I never wanted to meet Annette Starr Hudson. When my sister said shed met an old woman at a convenience store whom she thought I might find interesting -- you know, as a story -- I politely but firmly resisted introductions. I was busy. Nearly everybody in attention-deprived South-Central suffers from 15-minute disease; anybody with an inkling of a good idea wants to be in the newspaper. But my sister gently insisted, maintaining that Annette had been a real somebody in her youth, a pioneer of sorts. She took pains to tell me that Annette had a wall full of plaques at home and too many public commendations to count. I sighed; I had a commendation too, from a city councilperson who didnt speak to me anymore. Everybody black over the age of 60 has been commended on a plaque for something.
But Annette did have an edge over all the others because of appeals from my older sister, Kelly. Kelly and I are close in age and get along well, but we were never much aligned in interests or inclinations -- shes a single mother keen on friends and social events, bubbly and accommodating sometimes to a fault; Im a compulsive brooder who would often rather read than talk. I am more like my younger sister Heather, a lawyer with whom I share some intellectual quirks and a tendency to always deconstruct, rather than demur to, things as they are. Heather is an integral part of my work; Kelly tends to stay out of it. And yet Kelly was sufficiently compelled to offer up this old woman Annette more than once. At last I said okay. Kelly asked for so little.
Annette lived in a small apartment in a well-appointed senior complex on Adams Boulevard. It had greenery and walkways and laundry rooms and everything that people in the neighborhood lacked, especially seniors, and it had been built under the aegis of a prominent local church. Annette hated it; it was one of the first things she told me. Honey, I got to get out of here, she said minutes after I said hello on a Sunday. God. I used to have a real big place, so many nice things. This is nothing. Annette was smallish and cinnamon-colored and dressed in a tasteful but dramatic print robe. She had a gamine haircut (a wiglet now, she confessed) that had been her trademark all her adult life. Her walls were indeed lined with plaques, and her living-room tables were cluttered with framed photos of herself in evening gowns posing with Judy Garland, Duke Ellington, Tom Bradley. She had known a lot of famous people.
Part activist, part Zelig (she once worked as a Lena Horne look-alike for a modeling agency), part Bay Area diva, Annette had made a bit of history by founding the first known charm school for black teens, in mid-50s Oakland. (Before that, she had been the first black makeup artist in the Bay Area for Merle Norman Cosmetics.) She dubbed the school Annettes Studio of Transformation, and she took the name to heart: Her students learned the art of comportment not only for each others sake, but for the sake of a society that assumed they were too crude and undiscriminating to ever truly be middle class. Annette was light-skinned and knew better than most that such sentiment grew in direct proportion to skin shade, she would often say, with the discomfiting directness of another age, that she paid particular attention to the black ones.
I didnt dispute her. It struck me as cruelly ironic that black kids were studying social graces in a quest for the most rarefied sort of equality -- which fork to use for a salad, how to ask the opposite sex out on a first date -- while Little Rock and Emmett Till raged. But manners were clearly a metaphor for much of what black people did not have -- good standing and high regard -- and if the studio could not impart that, it could at least help articulate a desire for it, with speech lessons, posture instruction and something called a movement choir. Annettes reputation was such that an Arkansas chapter of the NAACP had asked her to consider maybe tending to the black Little Rock students who were doubtless experiencing more than the normal share of teenage angst.
Success for her students generally meant marrying well or learning a trade, but as the 50s abruptly gave way to the 60s, it expanded to include college degrees, activism and political appointments. But she took triumph in any form. She once showed me a newspaper clipping, a yellowed photo of a disabled black boy seated next to a canvas on the floor, painting with his feet -- one of her students. Oh, honey, she said proudly, he was something else.