In the shadows of the early morning or the dusky night, she could pass for white. She could straighten her hair, then pin it into a French twist. She could borrow one of Rebecca Jane's elaborate silk dresses with a petticoat and sling a frilly umbrella over her shoulder. A little face powder from Mrs. Goodwin's vanity table would finish the look. Emma Lynn closed her eyes and imagined herself walking down the streets of East St. Louis as a beautiful white woman. Gentlemen would tip their hats and nod a greeting. They would ask for her gloved hand and guide her over a puddle so as not to ruin her silk gown.
At night, it would work. She could pass. But in the day, her soft bronze complexion and her not-so-straight hair would reveal the truth. She was a Negro.
Emma Lynn lit the candle next to her bed and shed light on her basement cellar bedroom. She studied her reflection in the mirror more intently. In many ways she felt she was beautiful. Many of the boys at school had commented on her light brown eyes and bright smile, saying she looked as pretty as one of the Ziegfield Follies girls, even though they had probably never seen one in their life. And her hair that hung to the middle of her back was the envy of all the girls, no matter how kinky it was. But that was a Negro school. Was she only beautiful to Negroes?
She thought about that word “pass.” And that phrase “passing for white.” As if being white automatically gave you some sort of passing grade in life. If that was the case, what did it mean to be Negro? Was that failure? Was she doomed to a life of hardship and unhappiness just because her skin was a few shades darker?
Emma Lynn refused to believe that being black was some sort of punishment. After all, she was happy in her life. She lived with the prosperous and benevolent Goodwin family who had been kind enough to not only give her lodging and work, but also allowed her to attend school. In the hard economic times of the new century, not many Negro children her age were allowed to go to school. Most of them had quit by age nine or ten in order to get a job and help their family financially. At nearly sixteen years of age, Emma Lynn was educated enough to go to college. But how many Negro children without family or resources got to go to college? Not any that she knew of.
Even though Emma Lynn had a fortunate life, she still couldn't completely dismiss the feeling that something wasn't right. There was a fire in her that wanted to consume the injustice that surrounded her. Often times she had to work hard to bite her tongue and just accept things the way they were. Besides, she had it better than most.
A knock on her door tore her away from her thoughts. Oh no, am I late with my morning chores? she thought.
"Are you awake, Emma Lynn?" Rebecca Jane Goodwin's head poked through the door. She was smiling as if she held some exciting secret.
"Yes, I'm awake." Emma Lynn sat on her bed and folded her legs under her white lace nightgown, a hand-me-down from Rebecca Jane.
Rebecca Jane's eyes scanned the floor of the cellar. Emma Lynn knew what she was looking for. Mice, rats and other critters often congregated in the dark, damp corners of the room that Emma Lynn called home. She had long ago gotten used to the unsightly inhabitants, but Rebecca Jane was still a bit squeamish about them. Thankfully, not even rodents could keep the girls away from their daily chitchats.
After a careful evaluation, Rebecca Jane scurried across the floor and hopped on to Emma Lynn's squeaky cot. She had a large package in tow that she carefully placed next to her.
"Is this about Frank?" Emma Lynn asked once Rebecca Jane had gotten comfortable. She assumed that the package was a gift from Rebecca Jane's longtime gentleman caller. "How was your date? You didn't get home until after I had already gone to bed."
"Well, that's because you go to bed at seven in the evening. The night hasn't even begun at that time." Rebecca Jane separated her long hair into two sections and began braiding one side of it as she said, "Anyway, it's not about him. I have nothing to report on that situation. He keeps asking me to marry him and I keep saying no."
"But why Rebecca Jane? He's a nice boy. He comes from a good family. He's been courting you for nearly a year. I know your parents would be happy with the match."
Rebecca Jane huffed and shook her head. "I know my parents would be more than thrilled to get me married off and out of their hair. But I'm only seventeen. I'm too young to be trapped in a marriage. I want to see the world. I want to go to Europe. I want to try singing professionally." She stared off at the ceiling as if she could see herself on stage in France or Spain. Rebecca Jane was extremely talented and could possibly end up on stage one day. The most amazing thing about her voice was perhaps her versatility. She was just as comfortable singing opera as she was singing those sultry tunes that the Negroes most admired. That's what angered the Goodwin's most. They wanted their rebellious daughter settled into a secure marriage as soon as possible, before she somehow embarrassed the family. "Besides, I'm not sold on Frank Gibson. There's something about him that I just don't … " Rebecca Jane shrugged, unsure how to finish her thought. "I just don't think he's the one for me." A bit of sadness filled her eyes before she shook it away and presented the package to Emma Lynn. "For you," she said with a broad smile.
"Me?" Emma Lynn accepted the package shyly. She couldn't believe that the box was actually for her.
"I know your sixteenth birthday is still a few days away, but I couldn't wait."
"Oh my!" Emma Lynn exclaimed after opening the box. "Your dress!" It was the dress Rebecca Jane had worn to her Cotillion two years ago.
"No. Your dress. I want you to have it."
"Oh, Rebecca Jane, I can't accept this," she said remembering the weeks they'd spent with dressmakers designing it.
"You have to. It's a gift. Besides, it's two years old. It's quite out of fashion, but I know how much you've always fancied it, so I want you to have it."
Speechless, Emma Lynn's hands traced the elaborate stitching of the blue dress. She had always admired it and the thought that she would be able to own it made her heart swell with joy. With tears in her eyes, she looked around her dark, damp, room. She noticed the tail end of a mouse scurrying back into a wall.
"I haven't a place to wear it." She caught a tear sliding down her face and gently brushed it away. "You should keep it. I don't deserve it."
"Oh, Em, you don't deserve this either." Rebecca Jane indicated the squalor of the room.
Why would she say that? Emma Lynn wondered. When so many other Negroes lived in worse conditions such as shacks and tents by the river, she knew she wasn't any different than them.
Rebecca Jane helped Emma Lynn into the dress then said, "I'm going to pin your hair up into a bob just like Irene Castle." She reached for a handful or hair pins on Emma Lynn's dresser top. "Mark my words, in five years everyone will be wearing their hair in bobs." Irene Castle was a famous and controversial dancer. Along with her husband Vernon, they actually traveled with a Negro orchestra. This was another reason why the Goodwin's feared for Rebecca Jane's future. Not only did she find nothing wrong with performing with Negroes, she actually preferred it, saying that Negro music was the future of entertainment.
When Emma Lynn was all dressed, they both stood in front of the full length mirror, stared at her reflection and gasped.
"Oh my!" Emma Lynn exclaimed. "I look just like you."
"Yes, you do," she said without a hint of anxiety.
No one had ever mentioned their similar features out loud for fear the coincidence would offend Rebecca Jane. But with Emma Lynn in her dress it was impossible to deny. Except for their complexions, they looked identical. From their high cheekbones to their wide light brown eyes, their features enlightened a shadowed secret that Emma Lynn was determined to reveal. Even their noses and lips were comparable in shape with Emma Lynn's being only slightly wider.
"Rebecca Jane, why do we look so similar? You're white and I'm Negro. How is that possible?"
Rebecca Jane hugged her and said, "Because we're kindred spirits. We're sisters in soul."
Emma Lynn pushed out of the embrace. Suddenly, she felt that fire inside of her again. A fire that ignited from her longing to know the truth.
"Where do I come from, Rebecca Jane?"
"Oh, Em, you know. We took you in when you were a child. You were to be my play companion because Mary Anne was too old to play with me and Charles, well, Charles is a boy. He wouldn't have enjoyed all the tea parties we had growing up." Rebecca Jane avoided eye contact with Emma Lynn by beginning to undo the blue dress.
"Why didn't your parents adopt a white child?"
Looking into her eyes Rebecca Jane said, "Because I wanted you."
That wasn't a satisfactory answer for Emma Lynn, but before she could inquire further, there was a pounding at the door. "I'm coming!" she snapped before thinking. She clasped her hands over her offending mouth. She realized it could only be Mrs. Goodwin at the door wondering why she wasn't already upstairs baking for the confectionary. She didn't mean to sound so rude. She dreaded the impending punishment. Why couldn't she control her tongue better?
"What did you say to me?" Mrs. Goodwin asked after bursting through the door and down the steps. Even at five o'clock in the morning, her long auburn hair was already perfectly arranged and her face elegantly adorned with make-up. Although she wore a little too much white face powder for Emma Lynn's taste. Sometimes Mrs. Goodwin looked down right ghostly.
"I ... I ... " Emma Lynn stuttered in fear. She knew she shouldn't have spoken in such a manner to her benefactor.
Mrs. Goodwin reached out and slapped Emma Lynn across the face before she could voice a suitable response.
"She didn't say anything. It was me Mother. I said I was coming." Rebecca Jane stepped between Emma Lynn and her mother.
Mrs. Goodwin didn't respond. She seemed to be struck silent by the sight of Emma Lynn in the blue dress. "Why is she wearing your dress?" Her voice sounded distant, almost frightened.
"It's not my dress anymore. I gave it to her."
"Well, take it back. She can't have it." Mrs. Goodwin placed her hands on her hips.
She crossed her arms and she returned her mother's icy glare. "I will not take it back. And you can't force me to."
Emma Lynn stepped out of the dress and tried to avoid looking at them. The two of them were a frightful site and she wanted to avoid getting in the middle of one of their battles at all costs. She pulled on one of her modest cotton dresses and prepared for her morning chores.
The Goodwin women were still staring at each other when Emma Lynn was ready to go upstairs. Neither one of them was willing to back down.
"Fine," Mrs. Goodwin said finally. "Let her keep it down here to get eaten and destroyed by the rats. What a waste. Where would she wear it anyway?"
"Charles and I are taking her out for her birthday. She can wear it then."
Mrs. Goodwin huffed, then turned and bounded up the stairs.
"Thank you, Rebecca Jane. I didn't mean to be so rude. It slipped. Sometimes I just … I feel like … like there's something missing in my life and there's this anger inside me and … "
"Shh, it's okay." They hugged again. "You best get upstairs and get started with your work. Isn't the milkman coming soon?"
Emma Lynn brushed her tears away quickly. She absolutely could not miss the visit from the milkman. She started up the stairs then paused and said, "Are you and Charles really going to take me out for my birthday?"
Rebecca Jane nodded.
"But where will you ever find a place that accepts Negroes?"
"You leave that to me."