My Black History: Mistaken identity

Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” In this story I describe living with two white college students during a summer internship in Providence, Rhode Island. 

The other two young ladies were from New England. One, I recall, was a student at Bates College in Maine. They were reporting interns working the day and evening shift at the Providence Journal, the morning paper. I was assigned to the afternoon paper, working before dawn to mid afternoon. Our schedules were different and we hardly ever saw each other at home.

Internships didn’t pay much, but together we leased a five-bedroom, five-bathroom house in an upscale neighborhood not far from downtown where the newspaper office was located. The house was owned by a stock broker and his family. As we understood it,  the family spent summers at their place on Martha’s Vineyard. The broker took a room in Providence during the week and traveled to the Vineyard on weekends to be with his family. Income from renting the Providence house, I suppose, helped them afford the summer place. We never met the family. They lived well but they were apparently not wealthy. One day while working at the desk in the home office I found a pad of notes sitting right on top. The heading on the pad read: ” Things to do when the stock market comes back.” The short list indicated a need for things like “new roof, replace appliances, repair siding.” 

The other interns and I split household expenses and we were expected to keep the grass cut and watered. But since we didn’t see each other most days, things were pretty lonely in that big house where we were each mostly home alone. We soon adopted an adorable puppy, whom we named Pax (pronounced “pocks”) for the Roman goddess of peace. It was 1970, after all, a year John Lenon’s “Give Peace a Chance” was popular.

Screen Shot 2019-02-01 at 10.07.36 PM
Gloria’s dog looked like this Shih Tzu

One afternoon while I was walking Pax, I came upon a woman who said her name was Gloria, which was my mother’s name. Gloria was walking her little dog, whom she described as a Shih Tzu, a Chinese breed long-haired animal with a bow on its head to keep hair out of the eyes. Like the dogs in my family when I was growing up, our Pax was a lovable mutt of questionable heritage. Gloria’s Shih Tzu was obviously an expensive pampered pet with the pedigree papers to show for her cuteness and pure bloodline.  

Gloria and I stood there a moment, talking about our dogs.

Then she said “It’s too bad that you have to walk the dog and take care of the children.”

That’s when I realized that Gloria assumed I was the nanny or maid for the family that lived in the house where we were standing. When I explained to her that I was a college student holding down a professional internship at the daily newspaper I could see she was flushed with embarrassment. She apologized, and we became fast friends over the summer as we met on our afternoon walks with the dogs. I never told my roommates about my encounter with Gloria and her fancy dog. But I couldn’t wait to recount my story in my next letter home to the family.

“I met a Shih Tzu and was mistaken for the nanny at the same time,” I wrote.

Here I had come all this way from not only the waning era of Jim Crow, but far away from the South, where discrimination was still a part of everyday life. I was in New England, which, to me, might have been a foreign country. It was a place where I rarely saw people who looked like me.

Next: This didn’t feel right

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Author of the memoir "Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism." Available for book talks and signings, speaking. (Signed copies available on this site)

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