Ebony and Ivory

“He’s a Negro,” she whispered.  The old woman stood looking at a picture of a man and woman perched atop a camel.  A sign behind them read ‘Wild Life Safari’.  “Miss –”

“Julie.”

“Julie, he’s a Negro.  Are you sure this is your boyfriend?  He’s black!”  The woman offered the photograph as proof.

Julie snatched the picture from her new neighbor, biting her tongue to keep from showing her anger.  She pretended to study the picture instead.  She remembered when it was taken; not too long before they had rented the apartment, in fact.  David had wanted to ride the elephant, but she had refused.  She had heard about elephants ‘going rogue’, and wasn’t about to risk it.  The camel was her idea.  Besides, the mahogany color of his skin fit better with a camel.  She tried to picture him dressed as a Bedouin, herself as a concubine in a harem outfit, and almost giggled.  Instead, she turned so suddenly towards her neighbor that the old woman nearly got lashed by Julie’s long blonde hair.  The neighbor, Mrs. Riverside, gasped.

“Good God!”  Julie shouted, “I think you’re right!  How could I not have noticed?”

“Maybe you’re color blind,” Mrs. Riverside suggested, “although, the hair almost always gives them away.”

Julie looked closer into the woman’s face.  Color blind?  Is she serious? She saw the ignorant sincerity in the old woman’s eyes.

The sound of the key in the door reminded Julie that David was due home.  Please, Lord, she thought.  Don’t let this old bat say anything to him.

In fact, the old bat took one look at who was framed in the doorway, and moved three steps backward, clutching her purse strap tighter and groping with her other hand to close her sweater more firmly across her breasts. The neighbor’s mouth snapped open and shut several times before she pointed a shaky finger at David and squeaked, “See?”

Julie groaned inwardly and quickly moved between David and the old woman.  With her back turned towards the Mrs. Riverside, she winked at David and said, “David, why didn’t you tell me you were black?”

Dave turned several shades lighter before finally stammering, “I . . . . What – “

“Can you please excuse us, Mrs. Riverside?  There are a few things I need to discuss with David.”  She held the door open as a further invitation to leave.

“Yes, Dear, of Course.  I understand.”  Mrs. Riverside scurried through the door and down the hall.

“Well, I don’t!” said David after she left.  He strode into the living room.  “What was that all about?”

“Believe it or not, that old busybody is part of the welcoming committee for this apartment building.”  As she thought about what had just happened, the idiocy of it finally settled in.  She fell against the door, laughing, as she explained the conversation she had just had.  It seemed unreal, even as she told it.

“I don’t think it’s very funny.“ David said when Julie had finished.  “I don’t think it’s one bit funny.  How can you laugh at such ignorance and bigotry?”  He moved to the sideboard and poured himself a drink before continuing.  “Can’t you see that this is what we’re up against living together?  WE may have been ready for this step, but obviously the public isn’t.  Maybe we made a mistake.”

“Who cares what everybody else thinks?”  Her laughter was completely gone now.  “Besides, she hardly counts as ‘the public’, just one very small portion of it.”

“I do.  I care.  But not about what people think.  I care about how we deal with it, as a couple.”  He ran his fingers through his hair, almost pulling out a handful in his frustration.  “That little scene may have been obvious sarcasm to you, but to her, and probably to a lot of people, it was another example of their stereotypes: brothers can’t be trusted; we always lie, especially to get white women, or whatever else they’ve dreamed up.”

“I’m sorry, Dave, really I am.  She was just such a bigot, and so ignorant.  Not just ignorant about race issues, but ignorant about her own bigotry.  I couldn’t help having a little fun at her expense.  It doesn’t matter, though, because in the end we don’t have to live with her, just each other.  We’ll just have to ignore people like her.  Believe me, Honey, I know how you feel.  I understand.”

“Don’t tell me that you understand.  How can you really understand how that attitude makes me feel?  You can be sympathetic, you can speak out against it, but you can’t really feel it.  YOU DON’T KNOW.”  He let his frustration get the better of him, punctuating each word with a slap on the wall.  He turned and stalked to the window.

“You’re wrong.  I can feel it.  I may not be black, but I’m a woman.  I’ve experienced discrimination, too.  Every time I look for a job, every time I need to take my car to the garage, every time I have a brilliant idea or ask a technical question that only men should be asking, I get discriminated against.  And don’t even get me started on never seeing a man’s eyes, because during a conversation his are always staring at my chest.  I swear I don’t know the eye color of most of the men I in my life.”

“That’s not the same thing at all.  My God, Julie, because of my color, I almost wasn’t born!”  He stopped shouting long enough to take a deep breath.  For a moment he struggled with the feelings boiling up inside.  In a softer tone he continued, “When my grandmother was in labor with my mother, my grandfather drove her to the nearest hospital.  They turned her away.  She was black; not good enough to be allowed in that hospital.  They made her go to a colored hospital 120 miles further.  My mother could have died.  My grandmother could have died, and there was nothing my grandfather could do but drive the extra 3 hours.  Imagine how impotent he must have felt”

“Did she survive?” Julie mumbled.

“Julie!” For a moment she thought he was going to shake her.

“I’m sorry, David.  I don’t mean to be sarcastic.  I’m not trying to hurt you.  You know sarcasm’s just my way.  What I guess I was really saying is that obviously your mother survived, grew up, met your father, and you were born.  Despite whatever inequities mankind may have devised, nature would still have run its course.  Your mother would have been born whether your grandparents were in a white-only hospital, a colored one, or in the backseat of the family car.  Besides, we can’t change what’s already happened, only what will happen.  If you’re trying to use all this as an excuse to break off our relationship, then you’re only allowing the opinions of ignorant people to dictate your life.  If you want to split up, just say so.  Don’t give me excuses.  Don’t play the race card and cry ‘prejudice!’.”

“Wait a minute, Julie.  I love you.  I don’t want to split up.  I just think we should think a little more carefully about our living arrangements.  You heard what that old woman said.  You saw the way she looked at me.  I don’t want you to have to go through that again.”  He had finally turned from the window and taken her hands in his own, but she pulled away,

“Me?  You don’t want ME to go through that again, or YOU don’t want to?  I wonder if there’s a little bit of racism going on with you.  I wonder David, are you ashamed or embarrassed that I’m white?”

Thick silence filled the space between them as he tried to come up with an honest answer.  The thought that she might be right scared him.  All this time he had prided himself on his sense of equality.  He honestly believed that he didn’t look at people’s skin color or nationality.  He didn’t think of himself as black and her as white.  At least he didn’t think he did.

“I don’t see your color, Julie –“

“Of course you do,” she smiled up at him.  “Tell me the truth, David.  Isn’t part of your attraction to me the fact that I’m white?”

He walked over to the table that held the picture Mrs. Riverside had been looking at.  He picked it up, remembering how Julie had been afraid of getting on the elephant and insisted riding the camel.  He tried to imagine himself in Sheik’s robes and her in a harem outfit, her lower face hidden behind a gossamer veil.  He closed his eyes and pictured himself helping her remove her Barbara Eden costume, imagined his mahogany skin glistening with sweat as he rested against the creamy whiteness of hers.  Yes, he thought, yes.  He imagined his dark hands following the curves of her body, his darkness accented and highlighted by her lightness.  He felt a stir of excitement, but still didn’t answer her.  He walked back to the window and pulled aside the curtain.  Together they watched as the traffic eased off as rush hour passed.  Slowly the daylight gave way to dusk.

“David?  Are you listening to me?”  She leaned up on him and rested her cheek on his chest.  “I love you, and part of the reason I love you is because you’re black.  It’s not the darkness of your skin that I’m talking about, though, it’s – I don’t even know how to explain it.”

She took a deep breath and tried again. “It’s not the actual color of your skin that attracts me, but the personality that was built because of that color.  You paths through life, good and bad, forged who you are.  You were molded by your life experiences.  It just so happens that your life experiences included growing up a black youth in Texas.  If you had been white, you wouldn’t have been the same person, because you wouldn’t have grown up in the same neighborhood.  You wouldn’t have met the same people or learned the same lessons from then.  So, yes, I love you because you’re black, but not because of the color of your skin.  Am I making any sense?”

Dusk finally bowed out and allowed evening its place in the world.  David gathered Julie closer to him, then turned her so she could see the last few traces of dusk fade away.  “Isn’t it funny?” he asked, “How would we know it was nighttime unless we had daytime to compare it to?”  He wrapped his arms around her.  They stood, swaying together, watching the last few cars on the street rush home to their suppers.

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