Ann Allen Shockley’s work has been widely praised for its honest portrayals of lesbian life, and now the author takes an even closer look at the singular world of women in love. But the stories that make up The Black and White of It address much more than simply the female gay experience: They cast a brilliant light on race issues and prejudice, on the emotional barriers that divide women and men, on the polarizing distinctions of class and culture, and on family as a force for both good and ill.
These are powerful stories of love and desire, intolerance and denial. Here, a bright, vivacious young coed attempts to bring light and love back into the sad life of a lonely middle-aged English professor. An ambitious African American congresswoman refuses to admit the truth about her sexuality, thereby jeopardizing her very special—and secret—relationship with her devoted female assistant. Shockley plunges the reader into the eye of the storm when a gay black woman brings her white lover home to meet the family on Thanksgiving.
Whether exploring the ugly, deep-seated prejudice living under the surface of an academic lesbian community, relating the antebellum tale of a southern female plantation owner mesmerized by her newly acquired slave girl, or recalling the sweet, sensual awkwardness of a first date, Ann Allen Shockley writes with unabashed truthfulness, poignancy, and insight. Her stories will long be remembered by gay and straight readers alike.
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About the Author
Ann Allen Shockley is an acclaimed writer of novels and short fiction, as well as a librarian, critic, and editor. She is best known for her book Loving Her, which was the first novel to feature an interracial lesbian relationship. A self-described black feminist, Shockley writes about the struggles and the achievements of individuals battling sexism, racism, and homophobia. Her other works include the novel Say Jesus and Come to Me and The Black and White of It, a collection of short stories. She currently lives in Tennessee.
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The Black and White of It
By Ann Allen Shockley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Ann Allen Shockley
All rights reserved.
SPRING INTO AUTUMN
Seated half turned at her desk, Penelope Bullock stared absently out the window, watching the students hunched against the cold, hurrying across campus. The day was bleak and thick with a dreary hovering grayness that did not help her mood. January was a particularly depressing month to her. An anniversary commemorating a year ago when Claire walked away after the eight years of all they had shared together. Without any visible signs of regret, Claire moved out of the apartment, leaving the furniture and Frizzle, a black and white curly haired three-year-old mutt.
Penelope was glad that Claire had left Frizzle, for he made being alone not exactly alone. The dog loved her and offered the nearest thing to human companionship. At least he was waiting when she returned home from work in the evenings. Aside from Frizzle to help combat the chilling silence of the apartment, she brought home papers to grade and plunged into completing her book on John Milton.
At the age of forty-two, Penelope had decided that there was nothing else for her to do but concentrate on her work. She had no intimate friends and was too shy to go where she might meet others like herself. This would entail making approaches, reversing the role she had assumed throughout the years with Claire. At this point in time, she had to be the hunter instead of the prey. Who wanted a woman her age, especially like herself? She was much too thin, the brown hair turning so mousy that she had to have it tinted a richer color every month. Only recently, she had to have a partial plate put in to replace the teeth her dentist told her had to be extracted. Gazing now at the fresh faces of youth passing outside, the thought numbed her that the prime of her life had been occupied by Claire, only to come to this. She sighed. Why lament? Husbands left wives didn't they after an accumulation of years. Wasn't life just a gamble? A knock sounded, trespassing upon her reflections. She frowned, turning around in the swivel chair to confront the closed door. "Come in."
The girl came in smiling, transmitting an aura of brightness into the cluttered cubicle of the room. Her office was similar to all the others in the Humanities Building except for the department chairpersons. It was small, furnished with two hard chairs, a metal file cabinet and a worktable with an ancient typewriter. Once a year during the fall, just before the Board of Trustees met, the high bare walls were freshened with the same slimy green paint. "Dr. Bullock?"
Her visitor had a strong pungent odor of a winter's day. Cold was embedded in the ruddiness of her wind-pressed cheeks. She wore the typical student attire of faded bellbottom jeans and a short red and black checkered wool pantcoat with the collar turned up to protect the part of her neck where a black knit cap didn't cover.
"Yes?" Penelope's frown deepened. She had no student conferences scheduled for today. The girl was an intrusion upon her afternoon, and worst of all, her thoughts.
"I'm Jenifer Downs. Everybody calls me J. D.," she added, coming closer. "I've been assigned as a student assistant to you."
"Oh?" Another bureaucratic mix up. "It was my understanding that Sally Lake would be assigned to me again. She's worked with me for the last two semesters." Besides, she had become accustomed to Sally. The girl was a good worker who came and went quietly about her business. It was the caliber of work that mattered to Penelope. She did not feed relationships.
"I know, Dr. Bullock, but Sally didn't come back this semester. Her mother's sick," J. D. explained softly, showing she had sensed the woman's disappointment.
"I see—" Penelope was dismayed. Once more the stableness of her existence was being challenged. She would have to train someone else all over again. Nothing stayed constant with her; no one ever seemed to remain.
"Here are the times when I can be available," J. D. said, handing her a piece of paper with the hours on it.
"I'll go over this and let you know tomorrow when is best for me," Penelope said, placing the schedule on top of a small hill of papers. "Of course, you're an English major." She always requested majors in her field. Somehow, she couldn't recall the girl's being in any of her classes.
Again disruption! Her mouth betrayed her by emitting a gasp. "But I always request English majors. I thought it was understood."
J. D.'s blue eyes noted her distress and clouded with sympathy. "I'm sorry, Dr. Bullock, but I'm the only student left to be assigned. I'd rather work in the math department too. Only I wasn't here last semester and this is all they could offer me." Her voice softened: "I can type, spell and what I can't spell, I know how to look up in the dictionary. I worked as a typist off and on for two years before I came here."
Penelope leaned forward to examine her more closely. Her round spirited face seemed more mature than most of the students. She appeared to be about twenty-three or four. She was short and chunky with stubby fingers tipped by closely clipped nails. Her mouth was a thread-like incision above almost a double chin. J. D. met her inspection squarely, standing back on her heels, taking her in too. Feeling subjugated by the locked stare, Penelope quickly shifted her eyes to a distant point beyond. "I believe you are a good typist, Miss Downs—" she said stiffly, hoping the girl would get the implication of formality in her office. She did not call students by their first names. "How are you classified?"
"I'm a senior—at last!" she grinned. "It's taken me five years off and on to get there. I'm putting myself through school, so I have to work and go part-time. Only now, with this job, I have enough saved to make it through this semester full-time."
"How nice." The girl had perseverance and determination. Those traits should show up in her work. "Can you come in tomorrow at two?"
"Sure can—" J. D. smiled.
Penelope noticed the straight even white teeth and envy shuddered her. Unconsciously her tongue slipped over the partial.
"What will I be doing, Dr. Bullock?"
"Typing, filing, some research. Odds and ends."
"Whatever you say. See you tomorrow."
"Goodday—" Penelope said crisply, resenting what she considered familiarity creeping into J. D.'s tone.
When the door closed, Penelope reached for a cigarette in her drawer. She kept the pack there to prevent students in conference with her from asking for one. The casualness of a cigarette could produce an air of sociableness. She believed in holding herself aloof. Lighting the cigarette, she inhaled deeply, drawing in a suction of relief. She brought the square glass ashtray with the name Oglethorpe College—1898 closer to her. All faculty members were given Oglethorpe ashtrays. This was to help promote the name of the small private college located on the outskirts of the city. It was a perfect working set up for her, for she could get home in thirty minutes. Back to the anonymity of the city where she could live as she had with Claire, hidden away in the cavernous mouth of another existence.
Claire operated a boutique, an expensive little shop near the downtown section. Their relationship had been ideal, at least to her, until the gradual crumbling, and finally Claire's announcement: "I'm leaving—there's someone else."
The confession had not startled her. Why should it? She had been aware of it all the time. There had been the obvious signs indicated by Claire's frequent absences explained away by work, short temper and worse, the excuses for not making love. To lose Claire was like being deprived of the other self that she wasn't but would like to be—outgoing, aggressive, strong. All of these qualities were stored in an attractive, always stylishly groomed Claire with an open face that inevitably enticed friends. Where had she failed? In her droll dependent sameness? Like flatness beneath a mountain.
The class bell pealed throughout the building. Three o'clock. Her Shakespeare class met—the last one for today. She put out the cigarette in the Oglethorpe ashtray and gathered up her notes to go to the only place where she felt self-assured—the classroom.CHAPTER 2
In the evening when she arrived home, Frizzle greeted her happily, jumping up and down, barking out his excitement. Penelope bent down to pat him, holding his furry body close to her, feeling his warmth, another heart. To her, it was so different now. With Claire, there had been life: people, music, gaiety. When Claire left, the blithe people followed her.
Penelope straightened up, taking off her coat and throwing it carelessly on the couch which was already laden with books and newspapers. The ash trays on the coffee table were powdered with dead ashes, and a half cup of coffee still remained from the morning. Untidiness didn't matter anymore. Why should it, when no one came.
Sighing wearily, she automatically began her routine of turning on the TV. A handsome male newscaster entered the room on the screen, providing sound, stimulating company. Next in succession came the dinner preparation. Another chore that once was fun: cooking favorite recipes for Claire. They would sit across from each other in the dining room and eat like Epicureans with candles embellishing the meal. Claire would talk spiritedly about her day: the customers, shop, incidents while she sat quietly sipping the dinner wine and taking on a new, more exhilarating life vicariously through Claire.
She opened the refrigerator. It was practically empty. Two eggs, a half quart of milk, and a wilted head of lettuce were on the shelves. Impossible. She couldn't go to the store. Not tonight. Tomorrow she would be more prepared to withstand the clamor of the glittering huge supermarket, commanding herself to push the cart down the aisles and pick up more than she needed so that she would not have to go back for a long while. Searching in the cabinets, she found a can of tomato soup. She would open it. Frizzle had enough food. In accordance with her unvarying pattern, she ate, worked on another chapter, and went to bed.CHAPTER 3
With the passing of weeks, Penelope discovered that J. D. was an excellent worker. She reported to the office regularly and on time, flopping down in the rickety chair at the table. Seated there, she would bend slightly over the typewriter, spreading her full muscular jean-clad thighs.
Watching her one afternoon, Penelope broke her usual tacit reserve to remark: "You type well," conceding that some praise should be given for motivation and appreciation.
"Been doing it long enough—" the girl murmured, not interrupting her steady typing pace.
"What are you going to do when you graduate?" Penelope probed curiously.
"Work my way through grad school, I guess."
Penelope focused her eyes on the back of J. D.'s neck where the close-cropped blonde hair sloped down straight in coarse singular straw strands. Claire's hair was dark and curly, flecked with gray. J. D. paused to stretch, throwing her arms high above her head like weight lifter. Penelope noticed the movement of her broad shoulders. Like a prowler, the thought sneaked into her mind of how the girl's back would feel lined against the palms of her hands—flesh touching flesh, skin touching warmth. It had been so long.
"That all for today, Dr. Bullock?" J. D. had suddenly turned around and was looking at her.
Penelope flinched, angry at her thoughts, and at the girl who had caught her off guard. Anxiety pricked her. Had her mind's picture been mirrored in her face?
"Yes, Miss Downs, that will be all for today," she said curtly, feigning absorption in the papers on her desk.
"Wow! Look at that!" J. D. exclaimed, pointing out the window.
Penelope turned to see the white flakes emptying from the sky. February had to have its show. All seasons bear their raiment. "It's really coming down, isn't it?" Penelope observed. "I guess I had better get on the highway before it gets too bad."
"You don't live on campus?"
J. D. put the cover on the typewriter and got her coat from the rack by the door. "Drive carefully, Dr. Bullock," she advised, before leaving.
"I will—" Penelope replied, a little astonished that someone should care.
She drove slowly, cautiously, and at the edge of the campus, recognized J. D. standing at the bus stop, a lone figure dusted with flakes of snow. Penelope stopped the car and rolled down the window on the passenger's side. "Can I give you a lift somewhere?"
"You sure can!" J. D. smiled appreciatively, stomping her feet free of the white flakes before getting in. "I live in town too. I think I've missed the bus."
"It's really coming down," Penelope said worriedly, peering through a snow-crusted windshield which the wiper wasn't coping with effectively.
"You got snow tires?" J. D. questioned anxiously.
Penelope nodded. "Perhaps it isn't as bad in the direction we're going." Maybe she should have gotten a room in the faculty clubhouse for the night. But there was Frizzle to be fed and let out. This was the first time she had been caught alone driving in a snowstorm. Claire was usually with her and Claire drove.
"Can you see ok, Dr. Bullock? I can drive pretty good. I used to hustle a bootleg cab."
Penelope laughed. "What is it you haven't done, Miss Downs?" Suddenly the car skidded as she maneuvered to enter the icy patch of the ramp to the expressway. Panicking, she inadvertently jammed on the brakes and the car turned in a half arc. "Whew!"
"Let me drive," J. D. said quickly, sounding out a hidden order.
Shaken, Penelope moved over. J. D. got out and went around to the driver's side. "We'll make it," she said confidently, face determined, starting the car. "Don't worry. I like challenges."
Penelope huddled rigidly in the corner, chastising herself for her weakness, obeisance to the girl's dominance. Imagine! A grown woman permitting a girl to take charge, handle her like an idiot too stupid to cope with what was a simple matter of driving skill. Why had she done it? Out of habit—a nagging ghost of Claire?
J. D. drove as expertly as she typed. The snow was tapering off and in this relief, she forgot her cardinal dogma and reached in her purse for a cigarette.
"May I have one too?" J. D. asked, eyes ahead on the road.
"Certainly—" There was no other answer she could give.
J. D. pushed in the lighter and held it to Penelope's cigarette before lighting her own. "You can relax now, Dr. Bullock," she said, squinting over the smoke from the cigarette limp in the corner of her mouth. "We're almost there."
The city's lights, dimmed by the falling snow, shone like filmy globes in the evening's limpid coating of dusk.CHAPTER 4
The girl had insisted on driving her all the way home. At the apartment, Penelope invited her in. "Won't you have dinner with me?"
"I don't want to be a bother," J. D. said, hesitating.
"Nonsense, I want you to." It was true. She wanted to prolong the company of her. It would be a change to have someone to talk with and prepare for. Moreover, she owed it to her.
Inside, Frizzle immediately fell in love with J. D. They cavorted together on the floor and J. D. played with him like a child. Looking down at them, Penelope asked teasingly: "Are you of the drinking age? I have some brandy." Brandy was safe and refined to offer a student coming in out of the cold.
"I'd rather have bourbon, if you got it," J. D. said sheepishly. "And, I've been drinking since I was sixteen."
"How many years ago was that?" Penelope called back, going into the kitchen, amusement in her tone. "Seven!"
When Penelope returned to the living room with a tray of bourbon, ice and glasses, J. D. was seated on the couch watching TV. Her firm thick thighs were spread wide in her usual way with her feet, encased in brown suede laced bootshoes damp from the snow, planted firmly on the floor.
"Here you are—" Penelope said, setting the tray on the coffee table. "Help yourself. You deserve it." Was it her imagination or did the girl's eyes brush her breasts. "I'll have dinner ready soon—" Flushing, she moved hastily away.
While eating, Penelope thought it was nice having someone seated across from her at the table again. Even Frizzle seemed contented, curled between them. J. D. ate with the unabashedness of youth when hungry, passing her plate for seconds of the lamb chops and peas. Afterwards, she helped Penelope wash the dishes, commenting that she had been a dishwasher also at one time.
The evening went too swiftly for Penelope and when she heard J. D. say that she had to go, a forlorn feeling invaded her. "I'm not rushing you—"
"The gang's probably wondering about me. I share an apartment with two others—a student nurse and a sometime artist. Plus, we have two dogs and a cat. It gets kind of crowded sometimes," she smiled in a way that revealed she really didn't mind. And as an afterthought: "Dr. Bullock, may I come to work tomorrow in the afternoon instead of morning? I'd like to stay in bed longer."
"What?" Penelope was distracted, trying to envision an apartment filled with three people, two dogs and a cat.
"Work—tomorrow. In the afternoon—"
"Yes. Make it around four o'clock, after my last class."
Excerpted from The Black and White of It by Ann Allen Shockley. Copyright © 1987 Ann Allen Shockley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSpring into Autumn,
Play It, But Don't Say It,
Home to Meet the Folks,
A Meeting of the Sapphic Daughters,
Holly Craft Isn't Gay,
One More Saturday Night Around,
A Birthday Remembered,
A Special Evening,
The Mistress and the Slave Girl,
Women in a Southern Time,
About the Author,