Keeping Up with the Joneses: A True Story
The moral of what I’m about to tell you is . . . well, maybe you can help me out there. I’m not sure myself.
Many years ago I wrote a short story, “Judgment,” about an interracial romance on a college campus. Terry McMillan published it in her anthology of black fiction, Breaking Ice. The story is no masterpiece, even if its heart is in the right place. But that’s neither here nor there.
More to the point is that in 2000 a woman named Suzanne Jones emailed me for permission to include the story in her own anthology, Crossing the Color Line. Ms. Jones was, from all indications, a very nice person, and we stayed in touch sporadically by email in the years after her collection was published.
In 2009 I (self) published a novel, Signifying Nothing. To support it, I created the arts blog you’re now reading, and in part to support both of those things, I started a Facebook account. Reaching out — as they say — to as many old friends and acquaintances as I could think of, I sent a friend request to Suzanne Jones, which she accepted. Suzanne’s profile picture showed her to be an attractive and, unless I missed my guess, biracial young woman; her interest in my story made even more sense. She turned out to be as friendly on Facebook as she was via email.
That brings us to last week. On Facebook Suzanne invited me and others to an event in Manhattan that she had helped organize. The invitation to The Curly Monologues promised “Real Hairy Stories from Real Curly Girls.” Well, it sounded . . . different, and it would give me a chance to finally meet Suzanne in person. And so, this past Sunday afternoon, I threw on some jeans and a vest and my trademark homburg and took myself to the Flatiron Hotel, where I discovered once again, to paraphrase another writer, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.
On the hotel’s first floor was a lounge with pastel sofas and love seats, a cash bar, a stage, and, behind that, an eye-level view of the corner of Broadway and West 26th Street. On the sofas and love seats there was a sprinkling of men, a couple of them black, like me; the vast majority of the people, though, were women, young and middle-aged, white, black, and biracial, all — or almost all — with one thing in common: very very curly hair. I got some red wine and took a seat. On the stage two women who looked enough alike to be sisters were singing to test the sound equipment. They had nice voices. I was pretty sure the one in the black and white top was Suzanne, and when the two of them were on their way out of the room for a minute, I jumped up and introduced myself. Up close, Suzanne was tall (taller than me, anyway — admittedly not that hard) and looked to be in her late thirties at the very most. “I thought that must be you,” Suzanne said, and then she introduced me to — sure enough — her sister, Stephanie, and to their respective young daughters, who were seated nearby. “I didn’t know you sang,” I told Suzanne, who shrugged modestly before continuing on her way.
When they came back, the show started. We heard first from the event’s impresario, a white man named Jonathan Pillot, who wore a clownlike, bright green, magnificently curly wig that he took off just long enough to show his hair-free head. Jonathan told us that in thinking about a project that would bring people together, he decided that it would be wise to appeal to women, and that when he considered issues women had in common, he thought of hair. Next, the Jones sisters — actually, The Jones Twins — came back to the stage. Backed by a band, they performed a rather charming original song, “Unidentified Female Object,” about a character named Marian who is both African and European and, for that and other reasons, takes a while to find herself. After that, women went to the stage one at a time to tell, in poems, essays, songs, and off-the-cuff anecdotes, what were largely variations on a single theme: that of struggling with curly hair as girls and young women and then coming to accept and love it later on.
At a certain point I began to feel like a Cub Scout who had strayed into a sorority meeting, and yet there was a nice, positive energy in the room — which, paradoxically, only increased when the program took a slightly strange turn. A black woman stood up and told about how, as a girl, she wanted to be white — a familiar if sad story; but then she began talking about her friend. This friend, also black, had been born with a very flat behind, which she never liked. As an adult she heard about a party where women could get injections to give them more ample rear ends. She got injected. Then she got infected. She went to see doctors, who told her the infection was so bad they would have to amputate her hands and feet. At this point the woman telling us the story said, “Does anybody here read Essence?” This got little to no reaction. She then pulled out a copy of that magazine’s November issue and opened it to a spread that showed a seated woman with, yes, neither feet nor hands. Our storyteller’s voice broke as she said, “I told my friend I was coming here, and she wanted me to tell her story. She wanted me to tell you that it’s important to accept who you are and love yourself. Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘You are beautifully made!’” I turned to the woman next to me — who looked a little like Carson McCullers — and she turned to me, and we told each other this, a bit bashfully but word for word. (Well, what would you have done?)
There were more testimonies, and a closing song from The Jones Twins, and then, around five o’clock, after two hours, the program was over. I went to tell Suzanne I had enjoyed it.
And now we come to the point of this little tale.
“I’m so glad you came!” Suzanne said to me. “So . . . how did I meet you again?”
I was a little surprised by that, but I thought, well, here is a woman with a very full and active life — small wonder she would forget publishing my little story over a decade ago. “Actually,” I said, “we never have met, but you put a story of mine in your anthology years back.”
She looked perplexed. “I don’t remember that. I’d love to put a story of yours in an anthology . . .”
We parted pleasantly, if in slight confusion. And I was leaving the Flatiron Hotel when dawn, metaphorically speaking, broke.
Back home in Brooklyn I googled Suzanne Jones — not the one I’d just met, but the one who had published my story. My original Suzanne was sixty-two years old now and, contrary to my assumption of a dozen years, white.
How had I decided that the Suzanne I’d found on Facebook was the one who had published my story, and why had I not questioned for a second whether I had found the right person? Maybe the answer supplies part of the moral I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I got a lesson I thought I’d already learned, which is that not every motive has to do with skin color.
The other moral, of course, is that I’m a world-class space cadet. But I need to accept this about myself and not worry about changing. I am, after all, beautifully made. Someone told me so just the other day.