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Selected by The Los Angeles Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year, Project Girl is the powerful account of a young woman's struggle to realize her dreams while remaining true to who she was before attending Ivy League schools and receiving impressive diplomas. It tells of the spectacular failures and unlikely comebacks of a ghetto kid whose academic talent opens doors onto a world of private schools, rich classmates, and plum jobs but who back home confronts a neighborhood of growing poverty, drug abuse, and crime. Project Girl is McDonald's story of her divided life and terrible battle to reconcile opposing worlds.
It is also the story of McDonald's struggle, as a bright and talented child, to find a decent education. Once she had made it into several good schools -- she was educated at Vassar, Columbia and NYU -- she fought to fit into privileged white society. And then her life fell apart: She was assaulted, hit her psychological low point and was finally arrested for arson.
Project Girl begins by introducing us to McDonald's family. Her parents moved north from Alabama in the 1940s to escape Southern racism and raised seven children in New York City. It was a chaotic household characterized not just by Southern cooking but also by stern punishments and Southern-style religion. This large family existed inside the larger family of the housing project, a safe and cohesive community at the time.
McDonald distinguished herself in school and wound up at Vassar, a place that would be a culture shock to anyone who wasn't from the upper crust. Not surprisingly, she had trouble fitting in. Racism -- sometimes real, sometimes imagined -- followed her around like a dark cloud. She was raped one night in her dorm room at Cornell Law School by a student she didn't know, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Frustrated in her search for an identity that would tie together her past and present, she turned to drugs and alcohol. But she persevered: She finished law school and ended up practicing corporate law in Paris, where she lives today.
McDonald is a lucid and often witty writer, but what's most admirable about Project Girl is her honesty. She includes many chilling entries from her journal, such as one in which, after her rape, she buys a gun and entertains intricate murder fantasies. The book's rawness and immediacy lifts it above most memoirs. McDonald's clear-eyed assessment of her life's highs and lows lingers long after you turn the final page.
Law school at Cornell followed, but her academic career was again interrupted, this time by a vicious rape followed by a nervous breakdown. At New York University, where she transferred, McDonald, still filled with fear and obsessed with homicidal and suicidal urges, was arrested for arson. Ousted from NYU, she went to the Columbia School of Journalism, where she interned at both a French press agency in Paris (where people are "full of life, not ambition") and at Newsweek in New York (where she felt like "an overeducated slave on the bottom of the white patriarch's totem pole"). Abandoning journalism, McDonald reapplied to NYU and, at age 32, graduated from law school. However, living in a Manhattan high-rise and working in a midtown corporate law office was misery for her, and her weekends were spent back at the projects in Brooklyn. "I no longer belong in the projects, but still to them..," her journal notes.
Eventually, McDonald moved to France, abandoning the US and her struggle to belong. Powerful and painful reminder of the enormous gap between the culture of an inner-city black ghetto and middle-class white Americanone so wide that education alone cannot be counted on to bridge it.
I live across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower and around the bend from one of the best views in Paris. On my way to work, I pass the gilded bronze statues of the Chaillot Palace that overlooks the Trocadero fountains. I've been taking the same route daily for more than two years, yet I'm dazzled every time I arrive at this spot. Weekdays, I am in one of my international corporate-lawyer suits, because that is what I do. Weekends, I wear sneakers and my housing-project-style baggy jeans, because that's where I'm from. Through headphones, I might be listening to Missy Elliott or Keith Sweat, or maybe the French crooners Julien Clerc or Veronique Sanson. I belong nowhere in particular anymore and feel comfortable most everywhere.
It wasn't always this way for me. For years, I fought against the undertow that menaces so many of us who grow up poor in America's ghettos. I grappled with all manner of demons, some created by society and others strictly of my own making. My struggle was marred by spectacular failures and salvaged by unlikely comebacks. I was a college-bound project girl as drawn to books as I was tempted by violence.
I grew up in an old-fashioned American family headed by a traditional hardworking father and a tireless mother who stayed home to have children. Seven, to be precise. Luke was the first-born. Still marveling at the miracle of childbirth, my mother soon followed with a second, Ernest. By the time she had delivered Victor and Kevin, numbers six and seven, the only thing miraculous about it all was that she could still walk after such procreative efforts. Smack in the middle of the boys had sprung three girls, of which I was the second, between Ann, the eldest, and Jean, the baby girl. The middle of the middle. A perfect symmetry. And a most unremarkable position if ever there was one in a bustling family.
My parents were children when the Great Depression of the 1930s devastated the world's economy. They missed it. "What Depression? We were always so poor we didn't notice the Depression," my mother said. They migrated to New York in the 1940s, part of an exodus of black people hoping to trade Southern racism and poverty for Northern opportunity. In 1945, on V-J Day, my father, a twenty-two-year-old army veteran fresh from military service, applied for a job as a bus driver in his home town of Decatur, Alabama. The white station manager informed him that Negroes didn't drive buses in Alabama but that he could wash bus windows at the depot. Private Willie McDonald retorted, "I just got out of the army, where I did everything the whites did." He left Alabama that very night in the "Colored" car of a New York-bound train, accomplished by his eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Florence Birdsong. They had only their clothes, a large chocolate bar, and the Brooklyn address of a relative. Within a couple of years, Willie and Florence were married in a ceremony at Manhattan's City Hall.
They were an idealistic Southern couple who believed in the American dream, not so much for themselves — with little formal education, they were realistic about their own prospects — but for their children. We were told to study hard in school in order to get good jobs making good money. "Good" was never defined, but when my father used the term, I knew it meant something grander than sorting mail in the post office, as he did. For my mother, good jobs meant any of the blue-collar jobs held by our neighbors, or, if you were bright and female, a position as a telephone operator, dental assistant, or nurse's aide.
My earliest memories of my father are heroic. There was the story of how, soon after my parents moved into the public housing project named Farragut Houses, a fire broke out in our next-door neighbor's apartment. The mother escaped with her infant daughter, but her twin boys were still somewhere inside. There was no time to wait for firefighters. Daddy dashed into the smoky apartment, holding a handkerchief to his face, and ran out with a screaming baby twin under each arm. As if in confirmation of that feat, the family album contains a photo of him, bulging with muscles, in a cape and tights, an "S" emblazoned across his chest. The bottom of the photo reads: "Coney Island Amusement Park — Brooklyn 1948." For me, Daddy was Superman long before I saw Clark Kent snatch off his glasses to leap tall buildings.
By and by, I learned about life-size cardboard figures with holes for faces, but that information did nothing to alter my belief in Daddy's superhuman powers. I eventually accepted the fact that he was probably not the Superman, but he was certainly a Superman. He did, after all, seem to know everything. And what he didn't know already, he taught himself. While working full-time as a postal clerk, he mastered Spanish, electronics, cooking, karate, philosophy, shoe repair, sewing, and photography. One of his photos, taken on the Manhattan Bridge above the East River moments before a suicidal man loosened his grip, had been published in a local newspaper.
Although naturally bright, he was haunted by his lack of formal education. By way of compensation, he pushed us to excel in school, and stood poised to bask in our successes as though they were his own. Schooling meant everything to him, and I learned early that it should mean everything to me as well. Fortunately, I had a knack for it. Shining in school was guaranteed to keep me in his good favor, so I shone. My consistently high reading scores attracted the fawning attention of teachers and filled my parents with pride. By fourth grade, I'd already been nicknamed "College Material." The child in the middle of the middle bad found a way to stand out, alone and special, in a crowd of siblings. Daddy's expectations were clear. All his children were to go to college and stay off welfare. "A good education is the ticket, and you have to grab it," he said repeatedly.
His naturally loud voice and strong personality at times added a harsh edge to his presence. On family car trips, he'd yell and fume for a navigator but we were all too intimidated by his exacting style to dare attempt reading a map. Mother's calm was a welcome relief from Daddy's intensity. Her ambitions for us were of a completely different order. "All I want is for my children to stay alive and out of jail," she'd say. She joked and clowned so much that often it seemed we were all kids playing together. My father subscribed to the old-school notion that a man's wife shouldn't work. I suppose that, to his way of thinking, a working wife diminished his breadwinner masculinity. So she stayed at home, straightening the girls' hair with a hot comb, barbering the boys' hair with clippers, and cooking, shopping, and visiting neighbors. Such was the life she found "up North," and she liked it.
We lived a Southern life-style in our Northern home. The air hung heavy with oppressive do's and don'ts: do eat all the food on your plate; don't talk back to grown people; do wash your ears and ankles; don't suck your teeth or roll your eyes; do finish homework before watching television; don't hum at the dinner table. Other taboos targeted cigarettes, alcohol, and even coffee, testimony to the simpler world my parents had left in the South. Forbidding the heavier-duty fare of the Northern projects — guns, heroin, and cocaine — hadn't even occurred to them.
Family living was a communal exercise. We watched television together, and went en masse to the public swimming pool, where we learned quickly to shove each other in the pool without being seen by our parents. We also did chores together: one team washed walls, another windows, and a third dishes. My specialty was cleaning the bathroom. True to their Southern roots, Daddy and Mother were excellent cooks, and much of our family time together was spent at the dinner table. No one dared begin eating before each of us had said grace. With hands clasped and eyelids fluttering open just slightly, I would whisper "Jesus wept," keeping a wary eye out for food snatchers. Only then would the feast begin: sumptuous spreads of collard greens, biscuits, green peas, macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob, and fried chicken. Dinner wasn't dinner without a homemade dessert: chocolate layer cake, apple or potato pie, peach cobbler, or some other treat, always made from scratch because packaged mixes were too expensive. Every evening was epicurean rapture.
Punishment was also a group affair, which only added to its sting. Punishable infractions could be anything from zinging eggs out the window, Ernest's way of practicing his throw, to eating all the cherries in the fruit salad, as Ann did, to bed-wetting, my intractable torment. For these lapses, we were whipped with a leather belt. There was nothing worse than glimpsing Ann's subtle smirk as I cried out in pain. Our "spare the rod, spoil the child" Southern parents considered such discipline natural. To us, their Northern children, it was pure barbarism.
Childhood diseases were readily shared. I loved the individual attention being sick brought me, and endured my illnesses with pleasure. While the others had ordinary measles, I had German ones, a distinction that pleased me. Mine had to be more dangerous. I might even die. I hoped Mother realized this. The joy of being especially diseased ended when I caught the next one. Luke and Ernest had developed mysterious bald patches on their heads. Soon I had one. The boys got better, but my spot grew. The doctor I visited was stumped and told Mother to wash my hair daily. His advice caused the disease, which we eventually learned was ringworm, to spread, leaving me with nothing but bangs. I was virtually bald at seven years old. Mother blamed herself for listening to "that stupid white doctor," and sometimes I saw her crying as she daubed my scalp with salve. She made cute cotton bonnets in as many bright colors as she could imagine, but they did little against the amused cries and mockery of my schoolmates. Children, though, weren't my only tormentors. Mother stormed over to school one day and angrily threatened to "pull every strand of hair" from the head of the teacher who'd tried to make me remove my bonnet in class. I was thrilled that Mother would brawl for me and hoped to see her do it. My hair grew back within a few months; then I developed anemia. I couldn't walk even a few feet without panting from exhaustion and collapsing on the nearest chair. I was hospitalized for ten days. Nurses drew blood daily from my fingers to monitor my red-blood-cell count. Apparently, I had almost none when I arrived. I once overheard a nurse say mournfully to a colleague, "That little girl almost died." I was delighted. Could anyone be more special, more perfect? The morning I awoke to discover my hospital bed wet, I wished I had died. I'd learned from Mother's beatings and Ann's teasing that bed-wetting was the shameful act of a very bad person who deserved punishment. Afraid to lose the affection of my doting nurses, I used the comics section of a Sunday newspaper to cover the wet spot on my bed and sat staring at it for hours, forever. Morning passed, then afternoon, and still I sat. Occasionally, a nurse would ask didn't I want to go to the playroom. "No, thank you, I just want to read," I'd answer with a sweet smile, terrified that I hadn't been good.
In reality, I was quite the "good" child, successfully socialized to be polite, quiet, and to smile at adults. The label "sweet" adorned my head like a halo. I was an angel of "thank you"s and "excuse me"s, a Southern-style little Brooklyn girl. I now regret this early training in stuffing emotions; perhaps having a wider range of expression then would have spared me the destructive outbursts I experienced later.
Posted December 20, 2004
I came across this book by chance and couldn't believe the number of similarities between the life stories of Janet McDonald and Debra Dickerson, author of _An_American_Story_. Both writers came from extremely humble beginnings and rose to great heights, both studied and mastered foreign languages, both were raped. The parallels go on and on. Ms. McDonald's story does an incredible job of illustrating how much of one's success in life is related to one's own hard work, and also to one's luck (her getting the job in Paris, for instance). This book should be required reading for everyone in public housing and/or those who are convinced that achievement is beyond them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 14, 2004
Project Girl is a good book but her story is no different from anyone else's who made it out the projects. The book is inspirational at the same time there is nothing in here that we have not heard before. I salute her struggle I just didn't feel it was great enough to write a book about.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 6, 2001
The book was great, very accurate, and honest. I know this because Janet is a relative of mine. I visited the family the summer of the fire she spoke about in her building and since I am from California I had never seen 'Projects', Ghettos, yes, but not projects. The book made me re-live that summer. I am very proud of you!!!. I read the book a couple of years ago, but just got around to posting a reviewWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2000