On Writing Bridge of the Single Hair
Q. What made you volunteer for the Freedom Rides?
A. Like Jeri, I was distraught over the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. I think his death played a big role for all of us who felt compelled to go South.
Q. T.J., Jeri’s grandmother, points out that there wasn’t a great deal of justice for black Americans in the North either. Did you consider that?
A. I’m not sure I did. It was a long time ago. But when I returned to San Francisco in 1964, I did think a great deal about that. And I got involved, as much as possible.
Q. But didn’t the Black Power movement begin around that time?
A. I believe it did.
Q. Did they want whites involved?
A. No. They felt the Civil Rights Movement made them into supplicants, asking for a place at the table. And there’s some justice for that feeling.
Q. So what did you get involved with?
A. The New Left. Which is humorous now, I guess, considering how old the New Left is.
Q. But it must’ve seemed somewhat tame after facing segregationists in the South.
A. Not entirely. I remember a horrible moment in 1968 or 1969. At the time, I was working as a long distance operator, I believe. Trying to organize operators—who were all women and who faced a great deal of oppression working at Pacific Telephone & Telegraph. We did have a wildcat strike, but the union out-maneuvered us and I wound up fired. Anyway, on one occasion I went out to San Francisco State to support the students who were on strike for an ethnic studies department. Things were wild on the campus and I wasn’t dressed appropriately. I had on high heels and a sort of business suit because I’d come from work. In an alcove of one building, I spotted a rally. It’s very windy and cold out at State, so the students were probably trying to gain some protection from the weather. I stood at the back, listening to someone speak on a bullhorn. Suddenly, I felt something had changed behind me. I turned around to see the Tac Squad—cops specially trained to “handle” demonstrators. They had no faces because of the dark visors they wore, and they had us boxed in. As I watched, each one removed his badge and pocketed it. Then, with their nightsticks raised, they advanced toward us. I narrowly escaped a beating when one cop, seeing my high heels and suit, stepped to the side to let me through. I fled, but behind me I heard the thwacks of those nightsticks. Ahead of me, I saw cops on horseback, catching up to fleeing demonstrators and whacking them.
Q. Did you feel like a deserter?
Q. How long were you active in protest movements?
A. For several years. Until 1971, I think.
Q. What made you withdraw from them?
A. I began to believe the problems we wanted to “cure” were incurable, that the most we could do was push back against reactionaries. We weren’t winning hearts and minds with rhetoric that didn’t take into account individual variations.
Q. And now? Is there a need for political activism now?
A. Even more than in the 1960s. But, like the Occupy Movement, I find it difficult to focus because so much has been lost or is under attack. Should we fight Wall Street or British Petroleum? The anti-choice movement that’s succeeded in enacting legislation in nine states forcing a woman to submit to an invasive procedure prior to getting an abortion? Should we fight the Rush Limbaughs of the world or the Mitt Romney’s? Or, for that matter, the Barack Obama’s?
Q. You don’t think much of our President.
A. No. I think he’s first and foremost a politician. And I don’t believe politicians will ever give us anything we haven’t forced them to give us.
Q. What made you write Bridge of the Single Hair?
A. One interviewer suggested I might have written it as a way to do for Ellis Lee what I couldn’t do for him in reality. That seems right to me. But more importantly, I wrote it as part of the effort to keep the history of racial oppression alive in this country. Too easily people forget how it used to be.
Q. What are you doing now?
A. Working on a screenplay for the book that I hope will be a film someday. And working on an actual memoir of my experiences. After that, I hope to revise a novel that’s in the drawer and dear to my heart. It’s titled Women Who Run with the Poodles.