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Crystal Ashby is the textbook image of a sister on the move. At 40, she’s an antitrust lawyer for a major Chicago oil company. She enjoys the fruits of her labor—wears designer clothes, drives a late-model sports car and enjoys jet set vacations. A native of Detroit, you could say that oil is in her blood. “I came from a car family,” she explains. “My mom worked for General Motors and my dad worked for Ford.” A bright student, she quickly outpaced her classmates at her Detroit elementary school. The principal wanted to skip her two grades. Her mother took that as a sign that the public school system wasn’t good enough for her little girl. She searched for a school that could challenge and stimulate her daughter—preferably one that offered scholarships. She found it in The Grosse Pointe Academy, a tony private school in the old-money suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
When it came time to choose a high school, Crystal picked the Academy of the Sacred Heart. By the age of 14, she was well schooled in the art of self-improvement; Sacred Heart had educated Michigan’s debutante set for generations. The combination of these two elite private schools gave Crystal a sense of comfort in the mainstream that was foreign to many of her peers in Detroit’s inner city. Her education also heightened her sense of entitlement. From an early age, Crystal remembers thinking “Why not me? I always believed that someday I could live in a house like the ones I went to school around, that I could live that lifestyle. For me, it was a reality because I saw it every day. I just wasn’t living it every day. But if I was exposed to it, there was no reason to believe I couldn’t have it.”
She’s the only sibling to have attained a professional degree: Crystal’s sister works at a medical facility, her brother manages a glass company. While her mother was the architect of her early educational career, mother and daughter inhabit two different worlds. At 40, Crystal is divorced and childless. At the same age, her mother was married with three children and had been working for 20 years. “I probably have more money than my mother ever dreamed of earning,” she muses. “I’ve done things in my life that my mother has never done. And my grandmother? My life fascinates her. Absolutely fascinates her.”
A few weeks before our first meeting, Crystal had traveled to London for her company. Her mother, by contrast, spent her entire career in the international division of GM and never once took a business trip. “I travel two or three times a month on business,” Crystal says, over cappuccino at an upscale Chicago cafe. “It’s nothing for me to get on a plane. I live a lush lifestyle. I have enough money to do the things that I want to do, go to places I want to go, buy the things I want to buy. I live very differently from my family.”
Chicago is only a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Detroit. But to Crystal’s family, she didn’t fly the coop, she jetted away on the Concorde. “My mother lives 20 minutes from my grandmother who lives 20 minutes from my great-grandmother,” Crystal tells me when we first meet; it’s as if this quick lesson in her family geography should tell me all I need to know about what she’s left behind. What surprises me about our subsequent conversations is how much of a comfort Crystal’s family is to her, how much she values the fact that theirs is a limited arc of movement and change.
“Part of my job is getting past the color issues, the prejudices and biases,” Crystal says. But it’s also true that her early years of attending white prep schools has given her a lifetime of training in keeping the peace. “The reality is a lot of my friends are white and a lot of my friends are black,” she says. “I work in an environment where my exposure is primarily white. You can either be a loner or assimilate. These are the people that I spend my days with and I like my days to be pleasant.”
Her stop-gap against the bitterness and frustration is the time she spends with her family. At work, she says, she is constantly called upon to give the black point of view and to be the bigger person when confronted with a colleague’s ignorance. But at home, “I’m just me. None of this stuff goes home. I still bake cakes and cookies at Thanksgiving. I have nieces and nephews to tend to and my mother is still my mother. She still cracks the whip when she needs to. What I do is what I do, it’s not who I am.”
There’s No Place Like Home: The Amazing Career of Sheila Bridges
She is, according to a CNN/Time magazine survey, the best interior designer in America. Although she has decorated homes for a wide range of clients from Andre Harrell and Puff Daddy to software giant Peter Norton to former President Bill Clinton, it is the type of home that Crystal Ashby talks so lovingly about that prompted Sheila Bridges to embark on her ground-breaking career in residential design. Sheila grew up in Philadelphia with parents whose spirited weekend puttering could have given Martha Stewart and Bob Vila a run for their money. Sheila’s parents built with their hands what couldn’t be assured for many black girls growing up in the 1960s: a safe haven. When she goes home, even at the age of 38, she sleeps in the same room that she has slept in her entire life. Her mother is a retired teacher, her father still tends to a dental practice he built more than 30 years ago. Bridges says, “This isn’t what my parents did professionally, but my parents always really cared about our home. They were constantly decorating, redesigning or building something. My father was always very, very talented with his hands. He would re-tile the bathroom. My mother always had a knack and interest in color. My brother and I gained an understanding that it was important to have a place you call home: to value what you put in it and how you treat it.”
As Americans, we’ve turned into a nation of movers. Extended families that live in the same town are rare; generations that abide under one roof are even rarer still. There’s no place like home, the saying goes. Say it aloud and it hangs in the air as quaint and unreal as a needlepoint message hanging on a kitchen wall. But none of us can deny, especially after the September 11 tragedy, the importance of home and how it defines us. What has made Sheila Bridges a pioneer in her field is that in the early 1990s, she watched the growing numbers of middle-class blacks, the civil rights babies who were living the dream, and she figured out that eventually this new elite would get tired of spending their hard-earned dough on nice clothes, nice cars, nice vacations to the Caribbean. With the right guidance, this group could develop a new passion: the desire not only for the right address, but for a truly beautiful home.
After graduating from Brown University with a degree in sociology, Bridges began to work for an architectural firm, which led to her going back to school to get a master’s in interior design from Parsons in New York City. She started her business, Sheila Bridges Design, in 1991. “I wanted to perform, for African Americans, the same services I saw at the firms I worked at,” she says. “We never had any black clients. We never used any resources, tradespersons or vendors that were African American. And I felt like I knew all these people, including myself, who cared a lot about home. It seemed that there was this huge void. That was something for me, there’d be a lot of personal fulfillment in being able to fill that void.”
What she didn’t want to do was to swath her clients’ homes with the kind of In Style meets Roots relics that were so popular at the time. Just because her clients were black did not mean that they should lounge on zebra-striped sofas or invest in an array of African sculptures. “People always want to trap us into this box of things looking ‘Afrocentric,’” she says, patiently but wearily. “I didn’t really grow up with kente cloth, not to say that I don’t like it. I think there are other ways for us to represent our culture and who we are without necessarily having to use those kinds of things that I think white people have decided represent us. I really draw inspiration from a range of different things: it may be Egypt, it may be Europe, it may be something out of hip-hop culture. It really depends on who it is.”
We are sitting in the living room of her Harlem apartment and office. I keep looking around the room with an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu when I realize that I know these rooms so well because I’ve pored over them on the pages of design magazines, where Sheila’s face would be the sole image of a nonwhite person, of any color. I’m startled because being in her apartment is a little like meeting a movie star. I only think I know these rooms because I’ve seen and admired them so often. I recognize the details the way people recognize Julia Roberts’s grin or Benicio Del Toro’s deep-set eyes: there’s the unusual Hercules sculpture, the book cases that curve, ever so slightly, like décolletage, on the top, and the fireplace, tiled with the most unusual shade of green. Up close I realize that there are several different greens among the tiles, ranging from leaf to pine. No wonder the fireplace seems to glow: the colors are so wonderfully layered, it’s like staring into an amazingly verdant patch of trees. Ten minutes into our interview, I feel unbelievably serene.
When we meet, Bridges has just published her first book, Furnish-ing Forward and is about to begin production on her new television show. Her business has grown so much, and she has become such a well-known arbiter of style, that she only takes on a few clients a year. Still she hopes to continue on television what she has, for so long, done in her career. “It’s all about exposure and education,” she says. “A lot of the choices we make, as African Americans, are because we haven’t had the exposure and because we don’t know. I tried to write my book in a way that’s very anecdotal and personal. I don’t always know what I’m doing. I try to give examples in my homes so people can see. I’m trying to put it out there in a way that’s a lot less intimidating.”
She hopes that more African Americans will discover what her parents always seemed to know. “My feeling is that wealthy people treat themselves well,” she says. “They feel that they’ve earned the right to have beautiful homes and nice things. My point is that all of us work hard and all of us deserve to treat ourselves well. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend a million dollars. It just means that there’s nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with things that you love and things that inspire you.”
Sheila Bridges has a soft spot for Italy. She studied in Rome during her junior year at Brown University. While completing her master’s, she studied decorative arts in Florence. She began to understand what a leap of imagination it takes to choose a career such as hers. “In Italy, kids that are on the school bus pass by the Duomo every day,” she says. “Every day they go home for lunch and pass by the Vatican. There’s such an incredible level of exposure that starts at a very, very young age. If you can see that someone designed this incredible building, you think, that’s something I can be when I get older. For us, we don’t have those sources of inspiration. The kind of things that little black girls pass by on their way to school don’t make them say, ‘Wow. I can really do this.’”
It’s Not Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At
For successful African-American women, the definition of home is ever shifting because the places we call home are so stark in their differences. Is home the black neighborhood where you were raised or the white prep school where you came of age? If you grew up an “Only” in a predominantly white neighborhood where you often felt isolated, does home become smaller in scope and represent only your literal house and the people who lived there? Among rappers, there’s a phrase designed to put those who boast dubious street credentials in their place. “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at” is the refrain of many a hip-hop song. But for successful black women, the reality of those words can sting. When you find yourself in a walnut-paneled conference room with tufted leather chairs, priceless Persian rugs, a Picasso hanging to your right and a Pollock hanging on your left; when the air-conditioner is running at full blast and nobody at the table looks even a little like you—where you’re at can be a very cold, isolated place. At the same time, where you’re from begins to take on mythic qualities—when you’re a black professional woman in a world as foreign to you as Oz, the ’hood can seem as sweet as Kansas.
In Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids…, Peggy Orenstein writes about a young medical student named Shay, who lived in the inner city but was bussed to a prep school. Twenty years after that first bus ride, now at an Ivy League medical school, Shay feels more connected with her black world than the white world she travels in every day. “I may have known the kids I went to school with from the time we were seven,” Shay tells Orenstein. “But friendship-wise, my real life was always once I got home, with my black friends.”
It doesn’t help that the very notion of a black world and a white world is steeped in stereotypes and value judgments. Too often, the black world is assumed to be one of poverty and tragedy, the inner-city visions of the local nightly news. Conversely, the white world is held up to young blacks as being a world of academic achievement and financial success, with little discussion of white poverty or illiteracy. The ambitious young person who takes the stereotypes at face value can end up with a fine education, a good job and an unhealthy mixture of self-loathing and cultural schizophrenia.
A generation ago, every black community had a need and a place for black doctors, lawyers, accountants and the like. But with few exceptions, young black women studying for those degrees today don’t expect to work in the black community. The highest goal, always, is to conquer the mainstream world. Many black middle-class women find themselves utterly lost, when even after their best efforts they can’t make a place for themselves in the mainstream. In her powerful memoir, Trespassing, Gwendolyn Parker describes how disillusioned she became with her unrelenting status as an outsider in corporate America. She’s moved from strength to strength: an exclusive boarding school, Harvard, the most conservative law firm on Wall Street. Yet after eight years as a director at American Express, Parker had had enough. “These halls were my home now,” she recalls. “I had sojourned for over ten years in them—centers of power and prestige in white America. I’d been trained in their very own breeding grounds, made my career at institutions that were overwhelmingly white and male.…As a black female, I was the perpetual outsider, persistently viewed as a trespasser on private preserves at the same time [that my success] was a role I’d been groomed for since birth.”
It’s that constant feeling that one is “trespassing” in the white world that makes it so important that we find the place, the people, who represent home. How well professional black women negotiate the spaces between black and white worlds is perhaps the most critical element to their success. It determines how well they will overcome obstacles and how happy they’ll be once they reach their goals. Crystal Ashby strikes a very strong balance between her two worlds: clearly successful on paper, but also very self-confident in person. She’ll be the first person to tell you she lives in two worlds, but it’s a dual citizenship she relishes.
For Aisha Brooks-Lytle, a 27-year-old student at Princeton Seminary, the feeling of trespassing often masquerades as a fear that blacks who are still struggling will mistake her for a person born into privilege. “It’s the feeling you get when you’re with your white friends and the only people serving you in the cafeteria lines are working-class minorities,” she says. “I always want to jump on a chair and say, ‘I’m different from them! I remember what it was like to heat up the kitchen with the oven! I’ve battled roaches! I ate government cheese!’”
Home to the Church
They call them “the generation that forgot God,” the more-than-40-million baby boomers that dropped out of churches and synagogues in the 1960s and 1970s. For African-American boomers, the folks in my parents’ generation, the exodus was particularly defiant. The black church had, from slavery to the days of lunch counter sit-ins, been the nexus of change and rebellion. But in the late 1960s and 1970s, black nationalists put the church on trial. How long were we supposed to turn the other cheek? What good had nonviolent resistance done when Martin and Medgar Evers had been gunned down in cold blood? Not to mention the Jesus that black men and women had prayed to for so long. How could we kneel down before what the black power acolytes called “a jive-ass white boy”? Former Spelman College president Johnetta Cole remembers, “looking up at the white faces in the stained-glass windows and thinking, all these people down here are black.”7 When the black power movement gained prominence, she cringed at the memory of being in Sunday school and singing “Jesus will wash me whiter than snow.” Steeped in European imagery and a benediction in need of change, the church was yet another symbol of black people’s oppression.
It wasn’t always that way. During slavery, blacks were not allowed to gather for worship for fear that religious meetings would lead to talk of uprising. Since the beginning of our history in America, the black church has been a political force for freedom—instrumental in many battles up to and including the civil rights movement. “Black women from the 1930s through the 1960s knew how to organize, were accustomed to working together and felt a strong kinship with members of their community beyond their immediate families,” Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson write in A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America. “The church and the community work in which they had been involved for two centuries made them ideal political activists.”
In the mid-’80s and ’90s, the black church again came to prominence. While their pews may have been emptier during the years following the civil rights movement, the churches never went away. Some had been there for more than 200 years. A classic example is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church founded in Baltimore in 1785; a large and influential church, it was known affectionately in the community as Big Bethel. Like many black churches, the 1970s were lean years. But in the 1990s, its flock returned in droves. The membership has exploded: from 310 members in 1975 to 14,000 members in 1999—when the church’s biggest problem was finding enough land on which to build. What is even more striking is that its members are overwhelmingly young and middle class, with an average member being only 35 years old.8
In New York City, Jacqueline Bazan, the 37-year-old founder of Bazan Entertainment, a marketing and PR company, is one of the thousands of young, middle-class blacks who’ve returned to the church. “Religion is very important to me,” she says. “It gives me a sense of clarity, hope and determination. There was a period in time when I lost my faith for a short while and I can honestly say that it was the most miserable time of my life.” “I attend St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn’s East New York section,” says Kencle Satchell-McKoy, a 30-something magazine circulation manager. “I neither live nor work in this community, yet I feel connected based on the work my church has done and is currently doing. My church is my foundation.”
For some black women, the faith has changed but the foundation of spirituality has not. “One of the anchors for black people, historically, has been spirituality,” says Harriette Cole. “Some might argue that it was an anchor that was drowning us, but I make a difference between religion and spirituality.” Cole grew up in the United Methodist church, but for the past 12 years, she’s been following a yoga path. “As a result of my Eastern practice, I now have a lot of respect for my Methodist upbringing. It’s not separate,” she says.
“The church continues to emit a powerful homing signal for African Americans,” Beverly Hall Lawrence writes in Reviving the Spirit: A Generation of African Americans Goes Home to Church. “For some it presents an opportunity to return to community and people who were abandoned along the road to bourgeois affluence; for others it offers an extended family and a plain old great place to socialize.”9
For FreshWater Software CEO Donna Auguste, church is a touchstone. She looks forward to her weekly visit to the African-American Catholic community where she can be simply “Sister Donna.” In church, she’s not “the first” or “the only” or the CEO or the pioneer: she’s the fellow member. She is greeted there with love and affection by men and women who are as poor as she is wealthy and by all the people who live in between. They don’t ask how much money she makes from her patents. (The number one question whenever she visits math and science classes in public schools.) At church, Sister Donna doesn’t have to give the same inspirational speeches about cracking the glass ceiling as she does when she speaks at the Society of Women Engineers.
Her church members know only that she works with computers, lives up in the mountains and plays a mean guitar. Gospel music, she says, is her passion and release. Auguste belongs to a multi-denominational, multicultural organization called “The Gospel Music Shop of America” where she says, “We come together and make great music and what we have in common is that we love the Lord. That is something that is a calling for me and I stay very focused on that as a high priority in my life.”
The church and community are synonymous for Donna. I suspect that it is so for many black women. I’m not speaking about individual women’s levels of faith, but rather about the idea that the church is perhaps the most prominent means for black women of all backgrounds to maintain a connection to and nurture a relationship with the black community. For middle-class black women, who often work in predominantly white neighborhoods, the need to come “home” even for an hour a week on Sunday mornings can be particularly acute.
When I returned to New York from Los Angeles to work for the New York Times Magazine, I became the only black female editor on staff. I lived in Brooklyn Heights, in a predominantly white building where, for the first year, my neighbors refused to hold the door for me if I approached the door behind them, making a point to push the door closed in my face and forcing me to produce a key. This might sound like the unfortunate rudeness of city living, but I live in a small brownstone building with 14 apartments. I knew my neighbors, at least by face, within two weeks.
My sister-friends were scattered from London to Los Angeles and, if it wasn’t for the head of research at the Times Magazine, I could go whole weeks without face-to-face contact with another black woman during the many long hours I spent at work. Renee Michael Prewitt, my Times colleague, tolerated my constantly hanging around her cubicle. I like to think that our quest for advice and solace was mutual. I longed for a place, as Crystal Ashby so powerfully described, where I could just be me.
Several months later, I found it in Reverend Paul Smith’s First Presbyterian Church. It was a purposefully multiracial congregation headed by a hip African-American minister who won my heart with an early sermon about a crisis of faith that centered on a metaphor about my favorite basketball team, the New York Knicks. First Presbyterian was a place where on a weekly basis other black people embraced me, a place where no one asked me to give the black perspective or to justify my point of view as a black woman. A place where I could talk about sports, trade recipes and restaurant recommendations, be myself. Miles away from my mother, my aunt and my cousins, I would sometimes find myself close to tears when during the service, when it was time to share the peace, some older black woman would ignore my outstretched hand and embrace me in a tight hug. Church became the antidote to my isolation at the Times. It was simply home.
Balance has become the major buzzword in the pop cultural exploration of women’s lives—work versus family, the mommy track versus the fast track, being single and professionally successful but sometimes lonely versus the compromises and companionship of marriage. For successful black women, there is another component to this concept. Race makes us a permanent, irrevocable citizen of the black world, but class and experience makes us, with few exceptions, a lifelong sojourner in the white world. These are the muddy waters that Martin Luther King’s children of the dream must wade through. It’s the next beat of the story that he could never anticipate—that while black and white children may walk side by side, play side by side and study side by side, we do not inhabit the same world every moment of the day.