Catherine Donnelly shopped at Kmart, settled into her dorm room and soaked up the Gothic stone buildings where, over the next four years, she would grow into her own woman.
But her first day at Princeton held a surprise, too. And Donnelly knew it would mean confronting the past.
She walked into the historic Nassau Inn that evening and delivered the news to her mother, Alice Brown. "I was horrified," recalled Brown, who had driven her daughter up from New Orleans. Brown stormed down to the campus housing office and demanded Donnelly be moved to another room.
The reason: One of her roommates was black."
I told them we weren't used to living with black people — Catherine is from the South," Brown said. " They probably thought I was crazy."
Today both Donnelly, an Atlanta attorney, and Brown, a retired schoolteacher living in the North Carolina mountains, look back at that time with regret. Like many Americans, they've built new perceptions of race on top of a foundation cracked by prejudices past — and present. Yet they rarely speak of the subject.
Barack Obama's run for president changed that. When the Democratic senator from Illinois invited more dialogue on race last month, Donnelly and Brown, both lifetime Republicans, were ready.
But their willingness to talk isn't a response to the candidate born to a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. It's more about Obama's wife, Michelle.
She's that roommate from a quarter century ago. (SOURCE)
There has been much hand wringing over Michelle Obama's college thesis on the racial divide--the one where she wrote:
"My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," the future Mrs. Obama wrote in her thesis introduction. "I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."
But the article above by Brian Feagans in the April 13 Atlanta Journal-Constitution perhaps sheds some light on what black students on majority white campuses face and how very current racial prejudice is.
Michelle Obama wrote her thesis in 1985. Less than three years later, I started college at Iowa State University. I was among less than 1,000 black students on a campus of 25,000 students. I remember my college experience fondly. I made wonderful friends and made the most of those magical years of new freedom and low responsibility.
But I also remember the time I answered the phone at my job in the university residence office and spoke to a student that wanted to be assured that she wouldn't have to room with "a black" in the fall. I remember almost being run down by a group of bikers who kindly let my white roommate cross the street to our dorm, then sped off the moment I stepped into the street. I remember the angry looks I got when I danced with a white student at a floor party. I remember the floor mate who announced loudly in the TV room, "Can someone come down with me to get my laundry? I don't want to go down alone. I'm afraid some big, black guy will come and rape me." And she wasn't joking.
I remember those things and others, and find that Michelle Obama's thesis resonates with me. Obama may not have known about her roommate's machinations to change rooms, but I am sure she was perceptive enough to sense the coldness of prejudice. We marginalized people have a sixth sense about these things that usually pass unnoticed by the mainstream.
Now, will Catherine Donnelly's revelations convince those people who see racism nowhere to stop calling Michelle Obama an anti-American, radical racist?