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Dorothy West Oral History Interview

Portrait of Dorothy West, seated in chair on a deck
Sedwick, Judith. Portrait of Dorothy West, 1982. Black Women Oral History Project Records. Hollis #: olvwork570612

The writer Dorothy West (1907–1988) is best known for her 1948 novel The Living Is Easy about upper class African Americans in Boston, Massachusetts, where she was born and raised.

West began writing short stories at a very young age. When she was still just a teenager, she won second prize in a contest in Opportunity, a journal of the National Urban League, for her story "The Typewriter." In 1926, West moved to New York City and became involved in the artistic and intellectual movement known as the Harlem Renaissance; West's friends included such prominent figures as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay.

In this clip from Dorothy West's 1978 interview for the Black Women Oral History Project, she speaks about the influence of her parents, including her father, who was born into slavery. She also recalls the "subtle prejudice" she experienced during her early years in Boston and how her understanding of herself as a writer and a Black woman was shaped by these surroundings. The Schlesinger Library also holds West's personal papers; the finding aid for these can be seen here.

Listen to Dorothy West Interview, The Black Women Oral History Project. Genii Guinier (interviewer), May 6, 1978

For research tips and additional resources, view the Hear Black Women's Voices research guide.

[start of tape 2, track 2]

Genii Guinier [GG]:

All right, now, you're ten, you're in Latin School...

Dorothy West [DW]:

GLS, Girls' Latin School. Which is so different from the way it is now. Because then, I used to...I've lost my accent, I'm sure. Oh, I came out of the Latin School saying, "Commahnd," "demahnd," British inflection and so forth and so on. Well, you lose that part of it. They couldn't get me to say "rice" for "rise." That's the one word, it seemed perfectly foolish to me. I would not say...in the Latin School you said "rice" for "rise."

GG:

Well, give me a sentence where you would use that.

DW:

"Rise" means to rise up. Now, wait a minute. Yes. When I stand up, I rise. But everybody...the English people say "rice." And I couldn't. I couldn't say "rice."

GG:

In other words, the influence was very English.

DW:

Yes. My spelling, all my spelling, was English. Oh, this was a hundred years ago. But colored, C-O-L-O-U-R, theater, T-H-E-A-T-R-E. I mean, all of the spelling, all of my pronunciations were...Because I learned then, I think the English...you must understand...You don't know that, that's the beauty of children, because they learn so easily. You don't know that...

GG:

That it's the English. You just think it's one way to do it.

DW:

That's right. That's right, you see.

GG:

But "rice" was too much for you.

DW:

Yes, I'll never forget that. Because I couldn't...I don't remember whether anybody else said it or not, but that I couldn't take. That I couldn't take, you see.

GG:

You talked before about your being a born actress. Did you get a chance to act in school at all?

DW:

Oh, no, no, no. I said, "Oh, heavens. I can't sew, I can't cook." Because you enter Latin School in the seventh grade, and in the grade school, the other school, you learn to cook and sew in those grades. So that therefore, I... What did you ask me?

GG:

Whether you had any chance to act in...

DW:

No, no, no. Because I will tell you this, I wanted to be fair. I told you about the Latin School, and that I went to school with WASPs and all that, didn't I? I always say that I understand the WASPs pretty well, and so forth. But I mean, make no mistake about this, the children in the public schools, the first-generation Irish and poor Irish, and so forth and so on, they called me nigger. And then to the Latin School, and I never heard the word. But there was a subtle prejudice there, you see. Well, no, no, I'll have to back up a little bit. Perhaps you know that because you live in New England. I went to school with middle-class white children at the Latin School. And when I say middle-class, not in the sense that middle...Middle class nowadays is used, I think, according to your salary. I mean, here is a plumber who's earning $14,000, he's called middle class. I went to school with kids who had old New England names, but they were not necessarily blue bloods. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers and bank presidents, or vice-presidents, or one thing or another. And this was many years ago. My goodness, I told you this was a story. Many of the kids had servants, and they had chauffeurs, and one thing or another. But the Latin School was supposed to be democratic. And so that therefore, they had beautiful backgrounds. White people, WASPs of that type were supposed to have abolitionist blood in them. You follow me? All right. So that therefore, they had to accept black people. But they were the kind of—now maybe I am being unfair—but I'm not! They were the kind of young people who were very nice to you in school. But if they saw you on the street, they got very busy looking in the window. Do you follow me? So I mean, please do not think that they were marvelous people, and that. No. But I mean, the point is, I did not have to go through the humiliation of seeing the heads turn, of hearing an Irish kid up here...I shouldn't say Irish, although there were ones calling me "nigger," and then everybody looked. Do you see what I mean? So that that was the only thing. When we went to school as little children, the kids called us nigger and one thing and another. My mother said, "You're going to school to learn. What do you care? You come home and play with each other." And we were a very self-contained family. We loved each other. Now, you talk about theater. I mean, there was a circus in my house all the time. So that therefore, you enjoyed yourself. Because we have a way of saying, "We Bensons only like Bensons." That's not true. But I mean, we have a way of saying that. Because we try, God knows we try. And I like us for trying. I'm not a funny person. But some of the young people in my family think I'm very funny. Because this is what you learn to do. We feel—now, of course, everything is changing—that life is not hard for black children. And so that therefore, my mother, I know whenever she called the children...I guess I have my mother's technique. We all have it. We try to make the children laugh. And because I was rather serious, and my mother used to tell me, "You had better learn to laugh, because there is much that you will cry about when you grow older," you see.

GG:

She was quite a philosopher.

DW:

Oh, yes. I told you. Yes, she was. Yes, because there were so many things that she...I told you about money and my mother. Because I think that was one of the best things she ever taught me, that money is nothing but pieces of paper—I told you that. Unless you spend it, see? There were many things that she said that I say now, to the children, you see? The thing I like about her, she was never small. If she had to lie, she was a big liar; she had a warm, big, generous heart, and so forth and so on. [laughter] That amuses you!

GG:

I like to think about it, nothing small about her, even her lies.

DW:

Yes, that's very true! You see, she was a pretty woman. And I say this 'cause I'm interested. I don't know. I will never know. When people saw my mother, many of them...Well, I remember, maybe I told you this, I used to say to myself, "Oh, I forgot again to tell them that my mother was beautiful." Did I tell you the first time I discovered my mother's beauty?

GG:

No.

DW:

Oh, all right. I was a little girl. Well, first of all, this has to do with me, too. You remember I was the only dark-skinned person in my group, not my family. All right. You know how casual children are. So now I am maybe seven years old, and I'm going out into the world. So I say to my mother—we're just alone, and maybe it's nighttime—and I say, "I don't like Mary's mother." Well, instantly, my mother stiffens. "Why?" 'Cause she thinks Mary's...All right. "What did she say to you?" "Nothing." And then she gets mad with me. 'Cause I can see the whole setting. And I would say to her, "I don't like her face. It doesn't look like your face." My mother would get very pink, she would bite her lip. This is something else that she taught me. And she would sort of lower her eyes, and she would say, "Well, it would be a funny world if everybody looked like me. I would hate to live in a world where everybody looked alike." And I will remember that always. All right. So that was that. But I did not know...I'm a child. I did not know that she was pretty. You don't know that. Sometimes when I read books and...All right. I'm very interested in this. I don't know how you feel. I will read books, and I was seven years old, and I looked at my beautiful mother. I'd say to myself, "I don't believe you." All right. Because the first time I discovered my mother was beautiful, I was fourteen, a big girl. You know the Shearer cottages, of course. And there was a girl...And here's another thing, this girl had a very pretty mother. I mean, she looked exactly like my...Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that, you know. But she had a beautiful mother, very sophisticated woman from New York, and so forth and so on. My point is, the girl didn't know that about her mother. This was Mother. So that therefore, this girl, she was about—I was fourteen and I figure she was seventeen. So she was a little more sophis...Well, wait a minute. I had met her, and one day she came to my house. She said, "I met the most beautiful girl yesterday." Now you remember, Eugenia is very pretty, I told you Eugenia is very pretty, and once in a while I have a small bit of jealousy about Eugenia. "And she said she lived over here." Well, we...There were not many houses. And so I said to her, "You must mean my cousin Eugenia." Eugenia is an odd name. And she knew it wasn't Eugenia. "No," she said. And I said, "I don't know." We were sitting in my yard, and she's telling me, "Oh, she was so beautiful." And I said, "Oh, I want to see her, I want to see her." And I said, "I guess what happened was, she must have come, you know, as a visitor." I hadn't seen her yet. Suddenly the girl said, "There she is." And I looked, and I didn't see anybody but my mother. I said, "Where?" She said, "There." I looked, I didn't see anybody but my mother. I said, "I don't see her. Where?" She said, "There." I said, "That's my mother!" And she said, "That's not your mother." I think very quickly, "She has a mother who looks like white. So she's not..." My mother's color has nothing to do with it. "She's not, she doesn't have a dark girl like you." And then I said to myself, "Now why doesn't she think ..." My mother went through this routine, biting her lip, blushing. And I said, "What is my mother doing that for?" And then I said, "Because she knows what we are saying." And I said, "How could she know what we are saying?" And then I said, "My God, she knows that she is beautiful." And I looked at my mother—I'll never forget—and my mother now is looking at me. And I said, "My mother is the most beautiful woman I ever saw." Instead of saying, "Isn't that wonderful?" I got frightened. I remember saying, "Maybe she's so beautiful she doesn't want to be my mother—a mother." My mother read that. She said, " What are you looking at me for?" My mother was beautiful. Well, I think she had been waiting for the moment when I discovered that she was. She said, "What are you looking at me for? You see me all the time. Do you know who this is? This is the mother who cleans and cooks," and one thing and another. "And it seems to me that you two young girls"—she was making us children, and blah, blah, blah. And I forgot again until I was twenty-one years old, that she was beautiful. But the interesting thing is, when that girl found out my mother was beautiful, she completely lost interest in her. I mean, she was nothing. She was a mother. It is so interesting that a mother meant nothing. I told you about my mother cutting bangs? And I said, "You don't look like a mother at all. You look like a beautiful doll.'" I never will... She says, "Dorothy, I'll let my hair grow." But I mean, I don't know why we think of a mother...and I don't even know what a mother looks like. But I mean, I never will forget the indignation that I think, "You don't look like a mother at all," because she'd cut those bangs. But at any rate, the reason that interests me, 'cause I read books. And as I say, the writer always talks about how beautiful his mother was, and I thought my mother was so...I didn't know my mother was beautiful, and when I found out that she was beautiful, I was scared to death. And she could see the fear. And I didn't realize, but I know that she had been waiting. "One day she's gonna discover that I'm beautiful." Because I told you about the kids in my family when they discovered that I was a writer?

GG:

No.

DW:

Oh. That was very charming.

GG:

Oh, was this in the car? The incident in the car?

DW:

That's right.

GG:

Yes, you told me that.

DW:

But my point in telling you that is, my mother...I don't think I would have known how to react, if it hadn't been for my mother.

GG:

No, what you're saying is that certain ideas distance people from each other, and that if you were a writer, you'd be very far away from the children.

DW:

My mother was supposed to be a mother! She wasn't supposed to be beautiful. I know that may not make any sense, you see.

GG:

Yes, well, I was trying to see the parallels. For the kids to see that you were, to know that you were a writer, would suddenly have meant that they would lose you...

DW:

Oh, that's right.

GG:

Too far away.

DW:

They would lose me. Yes, sure. And then I said something about food. "All I do..." She said the same thing. And then I said, "We've got to stop in town because, you know, the kids," and so on and so on. "All I do," I said, "is stand at the stove and cook for these kids." And I could see...

GG:

Well, what were the influences that moved you into becoming a writer so young? Is that something you've done any thinking about? Because I was wondering about that. You were writing poetry very young...

DW:

Well, no, I never wrote poetry. Don't confuse me with Helen.

GG:

Oh, you wrote a story...

DW:

Yes, when I was seven years...The reason I will remember this, I remember very well, is because I was seven years old and wrote my first story. My father was so proud that I could write that he put it in his pocket and lost it—took it downtown. Do you think those men cared? Don't forget, my father—as a child, my father, you know, was now fifty-five, has got a little girl. I mean, my father was an old bachelor. Not only that, but he had a whole family. Well, I've told you that, I've told you that. He had the whole family, extended family. Because I told you the beautiful thing that my mother said about how rich I was, didn't I? Haven't I told you that?

GG:

Tell me again.

DW:

All right. Oh, oh, this backs up. I'm kind of glad you asked me, because I told you that I was the only dark child, and...All right. So that therefore, I was in dancing school, let me say, and the mothers and so forth and so on. And they would say, "Who is that little girl?" They meant, and which is interesting, they meant, "What is that little dark girl doing here?" or something. Not unkindly, not unkindly. Because very often—Melvin was very blond—and they just wanted to know, not unkindly, whether he was white or black. Didn't make any difference, because somebody...I'll put it this way...

GG:

What were the mothers doing? Were they observing the lessons?

DW:

No, they brought their children. Don't forget, these are little children.

GG:

Oh, I see. Oh, yes. But everybody took dancing lessons, or some kind of lessons at that period, piano lessons...

DW:

Oh, yes, we took piano lessons, and so forth. But no, this was a dance...Now, I'm just being funny, and I'm just talking to you, okay? Don't forget that...I don't say just Boston. I don't fault the Bostonians as much as many outside people do, because it's a very natural thing for you to...My mother, and Barbara Townsend, who you don't know, they read the society pages, and they talked about...You don't know—a Bostonian—there was a woman named Eleanora Sears. The old Sears family. Old, old family. I am a little girl...evidently I am a preschooler, 'cause as long as she walked...I mean, she walked maybe a couple of miles a day. And as long as I live, I will remember my mother saying to me, "Come here, Dorothy." And she would say to me, "That is Miss Eleanora Sears." She loved to walk, and so forth and so on. She was showing me a blueblood. She did not say, "This is a blueblood." But they followed the...well, what am I talking about? I know why they followed them. Because there was no television. They followed the newspapers the way we avidly listen to things about the movie actors and one thing and another. But the only thing they had in those days were the society people. That was the day of radio, you know. There was no television in those days, you see. So that my point is, they had the debutantes... Did I tell you how we used to pronounce debutantes? We used to say deb-yoo-tantee. [laughter] But let me tell you, this is so interesting. I wrote the book, The Living Is Easy, and I made gentle—not cruel—I made gentle fun of that dancing class, little dancing school that had forty children. And this was so interesting to me. 'Cause it bothered me. "What in the heck," I said to myself, "do you care?" You'd be surprised at the people who said that they went to that dancing school who had never been there. Isn't that interesting? And I made gentle fun of the dancing school.

GG:

They refused to recognize that they had been part of it.

DW:

No! People who were not part of it said that they went to that dancing school. Do you follow what I'm saying?

GG:

Oh, I see.

DW:

Now, I wrote about it as a little snobbish, as a little snob dancing school. But many people who did not go to that dancing school...Because that's what happened. That dancing school ended because...Oh, you asked me if I took music lessons. Yes, but not from this particular woman. This woman, I don't know—this is off the record, it doesn't make any difference. This woman had music pupils, and then she had a lovely house, and I don't know where she got the idea, but somebody must have suggested to her, why don't you have a dancing school? And so we did have a dancing...so she had a dancing school. There were two classes, two grades of children. I mean, the little children, who began at six, and the others who were fourteen or something of that sort, it doesn't make any difference. But my point is, so there was a dancing school for the forty select children. And then...

GG:

All right. Forty select. On what basis were they selected?

DW:

Can I tell you a little aside about my father? My father was a businessman in Dun and Bradstreet, you know that. And they had many fights, because my father could not understand...And I fault him for this—well, maybe not fault him—he thought everybody should be a businessman in Dun and Bradstreet. And when my mother talked about the people, the lovely people who were courthouse attendants, and so forth and so on, he was not interested. I am not on my father's side in this. Because the point is, I have a friend, Babe Goldberg. Do you know Babe? All right, you don't know Babe. It doesn't make any difference. Because Babe is an old Worcesterite, and I once said to her, "Babe, I come from the class of the genteel poor." And she liked that word. I remember things that I say when you call them to my attention. And so that therefore, these people that my mother knew—and I told you that she brought many people in, she saved many rents and so forth and so on—well, these were the genteel poor. But my father, I don't think he was so much interested in their gentility as he was in the reason why were they poor. "Here I am, I was born a slave" Now I don't know my father's thinking, but I am sure that he couldn't understand why they were not rich. 'Cause I remember, my mother used to say, "Not everybody wants to be a businessman. There are some people who want to be..." this and that and the other, you see. Now wait a minute, I'm answering one question that you asked me about who were they.

GG:

The forty.

DW:

The forty. All right. They were mixed. There was a black judge, there were black lawyers, there were businessmen, one of whom sold his store to Filene's, I told you that. There were businessmen, my father was a businessman. But there were also, now I don't want to be wrong on this, there were also people who were butlers. But because they were butlers for the rich, they knew what the rich did, how the rich ate and so forth and so on, and they could bring up their children. They knew that you should wear certain things, they knew that you should eat certain things, and so forth and so on. I'm sure you know, my people were house slaves on both my mother and father's side. But you know that there is that split, don't you, between house servants and the field...So that the genteel poor...You see, the difference is...'Cause when the black revolution started, I was very impatient. I said to them, "Where were your grandparents when my father came out of slavery?" and so forth and so on. So my point is, this man who was a butler was sending his kid to Harvard. Do you follow me? So it wasn't that he was raising his son...he knew that in the house where he lived, there was a doctor, there was a lawyer, and one thing and another, you see. Because in my day, I thought the only college was Harvard, and that so many of the black people, well, that was their ambition. I mean, my father was a businessman; there were many businessmen. And that is why I am a writer.

GG:

Why do you say that is why you were a writer?

DW:

Because my father was not a poor man. I told you what my father said to about writing? I'll never forget. "Your little head is for making books, writing books, mine is for buying and selling bananas." He was called the "black banana king" of the Boston market. My point is, he, thank God, made enough money. 'Cause I always think that when I see my own family...I told you this. He made enough money so that he didn't have to worry. He thought he was going to leave me a million dollars when he died. Remember that. All right. So that I thank my mother and my father. So they "allowed" me to write. Because even though I was going to be a starving writer, because writers starve and all that stuff, what difference did it make? Because after all, my father was a rich man and he was going to leave me all this money. And I think they—my mother had the foresight to see, just as I'm sitting here talking to you, if you write books, maybe even if you don't sell them, but there they are, on bookshelves, and so forth and so on.

[end of tape 2, track 2]


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