Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Black Baby Doll: The Sources of Killer Frost by Judy Hogan

Judy Hogan’s first mystery novel, Killer Frost, will be published by Mainly Murder Press in CT on September 1, 2012 in both trade paperback and e-book formats.  Judy founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91) and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal, 1970-81).  She has published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime in 2007 and has focused on writing and publishing eight traditional mystery novels.  In 2011 she was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Mystery contest for Killer Frost.  The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about.  She is also a small farmer and lives in Moncure, N.C., near Jordan Lake.

My Black Baby Doll: The Sources of Killer Frost
by Judy Hogan

I can scarcely remember when I became aware that black people were different.  It was probably while I was three to six years old, during visits to my grandparents who lived in Pittsburgh and employed a maid and cook named Rose.  Rose was and wasn’t part of the family.  She was always very kind to me, as if she were a kind of extension of my grandparents’ enjoyment of their first grandchild.  Yet, at the end of the day, she put on different, outside clothes and a hat, and then she went home.
            I was seven when I learned that black people were treated differently.  In 1944, my father was a Navy Chaplain in the Pacific, and my mother, little sister, and I lived in Norman, Oklahoma.  Mother was the YWCA Secretary at the University of Oklahoma, and we lived near the campus.  One day at lunchtime, she brought home two black women to use the bathroom.
            When she returned after the meeting was over, she explained to me that, because Norman was a “sundown” town, no black people were allowed on campus or in town after sundown, and there were no bathrooms on campus or in the town that they could use.  I was shocked and upset, so Mother told me I could write to the Mayor of Norman, and I did.

            As an adult, I learned that Mother had worked during the war years on a legal case under the “Separate but Equal” law to get Lois Sipuel admitted to the University because there were no law schools in Oklahoma for Negroes.  She was eventually admitted, but she had to sit behind a screen.
            Not long after that incident, I wrote to my father and said that, when he left the Navy, I wanted to live in a town where I could have Negro children as my friends.  This didn’t happen.  In 1946 we moved to Jacksonville, Florida.  My father was the minister of the downtown Congregational Church, and he belonged to the Urban League.  I remember secret discussions between my parents and other liberal ministers in our home about racial justice.
            Across the street our friend Cletus had a black maid and yardman.  I was eleven, when I was in the front yard with Cletus, and my little brother, from his playpen, threw his ball into the street.  Cletus’s yardman brought it back and handed it to me, and I gave it back to Billy.  Cletus protested: “He touched it.  You should have washed it first!”  I objected, angry that she would even suggest such a thing.
            Because Jacksonville had a large black population, I saw in the dime store black, as well as white, baby dolls.  I asked for a black doll for Christmas and got it.  That doll represented my wish to do something to make things better for black people.  But it wasn’t until college and the Campus Y at O.U., and my church youth group, that in 1955-59, I was able to make black friends.

            One year after the Supreme Court desegregation ruling, O.U. admitted its first black student under this ruling, a Freshman girl.  I was also a Freshman girl that year, and I met her.  But it was through my Presbyterian Church group that I was able to have real conversations with Negro students.  Our leaders arranged for exchange gatherings with the young people in Langston, where the black college was.  The Y also had regional and national meetings I attended. 
            I remember at one conference, our little discussion group decided that intermarriage was the answer.  Then we’d all have a nice tan.  We were so pleased with our simple solution.
            But a life-changing event occurred in the summer of 1957, between my sophomore and junior years, when I attended a national Y conference in Miami, Ohio, and stayed over the weekend for a board meeting.  I was representing the Southwest.  John Crawley was there from Virginia State, representing the Southeast.  1957, I would later learn, was very tense period as the South took in the implications of the 1954 school desegregation decision.  John and I fell in love.  We wrote letters for awhile, and then he stopped writing.

            A year or so later, he wrote me a long letter explaining that he’d had to give me up.  He said that it was too much to ask of me to marry him.  I had been willing to for many months, but when I didn’t hear from him, I dated other people, and when the letter came, I had another boyfriend.  Later still I would read Thulani Davis’s book, 1959, about the racial tensions in a small Virginia small town, and understand better why John wrote that letter.
            In 1998 I ran across my letters to my parents about John and found his full name and old address.  Then I found a current Petersburg address for him by internet and wrote to him.  His mother, Pearl Crawley, called me.  She told me John had died in 1996.  I told her we had loved each other, and she said, “I would have welcomed you as a daughter.”  She did, when we met soon after.

            We became close quickly, and I learned about John’s life.  He’d grown up in a sharecropper’s family, graduated from Virginia State with a B.A. and a Master’s, but he hadn’t become a minister or a professor, as I’d expected, given his intelligence and convictions.  Instead, he’d spent his life working first on the War on Poverty in New Jersey, and then later for homeless shelters and food banks in Southside Virginia.  Pearl Crawley died a year ago, in 2010, but I am so glad I was able to know and love her.
            When my husband and I moved to North Carolina in 1971, things were still tense racially, because the schools were beginning to be desegregated.  You were either for or against racial equality, and I was for.  I was co-editor, with Paul Foreman of Hyperion Poetry Journal, and fairly quickly black poets sent me work, and I met them: Jaki Shelton Green, her husband at the time, Sherman Shelton, Lance Jeffers, Julia Field, Jerry Barrax, and T.J. Reddy (one of the Charlotte Three–in prison in 1973-4 for a crime he and his friends didn’t commit: burning a stable).  I would later, as Carolina Wren Press Editor, publish poetry books by Jaki, T.J., and still later, C. Eric Lincoln.  Jaki went on to be given the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest literary award, in 2003.
            I also set up a Minority Book Prize in 1983, and Linda Brown won it with her first novel, Rainbow Roun’ Mah Shoulder.  The second time we offered the prize, Gloree Rogers won it for Love, or a Reasonable Facsimile (1990).
            Meantime, the writers had been educating me, as had living in integrated Interfaith Council housing in Chapel Hill with my children 1975-78, where I’d learned that I knew very little about the reality of black life in the South.  I think now that, because I was a white woman, it was easier for me to get away with publishing black writers, and by the early eighties, my doing that was useful to the Durham Arts Council and the North Carolina Arts Council, who were under the gun to show minority participation.
            When I taught the “Roadmap to Great Literature for New Writers” under a N.C. Humanities grant, in 1981, we held it in the Stanford Warren branch, formerly the black library in the Durham County system, and we had more black participants there.  So when I could reserve the auditorium in the Main library for our lectures during a later grant and realized I was losing black participants, I started having a second session at the Stanford Warren branch for black writers.  They could be more at ease and discuss issues around race, which they did.  Gloree Rogers was in that class.
            Curiously, to me, one of my Carolina Wren board members, Pauletta Bracey, who taught Library Science at North Carolina Central University, told me, after we got C. Eric Lincoln from Duke to come to the Stanford Warren Library to talk about Malcolm X (we were reading his autobiography), said, “Judy, you’re more accepted here in the black community than Eric Lincoln is.”
            When I was looking for land and a house for my old age in 1998, I used a realtor whose mother I’d come to love when I did some Roadmap programming in Rougemont for senior citizens.  I told Liz that I thought I’d be more comfortable and safer in the black community, and we found three acres and the shell of a house in Moncure, and I bought it, had the house finished and began part-time farming.  My neighbors are black, and the best neighbors I could have.  We help each other.
            So when I needed a job in 2004, and I was offered one at historically black St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, to teach Reading to Freshmen who hadn’t done well on the entrance exams, I took it gladly.  I taught there three years and came to love the students.  Killer Frost grew out of that experience, as all my novels are based on experiences I’ve had and then fictionalized.  When I write mysteries, I write about what matters to me, people I love, things I want to change and make better.  I realize I’m still carrying that black baby doll in my deep mind.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Judy - Hi and Welcome!!

Thanks very much for sharing this. And after reading it, I very much look forward to reading your "Killer Frost." Congratulations on that!!!


Kaye George said...

Marvelous post, Judy. I'm about your age and have had some similar experiences. Strange world we live in.

lil Gluckstern said...

I find this very moving. I was born in Haiti, which is (supposedly) a Black Republic, and my Nurse was a Black woman named Odile. I've always had an affinity for black women and men. Apparently, Odile's husband adored me, ginger curls and all. I think I still carry them in my heart. I'll be looking for your book.

Judy Hogan said...

Thank you, Kaye, and Kaye George, and Lil. It feels good to tell these stories to a wider audience. I have believed that, in the Civil Rights struggle, and before, in the "bad old days," that the white experience held its tragedies, if minor, as well as the black experience. John would have loved this! Judy Hogan

Earl Staggs said...

A fascinating story, Judy. You're a special person and, even from an early age, ahead of the times. Cheers to you for your convictions and your courage to live by them.

Patty said...

Marvelous story, and I'm looking forward to reading "Killer Frost".

Anonymous said...

Oh, this was such an interesting story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us, Judy and Kaye. I'll be looking for KILLER FROST and know I'll enjoy reading it. Loved the pictures you shared as well, Judy.

My parents grew up in the Texas Panhandle and my mother's family was from Oklahoma. Many of the things that you mentioned, such as a 'sundown' town were familiar to me from stories that my mother and grandmother told.

Judy Hogan said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Earl, Patty, and Kay. It makes me feel so good to know that what I wrote is interesting to others. I don't know that it was courage exactly, more stubbornness and the ability to see across the lines that usually divide us. Silly stuff, those lines. Judy Hogan