12/14/99 3:55 pm

The Stolen Election

By Peggy Dye

A great melodrama at 16 showed me that the tradition of silencing negroes hadn't gone to hell yet in America.

"Mother, I'm winning that election, I know that. I'm so excited," I stabbed a cornmeal pancake. Slopped the thing with maple syrup. "It's so sweet to beat that fat Bobby Whitelaw."

"Don't talk about a boy because he's fat. You know you used to be plump. People will call you mean spirited."

"Mother! Can't I be mean spirited? It's true. He's a pig and he's white and that's why he can run for office. He has nothing to say and all he promises is to be a good student council president and 'keep the standards high.' What does that mean-but to keep colored people out? I didn't call him fat in person anyway, I'm just saying it to you,"

"You want another stack of these? You're eating like a wolf yourself. Must be cutting the grass has got you like a boy." My mother sighed. "I hear you, baby. Maybe Bobby what's his name is fat. White people can be any way they want, though. You can't call them things and expect to get past their power. You have to be better."

That was my mother's bottom line—being better. I learned not to argue with that. It was like the Bible, only she was Moses right inside my house and if I crossed her line I could expect judgment right on the spot. My mother could cut you out of her life with a single move. She threw my father out, didn't she, one day, when he said once too often that he didn't like it that she wanted to be a working woman and not a full-time wife and mother. When he told her that he thought she must be screwing around with her white man boss down at the furniture store where she sold couches. That black women didn't get jobs in 1956 in Evanston being seen in the front of fancy furniture stores unless they were doing something on the side. And he didn't want his wife a whore.

My mother threw him out. The split had been coming, oh sure. This was not the first battle my parents had had. But I heard with my stomach turning cold the swift way my mother threw my father out. That's a whole story. The point is that right now, as I chewed the warm, buttered pancakes in the warm kitchen of our house, overlooking the grass beyond in the backyard, the coldness of my mother's ability to cut sliced the warmth in two. I felt the chill. I wanted to stay in the warm side.

"I hear what you're saying about being better. Mother. I do. I will try," I swallowed "I'm happy, though, I think I won the election."

"You'll be the first then?"

I nodded.

"Didn't Bill Cross almost win the student council presidency?"

"No. He ran for vice president of the senior class and he did win. But being the president of the high school council, that has much more power. We have money." I smiled, counting again in my head, the $679.00 treasury the student council had raised from sponsoring dances and book sales in the previous year. The student council had never had a black president. And the senior class had only had Bill Cross--the star debater and a smart boy--as the vice president. No girl had ever had such office.

But I had won elections like a horserace in my blood. I liked to plan my platform and promise stuff that was deliverable. I would say I'd ask for cheaper library fines and for after schoolrooms open later, and students bought that. It was concrete and we needed what I figured. I'd been winning elections since I was in grade school, in fact. I had no trouble speaking up and finding out what my fellow students wanted and then Just putting that forwards I liked to ask around in class "hey Teddy what would you vote for?" and since Teddy had red hair and the best freckles I liked to touch on his nose if he let me get near enough, it was a regular kick to hear what he wanted. "I would like to have more competitions with New Trier on the science fair, Peggy Anne," he would say. Ted Oglebee was a brain. The red hair just diverted your attention from his mind. "Good idea, Ted," I would smile, and calculate how many other brains I knew who would vote the line if I peddled it I was a brain too. Good in algebra and English too. But I preferred English.

Running for office let me talk.

I was enjoying the memory of the race to this election win, counting up the weeks of campaigning and of making speeches in assembly and of shaking hands between classes and of promising the white kids I would not have them killed by the colored, and promising the black kids I wasn't going to sell out our cause to be allowed to escort the usually white homecoming queens to homecoming parades, A year before, in 1956, the first string football team—all black—which had won the championship for the high schools in the region, James Ashmore, the most handsome, shrewd quarterback the school had ever seen and the captain of the team, had been told flat out by the black coach: You can't escort the homecoming queens down the aisle of the field house and catch all those cheers and flowers and attention. The queens are blonde and brunette and white girls. The principal doesn't want to see the spectacle.

When Ashmore and his team had objected, the coach had reminded them, "you know that Dr. Michaels," the school principal and the town superintendent of ail schools, "made his announcement that there would be no interracial dating in this school and that he didn't want to see anything that would encourage that."

For true, we all stung for months after the all-school assembly in 1956 where the principal called the 1600 Evanston High Students together and said he had one purpose: to tell us there would be no interracial dating in the school, under penalty of suspension.

The football team had threatened to boycott the homecoming but Ashmore's and the other parents of the team had pressed their sons against the wall and made them go along with the "program." There were those that ran things in Evanston and you didn't cross them, was the word. When you got out of school you would want a job. And even if Ashmore was the son of the local black bookie and lived well on illicit money, the cops his daddy paid were white and in the system. And Ashmore wouldn't cross the system too far to break his gambling business.

On top of all this and more, I had climbed on everyone's backs to run for office. The football team had backed me, the brains liked redheaded Ted had backed me, and a lot of girls had backed me. We still, as girls in 1957, wore girdles and bras to protect our chastity and or pretend we did and often tried not to speak too much lest we be considered loud and vulgar. In the suburbs of Chicago. In the Eisenhower years, after the Great World War II where the Americans had smashed up Hitler and the 'barbarians' and the word came home that we should restore "ladylike values" and the British Empire on American like good old Churchill. No one in my school teaching told us that Churchill had been an alcoholic and a racist and admired Hitler more than Stalin.

I was running in tills time where girls and colored wanted to get freer but the old order of obedience to this class that hated 'interracial dating' and that wanted their mastery to keep the 'city civilized' was still on top.

Had come home from the war victorious.

'But then so had my father, who fought there and my mother who followed him to base camp. And that was where I got the guts to run for office. My parents had caught some uppity notions fighting in a war. They thought we could be equal. The phone rang. My mother spoke at first with a high happy, "Hello Dr. Michaels! How nice to hear from you." Then her voice dissolved into "Yes, I see, well, do you really think that this is the right…?" to "Oh, I see, but..." to "yes but…" to "yes. Umhmm, umhmnn, hmmn." Til there were no words at all on her end. Her head shook up and down like a buoy in the lake waiting for a boat to .tie to. Her dark head, the short curls all over her head, bobbed in the bright April light in front of the window where the grass was already green and summer promising for my last summer at high school. She hung up, finally. I had been watching all the time, chewing down the pancakes and wondering what adult crisis had propelled Dr. Michaels to call my mother on a Saturday before Easter. My mother was on the school board, the first black person we knew of. Her appointment had come, Dr. Michaels told her when he called to ask her to join, because she obviously was a wonderful parent to produce such an outstanding student as me. The board wanted her wisdom. My mother accepted, told me the conversation when I came home from school, and said, "A tree is known by the fruit it bears. You really do me proud baby." I had nodded, half happily, and half fearfully. I didn't want the burden of having raised my parent to a high place in the world of adults who locked Jimmy Ashmore out of his glory.

Aside from the wrongness of what Dr. Michaels had done to James Ashmore and the first string football team, I liked to look at James Ashmore, even though he wouldn't give me the time of day. He liked redheads-regardless of the strictures against interracial dating. The "gray girls" couldn't keep their hands off the black athletes. And vice versa. I was half jealous but also myself preferred Ted the redhead brain. Yet white boys lacked the courage or maybe the desire to come after black girls, and I wondered too, if I were pretty enough. My mother told me that it was better if I studied than to chase boys. So I held my lust in and imagined wild affairs with movie stars like Burt Lancaster, and occasionally eyed Ashmore, careful not to let him see. When Dr. Michaels called I felt the soft spot for Ashmore again, and although I tried to be willing to just hear whatever the superintendent had told my mother, I was ready to balk-remembering Ashmore's big Irish setter eyes and blacks thick lashes.

"Peggy, I'm afraid I have bad news," my mother said quickly. Not even taking a breath after hanging up. "I have to say this fast because I don't want to really tell you but Dr. Michaels says you can't win the election."

"He's wrong," I shrugged. "I know the kids counting the ballots last night when I left the gym said I was ahead, 60 to 40s I'm a landslide mother. Dr Michaels better go over there."

"He is over there, honey. He's taken all the ballots and impounded them." "Impounded===what does that mean?" I wrinkled my nose. More adult words. "Taken them, taken control. He's canceling the election." "What! He can't do that He's not an officer of the student government. Is he crazy?" I pointed my fork at the phone. "We have to call him back. Mother. Why would—-?"

"Peggy Anne, will you please just listen for a minute. I'm so sorry." My mother started to cry a little. My mother never cried.

"Mother, what did he say? He can't do this to you."

"To you to you that's who he's doing it to. Baby, I can't help you." She cried.

I didn't know the word for shit but if I had I would have cursed. As it was I said "Drat" like my country negro uncle Evans, who spat in the lake and bit worms in two with his teeth to bait them for catching perch. Evans was as wiry and tough as a steel line for fishing and he liked to go off alone and spend hours watching the fish he planned to eat. "Rather be in the lake than in the town anytime, cleaner up here with the chickens and the fish," he would say to my aunt Nora, calling down from Michigan to Evanston and telling her he wasn't coming back after the weekend. He would stay a few extra days. "Drat those Evanston negroes with their lawns and fancy flowers and they haven't got a stack offish to eat if the white folks throw them out of jobs. Rather be in the country Nora, and catch my own."

Nora would lay down the law and tell Evans he had to come home and nm the junkyard they owned or else their business would go to the dogs and he wouldn't have any time to go to the country. "Drat," he would say, and knowing she was right, he'd come home on a Tuesday, and work the week, salvaging junk from the rich people's factories and houses and making scrap and selling it. And then fleeing back to Michigan as soon as he could. Evans built a whole house in Michigan that way-a three story, fire-placed wooden house on a hill on a peninsula in a lake. We all went there in the summer and forgot about Evanston. And we liked being black up there. We could do what we wanted and be ourselves.

"Drat," I said, and saw, suddenly Idlewild Michigan and my uncle Evans' house where I would go to escape whatever my mother might tell me next.

"Yes, drat, baby. Dr. Michaels says that you can't be allowed to win the election. He decided after talking with some of the other parents who are terrible disturbed—that it is not a good time. You know that this young preacher in the South, Martin King—he's stirred up so much trouble with that boycott, that Dr. Michaels feels that Evanston cannot take negroes having too high a picture. It could be dangerous for you to be student council president."

My mouth fell open as if a fly had flew in. I even felt the tickle of some insect wing in my throat. I coughed, and the tickle didn't leave. It wasn't insects. "Mother, I can't swallow. Mother, I'm not going to take this! No!" I coughed. "Dangerous for me! I'm not afraid to be in danger, I'm not afraid. I went to school with all those white kids all my life in this town and I'm not afraid of them. I won! They want me! I won!"

My mother shook her head, eyes wet, "I know you did. I know. And you're right. You should be allowed, but Dr. Michaels is the superintendent and he has more power than...."

"But this is a democracy! I was elected." I tried to remember the U.S. constitution. Tried to remember whatever I had heard in school. "That fat Bobby Whitelaw can't be the president. No one wants him! It's not fair. It's all wrong, mother. I've been winning since I was a kid. This is my last year in school. I won."

"I know you did." She muttered. "But sometimes you have to give up what you really won. For something better."

"Better." I narrowed my eyes. "You taught me to fight. To go to school and be 'better than the white kids—to study harder, to look clean, to be a lady—all that and I won the election. What's better than being honest?"

My mother swallowed. and then she looked at me hard. "Dr. Michaels is a powerful man. You have to listen to him."

"What about the law—can't we fight him with a lawyer? He can't come in and mess up the students' will. He's just an old fogey!"

"Dr. Michaels is the chairman of the National Bank of Evanston, baby. That bank has the mortgage on this house. He is the superintendent of schools--of all of them. And he's on the board of that Princeton place-that new thing-the SAT board that tests students all over. Dr. Michaels went to Harvard. You know what Harvard is. That's where all the rich and powerful men go. You can't fight him, baby. I know it feels wrong. But maybe he knows something. Maybe those white people would really hurt you if you tried to be the president.

"You know that the white people have attacked that young reverend King. You know that this country is hateful to us. We have to fight but not be foolish. If an elephant wants to cross your lawn you cut a path. You don't fight him. Dr. Michaels is an elephant."

I stared at her; saw the red flicker in her eye behind the watery tear. Saw the fire and the rage, saw the venom, saw the hurt, saw her see the elephant and want to kill it. And saw too that she wouldn't. She was blocking the doorway, now, with her chair, out of the kitchen and I wasn't going to leave either, until I gave in. She was an elephant to me. I sat there, not saying a word. Watching the curls on her head turn to wire, to spikes, to mean razors; watching her ample hips and soft waist spread into giant thick gray elephant fat; watching her face with those doe eyes and wide smile that my father used to call "moon face" and kiss her right in front of me-watching that turn to a beast circle head with a trunk ready to blow hot air on me. My mother was cutting me cold, the way she had cut my father off. But this time she was saying it was for my own good.

She was an elephant in my path. I had no other mother. No other home, no place to flee. "Drat," I said, finally, remembering Idlewild. Would I go there, with Evans and become a fisherman, as soon as I could. Leave this town behind?

"Drat is right baby. Michaels is an elephant." My mother saw me giving in. Read it in my face. My mother could see through me. Usually. "If you go along quietly, Dr. Michaels says he will see that you are appointed yearbook editor and that's more prestigious to get in college than student council."

"Baloney." I sucked in air. "That's just a place for eggheads and has no place to be seen. The Key is even a hole in the wall behind the student newspaper. I would not want to be some old maid editor behind the scenes,"

"You work on the yearbook already, though. You're there at least one day a week. So why not take it. There's never been a black editor in chief. You can write the history of your class in that yearbook the way you see it. Dr. Michaels promises not to interfere and

You’ll have Mr. Robinson as advisor." I liked Mr., Robinson. He was the English teacher who in his twenties also acted a flirt and was the son of some big shot publisher from New York. He was pretty loose and easygoing and I didn't think he was prejudiced but of course, one never knew. Maybe working with him could be interesting.

"Dr, Michaels says he'll keep an eye out for you to apply to college too. Will be happy to write a reference. That means a lots baby."

"I don't need his reference. I'm a straight A student in one of the best schools in the country. I don't need that white man's approval!" I suddenly cried,

"Yes you do, you do. It's his country. It's the white mail's country. You may be - smart and have a place in it because you are smart. But it's still theirs and they make the rules."

"Where's the democracy then, mother! What is this place about—elections? Baloney!"'

"In Mississippi we couldn't even vote. We'd be killed. Still true today, baby. So at least you can vote,"

"What good is that if they can take the ballots and fix them? What good is it? It's a democracy for Dr. Michaels that's all. Not for everyone. I want one for everyone J"

"Lower your voice. Don't yell at me. I didn't make the rules. I am on your side, and I wish I could--. I feel so helpless baby. I do. I just can't fight them alone, you know. The bank has the mortgage here. I just can't fight them." My mother started to cry.

I accepted the sell-out and became the yearbook editor. I set as my theme for the senior class the idea of "contrast," after talking with Mr. Robinson for an hour. He talked me down from "lies and deceit" to "paradox" and "contradictions," to finally "contrast," I ordered a competition among students to take pictures of the school for in the inside jacket. I wanted pictures that would show the darkest, black side of the school in the light. We had to settle for printing a negative in reverse, where everything white was black and everything black was white.

The students gossiped about the stolen election but everyone settled down to accept it once the new season for football began.

I made a note to find out more about Martin Luther King and other rebels that scared Dr. Michaels and his crowd, I was still being raised a democrat, but I was already a renegade for busting out beyond. I had seen the underskirts of democracy at 16.