Vignette: Thelma

Thelma Bennett, on her black identity and passing for white.

It’s much easier for you young black kids today. You’re doing this, interviewing me. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t be sitting here and you wouldn’t be sitting there. The whole dynamic would have been different. I’m 95 years old and I remember going to a segregated school in Lima, Oklahoma. I remember the white postmaster and the white-only post office. I remember that black women weren’t allowed to try on the hats in the store. I remember that it never fazed me that this was going on. It was just so natural– you knew what you could expect and what you couldn’t.

But I never wanted to pass for white—never wanted to. I never wanted to be white. I never did. I was always satisfied being who I am, the best of who I am. In fact, I didn’t admire them, the white people—they were slave owners and things like that, so I never wanted to be one of them. It never occurred to me that I could want to be white. Back then I knew that you demand respect, in a way, if you can relate to the people who are “in the know,” or who are supposed to be in the know—I’m talking about white people. They may have been amazed that I had been to school and that I didn’t say “dis, dat, and de otha.” Maybe for that reason prejudice didn’t really have too much of an effect on me.

Prejudice—I didn’t really feel it too much. I guess I was kind of independent. I did what wanted to do, regardless of prejudice. I was a proud black person. And I always thought I was just as good as anyone else.

You asked me if I ever went to try on a hat: No, no I didn’t. I guess I didn’t want one. I was black, and it never occurred to me to want to be anything else. You know, I didn’t say, “aww, I’m black.” I just did what I wanted to do. And that was never to be white. Maybe they tried to make me feel bad about being black, but it sure wasn’t an easy thing to do. The worst they could do to me was just not wait on me. And that never happened. I have had a very different experience, fortunately, than many black people my age. And it could be that Oklahoma is just not really a “real” Southern state, like Alabama or Mississippi. Oklahoma’s got some sense.

But The Civil Rights Act—we forced that change. They didn’t say, “Okay, now y’all can go on and do what you want to now.” We demanded it.

We had a drugstore in Wowoka, Oklahoma that black people didn’t go in to, but I always went in. And they always served me. And you know what? It’s because I didn’t stand outside the window looking in—I went in.

Yes, it feels good to be sitting here in 2014 talking about this. It feels good. I’m glad to be alive. I mean, I’m what—94? 95 or something?—that’s almost 100 years old!

--and to this day, I’ve never seen her wear a hat.