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Underneath My Skin
By Matthew Smith Jr.
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2014 Matthew Smith Jr.
All rights reserved.
This is the summer of 1989. I was seated on a waiting bench at Pogue's Blue Canyon Restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. It was always impressed on me to be on time when trying to get a job. I was on time; my interviewer was not. I considered this my first blessing as it gave me a few minutes to compose myself, after all this was my first interview for a real job since graduating from College. I didn't count my part-time college jobs at McDonald's and Burger King Restaurants. (Jennifer was reflecting back as she read her personal diary).
As I looked around this beautiful restaurant I wondered how it got its name. The restaurant sat on a hillside with only one small sign at the entrance of the road leading off route 84. It had the words Blue Canyon with an arrow pointing up the road. After winding around the small roadway leading to the front of the restaurant located on the backside of the hill, I could immediately see I was the only one who didn't know about this place. The large parking lot was practically filled with cars, a number of which were Mercedes, Jaguars, and BMW's. I meticulously parked my 1980 Ford Fairlane next to a maroon Mercedes and walked in. I was greeted and welcomed to the restaurant by a well-dressed middle-aged White man. I was asked if I had a reservation. I stated I was waiting for a Mr. George Corbin. He smiled as if he knew Mr. Corbin and stated I could sit on the bench or go inside and take a table. I opted to go inside and sit at a table.
As I sat waiting I casually glanced at the menu. Ordinarily you can get a pretty good idea of the quality of a restaurant by the cost of the food, the makeup and style of the menu, and of course the ambiance of the building itself. I was impressed in all aspects. When I saw the price of a simple Chicken Salad at eight dollars I knew I was walking in "high grass" (A southern term used to speak of something expensive). Each table had a white tablecloth draped meticulously around it with a flower centerpiece consisting of two red roses. The silverware was wrapped in a white cloth napkin with a brocaded emblem of an English Knight, as if to say (Fit for a King). This would certainly be a nice place to rendezvous especially if a man was trying to impress a lady, or on the down low. (Low public visibility). The building was divided into three sections. In the first section as you walked in there was a quaint little bar area made of brown mahogany colored wood resembling oak. The well-placed wall mirrors made the area look much larger than it really was. Right next to that was an open area with well-spaced tables that allowed for private conversations. Immediately adjacent to that section was a large Patio Area overlooking a small two level Lilly covered pond with water meticulously forming a small waterfall that never stopped flowing reminiscent of an unending stream. The entire motif of the restaurant was connected to Sailboats, and Canyons. Beautiful pictures of sandy beaches, the Grand Canyon, and boats hang on the walls throughout the spacious restaurant. In addition, there were several large pictures of different parts of the Grand Canyon encased in wood sculptured frames with blue borders tastefully blended in as a reminder of the Restaurants name.
It didn't take long for me to notice the couple sitting near the Patio entrance. The gentleman was White but of a darker hew, maybe Italian, looking to be in his late fifties. He was well dressed in a gray pinstripe suit with a light gray shirt and a tri-color tie with red, black, and gray mixed in. His mixed gray beard was neatly trimmed and accented his face. It was apparent he was a man of means. She was much younger appearing to be in her late twenties. Her hair was cut short, blonde, and neatly styled. The two piece brown suit she wore with matching four inch heels seemed to be molded around her curvaceous body. It could have easily been an innocent business meeting as I was about to encounter, or a little monkey business. "Oh well I thought, it's not my business."
Many things had changed over the years in Virginia as it relates to race relations, mostly for the good. Colored people or African Americans as we were now calling ourselves still had many hurdles to overcome. Portsmouth had certainly changed. A lot had to do with the proximity to Little Creek Naval Amphibious Landing Base located a few miles away. On the weekends it looked like a snowstorm with all of the sailors coming into town in their Navy whites. And, of course there were many Blacks and other ethnic groups included in this mix. Serious problems occurred when the Black sailors tried to integrate the large Steak House Restaurant directly across from the entrance to the Base. Cross Bow's Restaurant had survived for many years on the business from the White Sailors and a few locals who came mostly on Saturdays and Sundays. They did have one Black man washing dishes and handling all janitorial duties. He was a medium built dark complexion man in his forties with very white teeth that he enjoyed showing to the good White folks. Of course on the day of the (Black Invasion) of the restaurant old Sam made sure he kept his proper distance not wanting anyone to think he might be sympathetic to the cause. The sailors didn't really know his name, they gave him the name of Sam, as in SAMBO. The Black Sailors along with a few of their White friends decided to do a sit-in to protest the racist conditions. They were immediately refused service and were asked to leave orderly which they refused to do. Only after the Base Commander was called and MP's were dispatched, did they leave. A meeting was held with all of the Black Sailors & Marines on the base, and an apology was offered by the Base Commander. He stated that on the base everything and everybody were equal. But, outside of the base this was still the South and they had no control on their racist policies. They were given specific orders to avoid going to the restaurant for any reason. Some of the White Sailors who had their own agenda would go across the street and bring back steak dinners on the weekends and make sure that the Black Sailors saw and smelled the food. Several fights started from those episodes, so finally all personnel were banned. Then there was Virginia Beach with its beautiful white sandy beaches located about forty miles from the Base. This Beach was one of Virginia's landmark sites, but again it was for "White only." About half the distance between the Base and Virginia Beach was a small Beach called, "Sea View." This was the "Colored Beach" and had no comparison to the beautiful Virginia Beach. There was a very small beach section, which was not maintained at all. A few of the locals dutifully patronized it and made the best of things. Some Black or Colored Sailors as they were called in the past would go there, but most refused.
As is tradition, where ever there are Naval Bases you will see a lot of Marines. Technically the Marines are a part of the Navy Department and receive their amphibious training there. The Black Marines encountered the same problems as the Black Sailors when it came to what they could do, or could not do because of the color of their skin.
The Marines who seemed to have the most trouble were those who lived in the Northern states and were sent south to train. To the young men who enlisted from the South, overt segregation or hidden racism didn't seem to bother them too much. It wasn't that they were scared to show resistance, they were programmed early in life where their place was and they accepted it, mostly for their parents who understood the system as it related to people of color, it was a way of life.
None of the Black Marines or Sailors were angry at Sam, he was trying to make it, and as long as he stayed in his place and smiled he could live a decent life, but nothing exceptional.CHAPTER 2
So, here we are in 1989, "Colored People, Negro, Black, or African American" all used to describe us, can eat at any Restaurant and not have to buy their food at the back of the Restaurant and take it someplace else to eat. This had been the policy in the South before they attended integrated schools. They have Bill Cosby a Black man on national television portraying an upper middleclass successful family head. The world is changing too! "The Berlin Wall" has fallen changing the dynamics of Europe. On January 26, 1986, the space shuttle "Challenger" exploded in a massive fireball, killing all seven Crewmembers. "E.T. (The Extra Terrestrial)" was trying to get home. But, in the South there was still that paternalistic attitude as it related to White People controlling Black People's roles in society. There was still plenty of inequality to go around especially in job opportunities, and upward mobility on the jobs we did get. The "Black Man" was still at the bottom of the totem pole, "The Last Hired, First Fired."
Here I am Jennifer Reynolds in this beautiful Restaurant, a Black Woman passing for White, not because I am not proud of my race, but because of the pressures put on me by my parents and my brother. I know I am living a lie and I worry that one day it will become so comfortable I will lose focus of who I really am. It's like you tell a lie for so long that you begin to believe the lie.
My initial interview with the Baker, Corbin, & Wilhelm Law firm went well I thought. I was told I would receive a call if I were selected as one of the finalist. The interview consisted of my talking with a tall White lady who introduced herself as Hilda the Office Manager. Hilda was a fairly attractive tall brunette about five feet ten, looking like someone from the Russian Basketball Team. She did look a little masculine to me and she had an accent that sounded European. I immediately thought of those Russian women athletes in the Olympics who looked like men and had to be tested for testosterone. The first thing I told myself, was that if I was hired, I would keep the hell out of Hilda's way. She explained what I would be doing if I got the job. I had a degree in Criminal Justice and my ultimate goal was to become a Lawyer or FBI Agent. My plan was to start work for a Law Firm on the ground floor and work for a while to make sure this was the career I wanted while getting valuable experience, and then go on and get my Law Degree. Becoming an Agent would be my second choice.
Throughout my interview Hilda watched every move I made. She starred at me with her piercing brown eyes as I answered questions about my application. They did have a question on the application about race, I put White and felt a sickness inside my stomach. I did wonder why it was necessary to have race on it. Maybe it was some state requirement to track minority hiring I thought. Although I was as White as Hilda or any other White woman and had the same hair texture, I did have a nice black butt and slightly thicker lips. I felt a twinge of guilt as I made the checkmark White. I could never forget being given an assignment in college involving the infamous, "Dred Scott Decision of 1857." We were dealing with Constitution Law and the entire class was divided into pro & con teams and given historical cases to argue. I was teamed with two White male students, Mike Gordon, and Jeff Bloomberg, both Jews. We were assigned to defend the South's position of "Slave Ownership Rights" and ultimately the Supreme Court decision confirming their position. I remember saying to myself, "God Why Me?"
Dred Scott was the name of an African-American slave who was taken by his master, an officer in the U.S. Army, from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois, and then to the free territory of Wisconsin. He lived on free soil for a long period of time. When the Army ordered his master to go back to Missouri, he took Dred Scott with him back to the state where he was considered a slave, and where his master died. In 1846, Scott was helped by Abolitionist (anti-slavery) lawyers to sue for his freedom in court, claiming he should be free since he had lived on free soil for a long period of time. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where Roger B. Taney a former slave owner from Maryland was Chief Justice. In March of 1857, Scott lost the decision as seven out of nine Justices on the Supreme Court declared no slave nor descendant of a slave could be a U.S. Citizen, or ever had been a U.S. citizen. As a non-citizen, the court stated Dred Scott had no rights and could not sue in a Federal Court and must remain a slave. In making this monumental decision the Supreme Court over-ruled Congress who thought it had the right to stop slavery. While a lot had changed since 1857, there were still many in the South and some in the North who could not accept Negroes as equals and it wasn't difficult to see. That became the basis for my parent's insistence that my brother take every advantage of our color, or should I say, "Lack of color!"
Finally, after a thirty-minute wait I saw this lawyer looking gentleman come through the door. His charcoal pinstripe suit, black shiny loafers, and black leather briefcase was a dead give-away. I watched him speak to the waitress, she nodded my direction and he made a b-line to my table with this big "shit-eating grin" on his face. I used to hear my dad use that term when he thought the grin to be artificial.
I saw him approaching me but decided to look away as if I were admiring the scenery.
"Hi, you must be Jennifer!" He said.
"That I am." I smiled and made an effort to stand.
"No, don't get up! I apologize for being late I just got out of Court. Oh I'm sorry, I didn't introduce myself! I'm George Corbin, Senior Partner of Baker, Corbin, & Wilhelm. I never expected the case to go as long as it did, it was a simple case of –Assault & Battery—with no witnesses against my client ... but he did have priors."
"Very interesting Mr. Corbin ... I can see your day wasn't boring!"
George Corbin was about six feet two or three with very broad shoulders, and matching good looks. He looked to be in his mid-forties. His very short crew haircut seemed to take away from his natural charm as if by design. Without trying I imagined him with a full head of hair thinking he would be quite a handful. This was not to say that a bald headed man couldn't be handsome, I just preferred hair. "Oh well, enough of that I thought."
"No, they seldom are ... but, away with small talk about me. I am here to have lunch and talk to you about your goals and ambitions, and whatever else is on your mind as it relates to the possibility of working for the firm. You are one of two finalist for the position."
I smiled and sat back in my chair trying to give the appearance of being confident. I had my considerably long hair in a French role, this gave me a more business appearance. By coincidence my black pin stripe suit matched his. I purposefully wore my two inch black pump heels so as not to appear as though it was cocktail hour. My V-neck white blouse reflected only a minimal view of my breast.
"This is a very nice restaurant, you eat here often?" I asked.
"Fairly often, maybe about three times a month, I'm not sure whether you would call that often. I sometimes bring special people here for dinner. I do like the food as well as the ambiance! I thought it would be a good place to meet and interview you. Usually people are a little nervous during an interview. I thought this place might catch your eyes and make you relax a little. I prefer you being at your best, because that is what we will expect out of you if you are selected."
That statement drew me to look at his finger for a wedding ring. He didn't have a ring on his left hand; he did have this very nice college ring on his right hand, both of which were well manicured. I kept trying to read the name of the college but he kept moving his hand as he talked. It had a big blue stone sitting in the middle of a silver mounting. I also noticed something unusual about the light colored file he had with my name printed under the plastic attachment. There were two X's next to my name.
"Excuse me Mr. Corbin."
"Call me George," he quickly responded.
"I can't help but see the two X's next to my name on your file, I was just wondering what that meant?" George started laughing out loud!
Excerpted from Underneath My Skin by Matthew Smith Jr.. Copyright © 2014 Matthew Smith Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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