By Sarah White
This post was written in response to the prompt, “A time you stepped outside your value system or witnessed someone being treated differently,” from the Guided Autobiography theme “Navigating Differences.”
Waycross Camp is an Episcopal summer camp. After several summers going to Girl Scout camp, the year I turned 14, 1970, I chose instead to go to Waycross.
The cute boys in the Jesus Movement had caught my eye, and even the appeal of the horse stables at the Girl Scout camp couldn’t lure me away from Waycross this year, which doesn’t offer horses but is co-ed. Whatever my budding reasons for interest in the Episcopal faith, I was looking forward to a week doing what we did at our church’s youth meetings—talk about “the big stuff,” like whether it’s ever okay to fib, what happens after you die, and how to handle changing bodies and urges. We would be sleeping in cabins while, as the brochure says, “experiencing adventure and exploring the wonders of God’s creation.”
That’s what I was expecting when I arrived. What I got was far more perplexing.
Each cabin slept eight campers. In the cabin I was assigned to, one of the girls was Black. This was the first time I had been in the same room with a Black girl, or with any Black person other than our housekeeper who came once a week.
Children learn a lot by observation. My mother was teaching us something when she tensed protectively anytime a Black stranger was nearby, but these lessons were slow to accumulate because, other than the housekeeper, we hardly ever saw a Black person. My father countered my mother’s unspoken lessons by making up stories about a young boy and his Black friend. Every time the Black character came up in these stories, my father would say his name, followed by, “black on the outside, pink on the inside, and when he smiled, he smiled all over.” My brothers and I knew our cue to sing-song the phrase along with him.* And thus, one summer day in 1970, I came to Waycross with no idea about actual Black people other than that they were pink on the inside and possibly dangerous.
The Black girl assigned to the cabin I shared wasn’t just a Black girl—she was a Bad girl. She stole from us. She hid things she didn’t want to steal. She threw things just to make a mess. This got worse with each passing day. She picked fights, and when she fought, she fought dirty. She bit. She pulled hair. She left scratches and bruises on our pink flesh.
No camp counselor spoke to her about her behavior. No chaplain held a fireside chat about tolerance or good behavior or respect. We white girls in the cabin kept on learning by observation. We learned to do what white people have always done—pretend everything is fine. No camper said a word about the Bad Black girl. I don’t suppose anyone said a word to her, either.
After a week, camp was over. My mother came to pick me up in the station wagon. On the drive home, I told her about my cabin-mates and the Bad Black girl. When I had babbled myself out, about the stealing and the scratching and the pouring out of shampoo on our beds and the hiding of our underwear under the cabin, my mother said only this.
“It must have been very difficult for her.”
Let’s try to imagine the conversation in the Bad Black Girl’s car as her mother drove her home. I can’t even begin to hear those voices. What I do hear, are some Episcopal do-gooders deciding that Camp Waycross needed to integrate. I can picture a deacon suggesting a scholarship for a Black youth. I can hear the voices as they convince the Black Girl’s parents to send their daughter to their camp. No one tried to imagine the humiliation she would feel, a pawn in their game. Now I try to imagine the micro-aggressions that accumulated for her day after day, soon not so “micro” as she melted down in the do-gooders’ pressure cooker.
I never liked Girl Scout Camp because the complexities of adolescent girls’ friendships were too much for me. I had no idea there could be something so much worse.
© 2022 Sarah White
To download the complete set of “Navigating Differences” prompts, click here. I would be happy to consider for publication on this blog any essay you write based on this topic. See Guest Writers: Submission Guidelines here.
*When I shared this essay with Black friends, I was advised that this image is more evocative of minstrelsy and blackface than racial equality. I’m confident my father was doing the best he knew how, and I’m confident it fell short.
p.s. It finally comes to me, rereading and recalling this, that the poor girl was trying her level best to get sent home. What torture, indeed.