Her name was Dorothy and she was the tribal chief in her neighborhood. It was during the late 60s and Civil Rights was the issue. Dorothy’s neighborhood was about 60% white, 40% black, and 100% poor. I was part of a small group of white middle-class women who were having things happen in that neighborhood. We had started a credit union and were busy putting together a plan of housing where residents would be assisted as either renters or owners. We also were hassling absent landlords and the gas company. I was never arrested, but we were constantly risking the law, pushing the envelope. It was an exciting time.
I had set up a steering committee made up of the residents of the neighborhood. Dorothy was one of the people who attended our weekly meetings. She was older than I by at least ten years and wore loose fitting muumuus. Every time she arrived at the storefront we had rented, she plunked her bulky body down into a chair at the head of the table. Someone always brought her the black coffee she liked and made sure she was comfortable. It was obvious the residents respected her and looked to her for guidance. Dorothy had no front teeth and it didn’t bother her one bit. She was obese and seemed to enjoy her body. Her battered tennis shoes had no laces. But she was serene and sure of herself. There was no doubt Dorothy was royalty, a queen.
I did everything I could to be like “them.” I wanted to fit in, to have them like me. I dressed “down,” felt guilty that I was white and lived in a wealthy suburb. But no matter what I did, Dorothy never looked me in the eye. She had a way of talking around me as if I weren’t there.
One morning, as I was dressing to go to our weekly meeting, I looked in the mirror. A feeing of anger flashed through me. “Look,” I said loudly to the person in the mirror. “This is the way I am. I can’t help it if I was born white and if they don’t like it, too damn bad!” I was shocked. But also realized it was true. Dorothy was true to herself. She would never prostitute herself. I took off the old sweats and dressed as I would if I were meeting my friends for lunch.
Dorothy arrived her usual 15 minutes late and plunked herself down. I took the chair at the other end of the table and looked at her. She grinned and looked me straight in the eye. “Welcome, girl,” she said. “It’s about time you showed up. Now we can start our meeting.”