What Love Looks Like in Public by Jacqueline St. Joan

*Featured Artwork: “Little Girl” by Carolyn Schlam

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes

reveals, precisely and inexorably,

what they do not know about themselves.

                                  — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Every four years, from the time I was ten, she let me stay up late with her, watching the political conventions on television– both the Democratic and the Republican ones, where I could hear the ideals of America given voice, and see the excited, flag-waving crowds.  My mother was eager to explain Robert’s Rules of Order, and all the politicking and backroom maneuvers to me as the conventions proceeded to nominate their candidates. My sisters were asleep but Mother and I were awake when Daddy came home from work after midnight. Then she’d smile and light up the stove, cook scrambled eggs for the three of us and he’d join us in front of the television.

In 1956 we placed our bets on Governor Adlai Stevenson and lost. But it was okay because we liked Ike too.

At other times Mother would recite patriotic poems she had memorized in childhood.

“Shoot if you must this old gray head,

but spare your country’s flag!”

She would bellow dramatically, her right arm waving above her Barbara Fritchie head. She sang it out with such passion that I was sure that if she ever saw someone threaten Old Glory, she would happily re-direct a rifle to her own heart and die a martyr to the red, white, and blue.

“The gingham dog and the calico cat 

Side by side on the table sat.”

She’d begin and in her eye, a weird light would spark. To my mother, every poem was a workout.  Every poetic idea had a gesture to accompany it. I could imagine then how she must have looked at my age, reciting for Sunday visitors in that burgundy-draped parlor of the Ohio farmhouse.

T was half past twelve, and what do you think!

Nor one nor t’other had slept a wink! 

Her index finger was wagging in the air, and she was winking and rocking. It was a little embarrassing to see her bald effort at elocution, but she mesmerized me. Her store of corny pone was always full. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

I am convinced that my words arise from that bass line in the basement and the treble of my mother’s poetry recitations that still singsong in my body. I hear a powerful word, a sound, a note, and it makes me feel something. It makes me wiggle and want to move toward paper and pencil. The urge to move is nameless, both voluntary and involuntary. The trick is to get that far and then get out of the way. Follow it to the first words and then follow it right into the field of everything. It’s a place called no place, around the periphery of consciousness, what poet Joy Harjo calls the “field of miracles.”

I often sense I am lying in that field in the morning. In this field, it’s alright to be wrong. You can make mistakes. From your spying station, you look up between the cracks in the world.  Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to stay there quietly in the light where you disappear. Images form; sounds come forth; memories and imagination mix in a salty stew.  Do nothing, and a message will arrive.

“Don’t play what you know,” Miles Davis advised young musicians, “play what you hear.” These images, words, and notes are what was played to me in my childhood, and I’m going to play for you what I heard.

During the years I was in high school, my father was teaching himself to play the flute.  He was a union man — a working musician. He believed that art and beauty were good — very good, but so were good wages and reasonable hours. In those years he played saxophone in the dance orchestra at the Shoreham, slept until noon, and in the afternoons he would teach or attend union meetings, have dinner with us, then take a nap in front of the TV, bare-chested in Bermuda shorts, until it was time to get ready for work again. He kept his flute primed, laid across the mantel, a silver, soundless tunnel.  Dinah Shore would start singing about Chevrolets, and he’d turn off the sounds of the TV, pick up the instrument, run a few scales, check his embouchure in the mirror, adjust the position of his fingers and elbows, and finish all the variations in several keys before horse hooves pounded and gunpowder ignited again on the screen.  Then he’d settle back down in his chair from where Bart Maverick and Ben Cartwright were his kind of guys.  They saddled their horses and shouted to each other, “Meet me at the pass!” and off they went.  This was how my father squeezed parenthood in between this and that of his busy life, and I just looked forward to joining him when I could, curling up on his lap when I was little, then later sharing popcorn on the couch.  Finally, as I became a teenager, he mostly slept in the chair with the TV on, and I lost interest.

As for my mother, she rarely left the house, but seemed to be everywhere in my life anyway. From the time I was ten or eleven I felt that something was terribly wrong. In those days I’d rush home from a friend’s sleepover in the cool dark morning with a growing sense of disaster at home.  But there was no obvious disaster.  There was only my mother, watching television and waiting.  Or ironing and waiting.  Always waiting.

I could hear something calling, and I wanted to follow it–that dream hiding near words, starting to come alive.  But something else was tugging, too, wanting not to die. It would take many years of waiting before I could bear the tension between the life that was calling me away from her and that little girl who died inside at just the thought of being away from her.  Meanwhile, my father kept playing his sax:  a one and a two and I love Paris in the Springtime, I love Paris in the Fall.  Because he was a music teacher, he knew about the importance of practice — that as long as you put in your time, your star would climb. You’d improve; you had to. His mind and his body were learning to play the flute.  While my hand writes, my mind scans for doors to open, for balls to catch.

I just was sitting here typing and feeling relaxed watching the cursor move across the screen, when I began to hear, to remember, my father’s voice — Ba/BaBa/Ba — and I could see his right shoe tapping repetitively, fluidly, and the next thing I’m telling you about how he was a teacher, and then about how he learned to play the flute.  I had no idea I was going there anymore than I knew I was going to describe my moral dilemma with my mother over the word “frail,” and pages later tell you about her frailty, which I will.   My point is that I didn’t do it.  The words did it.  I just followed along.

Growing up in Washington and Arlington was growing up in the apartheid South, where segregated living was enforced by law, where white children were taught to be racist in the most effective way—without anyone even mentioning race.   Taking the bus by myself was a treat—it was what first carried me out into the world on my own—to early morning Mass during Lent at St. Agnes, our parish school; to Hecht’s, the department store where I held my first real job sorting yard goods; to the Cherrydale library, where I inhaled the aroma of orange-covered biographies with titles embossed on their spines.  I knew how to act on a bus and to offer my seat to older people.   I sat on the side seats in the front and watched people getting on, heard the clacking of the coins dropping in the box, moved my legs aside to let the ladies take their seats. When the Negroes got on the bus last, they dropped their shiny coins in the box and then turned around, got off the bus, and entered through the back door, to take their seats without passing through the white people in the front seats.  I don’t remember any signs declaring “whites only,” or “colored section,” but the custom of racial segregation was so much a part of ordinary life in Virginia then that perhaps there was no need for signs.  Or did I not look at the signs?  Not think about them?  Not commit them to memory?  As a child, without someone to explain segregation to me honestly, I concluded that everyone just rode where they wanted to— some people were poor and looked shabby, so they might prefer to ride in back together.  Today, I ask myself if this is all I knew?  Didn’t I really know a whole lot more?

Children notice everything.  I noticed that adults did not talk about segregation or race directly, but the subject did come up in other ways.  I remember the comment Gammy made when Sammy Davis, Jr. married the Scandinavian actress, May Britt—something about how their children would turn out polka-dotted.  I tried to picture it, but couldn’t imagine what she meant, but I knew I did not like my dear grandmother talking that way—laughing at Sammy Davis—someone from TV that we liked, and who made us laugh.

I remember a visit with my mother to Robertson’s Five-and-Dime when I was about nine years old.  I had my own money and wanted to buy Blue Waltz cologne.   It was a yellow liquid in a clear heart-shaped bottle just the size of my palm.  I loved its sweet, spicy scent.  I could just imagine it standing next to the ruffle on my starched dresser scarf.  “Blue Waltz” was printed on the tiny label next to a small red rose.  I had twisted open the tiny blue plastic cap when no one was looking and put a delicious drop in the tip of my finger.

“Put it back,” my mother told me at the counter.  I couldn’t understand the force behind her words.

“But I’ve got my own money,” I argued, opening my palm with the quarters in it.  The power of having your own money was something I learned early.

“I said put it back,” she whispered in her serious voice.  She pinched my hand to let me know not to ask again.

“Why?” I asked loudly.  She ignored me until we left the store.  “Why can’t I buy it?” I persisted when we were outside.  She squeezed my arm when she spoke.

“Because it’s cheap perfume.  That’s why,” she said with disgust and superiority.  “The kind colored ladies wear.  That’s why!” she hissed.

I had forced her to admit something she hadn’t wanted to say in the store.   Something she didn’t want to have to admit at all.

Once I reported a nun to the school principal for using the N-word in class.  I liked Sister Virginia Marie, who trusted me to take care of her African violets during the summer break, when she even wrote me a personal letter in her perfect handwriting.   This incident occurred during Lent that year, in the days when I attended Mass daily, receiving communion, feeling full of God, afterward at my desk, drinking my milk through a paper straw and licking my glazed donut. It happened quickly and without warning, as racist comments do.  Sister called to the blackboard one of the quiet, nervous boys, and, by mistake, he started up an aisle that was blocked by her desk.  He turned around to go to the back of the class and up the next aisle, taking his time, when she teased him out loud, asking “Where do you think you’re going?  Nigger-heaven?”

Sister said a bad word, a very bad word, and she was a teacher.  And a nun!  My stomach churned as I looked at the crucifix above the blackboard and wondered what Jesus would do.  I knew this was a bad word because I was not allowed to say it.  We used the word “colored” in my house if the subject ever came up.  I thought about how Daddy was a man of principle—he would do the right thing even when someone else wasn’t looking–so I decided I should do the same.  I should walk in the principal’s office to tell Mother Superior about Sister Virginia’s sin.

Today I wonder if I actually did it or just tortured myself thinking I should do it.   I can see myself alone walking the long hallway up to the office where a secretary sat at her desk outside the inner office.  Usually, one or two bad boys were waiting to explain themselves to Mother Superior.  But I don’t have any memory of what I said—how could I possibly have explained it?  To tell on Sister would, in a way, be ratting on a friend, and it would mean using the word I was not allowed to use.  At nine, how could I have faced that tall and angry Mother Superior, who seemed to inhabit the entire building with her stiff wimple, her fly away black veil, and her big noisy rosary that hung from her robe, clicking and clacking as she took her giant steps down that hallway.   I have this vague memory that somebody called my mother to tell her what I’d done, but now I think maybe I was the one who told my mother what had happened and that was enough.  Maybe she was the Mother Superior I told.

In sixth grade, our teacher read to us a novel entitled Dangerous Island.  I loved listening to words in the story, words I had never heard before:  mussels and archipelago and skiff.  She also taught us about the Ku Klux Klan.  Whatever moved her to do it and how she got away with it, I do not know.   I remember we even had a history test about it, dates and all.  She showed us one unforgettable magazine photo of a Black man tied down and bent backwards over boards, being burned alive.  A crowd of white men, women, and young boys surrounded him.  The image stopped my heart.  I looked up at the crucifix that hung on the wall above the blackboard in the front of the classroom, where another man was tied and bleeding and bent over a cross. The only images I’d seen of burned people were Christian martyrs, saints whose names we took as our own and whose protection we sought.  This was how I understood it.  Race hatred was a spiritual wrong that became personal to me then.

When I was twelve, my best friend was Ellen Walton.  Her family seems as different from mine as I could find at my school.  They had lived in France, l read lots of books and encouraged dinner table discussion on topics of the day.  One day her mother was driving me home but had to detour to take their maid home first.  She turned onto a road into a neighborhood without streetlights, within a half-mile of my home.  Although I don’t recall being told, somehow I knew that the area was off-limits.  It was where the colored people lived, an area of Arlington known as Hall’s Hill.  The public part of Hall’s Hill was an old red brick building on Lee Highway where Black men sat outside or in their cars parked in the adjacent lot. It might have been a pool hall, although I realize now the men were probably waiting for day labor.  But how did I know that if I had to pass that area, I was to cross the street at a particular point, not look anyone in the eyes, and move quickly past that block with the red brick building and the dark men, and the loud music?  Was there really loud music, or am I adding that detail from some other time and place?

Mrs. Walton drove down a dirt road into the private life of Hall’s Hill—where the women and children were. I had never before seen shacks in Arlington. The houses were scattered around, not laid out on a grid like our neighborhood.  I saw a few chickens and could smell garbage.  Mandy hurried to get out of the car and into her yard, which was separated from her neighbors by chicken wire.  A few vegetables grew in a row along the wire.  Many knew our world, but until this ride, hers had been invisible to me. I was confused by this country scene in our suburb and that it was practically next door, yet I’d not known about it.  I felt the tension between curiosity and wanting to linger and an urgency to get out as fast as we could. Most of all, I remember the silence in the car as we drove away from Mandy’s house.

A few minutes later Mrs. Walton dropped me in front of my house.  I said thank you and goodbye, and Ellen, her mother and I, who I thought talked about everything, said nothing about how felt about what we had seen.  Perhaps Ellen had known about this place, but I had not.  Perhaps everyone else knew and I was the only one who didn’t.  Perhaps it was a place you forgot about as soon as you left it.  Or were we just pretending not to notice obvious inequality?  How is it that we learn racism, yet forget the experiences that taught it to us?  On that day, it was as if a great forgetfulness closed behind us; a ruby curtain that fell onto a stage where I stood alone without a thing to say or a voice to say it with.


Jacqueline St. Joan writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, often focused on the intersection of law, literature, and the voices of contemporary women. This excerpt is from What Love Looks Like in Public, a book-length memoir structured around her experiences as a County Judge in Denver, Colorado. She has two published novels, The Shawl of Midnight (Golden Antelope Press, 2022) and My Sisters Made of Light (Press 53, 2010), a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in Literary Fiction.  Another story from her memoir is forthcoming this month in the Writing Heights Writers Association anthology, Exception/All.  Her short stories have been published in f magazine, Missouri Review and Valley Voices, a journal of Mississippi Valley State University. Her book of poems, What Remains, was published by Turkey Buzzard Press and she was co-editor of Beyond Portia:  Women, Law, and Literature in the United States.  She has a law degree and Masters in Creative Writing (poetry)  from the University of Colorado.  Visit her website:  www.jacquelinestjoan.com

Carolyn Schlam is a figurative painter, sculptor, glass artist, and published author. In 2013, she was named one of the finalists in the Smithsonian Museum Portrait Competition, and her work, “Frances at 103” was exhibited at the Museum, and subsequently acquired by the Smithsonian. Carolyn's two published books on art include “The Creative Path: A View from the Studio on the Making of Art” and “The Joy of Art: How to Look at, Appreciate, and Talk About Art. She resides and has her studio in southern California. You may find her at www.carolynschlam.com and at www.carolynschlamstudiostore.com


  1. How do we learn al those things, indeed. And how can we unlearn them. The damage is done before it can be recognized as such, and large parts of it therefore stay unrecognized unless something , usually something tragic, happens.

  2. Love the comment: where white children were taught to be racist in the most effective way—without anyone even mentioning race. Brilliant essay.

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