Young, black and too white

Once exclusionary bastions of the negro elite, black social clubs for kids are making a comeback among middle-class parents who fear their chlidren are losing their roots.

Published May 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It is Sunday afternoon and I am dressed in high heels, pearls and yellow silk in 80-degree weather, sitting on a hard chair talking with several women I do not know. We are gathered at the home of our hostess, a mother of three, to do what I couldn't imagine myself doing until recently: We are being prepped for initiation in Jack and Jill, a national organization for black children. More than 30 years after the crescendo of the civil rights movement, I am doing this to ensure my 6-year-old son has enough black friends.

It's a paradox that would have made Martin Luther King Jr. laugh -- or perhaps wince. After the decades the previous generations spent battering down the doors to segregated institutions, the first generation of those civil rights beneficiaries -- us -- has grown up, and we now have children of our own. Per the plan, we are living lives that are extremely integrated. Maybe (and here's where the wincing comes in) too integrated.

"She talks like a little white girl," one friend complained of her adolescent daughter. "She assumes that everyone lives the way we do. I've got to get her more grounded." The daughter in question attends an expensive private school, vacations abroad and swims in the family's backyard pool in a suburban neighborhood heavy on the standard accouterments of the upper middle class and light on minorities.

Another friend regaled us with a recent scene from her dinner table: "My husband and I were talking about corporate politics -- he's the only black partner in his law firm -- and concluding that race might have had something to do with what had gone on in the office that day. Our 14-year-old daughter just exploded. 'You people -- you think everything is about race! You should just get a grip! People are not prejudiced like that anymore!'" My friend paused. "She was just screaming at us, and she was serious. She thinks racism is kaput. We didn't know whether to burst her bubble right then or let her find out later, on her own." (They decided to let her make this discovery on her own.)

The irony, of course, is this: A whole raft of us -- black, gifted, ambitious -- did what the architects of the civil rights movement would have wished. We stormed the bastions, convinced (or at least impressed) the skeptics and performed competitively in educational venues that had not long before been forbidden to us. We went on to be the Lonely Onlies, many of us in workplaces that had heretofore been white -- or that had never had a black manager, editor, head resident, faculty member. We married, usually to people who had had experiences much like our own, and had children. And thanks to the slow death of restrictive residential covenants, overall increased interest in multicultural living and the expanded incomes that those good jobs afforded us, we sent our children to elite schools or moved to affluent, often suburban neighborhoods that were Safer, with More Advantages.

And then we began to notice that our kids weren't, well, as black as we had been. Whether we'd grown up in the 'hood or had integrated suburbs, we had been grounded, if not in black neighborhoods, then by the black churches to which most of us returned every Sunday. If the schools we were integrating didn't teach black history and culture, our Sunday school teachers made sure those critical gaps were filled -- packed to bursting, in fact. So along with the proverbs and parables, we learned about how the DAR refused to let Miss Anderson sing in its old building, and how her friend Eleanor Roosevelt hooked her up for a milestone concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. We learned about the contributions of Charles Drew and Paul Robeson and Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Constance Baker Motley. If our hometown papers politely neglected to mention the war against segregation being waged in the South, our Sunday school teachers kept us current and passed the felt-bottomed plate so we could contribute to the struggle too. ("Those little children in Mississippi and Alabama are fighting for your freedom too," they would tell us. "Don't you think you could give up your candy money to help out?" Out would come the coins, bound for freedom schools.)

If Sunday school gave us a sense of community and history, Jack and Jill gave us a sense of place. There was a hidden agenda when we nice Negro children got together once a month for fun and fellowship. Even as we took our monthly excursions, the cultural message was hammered into us: Black is not just ghetto. Black is not socially or aesthetically inferior. Black is vital to American culture. In addition to picnics, movies and parties, we visited museums to admire works by black artists and dutifully trooped to hear Andre Watts in concert -- "one of ours," a supervising mother would gently but unfailingly point out.

Initially started almost 60 years ago by 20 black mothers in Philadelphia who were anxious that their privileged children have black playmates, the organization quickly blossomed. Today it embraces 216 chapters across the nation, in 35 states and the District of Columbia. There is even an international chapter in Germany. Then, as now, mothers gathered monthly to plan activities for their age-grouped children. The charter requires that these activities be educational, fun and/or culturally uplifting -- but they also had the unstated purpose of making sure that these children teetering on the edge of Total Integration would not fall and be lost, perhaps forever. "We are sending you out into Their World," was the message, "but we want you to remember where Home is too."

It worked. For children fighting their way
through the pressure cooker of educational integration, Jack and Jill was a godsend. I spent my days playing field hockey, conjugating French verbs, reading Wordsworth and Tennyson (never Hurston and Ellison), the Only One in my class at a prim girls' day school. I had friendly relationships with many girls, but no truly good friends. My good friends came from the neighborhood, and from Jack and Jill. And because of that, I remembered where Home was.

I am not so sure my child will -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say I don't want to chance that he won't. Given the state of Los Angeles public schools and the impossibility of decoding what needs to be done to gain entry into the fully subscribed magnet system, it's likely that he'll spend his entire pre-college years in nominally integrated private schools, because the choice is that stark. I want him to have experiences that are self-affirming, and even the most liberal private schools cannot protect against the assumptions of superiority that are sometimes voiced by white students and their parents.

It was the stories told in muffled voices by parents saddened but not shocked to find that their children aren't being judged solely by the content of their character that made me decide. The one black boy in his circle who did not get invited to his "best friend's" birthday party. (And whose mother, when confronted about the exclusion, could only stammer, "I'm sure race didn't have anything to do with it." Uh-huh.) The 8-year-old who agonizes over her dark skin because it's different from that of "the pretty girls" in her class. The white child from a liberal, wealthy family who thought he was complimenting a black honor student when he asked, "Why is it black people never say anything intelligent? Except for you, of course; you're different."

It's because we know these slings and arrows are going to whiz at our children, no matter how we try to protect them, that Jack and Jill is becoming fashionable again. Once it was seen as an exclusionary bastion of the Negro elite, to the point that admitting to membership was considered certifiably counterrevolutionary in the late '60s and early '70s. (This even though some of the most avid revolutionaries on Ivy League campuses were Jack and Jill alumni -- although they'd rather be shot than 'fess up.) Now it's viewed as just another tool, another safeguard, to keep black children with more and more options outside the black community culturally grounded.

"My child is 14," confided the woman sitting next to me. She was slim and elegant in a navy pantsuit and queenly cornrows. "His school is fairly integrated -- I mean, he's not the only one -- but I want him to have other children as friends too. Right now, his best friend is white, and I'm fine with that. But I worry about the future." She means when her son is dating age and all of a sudden, the groupings get to be more homogenous and the kids who are "different" find themselves excluded, or included as cultural mascots, badges of white hipness.

A neighbor whose child is in a Hollywood-heavy school empathizes with the Jack and Jill initiate's worry: "Here I've been, Afrocentric all his life, pointing out the beauty of black women, the importance of black culture. We vacation in Africa and the Caribbean, in part so he can go somewhere and feel what it's like to be the majority culture. And after all that, who does he bring home as a steady girlfriend? Some little blond girl! I don't want to be prejudiced, and I'm trying to live with it, but it's hard."

Although Jack and Jill is the oldest and most established of the social organizations for children, it's not the only one. A rival, Hansel and Gretel, has several chapters nationwide. And across the country, black parents are struggling to establish informal, local groups that address the same need. Here in Los Angeles, a group of concerned parents got together to found Onyx Village. Many of the parent members are in the entertainment industry -- LaTonya Richardson Jackson, actress and wife of Samuel L., is one of the founders. They live incontestably affluent lives, often in neighborhoods where black children have to be ferried to visit one another. The group meets monthly to inculcate children with black culture and history, and to provide them with an additional circle of friends who just happen to be, in the words of poet Lorraine Hansberry, young, gifted and black.

It's for those same reasons that many of my friends hasten back to Martha's Vineyard every summer. One lifelong summer resident confided as we sat on the beach several summers ago: "It's important for our kids to have some time where they can all run around together and see that black is many things -- not just what they see in the movies or on TV. Black Ph.D.s, M.D.s, artists, bankers -- all those folk are just as real and just as black as rap stars and professional athletes. Is it convenient to come here? No. Is it essential? Yes."

Which brings me back to why I was dressed in stockings and silk on a beautiful day when I could have been doing something else. Was it convenient for me to join Jack and Jill, with its labor-intensive mother's committees and onerous dues? No. Is it essential? That answer is still, I'm afraid, yes.

By Karen Grigsby Bates

Karen Grigsby Bates is a news correspondent for the West Coast Bureau of People Magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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