Dawn and I both grew up in Kearny, but didn’t really know each other in high school. We lived in different neighborhoods. I lived in a lot of neighborhoods, as my family moved all the time — almost always within the town limits. Before my father died it was about buying a place, fixing it up, selling it and moving to a little better street until we arrived in the Manor, where we lived when my father died. After, it was a matter of my mother’s restlessness and instability. When I asked Dawn where she had lived, she laughed. “On one of the streets where they allowed black people to live.”
The 1950’s was the era of redlining, and also of the “colored beach” at Asbury Park on the Jersey shore.
After my visit to First Place, Dawn and I spent three hours over lunch talking — not about the past, which holds limited interest for both of us, but about who we are as women who have crossed the threshold of 70. We talked openly, and pretty comfortably, about race — not something that happens naturally or easily in our culture. My Panama experience helps. Being the only white person in the village when I first went in 1967 — and for miles around — showed me very quickly that white people are not the center of the universe. And for Dawn, Kearny was a predominately white town. I don’t know how many black students attended Kearny High from 1959-1963, but not many. Dawn has always functioned quite well in a largely white world.
We are both professional women, privileged, we are daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, wives, people who like travel — she goes as regularly to Kenya as I do to Panama. But our lives have not been the same. I never have to think, as Dawn does, who is the best person to represent a board in front of an all white-male legislative committee who may control funding for a project like First Place. Is Dawn the right one, because she knows more? Or should one of the white board members go, to be less threatening?
It’s a kind of shape-shifting, or code talking, that black people become skilled at very young, and that white people think we never have to do.