Thursday, May 9, 2013

Multi-Racial Read #10: Dear Senator Part I

When I packed DearSenator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond in my backpack for a recent trip from Charlotte to Los Angeles, I had no idea that my journey west would replicate one that Essie Mae Washington-Williams took sixty years ago.

But the replication process, although interesting and similar, was one of geography only. My trip wasn’t to find a home that would provide racial equality for my children and myself.

Essie Mae’s was.

But I am beginning in the middle of her story. Using quotes from her autobiography, I plan to share her journey over the course of the next few blog posts. As my faithful blog readers know, I am reading books with a multi-racial theme to provide authenticity to my work in progress, Half-Truths. If you are interested, previous books reviews can be found at that link.

Essie Mae grew up in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a small steel town forty miles west of Philadelphia. As 12 she accepted Christ and remembered,

The Bible was all white, but so were the movies. I loved them both. The whiteness I just accepted, just like a lot of other things. Acceptance was our way of life, as there didn’t seem to be much point, or hope, of trying to change the system. p. 7

Soon after, her life was inalterably changed. A dark-skinned beautiful woman (Carrie) came to visit and announced that she was Essie Mae’s mother.  It turned out that Mary, the woman who had raised her, was really her aunt. Carrie left before Essie Mae could ask who her father was.

She found out several years later.

Accompanied by Mary and Carrie, Essie Mae travelled to Edgefield, South Carolina for a funeral. Days later, Mary dressed her up and took her to meet her father- a rich white lawyer named Strom Thurmond. After an hour filled with Thurmond’s history lectures and admonitions that Essie Mae “study hard,” Thurmond told Carrie:

You have a lovely daughter.” It was a kind thought, but inside it hurt me. I would have liked to have heard him say, “We have a lovely daughter.”… He never called my mother by her first name.  He didn’t verbally acknowledge that I was his child…It was like an audience with an important man, a job interview, but not a reunion with a father.” p. 39

That first meeting foreshadowed Thurmond’s sincere interest in Essie Mae as well as her unquenchable desire to be acknowledged as his daughter.  After the meeting, Essie Mae learned the story of her parents’ encounter at young Strom’s home.  He was 23, home from Clemson University and teaching high school. She was a fifteen-year-old domestic who he and his brothers flirted with. Carrie’s explanation of “How did it happen?” was short and to the point: “Love finds a way, darling.”

Although Carrie felt as if Strom loved her, the deep racism of the Jim Crow South along with his family’s prominence, dictated that they keep their relationship a secret. Essie Mae deduced that her parents continued to find time and ways to be together, but as she grew up, he chose to visit her apart from her mother.

Like other teenagers, Essie Mae’s adolescence was filled with identity issues, but hers was compounded by the ups and downs of her mixed-race parentage.

In my darkest hours I began to look at all black people as victims and white people as oppressors, and everything in America struck me as grossly unfair. In my brightest hours I began to look at myself as someone very special, an amalgam of all that was great about America. I had a brilliant white father and a beautiful black mother; was I not the golden child? Alas, the real Essie Mae fell somewhere between these two poles. I was too humble to be conceited, to meek to be a firebrand. My mantra was “accept,” and accept I did at least outwardly. Yet inside me was pure turbulence. (p.45)

Next week I'll continue to highlight Essie Mae's life journey.


Linda Phillips said...

You've got me hooked, Carol. Can't wait until next installment.

Linda A. said...

I enjoy hearing about the books you read for your research. I look forward to the posts to come.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Wow! Thanks for sharing that, Carol. Terrific recap and insights.

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad you all are hooked! Stay tuned until next week and thanks for commenting. Carol

Joan Y. Edwards said...

It touches your heart when one is not accepted openly by the father. Good thing that our heavenly father fully accepts and claims us for his own.

Thanks for sharing about Essie Mae.

Celebrate you
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you, Joan. Yes, that is the comfort of the believer.

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