The Experience That Taught Me Blackface & Klan Hoods Are Forms of Racial Terror

For the past year or so, I’ve been tinkering with a short essay on my earliest encounters with the Ku Klux Klan and the ways in which Klan violence is intimately linked to my childhood and my earliest understandings of myself as black x girl. You see, I grew up just a 2-hour car ride from southern Indiana Klan country.

I didn’t have any plans to publish this essay. . . . it was more of a writing exercise, #wannaBauthor and all.

But the photograph of Virginia governor Ralph Northam dressed in blackface (he’s now claiming it’s not him) alongside a person wearing a Klan hood + robe pierced my spirit. The image symbolizes a long history of racial terror in the United States. So much so that I cannot ever see impersonating the Klan or dressing in blackface as  simply youthful self-expression. It’s racist. full stop.

Around the same time that Northam was submitting the Klanface photo for the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, I was an elementary school student, taking a family road trip through southern Indiana that turned disastrous. Quickly.

 

 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page, 1984.

 

I’m sharing the rough draft of my road trip story here.

 

I was somewhere between asleep and awake. I had dozed off shortly after we’d left my godmother’s apartment in Bloomington, Indiana—where she and my mother had been college students at Indiana University more than a decade earlier. It was Christmas Eve, 1987. We were cruising up Indiana State Highway 37 in my mom’s vintage 1973 cobalt blue Ford Mustang, making the trek back up to our hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana, so we could celebrate Christmas with our family. The sounds of Walter Hawkins’ Love Alive II, a tape mom kept in steady rotation, was blaring through the car’s speakers.

Over Hawkins’ “Be Grateful,” I could hear my mom, in the driver’s seat, bickering with my aunt, who was riding shotgun. My eight-year-old spirit registered a panic in my aunt’s voice that I had never heard from her before.

“Girl, we can’t stop! We’re in Martinsville,” my aunt said.

Mom firmly told her that we had to stop because the car’s headlights were out. I looked out the window, which was still slightly iced over. Darkness had chased us down, leaving nothing but a midnight blue mass of sky. There was only pitch black in front of the Mustang, where long cylinders of white light should have been emanating to guide us up the highway. Even still, my aunt was willing to risk the possibility of sliding off the slick, winding road rather than stop in Martinsville, Indiana.

I was too young to know it then, but this was the cause of the panic: We were a car of two black women and a black girl in a sundown town in southern Indiana, after dark, having car trouble . . . . on Christmas Eve.

Martinsville had the reputation of being the epicenter of Klan terror in Indiana.

I had never heard of Martinsville before, but I was intrigued by this infamous place that could reduce a grown woman to near tears. I jolted up in my seat, butting into the conversation with my usual precocity. “What’s Martinsville? What’s wrong with the car? What are you scared of, Aunt Janice? Are we gonna make it home in time to open my Christmas gifts?”

No one answered me.

We pulled into a mom and pop gas station. A string of pathetic colored Christmas lights framed the shop window. The clerk on duty, an older white man, peeked his head out. Seeing our dark bodies emerging from the car, he slowly walked outside with a perplexed look on his face. Because black folks knew to steer clear of Martinsville, whites in Martinsville had become accustomed to never seeing “a black” in real life.

My mother explained what had brought us to his establishment on this crisp winter evening. They performed an awkward dance of human politeness as the clerk led us into the gas station so mom could call my father collect. He offered us space to sit inside while we waited for my father to arrive. Aunt Janice was fixing her mouth to say “hell no!” when my mother jumped in and politely declined his offer, saying we would wait in the car. Mom and aunt Janice poured cups of the shop’s bitter coffee to help them stay alert. We would be stranded in the heartland of the Ku Klux Klan for the next couple hours.

We made our way back to the car.

****

No one bothered us, not even the clerk, who had returned to his mundane shop duties. But my mother and aunt began sharing stories with me—some joyous, some utterly terrifying—about what is was like to be college students in Klan country during the peak years of the Black Power movement.

Up until then, the only depictions I’d seen of the Klan were in films, like the scene in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) where Klan members attack Billie Holiday’s (Diana Ross) tour bus, hitting her in the eye with the butt of a wooden stake. Here I was now hearing of my own family’s encounters with these enigmas in white hoods.

In 1968, just four years before my mother arrived on IU’s campus, a twenty-one-year-old black encyclopedia saleswoman named Carol Jenkins was brutally murdered in Martinsville by someone believed to be a Klan member (turns out he was). The murder went unsolved for more than three decades. Meanwhile, hundreds of young black women like my mother left their homes each year to attend IU, the specter of Jenkins’ murder a constant reminder that they could never and would never feel or be safe.

My mom’s brother, my uncle Howard, was also beaten bloody in Martinsville when he, not being from the area, stopped to get food on his way to visit mom.

The campus wasn’t even a refuge from anti-black harassment. The KKK would secure permits from the city, which allowed them to march down the public streets that run through IU’s campus. University police officers would harass black students for gathering on the yard in groups considered “too large.” White professors assumed that black students were not prepared for the rigors of college, often grading them more harshly than their white counterparts.

Many of these stories of racial discrimination on campus were chronicled in the IU Arbutus yearbook, given titles such as “Black Life in the Ivory Tower.” These stories mirrored those written on the pages of Essence in the early ’70s by and about black students at predominantly white institutions.

****

But in the quiet spaces of their dorm rooms and apartments, mom and her peers could dance out their rage, they could style out their rage. I could hear it in mom’s and aunt Janice’s voice, in the ways they told their stories, but it would not truly sink in until I was much older: survival then—as it is now—was about stealing moments of intoxicating pleasure amidst many more that were singed by violence.

I heard tales of black, sweaty bodies doing dances like “the dawg” and “the hustle” at the annual Omega Psi Phi Mardi Gras party. Mom and her friends would go decked out in elephant-leg pants—bout the widest bell bottoms you’ll ever see—and lace-front dresses and knee-high boots, with their Afros picked just so. Those parties were safe havens where young black folks, who were few in number on campus, could dance and listen to soul and funk tracks. Unapologetically young and black.

My mom and my aunt had gotten into a rhythm, telling their stories –feeding off of each other like a well-trained performance duo. Black girl hand gestures abounded. Aunt Janice would let out her signature screeching cackle when things got really funny. Mom’s voice would boom when she told one of her “bet not no one mess with me” stories. They laughed as they tried to remember the name of “so-and-so’s boyfriend” who did “woopty woop” at “such-and-such’s” apartment “that one night.” I learned of the men my mom loved long before she and my father became a thing.

My mom, circa 1968

I would interject here and there with questions, wanting more details to add to the mental movie of the past that I was directing in my head. But for the most part, I knew to keep quiet because something big, something important was happening here. This was more than a mere passing of the time. This was two black women trying to work through fear and trauma, sharing their vulnerability with me, a girl of a different era, a different generation, but of the same blood. Through them, I experienced the full range of black emotion, their stories offering a context for my aunt’s fear earlier that evening. It came from a real place.

****

By the time my father dashed up to the gas station in his big, mint green Mercury Cougar to rescue his wife and daughter, I felt a little older, less innocent. I had come face-to-face with white supremacy, learning at a young age that people will do anything—including taking a life—in order to maintain some semblance of power. It was a rite of passage that, even then, I knew my white peers did not have to experience. Their white privilege shielded them from ever having to learn about the real American horror story. Yet, the trauma of the past was now etched into my skin like ritual scarification. To be a black girl in this world meant pain would be part of the experience.

But my passage also taught me about black resilience, black joy, black creativity. Something about sharing the tiny space of the old Mustang with my mom and my aunt bonded us. For those few hours, we were on equal footing. All of us scared, and them telling stories to keep the haints away. The stories were our survival. The air never went silent.