by Claire Alexander-Joly
After hours of traveling, first by air from Paris to Copenhagen to Boston, then by ground from Boston to Springfield to Northampton, I finally reached my destination. As the bus wound its way up Northampton’s Main Street, I could not see what I was looking for at first. Then the road bent, and an ornate wrought-iron gate came into view. Mounted on top of it like a crest, a sign read “Smith College, 1875.” This was it. Beyond lay stately buildings and manicured lawns—a place of quiet elegance in the heart of Massachusetts. Being from Paris and a graduate of the Sorbonne, I was no stranger to the world of cultured elites. But as someone who’d really grown up on the city’s periphery in a working-class neighborhood, this—a year at a private, select women’s college made possible by an exchange program between Smith and the Sorbonne and funded by Smith—was unlike any opportunity I’d ever had. At twenty-three, I was here for one year to study American culture in what was then known as the American Studies Diploma program, a non-degree graduate program for international students.
From the bus stop, I made my way to the address I’d been given—8 Bedford Terrace—where soon I stood in front of a small, yellow Dutch-colonial home: Dawes House, one of Smith’s residences. I was astonished to find out I was staying in a house. All I’d ever known was freeway-adjacent, low-income housing. I was welcomed by a red-haired, freckled student who gushed out a hearty bonjour! when I told her who I was. She showed me my room, which, she explained, was reserved for the French Diploma student of the year. It was a fairly simple affair, but my own. Glad to have arrived, I settled in.
I was stunned by the sheer beauty of the campus grounds when I visited it the next day: the old but dignified red-brick buildings; the trees, some as old as the campus itself; the botanic garden; and below it what looked like a small lake, aptly named Paradise Pond. From the top of the hill above the pond, the view was postcard perfect: lush, covered by the sun, peaceful. I gazed upon it and thought to myself, this is exactly where I want to be.
Soon came student orientation. The American Studies Diploma students—seventeen of us in total—congregated on a sprawling lawn in the heart of campus. We were a group of many nations from Europe and Asia and with academic interests as diverse as the group itself. Some, like me, desired to study American literature and history; others to focus on women’s studies, politics, and journalism. We were excited and ready to make the most of the year.
The program director came to greet us, and along with him someone from International Students Affairs who cautioned that it might take us a while to adjust to the American way of life. “You might experience culture shock while you’re here,” he said without elaborating. A bit cocksure and lulled by the beauty of the setting, I remember thinking, what could be so bad?
In the days that followed, I got ready for school. I had signed up for three courses: the seminar on American society and culture that all Diploma students had to take, a course on American theater because I enjoyed plays and had done some amateur acting, and another on the history of the American South since the Civil War because I imagined the South to be a beautiful and romantic place . . . A week later, I was in class.
I heard him before I saw him. On the first day, he bounced into the classroom to the tune of a song I’d never heard. Those of us who did not know him were taken aback by this musical entrance; the others were amused, as if in on a shared joke.
“Do you know this song?” he asked a student. She did not. “‘Mona Lisa.’ Nat King Cole. You should look him up sometime.” Nervously, she promised she would.
“Well, class, I’m Dr. John C. Walter. I’ll be teaching ‘The History of the South.’”
Dr. Walter accentuated his name as if each syllable were a discreet note in a piece of music. He had an accent, but from where I couldn’t tell. I was mildly uncomfortable, not because of the accent, but because French university professors were usually quite formal with students—distant even. Dr. Walter, on the other hand, bounded into the classroom as onto a stage, one that in this case was not separate from the audience. Class was held in a small seminar-sized classroom for twelve to fifteen students at most. We were seated at a round table; and instead of standing at a lectern some feet away, he was right there, in our midst, a setting far more intimate than what I was used to. The singing added to this unfamiliar intimacy. As if sensing my discomfort, he smiled benevolently and said, “Students, let me tell you: Life is short, you’d better enjoy it while it lasts.” The song, then his words, pulled me in different directions. He smiled, laughed, then spoke seriously, quickly switching vocal registers, throwing me off balance.
At some point, he mentioned being from Jamaica. I would later find out his father was a white man from Germany; his mother, a Black woman from the island. He also had some Chinese ancestry on his mother’s side. When I first met him in the classroom, I would not have said Dr. Walter was a Black man. On the streets of Paris, I had crossed paths with Black men from Africa many times. But, compared to these men, Dr. Walter was light-skinned. I would have said he was mixed.
He passed out the syllabus. Listed course topics included Reconstruction and its aftermath, disfranchisement and segregation, the reimposition of white supremacy after the Civil War, the New South, the impact of the Depression, industrialization, and the struggle for civil rights. Much of the material was new to me. I knew of the Great Depression, the two world wars, and industrialization, but whatever the French school system had taught me about the U.S. did not include or barely skimmed over slavery, segregation, and civil rights. Assigned texts for the semester included a textbook survey of the history of the South; a book Dr. Walter identified as a classic, The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward; and another classic, Killers of the Dream by a Southern writer, Lillian Smith.
When class was over, I walked over to the library. I found the Woodward and the Smith books and held them in my hands. From the little pieces of paper glued on the back covers, I could tell they’d been checked out many times. Who was Jim Crow, I wondered, and what was his career? The title of the Smith book was striking. Who had killed whose dream?
Later that week, class started with a review of the origins of slavery. I had vague recollections of French history lessons depicting slavery as a condition not unlike that of French peasants under the yoke of aristocrats before the Revolution. Class oppression. But what Dr. Walter described to us was not just about class. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, he explained, landowners had turned from indentured servitude to slavery, a system based on racial differences. Racial?
“Why didn’t they do that in the first place,” a student who seemed to know what that meant asked, “since they thought Black people were inferior?”
“Because, at first, they were plenty of white indentured servants from England where Virginia’s landowners were from. They didn’t need African slaves yet, at least not in large numbers, you understand.”
“But then indentured servants started to get their freedom,” another student ventured.
“That’s right, and free men are not so easy to control. But there were problems even before that. Remember Bacon’s Rebellion . . .”
The story went something like this: In the mid-1670s, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy landowner and member of the Virginia Council, had assembled an armed militia of white indentured servants to fight Native Americans who presumably were threatening the colonies, “which they were not!” Dr. Walter exclaimed. “Like many politicians, then as now, Bacon was playing a game, you see. He wanted to turn the attention of indentured servants away from the heavy taxes that had recently been imposed on them.” But Virginia’s governor had not taken too kindly to the idea of an armed militia and ordered Bacon to desist. Not only had Bacon refused, he'd redirected his militia against Jamestown, the seat of government, this time with the help of enslaved Africans who had their own grievances against the colony. Jamestown had burned to the ground. “Let me tell you,” Dr. Walter concluded, “after that, white landowners wanted to make sure no such thing ever happened again.” By the end of the seventeenth century, for this and other reasons, enslaved Africans had become the main labor force in the colonies, and racial distinctions between whites and Blacks—free or enslaved—were common. Landowners who had not seen themselves as white before, but as British, upper class, and Christian, now did and referred to themselves as such.
I took in all the information I could, but the idea of a society based on racial categories—the very thought that such categories existed—was foreign and difficult for me to understand. In France, I, like other French people, had referred to Sub-Saharan Africans as Black. Our views were often unflattering. Sub-Saharan Africans were exotic cultural outsiders at best—at worst, uncivilized, unwelcome immigrants who would and never could be French. But, even with that, I’d never entertained the idea that Black Africans—whom we generically called les noirs—might be so fundamentally different as to represent a different race, a concept I’d mostly heard in reference to Jews under Hitler.
Even more puzzling was the idea of “white people.” Until then, the notion that there were white people in the world and that I might be white had not been a fact of life. “White” was a color or a metaphor: “T’as l’air toute blanche” was something my mother would say, if I looked a little pale, meaning, “Are you sick?” No one around me—not people in my family, nor my friends nor my parents’ friends, nor my school teachers—talked about being white. In their own eyes, as in mine, they were simply French. Some identified with a particular region, an ethnic group, or a religion, and all would have known what social class they belonged to. They did not identify racially.
I decided to share my thoughts with Dr. Walter during office hours. I needed the help and wanted him to know why I might struggle with the material. I told him how difficult it was for me to understand racial categories, and how I’d never seen myself as white. Then he said, “You know, I didn’t think of myself as a Black man when I came to the U.S. and I did not know about the kind of racism I saw in this country.”
“You didn’t?” I hadn’t expected that. How could he not have known?
“Well, I lived in Jamaica. I knew nothing about the U.S. This was back in the forties and fifties, you understand. And my family was wealthy. My father owned a plantation. So, I didn’t think about racism. Compared to a lot of people, I was lucky, and a happy kid too!”
“Your father owned a plantation?” I had not expected that either, and based on everything I’d learned so far about plantation owners, I wasn’t sure what to think of that. Did they have servants? What did a twentieth-century plantation in Jamaica look like? I did not ask for fear of offending.
“So, when I came to the U.S.—now this was still before the Civil Rights movement—I was shocked! I saw the signs ‘White’ and ‘Colored.’ I did not know what that meant! So, you’re not the only one.”
Back home, I had on a few occasions heard the word “white” used in a racial sense—just so infrequently that I did not recognize it for what it was. North Africa, for example, was commonly called l’Afrique blanche as opposed to Sub-Saharan Africa, which was l’Afrique noire. In this case, the term “white” expressed perceived phenotypic differences between Africans to the north and those to the south. It did not signify the superior social status of one over the other. In France, North Africans were treated no better than their counterparts to the south.
Another example was the expression la traite des blanches, a reference to a presumed form of sexual slavery said to be taking place in the late sixties in shops owned by Jews. White women, the story had it, were being trapped in dressing rooms where they were kidnapped and expedited to the Middle East to be sold into prostitution. The story sounded like a bizarre holdover from the past when slavery was commonplace in the Ottoman Empire and nearby regions. The real targets, of course, were the ethnic minorities said to be engaging in this trafficking. No such thing was actually happening, but the rumor, which started in the city of Orleans about eighty miles south of Paris, spread all over France and endured well into the 1970s. Among those who fell prey to it was my mother who, one day, as I was getting ready to go out shopping for clothes, warned me of suspicious men who’d been taking women away.
“You’ve heard of the traite des blanches . . . haven’t you?” Actually, I had not and was so unused to hearing the word “white” that I didn’t understand it was a reference to white women or girls like me. I was a teenager. My mother, on the other hand, obviously had some awareness of herself as a white woman. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have felt the need to warn me of the dangers lurking in the dressing rooms of French shops.
But growing up white in France in the 1970s–1980s was a bit like living at the top of a snow-capped mountain. We, who were white and French, were the snow—eternal snow, it seemed. Even when immigrants from continents other than Europe started to arrive in large enough numbers for us to notice, we just kept on being snow, undisturbed by the world around us. Those who chose to embrace this new presence did so purely out of their own free will. Those who did not (by far the majority) just kept on going with their lives like nothing had happened. In fact, we did not even think of ourselves as snow, but as individual snowflakes, each with a unique shape and trajectory. I grew up at the top of the proverbial racial mountain: a flake among many other flakes. I knew about class because I had experienced class divisions. I did not know about race—white racial identity, in particular—because I did not experience racism and personally knew no one who did. Understandably, the idea now before me of an entire society organized around explicit racial categories defied my understanding of how the world worked and how I fit into it.
My introduction to “white people” was terrifying. On full display in the pages of our books were graphic descriptions of enslaved Africans packed in the hulls of ships, of captured runaways with iron collars around their necks and iron bits in their mouths, of Black women sexually abused by their owners and used as breeders, and of families ruthlessly split apart and sold like meat “down the river.” I, who had once been drawn to stories of the great American Mississippi and imagined paddle steamers lazily going down the river on the way to Louisiana, now pictured river boats carrying mothers separated from their children.
I could have been introduced to slavery when I was still in France. In 1978, Roots—Racines, by its French name—was broadcast on French television. I was fifteen, old enough to understand the content. Had I watched, I would have seen Kunta Kinte captured and taken away from his family. I would have witnessed his relentless attempts at fighting the enslaver, and the relentless “breaking” of the enslaved, symbolically represented by his “slave name,” Tobey. I would have known that Kizzy was raped, and Chicken George was the offspring of this abuse. I may even have taken note of the fact that slave owners were white people and referred to as such. But I did not see Roots, and my introduction to the slave trade and the “peculiar institution” was postponed.
As if to summarize in the simplest of terms what it had meant to be enslaved, Dr. Walter said, “Slaves were chattel, like cattle.” The room got quiet, as if there was nothing left to say. Right then, a Black student, one of only two in the class, said, “My great-great-grandmother was a slave.” She said this quietly, almost to herself. The room got even quieter. Then it struck me: here was a student who, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, was “young, gifted, and Black,” but who, in a different time and age, could have been someone else’s property. I suppose the possibility of that fact should have occurred to me before, but it wasn’t until she spoke of her relative that I considered it. And in that moment, the enormity and absurdity of it all were made plain to me.
By the time Dr. Walter finished his review and asked, “So, what caused the Civil War and ended slavery?” I knew economics was not the only answer. At the Sorbonne, I had once had an American history professor from Georgia, a white woman who’d said that the Civil War had nothing to do with race—it was all about the money. It was odd that I would remember this detail. (It was also evidence that in one instance at least I had been exposed to the American idea of race before coming to the United States.) Had the woman sounded defensive, being white and from Georgia? I couldn’t remember but knew she’d been wrong. Economics had mattered, but so had race, slavery having irrevocably married the two.
His review of slavery over, Dr. Walter swiftly moved on to Reconstruction—that time in American history when for just a moment it seemed that the United States might successfully transform into something resembling a racially equitable society. He spoke extensively of the Freedmen’s Bureau; the promise of “Forty Acres and a Mule”; and of the 14th and the 15th amendments, which together had extended the rights of citizenship and the franchise to Black Americans. Then there was the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was to guarantee all citizens—regardless of race—access to public accommodations. In vivid detail, Dr. Walter told the story of Massachusetts senator and antislavery advocate Charles Sumner, the sponsor of the bill, who was caned on the floor of the U.S. Senate in the 1850s for taking a stance against Kansas becoming “a slave state.” Dr. Walter held Sumner in high regard, and I was impressed by this white man’s unrelenting advocacy in the face of great opposition and personal danger. Here and there was evidence that white people could be a force for social justice.
Reconstruction gave me hope that the dreadful chapter on slavery would have a positive sequel and be the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” I believed in human progress. But there were early signs that Reconstruction would not work out as planned. For example, after slavery, Black men had entered the world of politics in unprecedented numbers. This included the U.S. Congress. Yet, as Dr. Walter pointed out with great emphasis, “there were more Black men in the U.S. Senate in the 1880s than there are now.” There were none in 1986. I still remember the names of Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, two Black senators from Mississippi who’d served in the Senate during Reconstruction. I did not know yet why so little progress had been made, but the lack of it was foreboding.
Then came the story of the demise of Reconstruction. The promise of “Forty Acres and a Mule” was betrayed. Slave labor was replaced with sharecropping that all but guaranteed a life of endless debt and servitude, and vagrancy laws were enacted to control the Black population. White Northerners who’d championed Reconstruction in the past now became weary and all but capitulated in the form of a compromise with Southern politicians. “Northerners abandoned Black people,” Dr. Walter said plainly as he was wont to do when summing things up. “And then, as if this were not enough, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was repealed, by the U.S. Supreme Court, no less. That tells you everything you need to know about the North in the 1880s.”
By now, I was very aware that Dr. Walter was a Black man, mostly because he referred to himself in this manner. And in moments like these, having a Black professor made a significant difference. Dr. Walter was not African-American by birth, but when he taught Black history, his sentiments as a Black man came through quite clearly. It affected him personally that there were no Black men in the U.S. Senate in 1986, and through him I felt the disappointment of the Black community at the end of Reconstruction more keenly. I internalized the material not just intellectually but viscerally. I do not believe that my memories of what happened in that class would be as clear, had I had a white professor. No white professor—no matter how good —could have impacted me the way Dr. Walter did.
As we made our way through the post-Reconstruction era, the hope I had had for a good outcome all but disappeared. Not only did the history of the South not get any better, it became—quite conspicuously—the history of the whole nation. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the 1896 United States Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which made segregation legal wherever practiced. For someone who had fed on images of American opportunity and freedom in France and come to study in the U.S. in part for that reason, this was jarring. I discovered the true meaning of Jim Crow.
We ended the first half of the semester with what to me was the worst of it—lynching. Until then, I had tried really hard to understand the psychology of American racism. But when we got to lynching, I stopped analyzing. What was the point of psychoanalyzing a white man’s need to castrate a Black body that was already dead, had been disfigured, burned, dismembered, hanged, or discarded in some fashion or other? What was one supposed to make of the fact that on more than one occasion fingers and genitals were distributed as souvenirs? I beheld the pictures of white men and women (children even who’d been given the day off from school for the occasion) smiling into the camera that recorded their exploits. I could only conclude that lynching was the ultimate manifestation of white America’s deranged racial psyche, born of slavery, the work of ghoulish empty souls.
On the last day before recess, Dr. Walter came with a boom box I’d never seen before. The day’s topic: the Scottsboro Case. In 1931, young white men riding a freight train through the state of Alabama had provoked nine Black teenagers into a fight. The white men were kicked off the train but later accused the teenagers of aggressing them. Also riding on the train were two white women: Victoria Price, twenty-one, and Ruby Bates, seventeen—two young prostitutes. When the train stopped, Price, who was afraid of being charged for vagrancy and illegal sexual activity, told the sheriff that she and Bates had been raped by the teenagers, a claim that Bates repeated. Immediately, the young men were hauled off to jail. In one day, all but one (the youngest) were sentenced by an all-white jury to the death penalty; this, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence of rape. Some of the teenagers were not even in the car where the fight broke out. It took decades and much national and international attention for all convictions to be overturned and for the rape charges to be dropped.
As he spoke, Dr. Walter accentuated each tragic fact with his fingers splayed out on the table as if he were playing a mournful tune on a piano. I’d seen him do that before. He rocked forwards and backwards until he was done. He then turned his attention to the boom box, inserted a cassette tape, and hit the play button. The sound of a solo trumpet pierced through the air and bent it into an elongated wail. Then came a voice I would come to recognize easily. Billie Holiday was singing “Strange Fruit,” an ode to Black victims of lynching. As Holiday sang, the world as I understood it before I came to Smith—one in which race barely existed and where there were no white people—vanished once and for all. Now I knew who had killed the dream and whose dream it was. Like Charles Sumner, Lillian Smith, a white Southerner, was a light in the midst of the darkness. I spent autumn recess pouring over old microfiches in the library where I studied news media coverage of the Scottsboro Case, the subject I’d chosen for one of our class assignments.
So far, my racial initiation had occurred strictly inside the classroom. After recess, it occurred mostly outside.
At Dawes one evening at the end of October, I noticed a group of students—about four of them—huddled in the second-floor hallway where my room was. By the way they talked, barely above a whisper, and the looks on their faces, I could tell something was up. So, I asked what the matter was.
“You didn’t hear?”
“Someone spray-painted the cultural center.”
“What cultural center?” I asked.
“You know, the one on campus, for students of color.”
At first, I imagined someone had painted some random graffiti on the walls. I rolled my eyes. “They spray-painted racial slurs,” explained Frances, the student who’d greeted me on the first day. She could tell I hadn’t quite grasped what was going on.
Racial slurs? Here on campus? I gasped.
“Yeah, on the steps of the building.”
The slurs in question targeted African Americans, Asians, and Mexicans, telling them to all “stop complaining,” while telling Black people specifically to “go home.”
“Smith students did that?” I asked in total disbelief.
“We don’t know yet.”
I was stunned at the idea. Apparently, the incident had occurred the night before. Had the culprits sneaked up to the building like thieves under the cover of night? Such a scene was hard to imagine.
“Maybe an outsider did it?” I ventured.
“Maybe,” someone said.
An investigation took place in the days following, but the perpetrator or perpetrators were never found. The spray-painting was generally thought to be a response to two letters in which Black students had described their experiences with on-campus racism. The letters were published in The Sophian, Smith’s student paper. One student had described being tired of having to educate white students “because they are too lazy to educate themselves.”
The spray-painting may also have been tied to a series of racial incidents that occurred that same week on college campuses near Smith. In nearby Boston, the Red Sox had just lost the World Series against the New York Mets. Right after the game, disgruntled white Sox fans physically aggressed Black Mets supporters and bystanders. In the hours that followed, acts of racial aggression against Black students exploded at various campuses including the University of Massachusetts, where a number of Black students were injured; and at Mount Holyoke, where Black women reported being assaulted—all within short distance of Smith. The spray-painting could have been an outsider’s job.
In the age of Ronald Reagan, Dr. Walter wrote at the end of the year in an op-ed for the 1987 yearbook, “[White students] now feel they have a recourse in the law and in the moral climate so that they make racial jokes on radio stations, paint insults on the steps of college buildings, and physically attack students on various campuses across the country. It is a depressing thing that even Smith is not immune.” Some white students even felt that Black students should just stop talking about race altogether. The student who wrote about being tired of educating whites also felt compelled to say, “I’m tired of being told to forget that I’m black because as long as I’m vocal about it, my housemates feel uncomfortable.”
At the end of that month, perhaps in an effort to ease off racial tensions, then Smith College President Mary Maples Dunn announced that the board of trustees had voted “to divest the school of its $39 million in stocks of companies doing business in South Africa.” Earlier that year, before I came to Smith, students had occupied College Hall, the main administration building, to protest Smith’s business investments in South Africa. Similar protests were taking place at other colleges. Some, like the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the entire University of California system, had already divested. For the first time, I learned about Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid.
Race and racism were all around me in the Fall of 1986: in the material I was studying for class; on and off campus; and in the news of the day, both national and international. The man from International Affairs who’d told my program cohort we might experience “culture shock” had been right, and I’d been naive and presumptuous to think otherwise.
In the months that followed my first semester at Smith, I struggled with the notion that I was white and might have anything to do with the white people I’d learned about in class. The examples of Charles Sumner and Lillian Smith were heartening, yet rendered almost invisible by the actions of the majority. But disturbing as the thought of this new identity was, it cracked my world open and gave me a deeper sense of self by showing me a bit of what the world looks like when seen through the eyes of people who are not white. It gave me a new purpose too. While still at Smith, I applied for an American Ph.D. program in Ethnic Studies instead of planning to go home. I was accepted and moved to California to pursue my graduate studies.
Smith remained a beautiful and special place to the end. In the fall, I watched the leaves turn many hues of red, orange, and gold as the fall season drew to a close. The exuberant display of colors was exhilarating. When the snow came, I reveled in it. In the spring, I watched nature’s rebirth and went for many walks around Paradise Pond. At some point, I procured a bicycle that made it easier for me to get around. I drove it all over Northampton. But the light that had shone so brightly when I first arrived had dimmed. Smith too had its strange fruit.