It was the mid-1970s. Janet and Barry Baszile made the same decisions that parents all across the United States made: Put the children first. Buy a good home in a good community with outstanding schools. Endure the financial sacrifice and long commutes.
Southern California's Palos Verdes seemed the perfect place for young Jennifer and her older sister Natalie to thrive. But this is not the typical American story of sisters growing up. When the family wakes up one February morning, they find "Go home Niggers" emblazoned in all caps across their front walk. Not typical at all.
In Black Girl Next Door Jennifer Baszile recounts her life and that of her family as she grew up in this prosperous, almost all-white community. There are happy times when being one of the few African American families didn't matter. There were Sunday afternoons when Dad retreated and Mom and the girls did "beauty shop." There were the tag games the neighborhood kids played long into the summer evenings. But there were other times, many of them. When Jennifer wins a first-grade foot race, the loser tells her "black people have something in their feet to make them run faster." At a high school dance she sits alone; no one will ask her onto the floor. Later on, a "just friends" fellow tells her that his mom "would kill me" if he asked her out on a date.
The conflicts that young Jennifer faced were not only in the community and in the school but within the family. They strove to be part of the white culture, but to cling to their African American culture as well. The girls read Teen and Seventeen, but they also subscribed to Ebony and Jet. One summer the family took a luxury cruise with mostly white passengers. When the girls made friends with the white teenagers the parents fell into a rage. "I am not raising you for some white man," the father exploded. Back home the discontinuity continued. Teenage Jennifer worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken in the day and went to debutante parties at night.
Now a professor of history at Yale, Baszile tells of a world unfamiliar to many readers and all too familiar to many more. Her insights and candor offer new perspective on the ever-present issues of race relationships and human relationships for all of us. Her account comes to a close when she was no longer "the black girl next door," but a young woman ready to leave home and begin her college adventure. This reader hopes that the chronicle will continue.
Jennifer Baszile received her B.A. from Columbia and her Ph.D. in American history from Princeton. She was the first black female professor to join Yale University's history department and has been named one of the "Thirty Leaders of the Future" by Ebony magazine. She lives in Connecticut. Read more about her on the publisher's website.
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