“You thought they were all rednecks!” That’s my friend, Sheryl Jones, describing my 7th grade debut. It was 1977 and I had just arrived in Cincinnati from suburban Long Island, greeting the buckeye state with a chip on my shoulder and my nose in the air. I disdained my peers’ faint southern drawls and pronunciation of IN-surance and UM-brella.
“I was pretty snotty,” I say, remembering the 13-year-old me.
“I thought, OK, she’s stuck-up about being from New York,” Sheryl says. “But maybe she’s not racist.”
It’s the first time Sheryl and I have broached the topic of race in our 40-year friendship. Maybe it’s the zeitgeist — bur we recently agreed to have the race conversation and for me to chronicle the experience.
Mutual need sparked our chumminess. Sheryl was the only African-American student in that rust-belt-city Catholic school. As for me, being uprooted in middle school was tough. I cried myself to sleep many nights. Our friendship, initially born of convenience, quickly became something much more, as we recognized kindred spirits with funny bones that resonated on the same frequency.
“Do you remember that sleepover issue with your mom?” Now that we’ve opened Pandora’s box, this gremlin leaps out.
I have absolutely no idea what Sheryl’s talking about.
She explains that, when I joined our class, there was a sleepover drama in progress. When it came to some homes, Sheryl was left out. Pointedly and repeatedly.
Sheryl’s mother even called the families involved. “That was one of the few times I knew how much my mom loved me because she swallowed her pride to do it,” Sheryl says. But despite Mrs. Jones’ efforts, Sheryl never slept over at certain friends’ houses. Not even once.
When I appeared on the scene, I blithely accepted an invitation to overnight at Sheryl’s.
“I was so excited, and it was such a big deal,” Sheryl says. I’m touched to hear how important the overnight was, and not just in the excited-little-girl sense. It proved something. It SAID something.
“And then you weren’t in school that day. You’d told me before your mom had some issues. So, I thought that was why you were out. To avoid the sleepover.”
Mom had issues. Sounds like something I would have said back then. My parents were part of the ’70s white flight from Manhattan to the suburbs, thanking their lucky stars they made it out before the blackout and the looting. Mom wouldn’t have walked north of 96th street on a bet.
Surprise, pain, regret. The emotions surface one after another. It anguishes me hearing Sheryl say how crushed she was, thinking my mom had performed a sleepover bait-and-switch.
Examining my memories, I disagree with Shery’s take, and I tell her so. Mom never batted an eyelash over our friendship. Sheryl met Mom’s top two qualifications in a daughter’s friends — she was proper, and she was pretty. As for the cancelled sleepover, I probably had been out sick.
“Maybe.” Sheryl sounds dubious. Given the diplomatic missions her mother was forced to mount, who can blame her? Surely, I had needed at least a day’s worth of negotiation to convince my mother.
I remind Sheryl that Mom’s a lot of things, but she’s not underhanded. She wears her insults and prejudices all on her sleeve. “Mom wouldn’t have agreed to a sleepover in the first place if she didn’t mean to carry through.”
Sheryl still knows my mother and concedes that may have been so.
Happily, the playdate was rescheduled. Sheryl and I had a fantastic overnight, and I was never the wiser about the racially-charged background turmoil.
“Do you remember that time with your dad and mass?” Sheryl unearths another memory.
“What happened with mass?” I brace. The setting this time involved Sheryl staying over at my house.
“I had a meltdown,” Sheryl recalls, “about going to church. I think I felt like I was going to be the only black person there.” Some childhood instinct prompted Sheryl to tell my dad — not usually the go-to guy for girls in tears. “He was so lovely. He said something like, ‘You’re with us. We’re going as a family.’”
I exhale, relieved that Dad nailed the exactly right answer. But he never told me about a tearful stairwell conversation with my best friend.
“Do you think the school used us as marketing that time?” I ask. One year’s midnight mass, they tapped Sheryl and me for a duet of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” We were both fine singers, but there was also the optics. “I felt like ebony and ivory,” I say, though it would be another four years before that song came out. Sheryl laughs.
“We were what they wanted to show,” she agrees. “The school’s face to the world. As opposed to all the other stuff.”
Then Sheryl tells me what it was like for her when I left, and my family moved back east.
“It really started around deb and cotillion time. The whole thing about coming out into Cincinnati society. All of a sudden, the lines become clear about what type of world you’re going into. One of the country clubs had no black members, so I couldn’t be invited there. There’s an unwritten rule — No you-know-whats. All that begins. When you and I became friends, we were still little kids. People don’t take it as seriously at that age. They think, friends will be friends.”
I feel bad about having left Sheryl. For a moment, I imagine if I had been around, somehow things would have been better for her. This is, of course, a fantasy.
I wonder aloud whether our separation during those key later-teen and young-adult years, when racial lines get drawn, actually saved our friendship — putting it in a cryogenic sleep until the Star Ship Friend had a chance to arrive on Planet Adult.
She thinks maybe so.
My anxiety about having this conversation with Sheryl dissipates as we talk. It strikes me there’s a reason she’s so easy to talk to about race: Practice. Like every person of color, she lives the issue day in and day out. Conversations like this — over the course of her life they’re innumerable, with everyone from family to friends to boyfriends to colleagues to people on the bus.
Of course, the idea that I don’t experience race day in and day out is false. Racial privilege has a kind of translucency. Like air. It surrounds you. It’s essential to life as you know it. But it’s invisible just the same.
After talking, I know race was present in our relationship in a way I never understood. But I’m also convinced of something else: The essence of deep friendship exists on its own plane, on the soul level, and apart from race.
Anna Murray is an author of both fiction and nonfiction. Her creative essays have appeared in Vox, The Reject Pile, Role Reboot, The Satirist, Daily Mail, Soundings Review, Adanna Literary Journal, Piker Press, and the Guardian Witness. Ms. Murray’s recently completed novel is represented by David Black Agency. The Complete Software Project Manager (John Wiley & Sons, 2016), Ms. Murray’s business title, is a top seller in the Amazon business category and has enjoyed great reviews: “This is a technical book that reads like a novel.” Ms. Murray is CEO of emedia, llc., a technology consulting company, and holds B.A. in English from Yale and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia.
Sheryl Jones is a jewelry designer who runs her own retail outpost on 47th Street. She has appeared on Centric TV’s The Round, an inspirational, TED talks-style series featuring African-American female trailblazers sharing life lessons and keys to their success, and in Refinery29. Sheryl’s name-brand jewelry line will be featured on Home Shopping Network in April. Sheryl has a Graduate Diamonds degree from the Gemological Institute of America, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan.
This article was first published in Role Reboot.