York from Savannah for a job, leaving his pregnant Pearlie Mae, my grandmother, behind while he made a great life for them. He worked hard, and when they were able to move from the small apartment on Brook Ave to the Lego-shaped house on Edson Ave he had made it. He believed in progression, and he taught that to his daughter, hoping that she’d teach it to her own.
And so it was done, my inspiration covered the walls of my pink room. In the middle of a sea of Black faces hung a poster from the Millions Woman March. It had been plastered to my wall and I marveled at its beauty. In the center, Black women’s faces blended into one another, shades of purple, sand, gold, and milk moved in and out of one another in the poster. The edges were marked with penned well wishes from a hundred women who knew only my name, and yet they desired so much from me. They came from all ends of the earth—Philly, Vancouver, India, Mexico—the names and places were from all over, and they all loved me, and they wanted me to be their inspiration.
Later that year, after I sheepishly indulged in the body clip outs of Serena and Tyra, someone called me an Oreo for the first time. It was as though the finally looked at the cream they were licking and said, “hey that’s white in there.” I never really understood it. I accepted it. I didn’t think I was White. But, I mean, I didn’t really talk like them. Sure, my accent is heavily influenced by the South Bronx origins of both of my parents, so that talk becomes, tawk, and coffee, cawffee, and so on. But I never had much depth to my voice. No one was scared when I talked. You wouldn’t hear my beads at the ends of my braids clash together as you did with their barrettes and bow-bows when they spoke. They were mean, I was stuck up.
“In cities where the professional and well-to-do class is large they have formed society—society as discriminating as the actual conditions will allow it to be.”
It should be easy to describe—rather, classify Jack and Jill. It is the anti-Black underclass. Formed in the midst of the Great Depression—by those un-depressed—it is a mother’s organization created by 20 Black housewives in 1938, looking to supply their upper class children with the cultural and leadership opportunities their deeply segregated community did not offer.
In technical terms, Jack and Jill of America, Inc. is the largest, and oldest African American family organization in the United States. With 218 chapters across its seven regions, Jack and Jill remains a premier place for professional black families to socialize, and more importantly network with one another. With exclusive membership, the children of Jack and Jill, ages 2-18, forge family bonds and group solidarity. Because many of the children of Jack and Jill live in predominately white spaces, Jack and Jill provides racial identity and pride.
To me, Jack and Jill of America Inc. is dark mothers in all white at a Saturday Brunch at the Hilton Rye. It is mother/daughter retreats at country clubs in White Plains. It is parties in Sag Harbor and homes in the Vineyard. It is AAU Leagues coached by magazine editors, CEOs, and 40 year-old retirees. It is tuxes and gowns and cocktail hours that last too long. A laugh almost too soft to be heard, or a wave from a Mercedes Truck in Bloomingdales’ parking lot.
The story of our membership goes that I saw the poster. That it was I who, at 7 or so, saw the roller coaster on the poster and said, “Mommy I want to do this! I want to be with these people!” I’ve always been skeptical of that story for a couple of reasons: one has to be invited to be a member of Jack and Jill, and because another Jack and Jill mother, Dr. Hyacion, delivered my brother a year prior. However, I have no memories of play group with the Grave twins, who would not share, as some of my friends who have been in Jack and Jill since birth have. But somehow, I ended up in Group III of the Black mothers’ organization, attending events every 3rd Sunday.
In Jack and Jill, I was not the Oreo. In the Westchester chapter, we were one of the few families who lived rather close to the city. My brothers and I attended public schools that were considerably more diverse than the schools of other members. I knew slang and hand games, whereas they wanted to know.
Soon, my Jack and Jill friends became my point of comparison. In the cafeteria, I used my knowledge the better to conquer the average. You think I’m an Oreo, you should see my friend Chesleigh; she can’t even heel toe. You think I’m spoiled; Erika and Kristen just got a horse.
But as my northern Westchester friends grew glitz with their lavish, Westchester life styles, I stayed the same, still on the other end of the spectrum. Whereas in Yonkers I was the stuck-up-rich-bitch, in Jack and Jill I was on the lesser end.
“…This statement, I know, sounds preposterous, even ridiculous, to some persons, but as this class of colored people is the least known of the race it is not surprising.”
My parents came from modest backgrounds— hard work, time, etc. But I, in my $200 rain boots, knew little of that. My father used to tell me, “Life used to be hard and fair, now it’s just hard.” I never really got that until I went to high school—The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem. The first all-girl public school in New York had a shockingly homogenous demographic—poor and colored. My parents, who aimed for well-roundedness, had their eyes on the school since it opened and looked forward to my attendance.
Everyday was the same—put on my uniform, lace up my sneakers, have some pancakes and bacon, get in my father’s car, drive from off of Tuckahoe Rd to I-87 to Woodlawn, hop on the 4, and in some 40 minutes later, get off in East Harlem. I thought everyone’s routine was relatively the same, give or take a subway ride. But over time, I realized the bodegas and push-to-exit doors were nothing like what I was from.
Sure, I’d been an Oreo before, the anti of the norm. I walked into TYWLS half expecting to be immediately found out and ridiculed, but it didn’t happen. With my plaid skirt and green MetroCard we all looked the same. I was more similar than ever, but still I stuck out. But unlike Nessa on the playground, the status, inherent with my plainly seen socioeconomic class, made me a little more cool than I should have been. It wasn’t really like what you see on TV, where the girl with daddy’s credit card buys friendship; I was just the first girl to flash her blue Wachovia card, smiling with the knowledge of what a debit card was.
Then, almost out of nowhere, I hated this power I had—guilt, some might say. I knew that although many of the girls bought Juicy velour suits, and wore Gucci sneakers, for many of them it was an option between the names on their backs or helping with rent. The feeling that this privilege was unwarranted, not fair, left me ashamed.
Over the course of four years I had friends suffer through poverty—evicted, beaten, jumped, hungry—and I continued my routine. I watched as my high school best friend went from home to home— leaving her alcoholic mother in Harlem for her abusive father in Jersey, and after he made her legs black and blue and sore with unexplained marks of belt buckles, she returned to the projects to live with her next-door neighbor in a two bedroom apartment that housed six to eight people. Life in poverty was not what I knew. Watching as my peers grew older, uneducated, and pregnant, I knew I wasn’t that. Still today, I can walk through East Harlem, stop for a piragua, have a water balloon fight in Jefferson Projects, but at the end of the day I’ll still get on the 4, soaking wet, and head back to Yonkers—a privilege I’m not sure I’ll ever deserve.
“[People] somehow feel that colored people who have education and money…are ‘putting on airs’…going through a sort of monkey-like imitation…[when, in fact] out of the chaos of ignorance and poverty they have evolved a social life of which they need not be ashamed.”
In high school, Jack and Jill fed my love for dress-up. At least twice a year I went shopping for a gown, cocktail dresses or the like. I loved the fall of soft, light colored silk, or the fun in a bright tulle and Jack and Jill’s numerous parties, conferences, Sweet 16s, cotillions, etc. allowed for many an opportunity to play dress up.
Senior year, however, was special. At the regional teen conference’s annual gala, senior girls were required to wear white gowns and senior boys, white dinner jackets. It was a beautiful sight— brown young adults, elegant in white, escorting each other to the dance floor, moving, dancing, in small circles, finally, each, one by one, lining up and into the mic saying their parents’ names, their chapter, and their intended college. Little did our proud parents know, before we were beautiful in our satin or chiffon white, we were normal suburban teens taking shots of cheap vodka, preparing to get through the night, not knowing our own privilege.
This was the moment where we would be entered into the adult world, and we were almost too far-gone to understand how wonderful we were to these adults.
By the time I stepped up, the harshness of the vodka was mostly gone. Alana Jenkins, daughter of Kenneth and Deborah Jenkins, In fall 2008 I will be attending Middlebury College in Vermont. I had gotten into college due to Jack and Jill—rather my apprehension of it. I had written my college essay—as I’m sure many recovering Oreos do—about the separation between the way I am, or should be, perceived by society, and the privileged community that I grew up in. Both had the same color and history, but there was an important difference.
Julia Alvarez, in her article “White Woman of Color” writes that when applying to jobs she found that her “being a White Latina made her a nonthreatening minority.” The same can be said for socioeconomic status. In the larger society of the United States, money is seen as an automatic whitener. However, although I was born “oreocentric,” everything had been done to reverse my false, innate whiteness.
“Love… makes me glad that I am what I am, and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet… I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”
And now we are here, in an oversized single in an over-elitist college. We are given overrated critics who are supposed to help us understand who we are in an overtly overemphasized manner. We are given this excess and still, through the overarching depth and breadth, and overreaching support, we are overly unimpressed. And over and over and over again we tell ourselves to overdramatize our experiences, make it real. And although we are overstressed, we are underwhelmed with our own overseeing of our peers. This is our life—the overachievers of the colored academia, the ones who reside in liberal arts campuses under green mountains and white faces, the ones who fear, and yet long for, “teaching moments,” the ones who become stronger after four years of resilience—that’s us.
We sit in dimly lit rooms, trying to understand how we fit in. And, so we write. We write long and hard, and never let the pens leave the page. And yet, we know that the voices we present are not voices that can be critiqued. They speak of a genuine experience that none of the other eleven pale faces can know. They speak of tales that bring us back to kitchens and grandparents and laughter that never stops. So, we sit in dimly lit rooms, in the depths of night and remind each other of home: “When I was younger, all these folks from Mississippi moved into my ward after some big flood of the river. See, my neighborhood was a Creole, and with most of us you couldn’t trace an origin to a place if you tried. And so, they hated us. They hated our color, what we stood for, all that shit that doesn’t make any sense in retrospect.” Max spoke slow and winding like the river of his distant memory, he sucked his teeth with a twang came from south of that place, New Orleans. “So, across the street from us these boys, they were black, darker than me, they started calling me white. I guess because I read and wore glasses and shit.” He paused and lifted up the leg of his shorts, revealing skin a shade or two lighter than the hump of a thirsty camel. “I guess I was this shade,” pointing to his thigh, “but still, it was crazy how they hated me.”
“You know, I’m so positive that every person of color here, rather every brown person of color, has been accused of being white.” I spoke with my usual enthusiasm—with clapping hands and crossed legs—when I discovered our similarities. I wanted to be closer to him, know about his sandy-faced heritage and underappreciated smile.
Within the first months of our meeting, Max asked me causally about my social class, “So are you like middle class or like more?” I was taken aback by his abruptness, or maybe honesty. Granted, I am hard to read: I drive an expensive convertible, and try to use words with more than three syllables as much as possible, but to an eye untrained to Black wealth, I am still the loud New Yawker who claps with every third word, twists her neck, and marks ends of her sentences with fuck-outta-here instead of periods. I started to coin myself a master of disguise, but that wouldn’t be fair. So instead, I answered his question with the same unknown embarrassment as I always did, in revealing myself as a hood-fraud, “mostly upper-middle, probably more class.” And surprisingly, he never held me against me. In late, dimly lit meetings, I educated him on me, and my kind of people. He marveled at the idea that he had “one siddity-ass-high-brower” right in front of him, and he would have never known. He took to my shyness and helped to unhinge the tension between my race and my class.
To him, I wasn’t the anti, we were both antis. Almost betrayers of our race because of education? We almost didn’t understand it, shouldn’t we want us—all of us—to succeed, or are we too restrained by insecurities to give freely all the power of success? Or maybe whispers of the talented tenth still curl up in the nooks of our dreams, stopping us before we wake.
“You can always tell by the nose,” an indicator we both decided marked an ethnicity that was a little more than non-European. We both fingered the width of the thing that traced our shared history, a history too similar to keep us apart in a school so small. “I love being Black. Man, it is the best. It’s too bad they take everything we make good.”
We’d silently look back on music that had become mainstream, dances that are ruined by rhythm-less feet, language that had been raped and soiled and made impure, only to be given second life, but not by us. How great it is to be in a skin that dictates so much history, so much pain, so much joy: but how much does it really belong to us?
“We were all once considered white, but here, at this school, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more Black in my life.” The words would teeter in my mouth as they did in my mind, uncompleted and without warrant. But an understanding came across his face, and I knew I was home.
I often wonder how it would have been to go to a HBCU, Max did too, but for different reasons. He wondered how would it be to be in a school with legacies, whose Southern wealth was more rooted in attitude than dollar signs. He wondered if he’d harbor the same skin boiling bitterness that he did for every ill-minded white person now on his own kind. It scared him. I knew I would have hated it, no wonder at all: fashion shows, superficiality, and lack of intellect. By this time my intellectual elitism might be at its peak. I know that HBCUs are only good for hot men and networks, and since I was basically born into the latter, its glitter didn’t shine its dull metallic to me.
I know we are different, but we are the same, Max and I, antis, we are still antis.
As the dark of midnight passes over our conversation, and sun begins to seep through the shades we stare intently into each other’s eyes trying to separate our experiences, but we can’t. We wonder if words are actually heard, not to each other, but rather to the powers beyond the shades. Or, are we a mockery of oppression, two caricatures of revolutionaries trying to convince the inconvincible?
* * *
As I try and look for the words to craft an ending, I find myself stumped at the prospect of completing an incomplete story. I would like to say that I found the answers, but what it really seems to me is that I created more questions.
I have to admit to myself that I have trouble understanding why we are the way we are. How did we get there, or here, or where ever? Is it that in defining who we are not, as a means to define who we are, we lose a lot? But, I mean is there any other way to define a thing? A cat is a cat because it is not a dog, the sun is the sun because it is not the moon. See, you can’t define anything without defining what it’s against—a thing becomes a thing because of it’s anti.
I feel like I’ve been working my whole life to figure out what is my anti. On the monkey bars, was I an oreo because I was not an uh-oh oreo or because Amy and Brandi, two very white looking Puerto Rican girls were my best friends or because I lived in a house with two parents? Then, as I grew older, not much changed but a school, I still sounded and looked the same, did I ever become un-oreoed? Because some where between Nessa and her mean words and now I feel as though I’ve become, maybe, the anti-white.
One might be surprised to find out that college gave me my first opportunity to ever really know a White person. Usually, that comes the other way around; people grow up in a whitewashed world that produces dangerous racial biases. And even though I had White teachers, saw White people on in the street, and even had White friends in younger years, never in my adult life had I needed to trust a White person before Middlebury. And though they are the faces I see around all the time, it’s hard not to judge—or even trust— the “yo, yo, yo,” I got from girls on my freshman hall, or the intimidated look I get when I disagree with someone’s idea.
But I did. I found best friends behind pale faces, “good white folk” in people, who despite the privilege of their skin, could understand that without conversations of all of our differences, we all lose out…
Ironic isn’t it? Although I’ve been surrounded and supported by Black folks my whole life, I felt my “blackest” in a predominately white setting. The same thing probably happened to those 20 moms in 1938, or even my own as she made her way through corporate America—a system of self formed by what we are not, Antis.
 Historically Black College/University