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The Kennedy Girls
When Senator John Kennedy was nominated for President in Los Angeles in 1960, the girls who worked for Kennedy Headquarters were called Kennedy Girls. They wore flip hairdos, white gloves, and plastic pop-it beads. According to photos at the time, all the girls were white. But what if one girl was passing for white?
153 pages; ISBN 9781587494291
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July 2, 1960
I've got a secret and I'm bustin' to tell you. This is the truth. A journal. My journal. I don't know where to begin. Begin with the worst, I guess. It hurt me bad. But I have to start there, in the beginning.
The first week of July, one year since my Grandma Eldoris and I came to California, found me in the registrar's office at the local college checking on my application for the fall semester. At first, the secretary was real nice to me, telling me how pretty I was and I shouldn't have any problem catching a husband. The only reason most girls go to college, she said, was to get a "Mrs. Degree."
A petticoat degree, I call it.
I want to be a lawyer, I told her. I believe our country is beginning a whole new era, what with the Civil Rights Act being passed a few months ago to help Negroes register to vote. I want to embrace these times and be part of them, seeing how civil rights law is on the cutting edge of change in the South. That's where I'm from, I'm proud to say, Summer Bend, Alabama.
She looked at me over her plain, plastic frame glasses like I was crazy, advising me that her college offered proper classes for young ladies like English literature and Art History, then she went to get my application.
When she came back, she was as cold as an Eskimo Pie. She said there was a problem with my application, that it was too late to process it for the fall semester because my high school transcript hadn't arrived from Jefferson High. My stomach clenched with fear. I knew she was lying because I could see the envelope from my old high school sticking out of the file, the Alabama address dark and clear against the white paper.
What was wrong with my application? I asked her, trying to keep my voice steady. Check it again, please. Louise Pardue. Good grades, Honor Roll, though I don't have any extracurricular activities listed under my name. I didn't want to explain why, that back home in Alabama I wasn't allowed to take part in school plays or be in school clubs because I'm, well, I didn't want to tell her. Instead, I told her I had to work after school to support my grandmother and didn't have time for stuff like that.
She turned her back on me, dismissing me like I was a sugar fly buzzing around her face. I know why. I checked the little box on the college application that said "Negro."
I stuffed my pride in my back pocket and held up my chin. This wasn't the first time it happened to me. I was turned down last semester, too, when I tried a different college and they also "lost" my transcript. Oh, they didn't come right out and say they don't want me because I'm colored, but I know that's the reason. What else can it be? I've got the grades to get into college and the secretary was nice to me when she didn't know I was a Negro.
I asked her again what was wrong with my application and she got uppity like white folks do when they're in charge and they've got the power, like they expect you to lick their boots. She said her college was real particular about who they admitted and I just wouldn't fit in.
I felt like crying but I kept my emotions to myself, just as I have most of my life.
"Don't show folks what you're feeling, Louise, especially white folks," my Grandma Eldoris always says, "because then they's got you, child, like a mouse caught by its tail in a trap. You're still kickin', but you ain't going nowhere."
Well, I am going somewhere. And here's where my secret comes in.
On my way out of the registrar's office I saw a notice on the bulletin board. A notice for volunteers to work as Golden Girl hostesses at the Democratic National Convention coming to Los Angeles next week. Golden. As in white, Anglo Saxon blondes. Not a light-skinned Negress from the South like me. So many times I wish I was white 'cause white girls have this invisible aura around them, a kind of permission slip that allows them to go through the front door of department stores, sit downstairs, not way up in the balcony in the movie theaters, eat lunch at restaurant counters, and use restrooms virtually unnoticed.
So I started thinking. The secretary at the registrar's office thought I was white before she looked at my application. It happens to me a lot, seeing how I'm light-skinned and my hair is long and straight. I've learned not to say anything. I give them what I call "the smile" and get on with my business, like the time I took the bus to downtown Los Angeles by myself and sat down at the lunch counter at The Pantry. No one noticed me. No one.
I took the application home and checked the little box that said "Caucasian," then sent it back to convention headquarters. I requested to work for Senator Kennedy, seeing how I think he's the best man for the job. In case you didn't know, Jack Kennedy stood up to the Mississippi Republican chairman during his re-election campaign to the Senate in '57 when he challenged the Senator about his views on integration and Kennedy said that he believed in integrated schools.
'Course, not much has happened in integrating the schools where I come from. Alabama is still one of five states without mixed public school classrooms, so when Grandma Eldoris and I came to California to be with Mama, I thought I had a chance to get into college.
I'm gonna keep trying. You see, I've got a plan. I'm scared, 'cause if I fail I could get arrested like civil rights activist Rosa Parks did for not giving up her seat on the bus back when I was in junior high. I remember it so well. It was right before Christmas in '55, and this seamstress, her arms filled with holiday packages, paid for her fare at the front of the bus, then she had to go around to the back door where Negroes got on. When the bus got crowded, they told her to give up her seat to a white person. She wouldn't. Couldn't, she told them. Nobody cared that she was a hardworking woman, her eyes red and tired behind her square glasses from doing so much close work. No, they told her that she was breaking race laws because she wouldn't give up her seat on the bus. So she went to jail.
I pray I have her courage.
Nervous, I waited for the mail today, knowing I couldn't back out now. Then it happened. I received a letter with the official stamp of the Democratic National Convention Committee telling me how pleased they are to welcome me "as a Golden Girl hostess for the upcoming Democratic National Convention to be held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena." And I should report to the Biltmore Hotel for orientation on July 9th. That's the day Senator Kennedy arrives in Los Angeles. (Do I dare go to the airport, Dear Diary, and join the crowds meeting his plane?)
The letter also said if I needed a place to stay close to the convention area, I should send them back my request for accommodations. Which I just mailed, thank you.
So, Dear Diary, here is my plan: If I can pass for white at the convention next week without anybody knowing, why can't I check the little box that says "Caucasian" the next time I apply to college? 'Course, the only thing worse than being passed over for college because I'm colored is telling my grandmother that I'm passing for white. Grandma Eldoris is gonna holler like a cat skinned of every one of its nine lives when she finds out what I've done. She's always saying that she never believed little brown girls could go to college.
Well, I'm brown on the inside but I can pass for white on the outside, and going to college is the most important thing in the world to me. My mama would be so proud. She didn't have the chance to go to school, seeing how the school calendar revolves around cotton-picking time back home and most colored folk quit school as soon as they can read and write. I want to do it for my mama. She was also light-skinned like me and tried to live her life in black and white America, but she discovered that it was impossible to align those two worlds. In the end, neither one came to her aid.
I shiver. The feeling I get when I think about her, the feeling that gives me strength, is happening again. The memory or hurt or mood or whatever it is that haunts me, also drives me forward. I can handle anything, including racism, prejudice as I know it, if I stay strong and remember what Mama taught me. They can't beat you unless you give up.
I am not giving up. I turned eighteen two weeks ago. I'm a woman now and I know what I want.
I want to be a Kennedy Girl.
* * *
P.S. I'm all nervous inside right now. Very nervous,
wondering what will happen at the convention next week. For now, though, I can't help but wonder what the other Kennedy Girls are like, where they come from, what their dreams are. Are they all scared like me?