Many Questions. No Answers. Part III

From all-white schools in an all-white suburb to the all-white Katharine Gibbs School to a job in an all-white law office on Boston’s State Street. It wasn’t until I changed jobs in my early twenties that I actually had daily interactions with black co-workers, some of whom came to be my friends.

I was hired as a secretary at Polaroid’s Technical Control Center, part of the Research division at the corporate headquarters complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My boss was in charge of a group that monitored the technical specifications of instant film components for both ongoing film types and those being developed (no pun intended) for new lines of cameras. This included testing of all film. For that there were consultants—professional photographers around the country and the world). And an in-house Photographic Services Group. Among the several photographers in that small, specialized department was a tall,
handsome black man, Ken Williams.

It was 1970. Polaroid, often described of “the Apple of its day” sold its products around the world, and that included doing business in South Africa—and having a contract with South Africa’s apartheid government to sell Polaroid Instant Photo ID systems and film. These were used to produce photos for the passbooks and documents that ultimately controlled the lives of all black Africans—where they could live, where they could work.

When Ken Williams and a fellow Polaroid employee Caroline Hunter realized that the company they worked for was, in fact, aiding and abetting the oppression of black South Africans they formed the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement… with the goal of forcing Polaroid out of South Africa. The 1960s were over, but the era of public protests was not.

In a 30-page manifesto, Williams and Hunter demanded that Polaroid’s employees “no longer be used as tools to enslave our brothers and to insure corporate profits.” When management refused to meet with them, they called for a worldwide boycott of Polaroid. The company’s response was to claim it could more effectively combat apartheid by continuing to do business in South Africa. Polaroid stopped selling its products directly to the government. In addition, the company initiated experimental steps toward remediation—requiring its business partners to raise salaries and train black employees for “important jobs.” Polaroid committed a portion of profits earned in South Africa to black education. Back home, Williams and Hunter were fired.

But they were not forgotten. Because of them, everyone who worked at Polaroid during those tumultuous months was challenged to think about issues of racism—not just the blatant oppression of South Africa’s apartheid society, but the less overt inequalities baked into the social fabric of our own United States.

In the midst of all this my boss called me into his office to tell me that a new secretary would be joining our group. There we just two of us secretaries out in the open area that served as common space—for the dozen or so engineers whose offices lined the walls. (We were all called secretaries back then, a title that for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom has fallen into disfavor and been replaced with “admin.”) I was given to understand during this discussion that my new co-worker had first been turned down when she applied for the position, but had filed a complaint with the Employees Committee and eventually been hired.

I was warned that she had a reputation for being a bit of a troublemaker and I might have a hard time getting along with her. I have no recollection now, years later, of the specific words used, but the message was clear. My new co-worker was going to be an “angry black woman.” Because back then—and still today—it’s not unusual for any person of African American heritage to be described as angry. Hell, of course they’re angry. Yet the unspoken implication is that this anger is unfounded.

Her name was Frances Berry. Now that I’ve read most of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, I’m thinking that Precious Ramotswe of Botswana might have been modeled on Frances—a smart, hard-working loving-hearted “traditionally built” woman with a tiny space between her two front teeth that somehow made her wide smile particularly contagious. I loved her. We got along from the moment we met, and we worked side by side for a couple of years, helping each other out from time to time as co-workers do in an office where the focus is on getting things done rather than whose job is what.

Those days of working with Frances were decades ago. I don’t remember a lot in detail except for two particular incidents. Back then we had lunch hours. Yes. An hour free in the middle of the day. That meant actually leaving our desks for a full sixty minutes and not working. Going out to eat. Or going out to do an errand and later eating at our desks. Once in a while Frances and I would go out together. One time, I remember vividly, she somehow got the strap from her shoulder bag over the steering wheel and down over the steering column. How did she not notice this until we were driving down Main Street in Cambridge? Her purse was bouncing around and she tried to move it, but of course its strap was on the other side of the steering wheel. She was wrestling with it for a bit, then we both realized what had happened and started laughing. It was so ridiculous. I told Frances this was something Lucy Ricardo would have done on the “I Love Lucy” show back in the ‘50s (except that Lucy lived in New York City and didn’t drive a car). We could not stop laughing!

Another time, we had an errand that involved going up to a window to get some paperwork handled. Was it City Hall? It might have been within the company, turning in expense reports, or picking up airline tickets. I don’t remember the specifics. What I do remember is that we stood at that window waiting a very long time. The clerk whose job it was to help us was rude and unhelpful, taking our papers and disappearing… not coming back for a very long time, and shoving the processed papers back at us without a word to acknowledge the long delay. As we walked away and Frances said, “Wow! I’m glad you were with me. Because if I had been by myself, I would have thought she was acting like that because I’m black.”