In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Pamela R. Fletcher Bush
Your memoir essay “The Complexion of Love” in Vol. 24 recounts a pivotal moment when the young narrator Renny is confronted with racism by the white kids she’s attracted to, and then feels compelled to stay silent about it. Can you tell us a bit about how this essay came to be? What inspired you to write it?
“The Complexion of Love” is included in a larger work that I’ve written and have revised over many years. Overall, the work is an account of the interior world of a young girl who becomes increasingly aware of both her mental and physical landscapes. Renny gathers and sifts through information about the fascinating racially constructed and racially constrained society enveloping her mind and her relationships. Living in the white dominant environment of La Puente, California (a suburb of Los Angeles), how does this racialized society impinge upon her friendships? Can interracial friendships survive? These questions intrigue me, because, as we know, friendship is vital to children. A sense of acceptance and belonging inside and outside our homes shape the evolution of ourselves. Antagonism and rejection based on something we cannot control or change about ourselves, like our skin complexion, is harmful and haunting.
In this story Renny, who is eight years old, encounters a lack of acceptance and belonging when she becomes attracted to Calvin, a white classmate. During this time, she also becomes aware of the taboo of interracial love when her best friend BK, a white girl, tells her, “You should stick to your own kind.” Although Renny becomes confused and upset upon hearing about this societal rule, she learns to keep her objection to herself and to be quiet about her romantic feelings for Calvin.
To her horror, however, when Calvin and his friends deride her after she attempts to befriend them, she attacks Calvin and beats him to the ground. His rejection and racial derision is hard for Renny to endure, but after the incident, she remains naively optimistic.
I wrote this piece because I hadn’t read stories about the unique experiences of young Black girls living in white dominant suburbs. While racism often connects these girls’ experiences to the overall American “Black” experience, their lives, the nuances of their situations, differ due to the setting in which they live. I’d venture to say that Black girls who grew up in similar places in the 1960s, such as the metropolitan areas of the Twin Cities, probably would have experienced situations like those that Renny experienced.
You have a new essay published called “Summer 1964” in the anthology We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World. That essay also features the same neighbor girls young Renny played with. But while these two essays have overlapping characters and some similar themes, they are distinctly different in tone and form. Did you write them around the same time? What was it like to write these two essays and keep them separate from each other?
The two pieces were written during different periods, though “Summer 1964” was written first. It’s also included in that larger work I mentioned previously. Renny’s and BK’s friendship is inextricably woven in the fabric of Renny’s young life. BK and her family are the first white people Renny meets who appear to genuinely accept and respect her. Over time, BK proves herself trustworthy, leading Renny to consider BK her sister, so their relationship becomes central to Renny’s sense of self. Until…
The tone and form of this story differ because Renny’s halcyon days are numbered. In her mind, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fit. Her innocence becomes shattered when BK shuns her to avoid the ridicule of some new white friends. Leading up to that moment, Renny encounters the criticism of her colored friends (the respectful term used for Black people at the time), who are suspicious of white people. These playmates question Renny’s loyalty, causing her to wonder why skin color is such a big deal.
Given Renny’s evolving state of mind during that year, it wasn’t difficult to keep the two stories separate from each other.
One thing that stood out to me in both, that I feel you expertly crafted, was how young Renny saw the world. In “Complexion of Love” we spend almost the entire essay in one scene, whereas in “Summer 1964”, we travel with Renny through multiple spaces over the course of a season. She really comes at her “aha moments” from a different approach. How can memoirists use writing elements like time, location, setting, or scene to flesh out these interior spaces for their younger selves?
I love this question about craft! I’m glad you detected what I’m up to in these two pieces that are part of a book I’m writing. The pivotal time of 1964 and the location of La Puente in these stories coincide with the racially divided world Renny grapples with in her mind. When recalling the past in a memoir, fleshing out the exact and necessary details of the setting (e.g., time and location) is crucial in rendering the meaning of the situations and circumstances of the story. Depicting the setting just so helps to portray the attitudes, culture, customs, traditions, etc. of a place that somehow influences the characters’ thoughts and actions.
As I alluded to earlier, in “Complexion of Love,” Renny is at an age where she’s beginning to contemplate love in a naïve, refreshing way. Bianca, BK’s eldest sister, disrupts this contemplation when she broaches the subject of interracial love with Renny. Surprised and speechless, Renny doesn’t have the experience or the language to express her thoughts about something she didn’t know existed. Like many young girls at that time, she has a crush on Paul McCartney of The Beatles. She doesn’t consider his skin color; she perceives him as just a cute guy in a new band playing the guitar on the Ed Sullivan show.
Meanwhile, as the days of 1964 pass, the hot water of racial politics comes to a rapid boil, given the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning public racial segregation. In the background—or in the foreground, depending on where you are—people in several New York cities are rebelling against racial injustice. The news coverage is ripe with social protest and political conflict, but Renny isn’t directly impacted by these events; she lives in a Southern California suburb, not in the south or on the east coast. Yet, in her small world, she begins experiencing personal fallout among her friends. Relating the specific details of these social and political occurrences are meant to reflect the swift change happening in both society and in Renny’s mind.
We know that memory is a challenging place to write from. What is it like for you to revisit your childhood when you’re writing? You paint such lovely and detailed scenes with just the right amount of description; how did you recall sights and sounds? What was your creative process like while mining your childhood memories?
Memory is a fascinating thing. I had totally forgotten about the situations and events of my young life that had involved BK and her family. When I got to junior high school, I moved on, as BK and I went our separate ways, becoming racially segregated in our new social circles. I think my mind kept the memory locked in a safe until it was time to release it. Then, one day out of the blue, decades later, the memory of that day when I no longer considered BK my friend, my sister rushed into the forefront of my mind. So I plopped myself down at my desk and wrote the story in one sitting.
I kept no journal of that time, though I sketched a lot and wrote many poems and short stories. Nonetheless, I recalled the vivid details of situations, facial expressions, spoken words, the music we listened and danced to, our houses and yards, my thoughts, and my emotions. And as I wrote, I wept. Although it was painful to recall some of those times, I was glad that I had retrieved a part of myself that I had banished. Following the writing of “Summer 1964,” a few years later after attending a family reunion, I became interested in my parents’ young lives. I began writing an account of the intersection between their experiences and my own childhood. I wrote quick episodes. It was a wonderful exercise because I realized that the home of my youth had such a strange and huge impact on my life. I suppose that’s the case for everyone.
In January 2020, you took over as the new Executive Director of Saint Paul Almanac. Can you share with us any literary-arts initiatives that you’re pursuing in your role?
Thank you for asking about my work at Saint Paul Almanac! Currently, we have a lot of literary-arts projects in the hopper. We’re collaborating with the University of Saint Thomas on an important initiative, “The Power of Storytelling for Environmental Justice in Our Communities” to sponsor a community storytelling contest that seeks to bring awareness and storytelling around the theme of environmental justice. The call of submissions will occur by February 15 and the judging will happen in April. We’ll have a public celebration of the contest recipients in May. The contests will offer prizes to the top submissions.
Also in February, Saint Paul Almanac will hold a writing contest featuring poetry, flash fiction, and flash creative nonfiction focusing on the theme, BREAK THROUGH. The submissions are due on February 28 and the recipients of the three categories will be announced by the end of March. The contests will offer prizes to the top submissions.
For April, we’re planning our second annual Global Poetry Celebration on Earth Day, which will feature participants reading poetry in at least 20 languages. Last year, participants read poetry in 21 languages; two participants from Albania and India, who found us via Facebook, contributed to the reading, and attendees joined our event from around the country.
In October, we’re eagerly anticipating the launch of Volume 13 of our anthology, The Almanac.
I invite everyone to visit our website and social media platforms to keep up with our exciting endeavors.
What projects of your own are you working on now?
I’m wrapping up the work that includes “Complexion of Love” and “Summer of 1964.” I’m also writing another account of my life, but it’ll be focused on the latter years of my life.
Pamela R. Fletcher Bush is professor emerita of English (St. Catherine University) and a widely published writer in various genres, having won literary awards and fellowships for creative nonfiction, arts criticism, and poetry (Loft Literary Center, Minnesota State Arts Board, Pan African Literary Forum at the New School, and St. Catherine University, among others). She’s also an editor, whose works include Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press); The Way We See It: A Fresh Look at Vision Loss (Arcata Press); Saint Paul Almanac (Arcata Press); and Transforming a Rape Culture (Milkweed Editions). She is the executive director of the Saint Paul Almanac.