When race would keep friends apart

Helen arrives at my home and heartily embraces my longtime friend Violet.

"Gosh, it's so good to see you again!" she says, wrapping her arms around all of Violet's 210 pounds of black flesh. I smile, remembering Helen's reaction to another black friend almost 30 years ago. No doubt she has forgotten, but I have not.

I recall the Christmas when I was 17, a college freshman, and going, as I did every year, to visit her family in Virginia.

"I'd like to have a friend from school meet me here, if you don't mind," I said. "Could she spend the night?"

Normally the request would have been completely free of anxiety. But, my girlfriend was black, and this was Virginia in 1962. Still, I hoped Helen, my favorite female adult - the woman who had for years entrusted the care of her children to me, who served as my ersatz mother while my own was ill and absent - would offer an easy "Sure!"

"There's one thing," I said. "I hope it won't matter, but my friend is black."

Helen hesitated and looked at me, then her husband.

"I don't think we can do that," her husband said.

"It wouldn't be right," she concurred.

"Why not? Are you afraid of what the neighbors would think?" But it was worse than that. They didn't mind me meeting a black person, just not at their home.

I went to my room and wept, deeply wounded that people I loved so much could be so racist, and agonized over what was the right, the moral thing to do. Should I leave their home, disrupting forever a relationship that had saved me from lonely torment in the face of family dysfunction, on a matter of principle? If I took the moral high road, would I be forever depriving myself of their warmth, comfort, and affection? I was 17; I couldn't bear the thought.

Neither could I stand the idea of offending my new friend, and of betraying my own moral judgment. I grappled with my dilemma in solitude for hours.

Then I called my college friend and told her a lie. I said that I had to return to my own home sooner than expected. I would not have hurt her for the world. To Helen and her husband, I declared my pain and confessed I did not have the courage of my convictions; the loss would be too great. I hoped desperately that they would come to feel differently and to respect diversity.

Each of them accepted what I had to say. I did not. I felt morally weak. It was a long time before I could respect my own need for adult comfort and believe that under the circumstances, I had probably done the right thing.

Over the years, I lost track of my school friend. But I maintained a close relationship with my adopted family, who, happily, did grow into a wider world view.

So when Helen, my silver-haired mentor and substitute mother, asks me why I'm smiling when she hugs my friend Violet, I tell her what I'm remembering.

"No!" she exclaims. "I would never have done such a thing!"

"But you did," I say. "I'll never forget it as long as I live. It was a major crisis in my life."

"I can't imagine. Gosh, I'm so sorry! Did I really do that?"

I hug her. Without knowing it, she has absolved once and for all the lingering pain I've carried with me, as well as doubts I've harbored about her character over the years. It seems we have grown up, I tell her wryly, and we are both clear on where we stand - on race, and on our relationship.

*Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, Vt.

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