I always remember this incident in my childhood on Martin Luther King Day. It stands out to me as a lesson against racism and bigotry. If I had absorbed the racism from my bigoted Greek immigrant father, a working-class immigrant who had assimilated notions of superiority from living in Apartheid South Africa, I would have become racist. But my real-life connection with a soft-spoken, sweet African-American girl in middle school, my “Twisted Sister,” became living proof that friendship is the antidote to bigotry and racism.
For my 13th birthday, my parents, immigrant Greeks who settled in the melting pot of NYC, surprised me. “Yes, you can have a birthday party,” they said. Otherwise, closed to “American” traditions and sort of insular, they allowed me to host my first official “American” birthday party with balloons and goody bags and all the hoopla that goes with such gatherings. In Greece, at least in those days, your birthday was not a big stink; you just had a layered cake, probably one your mom made, had a few relatives and cousins over, blew out the candles and everyone went home. No big deal. This was going to be my official “American” birthday party like the kinds I had been invited to at other friends’ houses.
I invited five of my closest junior high school buddies over. I had redone the basement. I connected two makeshift tables, one an inch higher than the other and covered the whole banquet with a pink curtain/tablecloth my mother had laying around. I added balloons and baked mini-spinakopitakia and tiropitakia, a staple of Greek get-togethers, and strewn confetti all over the place. We were a diverse group of girls, so solidified in our new-found collective identity that we baptized ourselves the “Twisted Sisters” It was the 80s after and glam heavy metal was in. Gene Schneider, the blue-eye shadowed, frizzy blonde-haired, black platform booted frontman of “Twisted Sister” railed the anthem of my generation, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
There was Dina, the brain, slightly overweight with braided ponytails and thick glasses; Denise, the loud-mouthed opinionated Dominican with hedgehog hair spiked in all kinds of ways when the wind blew; Eugenia, a Greek milky and mild-mannered doe of a girl who walked with a heavy gait; me, curly-haired, shy but outgoing at the same time; and then there was Felicia. Felicia was the last guest to arrive that fateful Saturday afternoon for my birthday soiree. Thin and tall, with cornrows neatly stacked by the side of her head so that the oil glistened in the channels between them. She reminded me of “Topsy” the slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the only version of an African-American I had the schema for from one of the graphic novels my Theio Christo had sent me in Greek. She was so sweet and so mature for her age; she was the one in the group you would run to to tell your tears to.
And Felicia, unlike the rest of us, was not an immigrant nor was she from New York City. Felicia was African-American from the South, some place in Georgia. And out of all of us, Felicia had the most decent soul; she would not backtalk when one of the other twisted sisters walked away. She was understanding and forgiving. She never used foul language. She had deep mournful eyes that drew you in like the mysterious depths of many wells.
I had waited for this day with delight. It was a bit like a coming out ceremony. At last, I was normal like all the other kids who had real parties and invited friends over. I had organized games like musical chairs and had blown up baby balloons with rubber bands around the spout so we could tie them around our ankles and play an ankle balloon popping contest. I had brought down the SONY boom box and had arranged an entire afternoon’s worth of music on the recordable black and red Maxwell magnetic tapes. This was one of the few times in my childhood I could actually feel down to my bones that I was having fun and not thinking about it.
There we were: the Twisted Sisters around the table laughing, gorging on potato chips and Coke, talking girl talk:
“George always looks at you during lunch” “Mr Goldman gave me a B on that book report when I deserved an A” How do you get your eyeliner so straight?”
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” boomed from the box and for a moment I forgot that I was poor, that my parents were immigrants, that my father wasn’t crazy.
And then, at around three in the afternoon, my father, who always did overtime on Saturdays, came down the wooden basement steps to check out how the party was going. I saw his knock-off $5 Adidas first, three blue stripes on the side, creak the stairwell and then he emerged in his dark blue work suit and his bald head with the wide unstable eyes. He had come to conduct a quick walk through.
“Ti kaneis Dina,” (how are you Dina?” he nodded to Dina. “How do you do?” He scanned the table quickly, but once his glance landed on Felicia, he stopped in his tracks and frowned. He did not make it to the bottom of the stairwell; instead he turned 180 around and walked back up the basement stairs, climbed another flight of stairs to the second-floor apartment where we lived and slammed the apartment door so brutally the beams of the basement framing our party shook.
I could never anticipate the reactions of my father even to the most simplest things. He was explosive when we placed the glass of water on the wrong side of his reach. I was used to bombs going off in the house at all hours of the day.
Something in my stomach sank. I tried to continue as if everything was fine. I cranked, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” a bit louder and made conversation. But it was no use. I could not drown the yelling and screaming that was coming from the second floor landing. I could not hide the anxiety off my fake smile.
It was my father screaming at my mother. (It was her fault no doubt for whatever was wrong—everything was always her fault). My mother was screaming back at him in her high-pitched shrieks coming in defense.
Something was really wrong. Something was always bothering my father, but this time I was at a loss to figure it out. After thunderous cannon-balling cries and doors crashing, my mother came down rubbing the evidence of dill on her white apron and the scowl on her face.
“Pigene epano. Theli na sou milisi o Pateras sou,” translated “Go upstairs now. Your father wants to talk to you.”
I excused myself from my guests for a few minutes and turned to make the slow cruel climb up the two flights of stairs.
“What the hell had I done wrong?” I kept trying to figure out. “Did I not tell him I was having the party today? Did he not like how we had organized the furniture? I was going to clean and put everything back.
The door of the apartment was closed when I reached the landing so I knocked meekly. Then, it flew open in a fury of force.
“NEVER, NEVER, NEVER in my life,” he howled, the wisp of hair that tried to keep a cap on his baldness all upright, his fists clenched gesticulating in sweeping motions, the madman coming out of his eyeballs bearing bloody body parts.
“NEVER did I expect my own daughter to bring a mavri*[i] into my house. This is a disgrace!
( Mavri: Gr. Black (feminine) from “mauvros” dark, black)
“Ptou sou,” and he spat on me, one of the worst gestures of disrespect in Mediterranean culture. “ Anathema the day I had one of those in my own house. MY OWN HOUSE!”
“You bring them into my house, like shit! Next thing you know, they will be in your bed. You wanna be like them, the Kaffourgia[ii] Then you go ahead—you will wind up on the STTREEEET! Not in my house, go to the STREET—“ (Kaffir: the Afrikaans word for Black, used as a term of disparagement, equivalent to the N-word in the US; Kafourgia: semantically Greek pluralized form for Blacks)
He grabbed me by the shoulders, he nearly lifted me off the ground, turned me around and pushed me with so much force, I had to grab onto the banister and stop my feet in their tracks from hurling down the stairwell —
“Go, go live with the Kaffourgia! Go become like them and see what it’s like.”
I had detonated a bomb. Pieces of my flesh flew up into millions of bloody shreds.
I never knew that he carried so much hatred. I never knew how racist he was until I brought a black girl, my friend from middle school into the basement.
I climbed down the stairs, shaking, holding onto the banister. When I managed to file down to the basement, try as I might, I could not shake off the trauma of the blast. I was literally shaking.
“What’s the matter?” Denise harped. “Anything happen?”
Eugenia chimed in, “I hadn’t expected your father to be such an angry person.”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Dina remarked.
“No, no it’s nothing,” I tried to hide back my shock, my dazed indignation, my sorrow, “He just had a bad day at work.”
But it was no use. I could not bring myself to smile and make like everything was OK for my guests’ sake. It took too much emotional energy to have to take all what had happened AND to cover it all up as I was used to doing.
But Felicia knew. In her quiet, wise way, she had understood. “I think it’s my fault,” she pronounced, patiently and sympathetically, without malice or anger as if she had been through this sort of thing before. “I think it’s time for me to leave.”
“No, stayyyyyyyyyyyy!” the others protested. But it was evident without having to name it, the elephant had trodden into the basement. The party was over.
The Twisted Sisters one at a time their presents off in my hand, kissed goodbye and made their way out of the basement, ducking on the first step so as not to hit their heads against the metal overhead post.
And there I was. Me and my basement birthday party after-math with the annoying high-pitched voice of Cyndi Lauper in the background.
I was shell shocked. All these years, I had never known my father had been such a racist. His reaction came as a total shock. I could not understand why he could feel this way, especially toward someone like my best friend, who out of everyone was the kindest, sweetest, most mature of the Twisted Sisters. What had she done? What had I done that was such a crime?
Later my mother debriefed me. He had gotten his notions of white supremacy from working in South Africa. I don’t think he arrived in South Africa prejudiced. There were few if any Blacks in Greece in the 1960’s. But living in the Apartheid regime, even as a visitor, was enough to ingrain in him the idea of white superiority. No doubt, my father’s racist opinions had something to do with his living in Apartheid South Africa and imbibing that ideology.. It is easy for a down-trodden struggling member of an immigrant class, an outsider, to assume bigotry in order to inflate their own sense of worth. It is so easy. It feels almost necessary that only those low on the social pecking order would want to feel superior by deeming others inferior.
Even with the melting pot of NYC, he remained a staunch racist bigot throughout his life. She told me how he had punched a black man in the street with his fist because the man had not made way for him to pass. How he had spit on the corpse of another Black man who had been murdered in a tribal feud just outside the pavement in their Jupert Park neighborhood. These prejudices were strengthened when he came to New York City where he saw the squalor and crime of the Black ghettos of Jamaica and Harlem first hand.
Whenever he would spot a black man on the street, as kids in the back seat of the car, we would hear his epithets, “Look look look at the animals. Is this an anthropos?” He considered blacks not only to be inferior but sub-human. “KAAAAFFFFFFIIIIIIR!” he would scream rolling down the car window at the innocent Black bystander who was waiting to cross the street. Luckily, as American blacks were not familiar with the South African slurs used to signal them out, they would just look blankly at us. It was obvious to anyone he was the nut job.
Decades after my father’s racism ruined my first (and last) birthday party, the shock of his hatred still unnerves me. It has left me with lasting impressions about being racist and being Greek.
My father might have been extreme, I have a sense that racist sentiments exist in immigrant groups, albeit underground. They socialize their children to huddle together in their Greekiness, both as security and fortress against the “xenoi.” [iii]They will not come out directly to tell you, “Don’t hang out with those people, but you understand implicitly in the way that unspoken language communicates so very clearly and loudly, more so than spoken language, that “those people are just not like us.” You sort of absorb their feelings for certain races and cultures. Of course, as a Greek girl, you can never even think about marrying an African-American, that would be beyond shameful. (We have all heard stories of such girls who go off and marry outside, not only culture but race; they are spoken as cautionary tales like the bogey monster in hushed overtones.)
If you do associate with Blacks, Hispanics, Indians, Guyanese, Tibetans, or any other cocktail of cultures outside of a professional capacity, your parents will mark it with subversive care—not raising eyebrows to draw too much attention but register it on their subterranean radar. Other times, Greeks are quite vocal in their bigotry. When I go by middle-aged Greek men who gather to talk politics on the street corner, drink coffee, and watch passersby, they make no secret of broadcasting their racist opinions (in Greek, of course.) They think by shielding it in a foreign language only accessible to those of the same cultural group, it becomes less offensive or else they feel that speaking the same language in public turns it into something private.
“Blacks are useless,” the one with the fat orange-komboloi (beads) mutters.
“How come Obama is president then?” the fisherman with gray hair says.
“That’s because his mother was white. He’d never be able to get where he is if he didn’t have half a brain,” the younger one with blue eyes in a leather jacket answers.
“Just wait to see what he does to the economy,” the komobolio-twister restates. “When they elect a mavro, it’s the beginning of the end for this country, tha deis (you’ll see.) Isn’t this why you’re out of a job re Yianni?”
I don’t know why I never learned the prejudice of my father. Maybe because his insanity discredited him. Maybe because the rest of my youth was lived in rebellion to what he stood for. Maybe because I knew better. That skin color is too simple an explanation for judging a person as despicable. Maybe it was because he was uneducated and uncultured while I made a point to become otherwise.
Or maybe it was because I had friended Felicia. It was Felicia who introduced me to the message of the late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. She told me about the peace marches, of how her family’s life had been changed because of his struggle. From her I learned that you did not have to take arms against injustice, go out of your way to kill and destroy your enemy, that you could use peaceful means of resistance to win him to your side. You had to love your enemy and not retaliate in kind, that way you could shame him into doing the right thing. That you could forgive people for their ignorance if you cared enough to teach them. From knowing her and how she talked about him, I knew he had to be a noble soul. I learned that by knowing Felicia the racial and cultural differences we had winnowed.
I hated my father for being such a racist. Such a stupid, narrow-minded bigot. And to think that I would by some invisible means have accepted his hatred. But I understand how a minority, feeling inferiority, could assume racism. How immigrant groups are so afraid of losing their identity that they do not want their children to associate with anybody outside their own comfortable cultural circles. But I also know that this is America. That oppressed groups do not have to attack each over or made to feel less than in order to justify the superiority complex that pits one against the other.
These oppressed groups can unite together and plead for social justice in civil disobedience. That’s what a Greek Archbishop did during the Selma March. No teacher ever explained to my father that right next to MLK on his famous march, the only white man of cloth, was not a Presbyterian or a Baptist, but a Greek. Archbishop Iakovos knew what it was like to be oppressed; his family had escaped Smyrna as a refugee from the Ottoman Turks. He had felt too closely the mark of second-citizenship. His people too had been 400 years in slavery.
In a brown paper bag decorated with a handmade red ribbon, Felicia had left a birthday present for me. It was a cotton purple sweatshirt that drooped over one shoulder like Jennifer Beale in “Flashdance”. She had made it all by herself in Home Ec class led by another African-American woman from the South.
She had spent almost an entire semester doing so–picking out the pattern, purchasing the right fabric type and color, cutting the McCormick pattern to size, sewing it stitch by stitch and re-stitching the seams for support. It was one of those gifts you keep more for the giver than the gift itself.
This I know the memories of my Twisted Sisterhood will remain with me forever–how we linked arms the five of us in those bumble bee yellow and white t-shirts spanning the entire NYC sidewalk to the stares of passersby. We drew so much attention that a random guy off the street stopped sipping his Coke and asked, “Are you all really sisters?”
“Yes,” Dina the brain responded, “twisted ones.”
A string of tolerance twisted in sisterhood–two Greeks, a Dominican, a half-Irish half-Italian mutt, and an African American. This is why Archbishop Iakovos also held hands with the great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King–only when people in mutual friendship realize they are fighting the same struggle that they can see beyond the particulars of their own skin.
I can safely say that I have never been and never will be a racist. I never learned the lesson of intolerance my father so firmly believed was true. Thanks to my friendship with a sweet, mild-mannered African American girl in middle school.