In March for Women’s History Month I am presenting weekly blog posts about accomplishments and lessons from women in my village. These are excerpts from my upcoming memoir Coming Full Circle: Jim Crow to Journalism.
Saturday afternoon shopping during the 1950s and 1960s with my grandmother on Broughton Street, Savannah’s main downtown thoroughfare, was always a treat for me. Oper Lee Walker was a study in sartorial excellence. She was an outstanding seamstress and she made all of her dress-up clothes. She made most of my clothes, too.
“When we go downtown you have to look your best,” she would tell me. “We don’t want the white folks to think the Walkers don’t know how to carry ourselves.”
Her “carry ourselves” comment was a broad term for how to dress, act, smell, speak and any other behavior that she thought white people might find offensive. I sometimes challenged my grandmother, asking how she knew how white people think, but I would come to know that she was a student of behavior on both sides — white and black. She was protecting me from potential hurt, and all I had to do was look, listen and learn from her.
She reminded me that as a black woman, I would have to always “be better” — that is, make better grades in school, look better, think better, jump higher, wear good-looking clothes, and sit up or walk straighter than other people.
“Bring attention to yourself for good reasons,” she would tell me.
The expectation from my village to be better never left me when I left home for college, and then went into the work world. It took me a long time to know exactly what “better” meant as compared to white people, but I always knew I had to strive to meet a higher standard.
Next week: “Time passes, but will you?”