I was torn between two issues—colored, and women’s rights. But it seemed to me that no matter how much I had to put up with as a woman, the bigger problem was being colored. People looked at me and the first thing they saw was Negro, not woman.
This quotation, which appears in Part V, “Harlem-Town,’ Chapter 2, is one of Bessie’s reflections. As a professional woman, Bessie frequently faces discrimination. She cannot attend New York University’s dental school because she is a woman, and many patients refuse to see a female dentist. The civil rights movement breeds its own form of sexism, a frustrating irony for an activist such as Bessie. When she graduates from Columbia’s dental school, none of her classmates want to walk beside a black woman during the graduation ceremony—they feel it would be embarrassing. Though the day women gain the right to vote is one of the happiest days of Bessie’s life, she judges that racism has been the greater obstacle to overcome. Though women and blacks face many of the same problems, such as struggling for the right to vote and to follow career paths of their own choosing, not all women have to face the routine degradations of the Jim Crow laws. These laws control everything from the restaurants where black people may eat to the textbooks they may read. Bessie attends many protests to gain rights for blacks, and her career and her life in general advance the causes of both black and women’s rights.