“I’m not trying to live in their world, they’re not trying to live in my world. We have a world that we live in together.”
Tamesha Cheatham Interviewing Adjoa Aiyetoro
June 15, 2012
AA: I’m originally from St. Lois, Missouri, grew up there went to public schools there. What really is important, I think, even for this discussion, is that I was in segregated schools until the US Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. And, in Missouri, what they did was, well I think it was all Missouri, It may just have been St. Louis, they started with the high schools, then they went to the elementary schools, I think it was 1955, 1956, when we desegregated. My public school was four blocks from my house, maybe five, but the new one that I had to go to was twenty blocks. And so, back then we walked… you know, so that was one thing. So. I went to integrated schools from about the age of ten or eleven. I graduated high school, and went to Clark University, in Wooster, Massachusetts, which is a predominately white institution. And then I got a Master’s in Social Work, and I then worked in Social Work, then I got a law degree. That’s my background.
TC: What kinds of experiences did your parents have with people of other races? Tell me what it was like for you through your parents’ experience.
AA: What was it like before integration, before desegregation of the schools? It was fine for us. We went to a black school, my mother was a teacher at that time. she later became a guidance counselor and other things in the public school system. My father was a post office worker. We knew a lot of the children and families. I remember one of the teacher in elementary school , in St. Louis. One of the teachers was actually a very good friend of my mother’s. and, also had taken a special interest in me, so my experience was great. I was a talker, so I would get notes home: She finishes her work fast, because I was, you know, always good in school, and then she’s talking. On the grade reports, we got, , E…. E was excellent down to U, which was unsatisfactory. M was medium, or average. And I would always get Es or, maybe every once in a while I would get a G, which was good. And I would always get M in writing, and many times it was a U in conduct, because I talked a lot.
TC: Did your parents interact with people of other races?
AA: Not really, the only thing that I remember is one time we were driving…my Daddy had a car… I guess it was a family car; a ’50 Plymouth that was black. I remember it because Daddy kept it till the dad-gummed floor was rusted out. We were right near our home, maybe two blocks from our home and we got stopped by the police and they made him get out of the car, and I really don’t even think he was doing anything, or if he was, he must have had a tail-light out or something. My Daddy never speeded because he would be in the car doing like this in the car trying to push the car to go faster! When we moved to the neighborhood, where we were right around the corner from the public school I went to, initially it was like a predominately white area. When we moved in, most of the white people were already out or moving out.
There was a white woman who lived at the end of our street. At that end of our street was the, quarry. They’ve changed it now, but then, it was the quarry. A white woman, an older white woman, lived in that house; and she did not leave. I would interact with her, and would go to the store for her. She had this little white dog…you know, those little tiny dogs that just yap all the time, all bark no bite. I remember one time I went to the store for her and she gave me a quarter. Oh, I don’t remember how much, but she gave me some money and I came home and I told my mother, and she made me march right back down and give it back to her because she said that we don’t charge our neighbors for being neighborly, that’s just what we do.
I think she died, but she never moved. You know what I’m saying? She never moved. I think she died, or she might have gotten put in a nursing home, but she never left, and she was, that was our interaction with her and I’m sure there were others, a couple of white people on the block, but most of them left. My memory is that she was the only one who stayed.
TC: What was your impression of people of other races at that point; or white people at that point?
Well, my impression was… there was a Jewish guy who owned the corner store, I remember him. I’m not sure I had an impression, to be honest. I don’t remember good, bad or indifferent impressions. We e moved to that neighborhood when I was seven or so… So I don’t think that I had formulated, in my mind, that whites were bad or good. And, we didn’t have, in St. Louis at that time… it was largely black and white. Rome was Jewish, so sometimes people would make a distinction between Jewish people and white people. But, I don’t remember really ever having any other people of color in our communities, or anything. And I don’t think there were that many in St. Louis at that time.
TC: Tell us about your experience when you integrated into the public schools.
AA: When I went to an integrated school, at Gunlock…the first one experience was of having to walk further. But there were other children in my neighborhood that also had to walk. But, it was kind of arbitrary because one of my closest friends lived on this side of one of the main streets and I lived a block and a half from her, but she stayed in Benton and I had to go to Gun Lock. You know, so that was kind of disruptive to me as a young person and I can remember that being a little disruptive. I don’t remember being really upset about it, but it was just, `Why are some of my friends not gonna’ be with me anymore because of the way they drew the lines? It wasn’t voluntary. It wasn’t like my parents said, ‘Yes, I want her to go there…’ It’s just the way the system drew the lines. We were in the area where we had to go to Gun Lock, which was instead of a, like a five-minute walk. Sometimes as kids, you know, sometimes you run and it would be like a three minute run to school…it was like maybe a ten, fifteen minute walk.
I remember us going, walking as a group. I’m visualizing some of the kids, but my closest friends weren’t going, they stayed at Benton because of where they lived. So, I remember walking to school. I remember the first thing I had that was kind of a negative race experience was, when you go to an integrated school you’re starting to be around white children your age and older. But, I remember me and a little white girl, I still remember how this girl looked; you know, a little scraggly…what do you call it? Dirty blonde, kind of, brownish kind of… And, she was skinny and I was skinny, too, so I’m not being too particular. You know, we were skinny. They used to call me Grasshopper in undergrad school. I don’t know how we became friends, but you know how you’re kids and you’re playing, and that kind of thing… and we became friends.
We used to walk almost half-way, and she would make a left on this big street called Union, and I would keep going down to where I cut over at Norwood. And, I remember one day she invited me to her house to play. Of course, I couldn’t say yes or no ‘cause I had to ask my parents. Well, the next day she came back and she told me, well, her father said a nigger couldn’t come to his house, so… That was my first, really, to my knowledge, my first real experience with race. So, that really hurt my feelings. I remember being hurt. I remember my feelings being hurt, and that ended our friendship really. I don’t remember… I wasn’t mad at her, I don’t think, but it did end our friendship. And it might be that her father also told her not to be friends with me, I can’t remember what all, but I remember when she told me that, it ended our friendship. Not hostile, but…
So I remember that, and then, I remember some of the teachers that went over. There were also a few black teachers, and because my mother was in the school system, it was a curse and a gift, you know. The curse is, they can pick up the phone and say she’s doing such and such. But, also, it was good because I remember blanking on this man, this one woman, Mrs. Williams, she was real tall, stately black woman, very trim and she was a hard taskmaster, she was in my sixth or seventh grade and then Mister…. Im blanking on his name, and his whole family was in the school system. And, I remember him as a teacher and he was really good, again, another taskmaster… I remember one white teacher, maybe in my fifth year there, maybe fourth grade… And I came home because she said something to me and it just didn’t seem right. And, I remember coming home and telling my mother. See, my mother was the kind of woman, back then, a lot of parents were like, if you get in trouble at school, you’re in trouble at home. I mean, it wasn’t an argument with the teachers, `they said X, then you do X.’ And she wasn’t one that goes back, and would go back. Now, if somebody had really messed with me she might have, or probably would have, but…
So I don’t remember what that teacher did or said. My mother says it wasn’t true, so I don’t know if I’m remembering because I want to, but I do remember my mother talking to her. Now I don’t know if my mother recreated history because of that whole fashion back there was that you don’t… but I remember my mother having a conversation with her, not hostile, but a conversation.
Other than that, i was fine. It wasn’t traumatic at the school. The experience was traumatic with the little white girl but it was not. One thing I do remember was this woman who taught kindergarten and I thought she was black because she had nappy hair, right? She had this, like, bushy, nappy hair and back then you straightened your hair. You know, so my thought was, well, why don’t you go get your hair done? You know that kind of thing. You know how kids are. And come to find out, she wasn’t black she was Jewish, you know, and… So that was interesting… That’s it. (laughs)
TC: What did my parents do to prepare me for that?
AA: I don’t remember them doing anything. You know, I remember them, basically… my parents were very strict about school. First of all, you were supposed to get good grades; you’re in trouble if you didn’t get good grades… and like I said, if you got in trouble at school, you got in trouble at home, and they didn’t change their rules. Their rules were the same. You don’t get in the car with anybody. And, see, that was important in going to Gun Lock, because it was a longer walk. I don’t care who is stopping and asking you if you want a ride, or if a friend of yours is in the car, no! And that was good weather, bad weather, whatever… It could be raining cats and dogs. The only person you got in the car with was my Mom and my Daddy. Those kinds of rule…but I don’t remember them preparing me, I don’t remember any conversation. I’m not saying we didn’t have it, I just don’t remember any conversation about, `well, now you’re going to the white school…’
But, see, part of it is my sister had been part of the high school group when they integrated Beaumont. She was in freshman year and was four years ahead of me, so that was the year before. So, it might have been that the family had kind of gone through that. I don’t remember any incidents there, but maybe we had talked then, I don’t know. There was no big deal.
TC: How did you feel about white people after that first incident?
AA: I had no white friends. I did not like white folks. You know, I didn’t feel anything about white people to be honest, or to my memory. I feel that was another incident that made me question myself. And, I think it went to my self-esteem. It might not be nice to admit it, but, you think: ` what’s wrong with me?’ And, I think that’s the feeling, ` what’s wrong with me?’ And, I don’t remember it being a big deal. But I do remember that kind of feeling. When I got up in a little higher grade there was a boy that I was friends with. So I don’t even remember it having a major negative other than, I think it was another pile-on in terms of self-esteem, for me as a young black… girl.
TC: So you internalized it?
AA: Yes, I think I internalized it. I think the question of `what’s wrong with me’ means that I was looking at it as I must be the problem; not her racist family.
TC: At what point in your life, did you become aware of racism, acutely aware of it?
AA: I think I was aware of it then! It’s just that it was the way of life. I remember going to the Comet Theater, that was the black theater and we could go there, of course, freely. And I remember that at the Fox Theater we could go but we had to sit in the balcony. I remember that where we moved – like I said we were integrating our neighborhood, and I remember the Howard-Johnsons, we couldn’t go to; I don’t remember if we couldn’t eat there at all or if you have to go eat through the back door, or whatever. And, at that time Howard-Johnsons had – I’m not sure if they still do, if they still exist—but, it was like a little lodge, motel type thing, and we couldn’t stay there. So I was aware of racism, I’m not sure if I was aware of it being bad, other than when this little girl told me that I couldn’t go to her home, but I grew up in a segregated St. Louis. That’s what a lot of people point at in the South. But, this is Midwest. I don’t remember signs like were existing in the South. The schools were segregated, the theater, I mean we lived in a segregated life – the black community and the white community.
TC: At what point did your life really started to desegregate, when you started to have more interaction, more relationships with people from other races?
AA: I think it started in the elementary school, when we integrated, and I think high school, that was integrated. I think that started the process, but I don’t think as a black person, I don’t think I ever, we ever really integrated. I think it was like, our black family and community became much bigger in my life than the few white people that I might be friendly with. My aunt, who I remember taught out at West Grove, some of her friends were white, so if she took me somewhere with her, sometimes; one of her colleagues would be there every once in a while.
But, my family was very grounded in the black community in St. Louis, and it was my great-grandfather who was the first black man to cast his vote. My family was one of those black pillars of the community families. I was in Jack and Jill, an all-black club that starts from five years old and goes up to eighteen; and different groups. So, my life, even though while I was in integrated schools, was mostly within the black community. When I went to college, I went to a predominately white college, because my mama chose it. She wanted me to go to one of the seven school sisters, but I didn’t get in, so I went to Clark. And that’s when I began having people (not black) as friends, because there wasn’t anybody else there. I was the only black, African-American in the school, except for one other black woman that was in the class above me…and she wasn’t being very friendly. So all of my interactions, then, were with black African male students, and whites. I was the only black person in my class, so that’s when I started the interactions.
In hindsight, I think I may have sensed it then; but, like I said, we were very well grounded in the middle class black community. Yea, I still feel that because of racism – maybe, I didn’t realize it was racism then – but we were always painted as being less than white people; not as good as, not as smart as, they don’t want to be around us. Because, it wasn’t really, in our community, from us but we lived with it and we did well.
I think, I gave you a long story to say, I’ll be honest, I think that I had a lot of low self-esteem. And, I think when I was at Clark, I think that played out with me feeling like white people were – really, white girls, were really better than me in some ways. I was always smart, so I always did as well, if not better in school, but there was this sense of, almost, sometimes trying to be like them, you know, and not actually having developed my identity and being grounded as a black girl. I don’t know if that even makes sense, even though I was grounded in the black community. So it was some, I remember, I’ve always had little wild friends, even now, but this one white girl that I remember… Dodie! Dodie, Dori, started with something, she had this, she was like… fast sports car, and we just always had a ball… we would do things and we had a great time; but, I don’t know how to explain that feeling – I’m being honest, I don’t know how to explain this feeling – it was like I was trying to be in their world. I don’t know if my mother realized that was going to happen, because my older sister went to Fisk. My aunt went to Fisk. It was almost like that was their world. I had some good friends in it, but I was going into their world…if that makes sense.
TC: How have relations between women of different races evolved?
AA: Well, I’ve had so many different kinds, from that little girl, who we were friends until her father interfered. Her family history interfered, her family, she said her daddy but… So, my relationships with white women, girls and women, have that kind of mixture in it. Where, like I was saying, even in college, and on up; I had white friends … But there was a feeling, I don’t know, it was still, I don’t, it was still… It wasn’t like this… You know how you are with your black friends, and it was… something different, you know you’re friendly and…. Still, you know, different.
I think also, so its evolved in that sense. I was teasing earlier, you know, white folks used to say I don’t dislike black people, some of my best friends are black. Well. I can say that, I don’t dislike white people, some of my best friends are white. So I do have some very, very good white women as friends. The white women friends that I can be me with, and that I’m not trying to live in their world, they’re not trying to live in my world. We have a world that we live in together. And there is still differences in some things. If I’m having some kind of event sometimes, it might not be something that I invite them to, but it’s not because I am not their friend, I just might think they may be uncomfortable or whatever. But most things now I would; then I wouldn’t. So it has, it has evolved to that, I think because I have gotten my self-esteem issues together. Not that I’m saying they didn’t and still don’t have white privilege in areas that I don’t. But I don’t feel that gap, because I feel better about me. So… that’s it.
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The Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was founded in July 2011. With a vision to make Arkansas the best state in the country for promoting and celebrating racial and ethnic diversity, the Institute conducts research, promotes scholarship and provides programs that address racial inequities. It does so by facilitating open and honest dialogue aimed at empowering communities and informing public policy to achieve more equitable outcomes.