Toni Ann Johnson: Growing Up Black in a Small White Town

On a summer evening, in the late 1980s, I had drinks in Hell’s Kitchen with Nelson George, then a journalist and author, now a successful screenwriter-director-producer. My stage plays were receiving attention and he encouraged me to write about my experience growing up in the predominantly White town of Monroe, New York. We were seated at Jezebel, a Black-owned restaurant in the theater district. My mom, Vera Johnson, a veteran antique dealer, was an admirer and colleague of the owner, Alberta Wright, who’d been a dealer herself. Jezebel’s was peppered with antiques, vintage shawls, paintings, and plants, which was reminiscent of my mother’s decorative style.

At the time, Vera was one of the only Black business owners in the Monroe area, as was Ms. Wright on Ninth Avenue. And yet, I didn’t recognize what was significant about my mother’s experience, or my father’s as a Black psychologist in the town, or mine as the perpetual “only Black girl.” I didn’t begin writing about any of this for decades.

In the mid-seventies, in a seventh grade English class, I mentioned wanting to write about the summer my family spent traveling in Japan. “You didn’t go to Japan,” Mr. Taravella sneered as if the idea was preposterous. My upper middle-class family didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm of Blackness most White people understood in those days. He was mistaken, but I was twelve, and sat silently. Erased.

In 1978, two years after my teacher informed me I hadn’t been to Japan when I had, Bill and Vera Johnson bought the Federbush Estate in Monroe. Max Federbush invented loose-leaf paper. The property included a pool and a tennis court. It was less than a mile from the neighborhood where, back in 1962, my parents rented a small house when they first moved to the area and racists hurled slurs at them and egged their car. Their water was cut off until a court injunction had it restored. Undaunted, Bill and Vera chose to stay. By 1963, they bought their first home in another part of town, despite a real estate agent’s effort to thwart the sale. “This house is already in escrow,” the agent lied. At the time, my father was chief psychologist at Orange County Mental Health Clinic. The Jewish family that owned the house was willing to sell it to them.

My linked collection Light Skin Gone to Waste is a fictionalized version of our experience. Despite the back story, the book is not an elegy on how mistreated my Black family was. My parents loved their lives in Monroe. My father befriended other professionals. He joined the tennis club. My mother started her business, hired White employees, and had a White housekeeper. She still runs her antique shop in the area. My father’s private practice thrived in Monroe until he fell ill in 2013. He enjoyed numerous affairs with local women. White women. My mother knew. I knew. Everyone knew. When you’re Black in a small White town your business spreads fast as fire.

I didn’t have the good life my parents had. I couldn’t avoid bigots in public school. When my novella Homegoing, also about our family, launched in 2021, hometown friends attended the online event. Beverly, one of the few Black girls from Monroe, was astonished to learn that I, too, was frequently called the N-word.

“I didn’t think it was happening to you,” she exclaimed. She didn’t think so because I was light-skinned. I was so light, in fact, there were kids who didn’t know my race until we were adults.

But in in mid-century America, in a small White town, the amount of melanin or lack thereof was of no consequence to racists. Beverly told a story of a kid who called her mother the N-word to her face. It was my turn to be shocked. No one, to my knowledge, attempted that with my mother. Harlem-raised and loath to back down from a fight, I suspect people sensed that if pushed, Vera would push back. And they’d be right. She grew up with a college educated father on Sugar Hill, a middle-class enclave, and she carried herself in a genteel manner that suggested a class above many of the residents of Monroe.

I, on the other hand, was socially second-class. Kids didn’t care or even realize that I was upper middle class. Being Black was undesirable, no matter how light I was. A kid who believed White boys could not kiss me banned me from Spin-the-Bottle during recess at North Main Street Elementary. “Toni can’t play!” he shouted, as if we were consigned to Jim Crow laws. As everyone stared at me, the girl who would never fit in, never be worthy of being kissed, never be considered equal to everyone else, I was ashamed, and again, silent.

While many of our neighbors were kind, others were hostile. My first memory of being called the N-word happened when I was five. Bullies threw rocks at me. A boy who’d been my buddy since babyhood discovered I wasn’t White that day. He joined the others in hurling slurs. That left a wound. It’s a scar I still live with. The incident is the basis for the first piece I wrote about life in Monroe.

Before that, I wrote the screenplay for Ruby Bridges, a true story and a Disney movie that teaches children about the civil rights struggle. On set, Chaz Monet, the six-year-old actress who played Ruby, and Jeffrey Spotto, the six-year-old boy who played Jimmy, were to shoot a scene that Ms. Bridges had described when I interviewed her.  Jimmy was supposed to say, “My mother said I can’t play with you, because you’re a nigger.” The child actor refused. “I can’t say that,” he exclaimed. “That’s mean!”

The director, Euzhan Palcy (recently awarded an honorary Oscar), assured Jeffrey it was okay, and that it was his job to say it. His mother confirmed this. When they shot the scene again, the young actor complied.

The moment Euzhan yelled, “Cut,” little Jeffrey threw himself into Chaz’s lap, hugged her, and cried,  “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it!”

And Chaz comforted him. “It’s okay,” she said, “because it’s just pretend.”

But it wasn’t pretend. They were reenacting Ms. Bridges’ real experience.

The overwhelming sweetness of that little boy who let Chaz Monet know her feelings mattered moved me. It was a kindness I’d wished for. My childhood friend never apologized.

My feelings didn’t matter to others I encountered in Monroe. When I complained that a fourth grade classmate called me a nigger every day, my teacher groused through gritted teeth, “Can’t you just ignore it?” Her refusal to address the situation left me to tolerate it and taught me that I was expected to remain quiet while he could say whatever he pleased.

My parents didn’t want to hear that the life they created in Monroe was anything but better than theirs had been. I was gaslighted and silenced by them as well. That’s why, when Nelson suggested that I share my experience, it didn’t seem worthy. It had never mattered.

But now it does. The shame that kept me silent as a little girl is gone and my stories reveal the many things she couldn’t say.


Toni Ann Johnson won the Flannery O’Connor Award with her linked story collection Light Skin Gone to Waste, selected for the prize and edited by Roxane Gay and published by UGA Press in October of 2022. A novella, Homegoing, won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest and was published in May of 2021. A novel, Remedy For a Broken Angel, was released in 2014 and nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. 


 

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