This is What an Identity Looks Like
Earring holes, chosen by a little white girl in Haiti. Invisible, tonsil scars in her throat. That horse ran away and her father took her to the St. Croix emergency room where a doctor sewed up her knee while the two men talked. And the following week: her first period, but was that a scar? In Santa Fe an Australian Shepherd at the front door frightened the cat in her arms. A jagged scar on her forearm. She was twenty-five, when the first episiotomy, the first cut “down there,” was made, the doctor said to ease her son’s passage. And the male ob-gyn told her husband, the cut would make her tight as a virgin. Bad teeth like her mother’s. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease from a dirty and careless lover. At the end of her thirties, the year after a break-up so visceral that (fill in the blank): gall bladder across her abdomen. Embedded in the bone of her hip, a barbed wire repair. Traction rod hole scars above right shin. Invisible: her tongue almost bitten through in Berkeley the day after her sixty-fifth and her son’s fortieth birthdays, the sting of green soup that evening. Immunocompromised: hepatitis as a consequence of a week in an Albany, GA jail; toxoplasmosis; shingles which still burn at the top of her rib cage. A divot in the flare of her right nostril, skin cancer. Left lens removed for what her sister calls Byronic eyes. A lump taken, leaving a marker like a seamstress’ straight pin in the upper left quadrant of her left breast.
My Jewish mother, and I suppose my Episcopalian father as well, named me “Faith.” She had grown up with the name Eunice Frances Spellman, so she knew about carrying an odd name. They gave me the name because giving birth to a Jewish child during World War II, or, as my mother called it The War Against Hitler, was an act of faith.
First I disliked my name because it was hard for a small child, like my sister who was a toddler, to pronounce. She called me “Thaif.” My mother would sit her down. “Say Faith,” my mother would emphasize the F and the T with hissing and a pursing of her lips. My sister, she of the dark, dark, eyes would solemnly shape her babyish mouth to mimic my mother and pronounce, “Thaif.”
Worse, when I entered school, there were no other children named Faith, not in my class, not in the entire school, not until eight years later when there was one other Faith in my high school.
People often changed the name to Faye. The people who did this tended to be Jewish, though I didn’t realize this at the time. What I did notice was my mother’s passionate, public insistence that I be called by my correct name, the th voiced at the end.
In high school that I began to hear: “Faith is not a Jewish name.” People said “Faith, Hope, and Charity — that’s Christian.” “It is not. It’s universal,” my mother would sputter. There were many reasons that I grew up feeling “not Jewish enough,” and my name was one of them.
I chose our second mother, Charity Abigail Bailey. Faith/Charity: I am here.
It was 1949 or so. We were going to live in Haiti for a year: my mother by birth, my mother by affection, my four year old sister, and I. I was six. My mother, post-divorce, taking her two little girls on an airplane to live in the West Indies. Two women, taking two little girls. A Jewish mother and her Jewish daughters. An African American mother, a music teacher with a degree from Juilliard. 1949.
My mother had taken my little sister and me aside one afternoon.
“Our plane will have to stop in Miami, on the way to Haiti,” she said. We stared back at her. We knew her. We knew there was more to come. “Miami is in the south,” she said. We waited. She said, “In the south, Negroes are treated differently.” We did know about this. Some people had egged our stoop and slashed the hood of our car because of Ethiopia. My sister and I knew about these things. “In Miami,” my mother said, “when a Negro is walking down the street and a white person comes walking in the opposite direction, the Negro must step down into the street.”
“Will Charity have to?” we asked.
“Yes. It’s wrong, but.”
“Couldn’t she just….” we wondered.
“And what would we do?”
“We would walk in the street with her,” my mother said.
In Haiti, our Port au Prince house was so small that Debbie and I slept in the only bedroom. It was on the second floor. Next to it, an enclosed sun porch, on which my mothers Eunice and Charity slept. My bed was next to the sunporch window; within inches of me, their bed on the window’s other side. Beyond, another set of windows onto the Haitian night. I loved the deep cloaking black night out of which sprang the crowing of roosters when the sky begins to lighten.
I woke up to a moan. Our mother Eunice lay on her back, Charity bent over her. My sister had crept into the bed beside me. Our mother cried out. Charity rubbed our mother’s forehead. Our mother tossed her head from side to side. Shadows covered their bodies. My sister and I, so young, our schooling in silence so deep. Long after the two women had stilled (had Charity gone off to a separate bed? I think, maybe, yes, but this is based on what I know now of such nights).
We must have asked in the morning. I think we must have.
Here is what I imagine: in answer, our mother rubs the bridge of her nose, her temple. “The neuralgia,” she says, “was awful.”
We may have asked why she didn’t go to the doctor.
She would have said, “I’ve tried. It does no good.”
Not long after we returned from Haiti, that year of being singular white children in a Black countryside, my mothers decided we would attend Jewish services. My mother by affection had a reproduction of a Marc Chagall rabbi in her bedroom. At seven or eightyears old, this was Judaism to me. We went to an orthodox synagogue on one of those Greenwich Village streets that cross like creeks from the diagonal of West Fourth to the diagonal of Bleecker and beyond to the roaring trucks of cobbled Hudson Street. I will never forget the door sucking open and the murmur of male voices inside. The oddity of our foursome standing in the entry: an African American woman, a semitic woman, and two girl children — all four with uncovered heads. Outsiders. I remember no visible women. Places were made for us and we sat, engulfed in chants more unfamiliar than the drums of Haiti, awash in a language we could not untangle, dying for the mortification to be over.
My parents gave me and my sister the name “Spellman” for our middle names. It was my mother’s maiden name. Before marriage, she had been: Eunice Frances Spellman. Born at the end of 1909, she was the fourth and final child of Rachel Friedman Spellman and Benjamin Franklin Spellman. Her father was a self-taught lawyer who catered to show business clients including the opera singer Tetrazini, her parents a bourgeois family who had pulled themselves up from the Lower East Side to Manhattan’s prosperous West Side. When my mother was born, they lived on the edge of Harlem on a short avenue that ran beside a park, but during her childhood moved into a grand apartment building, a dizzying cliff of windows below a green copper roof, looking over the Hudson.
Eunice: At the time of her birth, my mother’s father had been on the West Coast. He was scheduled to take the train, the 20th Century Limited, back to New York City. He and his family, including my mother who grew up to be a non-conformist, loved modern American things, including train travel. As my mother told the story he was scheduled to ride the very train which suffered what she called “the wreck of the century.” Her father actually had caught a different train and did not die. In celebration, his newborn daughter and his survival, she was named “Eunice,” or Happy Victory.
Now when I google 20th Century Limited, I find a major wreck listed, but rather than in 1909, it occurred in 1905, four years before my mother’s birth. I also find that the train, which catered to the wealthy and the business class, included the services of a barber among its many amenities.
Frances: My mother was named for her Irish relative. She would say, “One Lord Mayor of Dublin was Jewish, you know.”
Spellman: Dutch. Her father’s family were what my mother called “marranos,” the Spanish Jews who converted to surface Catholicism during the Inquisition. In her telling, she managed to have my grandfather’s father studying with the chief rabbi of England and the family sailing to the US from the Netherlands. As it happened, my father’s family also came from the Netherlands, though a century before my mother’s family.
My sister and I were given that name, Spellman and I loved it from the time I was a young child. I went through a time in elementary school when I signed all three names — first, middle, last — to my school work, although as I’ve said there was only one Faith in the entire school, so I didn’t need all three. When I married in 1966, I assumed my husband’s last name which had its own history, but I missed Holsaert. More than Holsaert, I missed Spellman, my mother name, which I had discarded to become Faith Holsaert Liebert.
When I was twelve, my mother explained homosexuality:
Remember those two drunk men you saw on Christopher Street. You said they were up against one another, fighting. They
were not fighting. They were homosexuals.
I was a school child
Don't tell jobs and work.
not even your best friend
and if you ask why,
there is something wrong with you.
Don't tell about, you know.
Someone could use it against. Us.
We could be eaten alive.
Another piece of instruction about homosexuality and lesbianism from my mother: I was in late high school or early college. She told me about The Well of Loneliness. She said it was about lesbians. She said it was about unrequited love. She said in the end the main character kills herself.
She said it was a good book.
In seventh or eighth grade my sister and I cajoled our mother into attending The Brotherhood Synagogue, a congregation around the corner from my grandmother’s apartment. The synagogue shared a sanctuary with a Christian denomination. I remember little about this except that I didn’t fit in, that my mother was restive during the Friday evening services, and that Hebrew School was very difficult. I was a nerdy student in elementary school, but could not discern the difference between the various Hebrew letters. I couldn’t. I would struggle in front of the other, glib students, but could not recognize more than a letter or two. Years later, this gave me empathy for my students with learning disabilities. My mother declared she would never return to the synagogue after the rabbi gave a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. It did not matter one whit to her that Isaac was not actually sacrificed. Her quarrel was with a god who would ask such a sacrifice and with a rabbi and his religion which would perpetuate the story as an exemplary piece of wisdom.
The last time my grandmother, in her late 70s or early 80s, spent a weekend in Jersey with my uncle Bob and aunt Elaine, she and Elaine got into it. Some of Grandma Spellman’s family in Europe had been button merchants, with branches in many countries; in some countries Jews, although disfranchised, were required to serve in the military. When a boy was called for military service, he was moved to a branch of button merchants in another country. Grandma Spellman’s version of our family’s line was that in addition to the Dutch/Spanish/British connection on her husband’s side, her family was German. All German, nothing but German. My Aunt Elaine insisted she, Elaine, knew better, that Grandma had Polish blood. Grandma flew into a rage. Elaine flew back. I think my uncle had to drive his mother and her ruffled feathers immediately back to her apartment on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I’m not sure my aunt and grandmother ever made up.
My sister and I considered ourselves Jews, though we knew almost nothing and were taught almost nothing by our humanist mother to help us be Jewish. I used to hold this against my mother, but she was born in 1909, the baby of four children, born to prosperous and assimilated Jews who attended Temple Emmanuel — a Jewish cathedral on upper Fifth Avenue. She was of a generation of Jewish girls who knew little about their Judaism. When my sister and I were in elementary school, our Aunt Elaine, who had been born Jewish, called us The Heathens, or The Little Pagans. She did this unapologetically in front of us and our uncle and our mother. She did it and people took it with a smile. My sister and I kept silent.
I experienced it as an affliction, my lack of dates in high school. As early as eighth grade, I took out a number of boys’ books about basketball players and newspaper boys from the library at school, thinking, maybe, if I learned what they liked to talk about, I could talk to them. Everyone, meaning my mother and her generation, thought I was pretty. In particular, my mother and the father of one of my elementary school classmates, went on and on about my American Beauty legs, which I just didn’t get, because rose stems are thorny. I learned to talk a little bit dirty, the 1950s good girl who can act bad. A family friend, I think a friend of Charity’s, arranged a date with a boy I didn’t know. All I remember is going with this boy on a night time subway ride to Queens (the end of the earth), a noisy room of leftwing teenagers whose idea of a rousing good time was listening to Tom Lehrer records, parents who smiled like guilty dogs from the perimeter of our revelry, a long subway ride home.
Monday morning in studio class, high school, we stood at our easels. Sharon was working on a bold and angular self-portrait. Mine was more moody, with less defined edges. Among the twenty-five of us in the room, high school seniors, there were abstract self-portraits, there were literal and linear ones, there were exuberant ones, and one that was a knock off of the style of Salvador Dali. Lucia’s was brooding blocks of black and gray. Aileen’s just two easels up, was flowing lines like a Matisse. Susie said at Saturday night’s party, Aileen and Lucia had been making out. “It was disgusting,” Susie said.
I went to the hotel room, one of those old and elite hotels on Fifth Avenue near 59th street. I was 17 years old and wearing my purple heather college admission interview suit and the cheap silk blouse my mother and I had found on a table at Macy’s. I had rarely been in a hotel, never by myself. Oberlin was not my first choice, but it was my only out of town choice. I had chosen it because Oberlin was a good school academically and I liked that it had played a role in the Underground railroad and had, I thought, been the first U.S. college to admit Black students.
When I knocked, the recruiter opened the door. He wore a suit, let’s say a three piece suit. He had pulled the small table-like desk away from the wall and set it in the middle of the room. He motioned for me to sit on one side and he sat facing me. I was aware of his starched shirt and, disconcertingly, of the bathroom within arm’s reach.
There must have been chit chat. Maybe I even revealed my admiration for the college’s early racial integration. Actually, he informed me, Oberlin had not been the first. Polite, I swallowed.
He said, “Miss Holsaert,” and squared off the pages in the folder before him, my papers, my grades, my essay, my application, the references. “Miss Holsaert,” he said, “You are eminently qualified to attend Oberlin, but I must inform you that Oberlin has a Jewish quota and it is unlikely that we will admit you.”
I entered Barnard College in the autumn of 1961. Sometime in that first semester, I realized there were four Black students in my class: two commuters and two dorm students. Juanita and Anne were commuters and Carol and Janet were dorm students. I learned Black alums had traced the info back into the 1940s. In every class, there had been four black students: two commuters and two dorm students. What a coincidence, the college administration said in effect., when confronted. The year I graduated, the incoming freshman class had sixteen Black students, some of whom were from Africa.
1962. Mass meeting in Albany, Georgia. The congregation was passionate and participatory and, of course, Black. I had never heard such solemn, chanted, and improvised singing, hundreds of voices flowing inexorably in deep currents. Though it was late September, when NYC would have been cool in the evening, in Albany we were sweaty as well as uplifted.
As we filed out into the warm night, a woman from the congregation asked, “Where are you from, child?”
I said New York. She asked and so I answered, “Jewish.”
She said, “Oh, you are one of the Hebrew children.”
Three of us in a women’s cell on the white side of the jail, Albany, Georgia, 1963.
A white man whose nickname was Mad Dog, was placed in the cell next to ours. “Freedom riding bitches,” he screamed, reaching his hand through his bars and angling it around and into our cell, so he could grope and grab.
The cop, white as they all were — one of the ones who had groped me when I was booked — came back and grinned. “Mad Dog is crazy. He don’t care about some,” — and he used the white southern expression for white people who don’t hate Black people — “Justice Department. He killed a man. Got off cause he’s mental.”
“Stupid bitches,” Mad Dog screamed, adding the epithet for white people who don’t hate Black people and he shook the bars. “Stupid freedom loving bitches. Oh, God, I hate you.” He vomited, thick and sweet into the corridor. “Stupid, stupid, stupid bitches.” He shook the bars, his passion rocking the metal partition between him and us.
“I can’t take it,” he sobbed and threw his tin cup of water at the corridor’s single light bulb. It exploded and left us in darkness. I lay down as far from his side of the cell as I could.
Before dawn, to avoid a draft from the corridor window, I switched to the bunk on his side. On my belly, I felt him shift on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t feel him breathe, but I could hear his breath catch in the back of his throat before he released it into the dark. He must be a big man, to crush his breath like that before it escaped. I let go and slept, rocked when he shifted in his sleep.
We spent most nights in mass meetings, from the tents on the sites of burned churches in Terrell and Lee Counties, to the brick churches on street corners in Little Harlem in Albany, Georgia. In the autumn of 1962, there was nothing routine about mass meetings. It was not unheard of for a mass meeting in a church to be visited by goes-without-saying-white law enforcement or the Klan (one and the same), but these visitations didn't dampen the spirit and determination of the meetings with their bits of Movement news, the songs of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round and Guide my Feet While I Run this Race. As SNCC staff we floated in these meetings, usually sitting with high school students with whom we had canvassed or other local leaders. A mass meeting was an evening’s work and when we dispersed into the threatening night, we were tired and elated.
One night Sherrod, my project director, told Penny, the other white woman staff, and me that the SNCCs had been invited to eat dinner with two sisters, by which (though Penny and I had grown up in the white north) we knew he meant sisters in the church. The women lived out in a rural section of the county. As I remember it, neither Penny nor I wanted to go, but he insisted, so we joined the carload of five or six of us going out onto the dirt roads of Dougherty County, floating through the crossroads where white men might sit in cars, watching to see who was going where. We arrived at the house, probably sitting in a moonlit sandy yard.
There would have been a blessing, probably both one spoken by Sherrod and one sung by all of us. I don’t remember, but there was probably fried chicken, greens, biscuits. I remember my exhaustion.
At the end of the meal the sisters brought out two cartons of clothing and suggested Penny and I might want to choose from them. The clothes were 1940s and 1950s women’s clothes, not your basic twenty year old freedom fighter’s denim. Penny and I demurred, but Sherrod encouraged us and we understood, we were to do this. In another room, we tried on the clothes. We may even have been thoughtful enough to each select something to take home to the Freedom House.
Back in the car, when Penny and I protested the whole show, Sherrod laughed hard and high and said, “They said you might want the clothes. They said, those were white women’s clothes.”
There were some people in SNCC I thought of as Exemplary White Staff. This was not a compliment. They worked closely with Black project directors and other leaders. They were in the spotlight, so exemplary. Exemplary White Staff were all men. For myself, I worked in a racially integrated field project, but I found myself consciously holding myself apart from other white staff, not wanting to clump into our whiteness.