Her name was Catherine Frank, and we were unlikely friends.
I say unlikely for one reason: Catherine is white. I am African American. As two fifth-grade girls finding our way in the post-civil rights movement era of a small, segregated Louisiana community, we would discover that an innocent friendship between children of different races was enough to make otherwise rational adults lose their minds.
I remembered those days as I watched a special two-hour broadcast of the television series, "Any Day Now," which aired Sunday night on Lifetime. The network, which broadcasts shows aimed at women, followed the show with a one-hour discussion of race, "I'm Not a Racist But . . . Small Steps Toward Healing the Hate," co-anchored by Cokie Roberts and Deborah Roberts, both of ABC News.
Now in its second season, "Any Day Now" features actors Annie Potts, who is white, and Lorraine Toussaint, who is African American, as pals who have rekindled a friendship in Birmingham after they both grew up there in the 1960s and chose different career paths.
Sunday night's episode, "It's Not About the Butter," opens as the women are having lunch in a restaurant, and Potts's character, Mary Elizabeth, a struggling writer nicknamed M.E., mistakes a well-dressed black woman as a waitress and asks for some butter. Toussaint's character, Rene, a prominent lawyer, tells her friend that the assumption was racist.
Of course, M.E. reacts strongly, arguing that she made a simple mistake and that she hasn't a racist bone in her body. The story goes from there, as M.E. pushes herself to confront racism--her own, her family's, and what seemed at first an overly sensitive reaction from her friend and the offended African American stranger who refused to accept an apology.
It's rare to see such a blunt, honest television portrayal of the racial confusion that still keeps people apart. The show examines the extremes, such as M.E.'s crazy Uncle Jimmy, who spreads his hate on the Internet as part of a white supremacist group, as well as--what Rene called--"the subtle stuff you don't even think about, like the butter."
As the show flashed back to the turbulent Birmingham of the women's youth, I experienced some flashbacks of my own. For Catherine and me, the confusion all started with a slumber party.
It was January 1973, and Catherine was about to celebrate her 11th birthday. As is customary among children, she gave every girl in our fifth-grade class an invitation to a sleepover. The only difference was that for once, I got one, too.
I was one of only two black fifth-graders at Annunciation Catholic School in Bogalusa, and well, black children and white children just didn't do such a thing, like attend each other's parties or play together away from campus--even children whose parents apparently were religious enough to send them to a Catholic school.
Children talk. So, word spread quickly that I was planning to spend a night on the white side of town. White parents called the Franks in protest. First, a few mothers felt it necessary to advise Wanda Frank, a former nun who had taught her children to respect all people, that she was violating the community's most sacred unwritten rule. Then came the anonymous threats.
On the night of the party, I wore a brand-new robe and pajamas. But aside from Catherine and me, only three other girls showed up--far short of the 15 for whom hot dogs and Cokes had been prepared. To tell you the truth, Catherine and I didn't even miss the rest of our classmates or think much at that moment about why they didn't show.
Later that year, Catherine played at my home, without incident. The next year, the family moved away, and I wouldn't know for nearly 20 years just how dangerous the night of the slumber party might have been.
During a reunion with the Franks in 1992, Wanda Frank let me in on a little secret: While we children played in the back of the house the night of the party, she paced in the front and prayed she would not need the loaded gun that her husband, who was away that night, had left within her reach--just in case.
They were some brave souls.
Even though I don't talk to or see her regularly, Catherine is still my friend. It was her face I saw--and her mother's and her father's--as I watched the Sunday television special. Like M.E., the Franks accepted an uncomfortable, God-given, personal responsibility to recognize and reject racism. They did so, even when the alternative would have been easier.
It took M.E. a while to come around, but it surely would have been easier for her to write off the angry black woman as just that, without ever examining herself or trying to understand the source of that anger.
It would have been easier for Catherine Frank to omit me from her guest list or for her parents to cancel the party outright when things got a little hot.
But standing up for right on matters of race is rarely easy, even when we know for sure what right is. If more of us did it, though, this amorphous thing called racism would seem so much less mysterious. And just maybe, race relations today would seem just a bit less hopeless.
There are few of us who will ever have the power to change the entire world, but I wonder what would happen if each of us accepted a personal responsibility to change just our little part of it--at home, on the job, in our community.
It's wishful thinking and more than a little naive, I know.
But you can't stop a girl from hoping that it will happen any day now.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at Prince George's Extra, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint star in "Any Day Now," a series that airs Sundays on Lifetime.