How I Learned to Be White

In early 2018 Antrim House will release Knoll’s  How I Learned to Be White – 70 poems which trace Knoll’s ancestry, childhood, secular and religious education, and professional life to explore impacts of white privilege  on how she sees her role as an aging white woman in a multi-cultural world. The book is dedicated to Mabel.


Some weekends she took care of us.
Or cleaned. When Mabel fried chicken,
my mother complained the stove got
so greasy she had to scrub it all over again.

For Mabel’s break I got a cup of Postum
heavy with sugar and whole milk.
We held the handles with two fingers
like fine ladies. Her last name, she said,
was French. For faithful and true.

The first black person I knew,
her gentle “bazoom”
as she called it, so big and soft.
How Mabel held me.

One steamy July, I asked her why
her skin was dark and mine was light.
She led me to my mother’s garden.
First to the lilacs my father babied.

Then we touched rose petals,
smelled yucky marigolds.
She showed me faces on Grandmother’s pansies
and how snapdragons pinch fingers.

She said we were flowers,
all the garden colors together
made it the best it could be.
She held my hand.

At four-thirty she walked to the train
back to the south side of Chicago
carrying her cloth shopping bag.
I watched her amble down the block.

Swollen feet, beige hose bagging,
her low-heeled shoes
so worn down
her ankles fell in.

I never knew exactly where she went.
I missed her right away.
Why didn’t she get new shoes?

Other poems from How I Learned to Be White: