Posts tagged #Race

Interviewing Rivers at a formerly segregated “Key Club” restaurant in the American South

For my book Counter Culture, I traveled over 26,000 miles and interviewed 59 waitresses working in large cities and rural towns with only one stoplight. As a black woman, I was unsure how I would be received in some of these out-of-the-way places, but practically every location I visited offered the highest standards of hospitality. Small Town USA opened up their homes, uncovered their histories, and shared their lives with me.


One of my most memorable interviews was with Rivers Coleman at the Crystal Grill in Greenwood, Mississippi. I set up the interview months before and while preparing for it I read that in the 1960s the Crystal Grill was a "key club" establishment. Having a "key" was code for being white. During the Civil Rights Act, the mayor of Greenwood was dead against desegregation and said, "Any business that voluntarily integrates in the Delta is ruined as far as local people are concerned. We are not going to help any businesses that want to integrate." The "Crystal Grill" during that time became the "Crystal Club" where whites had to pay a "membership fee." To get access patrons had to hand a membership card through the door. Lifetime memberships cost a dollar but white patrons admit they were never asked to produce a card and they never saw any black people in the restaurant.

After reading about the history of the Crystal Grill, I thought it would be a good idea to send newspaper articles about the project to Rivers with pictures of myself so she would know that I was black. I wanted to interview Rivers because she was still waiting tables in her 80s and had been a waitress for 55 years. When I spoke with her on the phone she was a little standoffish and reluctantly agreed to do the interview. 


On the day of the interview, it was raining so the 95-mile drive from Jackson took even longer than it was supposed to. As we passed Kudzu draped fields on rural county roads, I started to mentally prepare for the interview. I was nervous about this one. Driving into the town of Greenwood, we saw blocks of boarded up buildings but at the end of the street on the corner was the Crystal Grill, open and ready for business. As we walked in, we were greeted by an openly gay black man, which immediately made me smile. He found Rivers and we sat down for the interview. She was a little nervous at first and but after a half an hour she relaxed and shared stories with me that I will always remember.

Rivers has a strong constitution and an incredible work ethic. She grew up poor, picking cotton as a child. The only time she took off from waitressing was when she had uterine cancer and she was back to work after only 3 weeks. She told a story about a white man slapping a black man in the restaurant for getting up to put sugar in his coffee. I imagine that was just one of many violent outbursts of racism that she witnessed growing up poor in rural Mississippi.

Obama had just won the Primary the night before our interview and Rivers said she was so happy that he had won. She paused for a moment with tears in her eyes and said, "We have come a long way." I teared up as well. I left Greenwood that day thinking that although I will always use my instincts on the road, listen to my gut and be as informed as possible, I will never prejudge a situation, especially when it comes race.


Listen to an audio clip of Rivers here.

Does anyone have stories about restaurant culture and race that they want to share?

For more stories you can buy the book, COUNTER CULTURE  - $25 (includes shipping in the US)

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The inspiration behind American Hair

Me with my natural hair at age seven. 1978 - Houston, TX.

Me with my natural hair at age seven. 1978 - Houston, TX.

My hair has been the ultimate lesson in patience and acceptance. Some of my earliest memories are getting my hair pressed at the kitchen table in Houston, Texas in the 1970s. As I sat and waited, Mom parted my hair and greased my scalp while a thick metal pressing comb heated up on the stove. All I wanted to do was run downstairs, get on my bike, make a beeline through the courtyard and jump into the pool. I could feel the steam radiating from the hot comb and when it touched the grease it would sizzle and smoke. Out of fear, I would jerk away. “Don’t move!” She’d say, “I don’t want to burn you.” I tried my best but being a restless six-year old made it difficult to sit still but over time I learned to be patient or I would inevitably end up with burn marks on my forehead, the tips of my ears and the nape of my neck.

Me with my hair pressed. 

Me with my hair pressed. 

          So — no talking. No squirming. No complaining…until she pulled the comb away. I didn’t understand why I was sitting inside on a perfectly sunny day, but I loved the way my hair felt after it was straightened. It was soft, smooth, flowing, long and touchable. I would run my fingers through it and toss it from side to side like that woman in the Breck commercial. It would never do this in its natural state. I would turn my back to the mirror and crane my neck as far as it would go and look over my shoulder to see how long it was getting. It was like magic. Straightening out the curls made it several inches longer and it tumbled all the way down my back. Even at the tender age of six, I noticed that after I got my hair pressed I felt prettier and people treated me differently. They smiled and told me how nice I looked. But the experience was short-lived. As soon as I went outside in the rain or humidity (90% was common in Houston), my silky, swinging ponytails would revert into puff balls on either side of my head. It happened so quickly, I remember thinking that my hair should have sound effects, like a cartoon, “Boing! Boing! Boing!” as every strand sprung back to its original shape.

Me and Mom at the beach. I was never a fan of water. 

Me and Mom at the beach. I was never a fan of water. 

          That’s when the hair roller coaster started for me. Losing my glamorous hairdo was deflating to say the least. Frustrated, I would go to Mom and whine, “Look at my hair!” And she would smile, reassure me and say, “It’s okay. We’ll fix it.” Thinking back, I realize that was an interesting choice of words, to “fix” my hair as though it was broken. It felt like an accurate description through because losing my long hair was the same feeling of playing with a toy that no longer worked. As a child, it was all very confusing. The effort it took to get my hair done felt like a huge sacrifice. It was stressful, time consuming and I missed an afternoon bike riding and playing with my friends. And then a few minutes in the wrong weather, poof! Gone. So from that point on, whenever possible, I avoided sprinklers, humidity and rain.

            To “fix” my hair, Mom would soften and smooth it with Ultra Sheen. It was a green colored hair conditioning grease with a floral, waxy vanilla scent. She would sit on the couch with her basket of hair tools and point to the same spot on the brown-speckled carpet where I would sit in between her knees with my back up against the couch. She tugged, pulled, and twisted my hair into two tight French braids. This was different from getting my hair pressed. I wasn’t fearful of getting burned, but it was still painful. I remember my hair being pulled so tight the skin on my forehead would hurt. She would see my eyes watering and say, “I’m sorry but you’re so tender-headed.” I thought that made me extra-sensitive, maybe even special, but later I learned that everyone with excessively curly hair is “tender-headed” because it hurts to drag a comb through tightly coiled locks. Sometimes my hair was drawn so tight in order to get it as smooth as possible it was like having an instant facelift. My eyebrows were raised almost an inch closer to my hairline. After years of watching my cousins and other black friends go through the same ordeal, I got the message that we were different. Mom raised us to be color-blind but in this situation, race was undeniable. My white and Latino friends didn’t have burn marks on their ears, they didn’t smell like Ultra Sheen, and they never seemed worried about getting their hair wet. It was the first time I felt different because of my race.

Does anyone have stories to share about their hair when they were young?