I was always on the lookout for connections between my commitments to racial equality and my teaching and writing. So when, in 1967, the head of Queens College SEEK (an anti-poverty college prep program) asked me to teach a talented group of ex-felons on parole, most of whom were black, I jumped at it. The men’s intellectual curiosity and the readiness of a few to become agents of change amazed me. They seemed to mirror Malcolm X’s three step trajectory: crime in the streets, a jail term in which to reflect and learn social analysis, and release to work politically in the community. This idea became a Village Voice article, “Completing the Education of the Black Ex-Convict.”
By then I was teaching in an experimental college in the Mount Vernon ghetto sponsored by three local colleges. My article persuaded the director to help arrange for me to teach a college prep course in the county penitentiary as well. Several men – not the majority – took a real interest in reading, writing, and thinking. My friend Roberta, a director with the Open Theater, wanted to stage Beckett’s Endgame in the prison. Wonderfully, we worked it out and my students turned out a stellar audience.
The experience helped Roberta to understand my passion for working with these men. But she wanted me to share her passion for the new women’s movement. Other friends asked me why I was so focused on blacks. Women had always found meaning in supporting others; we should start to address our own needs.
Women or blacks? As the ‘60s turned into the ’70s, Roberta and I debated this whenever we met. Racism or sexism – which was more deeply embedded in our society? Whose battle was more compelling, more essential? (We knew, of course, that the challenge for black women was the most complex.) Which struggle should white women like me be more active in?
Small groups of women were getting together all over the country to talk about common personal concerns and to tease out their political sources. I was intrigued. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique didn’t speak to me, but women’s consciousness-raising seemed serious. How different is women’s talk when no men are present? What might I learn about myself? We decided to start a women’s consciousness-raising group. I agreed to host the first meeting in my apartment.
We invited a few smart and game women to a gathering on a Sunday night after my two-year-old daughter was asleep. To encourage my husband, Paul, to absent himself, I emptied my wallet into his hands and he went off to hear some jazz downtown. Women, all white, began to ring our bell; soon everyone had arrived but Roberta – two graduate students in clinical psychology, and college teachers in biology, anthropology, and English (me).
Picture my home, a basement apartment in a classic West Side brownstone years before gentrification. To enter, you take five steps down from the sidewalk and enter through a gate under the stoop. To your right is a long hall leading past the bedrooms to the large living room. Beyond the living room is the kitchen where I was making coffee. I suggested that one of the women crack the gate open for Roberta. She came back down the hall with a young Puerto Rican man who, she said, was looking for Christopher.
“There’s no Christopher here,” I told him across the living room.
The fellow said that Christopher had told him to come here for an air conditioner.
“You’ve got the wrong place,” I said. “There’s no Christopher, and we don’t have an air conditioner.” He lingered, looking around at the women. Oh! I thought, I’d better usher the guy back down the hall and out! At the gate, however, two young black guys stood with him talking about Christopher. They were slender, perhaps still teenagers. I suggested they try the brownstones on either side of us. After a little more back and forth, I said, “Now I have to close this gate.”
The first fellow whipped out a paring knife and pointed it at my middle, where he couldn’t have known my unborn child lay curled. “You better watch out!” I shouted, hoping to suggest that powerful men would be back in a moment.
But they brushed past me down the hall, where Evelyn, the biologist, took a feisty stance, with her thumbs in her belt loops, blocking the door to the living room. You shouldn’t do this, she was arguing. We don’t have any money.
Mortification and rage. What a dismal failure as a hostess was I, inviting women into this crime scene! And how outrageous to assault me! They didn’t know who I was! A person working to help young men like them in a prison where they themselves might well end up. I wanted to teach them something that would make them think, even reverse their course, but while being robbed, I couldn’t find the words.
I asked the leader of the invasion if he’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Before he could answer, Susie, one of the graduate students, told Evelyn and me to sit down, and the leader concurred. “Just sit down and no one will get hurt. All we want is your money.”
The graduate students opened their wallets and forked over their cash. But the anthropologist said, “I’m keeping this ten to get a cab home.” And Evelyn also hung on to some of her bills.
When one boy came to me, I showed him my empty wallet and said bitterly, “Here’s thirty-seven cents – all I have left!”
Anxious to leave, the leader told me we all had to get into the bathroom. Why? So they could lock us in and get away before we phoned the police. I was affronted. “Do you take me for the f-ing kind of person that calls the police?”
He let it drop, and signaled to his confederates to leave. One grabbed the reel-to-reel tape-recorder by the door.
“Hey,” I shouted after him, “You can’t take that! It belongs to the Civil Liberties Union!” We heard the metal gate clang behind him.
The women rushed me. “Where’s the phone? Let’s call the cops.”
“No,” I said. The cops would never catch them, but they’d wreck our meeting by asking endless questions. Besides, if the thieves were caught, the punishment would surely exceed the crime.
But they might get cocky and go rob someone else!
I eventually prevailed. Arriving at last, Roberta was startled by the sight of us so animated, so intense, all on our feet. “Sorry I’m late. I guess you started without me?”
Started! We hadn’t actually started at all. We’d been thrown into a crisis and done our best to swim. The robbers had barged in before we’d introduced ourselves. Someone had read that the best way to begin a consciousness-raising group was to ask each woman in turn, did you ever fake an orgasm? The idea was to cut through conventional discourse to our real feelings. We decided that sharing a holdup is a superior way to break the ice. To a certain degree, we came to see each of our responses as paradigmatic for our approach to other things.
Evelyn was disappointed in us. If the rest of us had only joined her at the door, we could have driven them away.
“No way,” Antonia, the other graduate student said. “You stood there, acting like a man, but those boys knew you’re not one.”
“There were three of them and five of us,” Evelyn countered. “Only one had a weapon. And they were very young and inexperienced. ”
“That makes it worse,” said Susie. “They were young and hopped-up. I’ve worked with kids like that and I know. That’s a dangerous mix. It would be crazy to risk it, and Bell’s pregnant.”
With what kind of response could we have exerted our own agency? I brought up Richard Speck, the eight nurses, and their terrifying passivity. Were there any feminine resources we could effectively have mustered? What kind of assertiveness might have worked for us, and would concerted aggression have put us in danger? These and other questions growing out of the robbery kept reverberating in our later discussions. The women’s movement was about standing up for ourselves, but how?
Our discussion of the cops and prisons also reflected our variously ambivalent relation to authority. The women’s movement promised to help us find authority in ourselves.
For days afterward my hall seemed haunted by the boys’ rough passage through it. I felt bad, too, because I hadn’t been able to say anything useful to them. It was as if I wanted them to be my students. Then I noticed a pamphlet on my desk that I’d gotten from the Black Panthers. Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide. That would have been the perfect parting gift!
When I told the story to my prison class, I got their attention as never before. Would you have called the police? Not one said yes. Most said, I would have dealt with them myself. How? How would you find them? Oh, I’d know how to find them!
I focused on three questions:
One. Was there anything we could have done to stop them? Their responses were as varied as ours in the women’s group.
“It was probably their first job. You could have stood up and they might well have gone away,” one ventured.
“But not once they were in the house,” a second protested.
“Their coming in like that where six people could identify them likely means they were addicts and sick,” said a third.
“Being young made them more dangerous. They didn’t know how to handle themselves, and their friends were looking on,” said the fourth.
The fifth was an older man, contemptuous of my rehabilitative fancies. He almost spat, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They weren’t sho’nuff, sho’nuff stick-up men.”
Two. I repeated the question about the police, but with a qualification. Suppose I could make it happen that the thieves were sent to a jail with a rehabilitation program (such programs existed in those days, not now), should I have called the police?
Many saw benefits to being in jail. One spoke of wanting the chance to think about what he was doing.
The older, tougher man had a different take on the value of prison: “They didn’t know how to do it right. You let them loose to try it again, maybe next time they’ll run into a man with a gun and get their heads blown off. At least in jail they could learn to become sho’nuff stick-up men.”
Two young fellows asked whether I’d become less wiling to call the police since I’d been working with them. I’d been police-averse long before, but, yes, the class had made me dream of alternatives to incarceration and all its trappings.
Three. Could I have told them something to make them think?
“Most people either fight or offer no resistance,” one said. “Not many will talk or argue like you except in detective stories, or – excuse me – joke books.”
When I showed them the Panthers’ brochure, Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide, and wondered if I should have given them that to mull over, only one was positive. “Maybe they could take it away and read it, then come back to talk with you.” When some began to laugh, he did a double-take, “Oh, no, that wouldn’t work.”
Most thought it a bad idea. As one put it, “If they were caught with that pamphlet and stolen goods, they’d really be in trouble.”
One motive I’d had for convening a group in the first place was to discover whether I could embrace the struggle for women’s freedom as heartily as that for racial equality. (Leaders of the first women’s movement in the 1840s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, had started out in the anti-slavery movement.) From a certain angle, in my choice to let the thieves go, I favored race over gender, because I believed the boys in far greater danger than we were.
Yet the excitement of being in a conversation with women only, the sense of untapped potential, was powerful and I wanted more of it. The opposition of women to blacks was a false one. One commitment needn’t be sacrificed to another. I wanted to be active with both.
So over the years, I developed a number of courses involving race issues. In retirement, I have been engaged with writers in prison – black, white, male, female – for twenty years, serving as a judge in PEN American Center’s prison-writing contest.
In the same years I have participated in a number of women’s groups, including a self-styled Marxist-feminist group, a faculty women’s group, women experiencing the late effects of polio, and Women Writing Women’s Lives.
Talking with women in a group still seems a natural way to think and feel one’s way through an issue. I’m fortunate now to be a younger member of a group of spirited, left-leaning, and activist artists and writers mostly in their eighties and nineties: OWN, the Older Women’s Network. They offer mutual aid and probing and supportive discussion that promises to help us deal with the last things (as well as those next-to-last).