"'Yes, indeed.' Audrey salutes me this time. 'Isn't it funny, ladies, how there's always a man at the bottom of everything we do?'"
After reading FLYGIRL, I still have not the slightest desire to learn to fly an airplane. There are just too many problems that can pop up with such complex mechanical things. When something unexpected occurs with my Toyota pickup, I simply pull over and pull out the cell phone and the AAA card. One doesn't have the same luxury with an airplane, as we see all too vividly in FLYGIRL, Sherri L. Smith's high-flying tale of a young, light-skinned, southern woman of color who "passes" for white during World War II so that she can compete for a position flying in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. Ida Mae Jones and her fellow women pilots go through months of rigorous training so that they can assume responsibility for military flight tasks on the homefront. The WASP pilots thereby free up the Army's male pilots so that the men can then head into combat overseas in the European and South Pacific theaters.
Ida Mae grew up in her father's crop duster -- after her father blazed his own trail by heading north to Chicago in order to get pilot's training and a license -- and she lives to fly. But now her father is dead in a tractor accident, there is gasoline rationing because of The War, and her big brother, Thomas, has enlisted as a medic. Free as a bird in the air, this young woman is one smart, careful, and damned-near fearless flygirl. Ida Mae's difficulties are, instead, encountered when she is back on the ground:
"Pretending to be white is like holding your stomach in at the lake when the boys walk by. You know they're looking, but you don't want to be seen the way you really are, tummy all soft and babyish, with a too-small chest and behind. So you stand up tall, suck it in, tilt it forward, and try to do the best you can."
I love how Ida Mae offers this comparison with which we can all relate. How many times do we feel the need to pretend we are someone we aren't for the sake of feeling better (or less bad) about ourselves? As we know, such a survival strategy might help in the short run, but what are the long-term psychological effects of being forced to deny or hide our identities because of discrimination? We can only imagine the psychic costs to Ida Mae and countless real life Americans who have had to either hide a piece of themselves or else forego life-changing opportunities. It is for this reason that we evolved for the better, from the "melting pot" philosophy of assimilation that was widely taught during my childhood to the "salad bowl" philosophy of multiculturalism that has been the norm during my children's formative years. It is for this reason that for so many of us of my generation the REAL American Dream is the one that we heard articulated from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the week before I began third grade:
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Sherri L. Smith's epilogue to FLYGIRL leaves open a door -- just about the size of an airplane hanger -- for the possibility of a sequel. I, for one, have not begun to get my fill of Ida Mae Jones who, despite being a fictional character (I have to keep reminding myself that, no, she didn't get to vote for Obama last year.), leaves so many important personal issues unresolved when -- with the conclusion of the Second World War -- her story ends all too soon.
What will happen after the story's over between Ida Mae and her mother and between Ida Mae and Jolene (her best friend from back home) when she returns to her family's strawberry farm in Slidell, outside New Orleans? The repercussions of Ida Mae's deciding to pass for white and join the military have shredded her relationships with the two women with whom she has always been closest in life. Given her lofty achievements in the WASP program, can Ida Mae possibly cope with reverting her identity back to that of a young southern woman of color -- with all of the humiliating subservience and dangerous hatred that entails in 1940s Louisiana? Or must she, instead, either totally sever herself from her roots or else try to build an ever-more-complicated web of deceit in order to both maintain relationships with her friends and family while continuing to slip through doors that were otherwise still padlocked, dead bolted, and barricaded against most women -- of any color -- far into my own lifetime?
Fortunately, so much progress has been made since World War II -- both for women and for people of color.
And yet, as of 2009, we still have so far to go. When we look at the numbers, things are still totally unequal at the top: women now hold 17 of 100 U.S. Senate seats, 74 of 435 U.S. House seats, 1 of 9 U.S. Supreme Court seats, and occupy 8 of 50 Governor mansions. But Ida Mae Jones, gutsy, smart, brave, sassy, and determined, is just the kind of young woman to show us how to get it done right.