A brand new year, same group of book club friends diving into another great read in The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe! Fresh from our holiday break, we fell in to our routine of catching up, potlucking, and diving into our pick for the month.
What masks do you wear? What do you have to pass for? For us, we felt a clear distinction between the environments we are in that shape our overall personality and approach to presenting ourselves. For instance, in a professional setting we are one way and then with the familial, a little different. Anita Hemmings’ biggest risk of being figured out was societal-based because of the time in the U.S. before even the 20th century. Being exposed could cost her and her family years of hard work to get ahead in life where they normally would not. A conversation I had with my supervisor not too long ago before reading this work included how as women we have to go above and beyond to prove ourselves in the workforce in any career-field, male-driven or not. If there is a casual Friday, she chooses not to wear jeans but to maintain her own professionalism with business casual. It is also similar to how having our first Black President in Barack Obama that he has even a bigger target on his back as any mistake might be attributed to his race and another reason why the traditional choice should’ve been chosen. Anita’s dilemma is to pass under the radar and do just enough to graduate and keep up with the Jones’s in a sense. One example of this was when Anita and her brother Frederick were having tea and Anita’s high-society roommate joined them unexpectedly. Frederick swallowed his pride instinctively and ordered nicer beverages and by the end of the afternoon, the siblings had to forgo their tutoring appointments and lose their jobs to keep up the appearance of wealth. The sacrifices that are made to get by are astounding.
Something that resonated with me is Anita’s guilt of wanting more for herself and how she is able to bounce between both worlds. Tanabe says, “(s)he was in a room full of people who were considered the very best of the Negro race, those destined, perhaps, to transform the country, and she was the only one who has chosen to duck the obstacles of being a Negro college student” (Tanabe 171). To which she and her best friend confide in about their collegiate experiences:
Anita: “You’re braver. You may wrongly think that I’m more intelligent, but you are braver. It is the Negro walking as a Negro through a white world who is braver. Always.”
Bessie: “But now I’m not so brave, am I? I won’t be returning to Wellesley, I won’t be granted a degree.” (Tanabe 172)
This sense of guilt continues into her post-graduate life as she and her husband choose to raise their children white with no sense of their Negro heritage OR extended family since they both cut them off. That is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around – for someone who fought so hard to prove that she could attain a degree no matter the race and inspire her little sister Elizabeth to achieve more, the decision was still made to not acknowledge their background. I am sure it would be different if their children looked black and the choice would be made for them.
Despite this outcome, I feel that the risks she took and lies she had to provide were necessary, regardless of both Lottie and Porter’s seemingly progressive mindsets that when it came right down to it were not ready for their first Negro roommate or wife. In the end, this passage reigns true: “but that was Lottie’s way, opening the doors to a brilliant world, then closing them whenever she wanted to. Anita had decided she would refuse to have the doors closed on her for good” (Tanabe 238).
In addition to our usual book club, this time we chose to do a book swap, inspired by our white elephant bookish gift book club event last month. Each of us shared a brief synopsis of a wrapped book of our choosing (somewhat like a book with a blind date). The books we traded ranged from memoir to historical fiction to romance to thriller – can’t be disappointed with that! Our next month’s adventure, we are drawing names and giving a book to that person based on what we know about them AND what their last 3 non-book club books read were. I am excited to see what we come out with 🙂
Here’s to our next book club selection, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah! Stay warm out there 🙂