Finishing A Memoir

For the past ten years I’ve been writing what I call “A Personal History” about my four-year love relationship with the only black guy in my New Jersey High School– a gorgeous, popular, gifted track star. This long  project began with an essay I’d published, “Why I Didn’t Go to the Senior Prom.” (Interracial couples didn’t attend dances in 1962.) After re-reading this short work, I thought, “This doesn’t begin to cover the story of my rebellious teenage years in the ‘sixties, before the Internet, before the second wave of feminism, before the Viet Nam War Protests, even before the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.” Thus began my arduous but inspiring  journey into my own past, which forced me to ask myself some hard new questions. Although I was writing about the agonies of a unacceptable love, and not quite having perilous sex in the woods with the boy my parents forbid me to see, I ended up revising my views of my own psyche, the deeper  meaning of my ‘sixties rebellion, and how my dangerous  love enabled me to remain painfully yet fiercely unlike other girls. I understood what  writers meant when they said a memoir is always about yourself. And, I discovered, a memoir is also about the place you’re from. Although I started my journey by revisiting a state I thought of as boring and couldn’t wait to escape, as I contacted old friends, who’d become wise, morally conscious adults, and roamed the leafy trails I’d explored in childhood, I found myself in my heart’s true home. But my most difficult job was trying to understand the boy I loved. Who was he? What was it like to be him? Why did he vanish when the going got tough?  Reject Civil Rights? And threaten to break up with me if I went on the 1963 March on Washington? (Which I did anyway.) And did I bear responsibility for what happened to him? Since I couldn’t be the dummy about racial issues I’d been in high school I immersed myself in books by dozens of black writers, from James Baldwin to Claudia Rankine, movies, music, museums in Birmingham and Greensboro, libraries, the history of  race riots near my mother’s birth place, the civil rights movement, and talked to women who told me stories about their own ill-fated interracial relationships in an era when they were impossible, even for celebrities like Sammy Davis, Jr. and May Britt. Finishing any book is scary. Dwelling in the past, even its worst moments, feels pleasurable, safer than living in the present day world. So now I wonder: Who will I be and what will I do when I put the final words on the final chapter of Baby It’s You… 

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