I was a raw, innocent 17 year old, fresh from a girl’s high school, going (somewhat on sufferance) to an all girl’s Smith College. “House” assignment was by lottery, with an element of first-come, first-served. I had been unenthusiastic about the decision to go to Smith at all, and didn’t select my housing as quickly as I should have. I ended up in Laura Scales House, instead of my coveted Haven House, with its rambling, New England clapboard, or Tyler House, across the street from the music building (and hosting the swing featured in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).
In fact, I recall being very disappointed that I would live in the neo-Georgian Quad, and not even on the inside of it. My room faced Elm Street, the only “busy” street that bordered the campus. The silver lining was having a single room. As the only girl among three brothers, I’d never shared a bedroom in my life, except when I was too young to notice, and I was afraid to start doing it then.
Scales House turned out to be extremely interesting.
I entered college in 1972, when the Civil Rights Movement was still very much underway. When Women’s Lib had gained ground, but still had an uphill struggle ahead. (The fact that Gloria Steinem had gone to Smith made me feel a bit better than I had on realizing it was the best place for me to go, and made up for the fact that my mother had gone there too.)
My childhood in a suburb of Buffalo was very sheltered, although not, I strongly believe, because my parents had any overt prejudices. The community of Kenmore, New York, was entirely, lily white. The only black person I knew was our cleaning lady, until my brother and I started attending the Community Music School in downtown Buffalo. There was the first place I encountered—and befriended—black children my own age.
When I went to a private high school in the city (The Buffalo Seminary), I met a handful of the brightest, most motivated black girls in Buffalo. One of them was captain of the cheerleading squad for Nichols, the boy’s school nearby, and we were friends.
But Smith—I was completely unprepared for exposure to young, black women so passionate about their right to carve out a place in society that they definitely had an edge of militancy about them. These were not girls who dared to knock on the door of white conformity and beg to be let in. These were women who were proud of their heritage, and vocal about it. Scales House, it happened, was the epicenter of the black population at Smith. And at its center was an extraordinary young woman named Yolanda King.
Yoki wasn’t like some of the other black women at Scales, who kept to themselves, sat at their own table in the dining room, made it clear that at certain times, white girls weren’t welcome in the communal living room. Yoki, even at the age of 18, was a bridge builder. She made a point of being courteous, of getting to know everyone in the house. She was a drama major, and I was a music major, so we felt some connection there. I wasn’t afraid of Yoki, where—I am ashamed to admit—I was sometimes afraid of one or two of the other women in that group.
Nothing bad ever happened. I’m sure I had no reason for actual fear. To this day I don’t know how much of my trepidation was my own perception, and how much was simply mutual distrust because we were so different, from such different backgrounds. But the stand-out memory for me was the unfailing kindness and grace of Yolanda King. I would never claim to have been a close friend of Yoki’s. But we were friendly, and she was a positive light in our small, protected community.
Very few of those black women ever came back for reunions, but Yoki did. We got together and talked, heard about everything she was doing with her theater group, and then a film. I was glad to reconnect with her and wished we didn’t live on opposite sides of the country so that I could keep that connection going.
When I heard of her early death in May of 2007, I wept. It was no assassin’s bullet, only a speculated heart condition that felled her. I was too young to be fully aware of all the great work her great father was doing for oppressed populations of all descriptions, not just people of color. But I felt I knew what kind of person he must have been through knowing Yoki.
May we all learn the lessons he had to teach us in whatever ways we can on this day that celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King.