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My Friend Sanora (1958)

The three things one notices about Sanora Washington Selsey is that she is Black, very tall (6ft), and quite beautiful. These things are as true now in 2001 as they were when I first met her in 1958 at Mills College of Education (for Women)in New York City. I was 24 and she 21, I think. She has always been a little cagey about her age. I know for sure we're both in our 60's now!


Bergie and Sanora, 1960

Unlike most of our classmates, we had both been to college before. That was one thing we had in common. I'm tall too, 5'10" and have always been aware of other women who have been near my height. The rest of our classmates hovered around 5'1". The beauty part. In my better moods I consider myself quite OK looking. But Sanora's looks are extraordinary and there's no getting around it. I don't know exactly how I felt about it then. I do remember once noticing that I was more comfortable talking with her on the phone. Less distracting! I noticed that people fawned over her, professors and girls alike. I'm not sure whether it was because she was gorgeous or Black (she was the only Black student in our class of '61). I imagine that she didn't know either and wondered what they wanted from her. She sometimes dropped into Black English on purpose. It startled some, confused others. I won't tell you which it did to me! I don't think I approved, though. I would now.

I think we became good friends because we had a compatible sense of humor and we struggled in similar fashion in Science class with that eccentric professor. I know we always had plenty to talk about.

Toward the end of our first year at Mills College (we were Sophomores) we felt the need to study like mad for the Science final exams. Sanora invited me to her apartment in Brooklyn to stay overnight. Whether or not we would sleep depended on how well we felt we knew the material. It was going to be science, science, science all night if need be. Sanora's mother fed us and showed us her bedroom with twin beds that she had moved out of for our convenience - if we got around to sleeping at all. Boy did we study. We read, we memorized, we tested each other over and over. About 3 in the morning we gave up and went to bed.

I woke the next morning groggy and in a strange bed. I opened one eye and saw a long dark brown arm hanging out of the other bed nearby. I felt a shock go through my system and both my eyes flew open. It was only Sanora, I sheepishly realized. But what was that shock about? I didn't want to know.

We got up, got dressed and Mrs. Washington fed us again before we walked out the door. We dragged ourselves onto the subway headed for Manhattan. As we walked along 14th Street the two or three long blocks to 5th Ave. we tested each other some more. Then looking at me sideways Sanora said, "It's funny, this morning I woke up and saw a 'cracker' in the bed next to mine and I almost freaked". We laughed and laughed. Boy did we laugh. But I didn't tell her my story...not until many years later.

A week later we discussed getting together again, this time at my parentsí house in New Jersey, to study for another final exam. Sanora looked at me oddly and said "Check with your mother first". With a certain amount of irritation and self-righteousness I replied, "There's no problem, I assure you. " What else I said to assure her that my mother was a liberal and had no problem with race issues, is now lost. I hope Sanora doesn't remember, but I'm sure she does.

I went home and very casually said to mother (Sanora's questioning had made me a little nervous) that I would like to have Sanora overnight next Thursday so we could study for the Friday exam. When mother very slowly answered "Well,..." I knew I was sunk. I really couldn't believe it. She had met Sanora, her mother and her aunt at the college and been impressed with them. I decided to keep my mouth shut and listen to just how she was going to explain refusing to accept my Black friend at our house.

She told me that Tenafly, New Jersey was not liberal like Berkeley. She explained that a man had stood up in the Episcopalian church the previous year and complained that Tenafly was a segregated town. "And do you know what happened to him?" I shook my head, silently. "A stone was thrown through his window." I broke my silence and said that I was not planning to make any public statements, I was only asking a girl friend over to study. I pointed out that I had recently been to a party at the Gunderson's down the block, an International House party with many African students. "That's different" my mother explained. "They're foreign students". This was so ludicrous that I held up my hand indicating for her to stop, stop, stop and said, " OK mom OK. I will tell Sanora tomorrow that she can't come to my house because she's a Negro". I left the kitchen abruptly before she could "explain" any further. I went to my room sick to my stomach faced with what I had to do tomorrow. I knew that this valuable friendship was at an end.

The next morning is not too clear in my memory. I know that I was shaking inwardly if not outwardly when I told Sanora that she was right about my mother. She took it quite matter-of-factly on the surface. I still thought the friendship was at an end but apparently not. She hasn't hung up the phone on me yet, some 40 years later.

Post Script
A couple of months later my mother called me aside to tell me quietly that she and my father had talked and decided I could invite Sanora to dinner. I didn't know what to make of this statement. I told Sanora in a sarcastic tone that she had the great honor of being invited to my (parents') house for dinner. She accepted, somewhat to my discomfort, and she came and we all had a polite rather stiff evening around the dining room table.

Now, so many years later, I recognize that my mother realized she had acted out of fear rather than morality and wanted to make amends. It was a beginning of a lot of changes she was going to have to get used to as the 1960's approached. To her credit she did make those changes, however unwillingly.

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