I’m sitting at the kitchen table in a low-rise South Bronx apartment building, waiting for my subject, Cora Johnson, to come home from work. All day, I’ve been exhaustively cataloguing everything in Cora’s apartment, taking notes and talking into a microcassette recorder. As a magazine reporter, which is my profession, I want to find out everything I can about Cora’s world, about the life of a working-class black woman.
The day hasn’t exactly been lonely. I’ve been joined by Cora’s mother (who is also named Cora — the family calls her Old Cora, even though she is only 45), Cora’s four-year-old son Lattrellquon, and seventeen babies from the neighborhood, all under the age of two, that Old Cora cares for every day, free of charge.
“It used to be different around here,” Old Cora tells me. “For instance, the stove used to work.”
I wonder what it would be like to not have a working stove. In fact, I feel so lucky, so very lucky to have not one, but two, in my own house. My fiancée and I love to have friends over for dinner and try out new recipes that we’ve picked up on our travels.
“It must be hard not to have a stove,” I say to Old Cora.
“Yeah,” she chuckles. “It makes it awful hard to cook.”
Finally, my subject, Young Cora, comes home from her data-processing job downtown. Our time together has been limited so far. At night, to earn extra money, she works as a security guard at an aluminum-processing plant on Long Island. Four mornings a week, she wakes up at five for a third job, as an apprentice dog groomer. On the weekends, she toils at a Colombian bakery in Queens. In all, Cora tells me, she gets about ten hours of sleep a week.
I think about the differences between Young Cora and myself. She is 31 years old, and already a great-grandmother. Here I am, two years her junior, and I have no children, although I do have 25 godchildren in six different countries. She has four bad-paying jobs that don’t offer her health insurance or day care. I have no fixed job at all, really, but plenty of money and lots of famous, successful, attractive friends. She didn’t finish high school. Although I didn’t finish my second PhD thesis, I realize it’s not the same. Somehow, the divide between us doesn’t seem fair.
Early one morning last summer, I rented a car and picked Cora up to take her to her job downtown. We were both obviously tired, so we didn’t talk much. As I drove in silence, a morning-show host made tasteless jokes about the president. Cora chuckled.
“Boy, that Clinton, he sure does get himself in some messes,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “He sure does.”
We looked at each other, and burst out laughing, big, gut-wrenching belly laughs, tear-inducing howls of mirth. Then I realized: I was friends with this woman, this Cora Johnson, this subject of mine. I’d had black friends before. My favorite playmate as a child was the son of the ambassador from Ghana, and I was on more-than-acquaintance terms with Savion Glover, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Anna Deveare Smith. Indeed, Carmela, my Brazilian fiancée, is one-quarter black herself. But Cora was my first working-class black friend, and I felt so proud.
Working-class black women are not a new phenomenon in the Bronx. Cora Johnson’s family has been mostly working-class ever since they migrated from the small southern hamlet of Sticking Plaster, Alabama, in 1948, after Old Cora’s father, Henry, got a $15-an-hour union job as a taster at a New Jersey petrochemical plant. The Bronx’s population of working-class black women grew from seven in 1930 to 36 in 1940 to 15,453 in 1950. It currently stands at 78,765, and appears to be stabilizing. At the same time, real wages in America have declined. For instance, if Cora had worked four jobs in 1950, she would have brought home at least $3,000 a month, and her family would have dined on filets and drunk champagne.
As my research moved ahead and I spent more time with Cora and her family, I realized the stark differences between our two cultures. One evening at Cora’s apartment, we sat around the television and watched Malcolm & Eddie, a new sitcom starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who I vaguely remembered as the teen-age son from The Cosby Show. In the room were myself, Cora, Old Cora and Cora’s uncle, an aging black nationalist named Hampton Mohammed. We were also joined from time to time by Cora’s son Lattrellquon, her sisters Doris and LaSheena, Doris’ three kids, several neighbor women whose names I never learned, and LaSheena’s boyfriend, a mysterious, hulking figure with an eyepatch and a Van Dyke beard who referred to himself only as “The Archangel.”
The program was repulsive and stupid, and I refused to cloak my displeasure. I snorted, grunted and snarled. The entire half-hour, I don’t think I laughed once. Even more disturbing was the fact that Cora’s family seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. They especially liked the show’s climax, where Eddie gets trapped in a washing machine while spying on the locker room of a women’s basketball team.
After the show ended, I made a comment that I was offended by some of Malcolm and Eddie’s homophobic asides to each other. Cora’s family didn’t seem interested. They just wanted to watch the next show. I remembered a passage I had read in a social-science journal that I’d started subscribing to in preparation for this article. “Just like white people,” it said, “black people also enjoy watching television uncritically, even mindlessly.”
But I wasn’t satisfied. These people were comfortable laughing at Malcolm & Eddie, and I wasn’t. I felt the accumulated hatred of hundreds of years in their searing stares as I stammered through an explanation of why I thought homophobia was wrong. Ossified decades-old bitterness hung over Cora’s living room like a living, breathing, flying animal, waiting for a snack. I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Please understand me!” I shouted, desperately. “I don’t want your hatred! It’s not my fault that I went to Choate, Yale, and Oxford! I can’t help the fact that I founded an avant-garde theater company in the East Village! My appearances on MSNBC mean nothing to me! I have traveled over most of the world, and have seen so many things, so much poverty, so much war! I have written extensively about people in trouble! Don’t you see? I am not a representative of everything you hate! I’m myself. Not a working-class black woman or an upper-middle-class white journalist and author who’s engaged to a beautiful Brazilian law professor! Just myself! And I don’t think Malcolm & Eddie is funny!”
They stared at me blankly. The Archangel reached into his coat, and for a moment I thought he was going to pull a gun and plug me right there. I flung myself behind the sofa. He took a lighter out of his pocket and fired up a cigarette.
The family howled with glee.
“I thought you were going to shoot me,” I said.
“Naw,” said The Archangel. “One more arrest and I’m in jail for life.”
Uncle Hampton Mohammed shook his head. “You white people always think we’re going to shoot you,” he said.
“Not always… " I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Always.”
I began to cry, both out of fear and grief. Cora moved behind the sofa and pulled me into her strong, tired arms. She said her family forgave me, that they loved me, that they accepted me as one of them. At last, the divide was closed. Together we had closed the divide.
Cora and I talked well into the night, sometimes on the record, sometimes off, sometimes sobbing, sometimes dry-eyed. Our relationship wasn’t going to end any time soon. We had so much work yet left to do.
“I have never felt prouder to be a journalist, " I told her. “Never.”
She took my hand tenderly, and told me she was also proud, proud to be my friend. I felt good and warm inside. I smiled at my friend Cora, my friend, the working-class black woman.