City residents were afforded an up close and personal look at race relations through the eyes of a white woman born in Depression-era Winston-Salem earlier this month.
Dorothy Hampton Marcus, a resident of Los Angeles, lays bare her struggles, her triumphs and her ignorance as a white woman born into the Jim Crow south in her unique book, “I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know: A Southern White Woman’s Story About Race.” Recently, Marcus’ daughter, kaypri, an actor, writer and producer who does not use a last name, visited North Carolina, where she was slated to attend her mother’s 60th reunion at Raleigh’s Meredith College and host a reading and signing of the book, which she co-authored, at Knollwood Baptist Church.
“My mom’s story, I truly feel, could change a lot of hearts and minds,” said the Teaneck, N.J. native, who picked up the torch to complete her mother’s story after Marcus’ Alzheimer’s set in several years back. “…It’s not just a story of this white woman falling into herself and realizing the effects of racism. It’s also a story of her coming into herself and realizing that she’s important, that her story matters, that she matters.”
Kaypri says her mother and her father, the late Rev. Chester Lee Marcus, a black man whom her mother met through her racial justice work, dated in secret for close to a decade. While her father was at the forefront, participating in historic movements such as the March on Washington, her mother took a different tack, working quietly and diligently behind the scenes.
“I think she kind of beat herself up for not being at the marches and on the front lines,” kaypri said. “I think through the process of writing this book, she realized that she did make a difference, but she realized it late in life, and I wish she’d realized it sooner.”
City native Angela Gerena-Diaz, a program specialist for the Partnership for Drug Free America and
social justice advocate, is a friend of the Marcus family. She read the book from cover to cover during a three-day span, and said she was deeply moved by the sentiments behind it.
“It was just amazing that she tells it from her perspective,” said Gerena-Diaz, who is black and Latina. “It was just raw and real, and we need to start having those kinds of conversations – truthful and straight to the point.”
As a student at Meredith, Marcus became involved in a series of dialogues with students at the historically black Shaw University that kaypri says sparked her mother’s interest in the struggle for racial equality. After her junior year of college, Marcus served as a counselor at an interracial camp for children in Rabbit Hollow, N. H..
“That summer changed her life. That summer, she was like, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ That was her passion. That’s when she realized she could make a difference if she helped enlighten people’s minds, and that’s what really set her off,” related kaypri, who spent hours researching, sorting through her mother’s newspaper clippings and notes and interviewing people she worked with decades ago to bring the story to life.
In 1990, when racial unrest in Teaneck was sparked by the fatal shooting of black teen Phillip Pannell by a white police officer, kaypri says her mother sprang into action, aiding in the racial dialogues and playing a “significant role” in efforts to heal racial wounds in the culturally diverse town. Marcus also helped to found the Teaneck Community Chorus, a racially diverse singing group that celebrates the musical traditions of all its members and is still in existence today.
Kaypri says her 81-year-old mother was once an aspiring missionary, but she found a less traditional – yet equally important – method of sharing God’s love.
“She had gone to school to be a missionary and follow in her sister’s footsteps,” she said, “and what I say in the book is she did become a missionary, but not in the way she expected.”
Kaypri, a frequent Reader’s Theatre guest at the National Black Theatre Festival who is best known for her one woman show, “Babygirl: The coming of age sitcom/drama of a media-codependa-lova-holic,” admits she was reluctant to put her own career aside to finish her mother’s book. These days, kaypri regards the work, which she published through her company Priscilla Belle Productions, with a spirit of gratefulness, believing it is something she was called to do.
“This is my greatest contribution, telling my mom’s story, and I just hope it will inspire other people to tell their parents’ and grandparents’ stories,” she said. “…It’s a great example of how someone can fall into something completely unplanned and find their passion, and that’s something that is universal.”
Gerena-Diaz beleives the book, which she describes as “amazing,” truly has something to offer its readers with its “raw, in your face” honesty and poignant recollections of one woman’s quest to better herself, her community and the nation.
“Her experiences were real. She sat down, she learned, she stumbled, she discovered,” Gerena-Diaz said of Marcus. “I feel that because she didn’t know, she wasn’t afraid to ask.”
“I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know: A Southern White Woman’s Story About Race” is available in e-book and paperback editions on amazon.com. For more information about the book, find “ I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know” on Facebook. For more information on kaypri, visit http://www.kaypri.com.