Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Black & White in St. Louis: It’s all right.

I've spoken before about the marked cultural segregation of blacks and whites in St. Louis--at least on the cultural and social scene. At first it shocked me. Now, I know it's just how things are. It's a too-long hold over from the Civil War era. Whenever I speak of this to black friends here, they just say, "Oh, yeah...that's how it is."

So, finally, after getting close to 2 years here, I've taken this as a base to work from. I have a white world that I keep my toe in and I have a black world I move more often and more easily in. It's not about me being a wanna be black girl. Just me being where I feel most at ease in. People feel that and it works pretty well all round. But, I know that I don't know black culture in the United States. Not at all. I know I'll never be at the table eating Sunday dinner. That's alright with me. It's a place to move socially, and that's mainly what I need.

In my black world I have friends I see one by one in my Goddess Gathering room. Sometimes we hang out as they browse my home gallery and creative space. Sometimes a situation opens up to mentor an artist or writer. I always welcome that. Recently, after a marvelous evening with one of these friends, we spoke about a mostly white group she'd recently brought me into. "Thanks, I said. I really don't have white friends here." And we both laughed our heads off. "I didn't invite you to make white friends, she said. I'd never thought of that!"

But, I keep my toe in the white world, too. I go to the Contemporary Art Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum functions to keep current. At the St. Louis Art Museum, the servers and guards are almost all black. I've developed easy relationships with these workers. Sometimes my exchanges with them are my warmest and most interesting of the entire evening. It comes from my father's blue collar tradition--how folks treated him well, or didn't. I poke my head back into the catering space and tell them they are doing a great job. That's what my father does. Pop's a great role model of inclusiveness for me.

Do I shift in these moves between these two worlds? Yes, I do. In the white world, I'm quieter. I keep myself to myself more. I'm less physically expansive. These are not conscious changes. They are what the conservative black-coat world of St. Louis requires. In the black world I relax. I don't have to monitor how I act. I'm just me and it works out pretty good. It's okay to laugh loud and long in this world. It's okay to unclench my butt and unchain my mouth in this world.

I'm grateful for entry into both worlds.

Yet, I'll always be a white girl...passing as white.

That doesn't mean I've rejected my white heritage. Not at all. My heritage has always been an anachronistic one, anyway. There was a time in Africa when I would have torn my heart out to be black, to be African...to at least have married the black man I loved and to have lived in Africa. But, that passed. Out of that fire came an acceptance of who and what I was...in the totality of that...inside and outside. From my skin down to my heart.

No, I'm not black. I'm not even a wanna be black. I'm just a person at ease with herself who can move, somewhat quizzically, between worlds...whether that's in St. Louis or in Africa.

I felt that in Botswana and in Ghana on my journeys there last year. These are my places of the heart. These are two of my homes. I'm at home there. I've stopped trying and started just being. It shows. It works.

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3 Responses »

  1. I am glad you are in my world and I am glad you can relax and be yourself.
    This is one of the best pieces I have read in my entire life. Linda

  2. "It shows. It works." Indeed it does! What shows and works so beautifully here, Janet, is that you've become comfortable with who you are in your life. Finally. And that who-you-are transcends the labels of race and culture (and class, too?) that we so often divide ourselves by. The world is a poorer place when we build boxes and force each other to live only in "our" box. But we do that all that time. What you're doing is busting out of the box you inherited and finding who you really are, and what really works for you. If it upends some folks' notion of race or culture, good! And good for you for doing it, and thinking about why it works for you.

  3. So you're white. Yes, I saw that ... and we had a lovely conversation anyway.
    I'm so glad that you are not in a box. It makes it easier to talk to you without "shouting".
    Didn't we enjoy the film about the play this evening. It's not finished, but well on its way. What a powerful story for persons of any background or race to relate to even though it centers around a MIS-functioning African American family in a racially divided period and place.
    I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to connect with you. Thanks for sharing yourself with me and others through your site and your warm personal approach. It is not over. The connection has been made. I trust the bond will grow with time and interaction. I am tired now, but I will get back to your site to get further acquainted with the RIEHL you ..and find out where the blog about Rene is hiding.
    'Till then, Bobbie Williams (Perhaps we'll co-host a RADIO show together one day)

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