By Gloria Jackson-Nefertiti
In 2019, six months before turning 63; it was confirmed that I’m autistic. I was different from everyone else, without knowing why. In grade school, high school, and college, classmates would frequently ask me:
“Why do you act the way you do?”
“Why do you act so weird?”
“Why do you act so corny?”
I was born and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi in a predominantly Black area. But being Black wasn’t enough to allow me to fit in with everybody else.
Classmates would comment on the way I talked, telling me that I sounded white, or “talked proper.” I’ve read more than once that autistic children sounded like “little professors” when they talked; their speech sounded formal and stilted. And no matter what I’d say, everyone would be quiet for a few seconds. Then, they would look at each other and burst out laughing.
It still happened after we moved to Portland, Oregon when I was 15. The Portland kids would still comment on the way I talked, but since they knew I was from the Deep South, somebody would invariably say, “She sounds like Gomer Pyle!” (Gomer Pyle was the lead character of a late 1960s sit-com of the same name; he was a US Marines recruit from the Deep South.)
This was the 1960s and early 1970s, where so little was known about autism, especially in predominantly Black communities in the Deep South.
Since I grew up in a deeply religious and church-going—yet hypocritical—family, I joined a campus ministry at Portland State University that I later learned was a cult. I thought, “What on earth have I gotten myself into?”
For starters, I was the only Black person in the group, as well as the only Black person the people in the group had ever known. I mean, maybe a couple of them had seen a Black person at their high school, who also happened to be the only Black person there!
We (the student and staff leaders of the group/cult) all lived together in an apartment building in Beaverton, OR. Sometimes, Janie, the staff woman of the group, would tease us female student leaders about which guy we were going to end up with.
For example, Janie would say to Sally, “I see you with Darryl.” And she’d say to Betty, “And I see you with Todd.” Of course, they would giggle and say something like, “Oh, Janie!” This would go on until she would get around to all of the women—except for me. Then, the giggling would subside, all while I’d be waiting for Janie to tell me who she saw me with. But the quiet just made the “Elephant in the living room” that much more obvious.
Finally, I wouldn’t be able to stand it anymore, so I would ask, “Who do you see me with, Janie?”
There would be this embarrassing silence for several seconds. Then, Janie would speak up and say something like, “We really need to pray for God to send some Black men to the group.” In other words, she didn’t see me with anyone!
On Wednesdays at noon, we would hold an evangelistic-type event called “Sing and Share” (S&S) where I’d play guitar with a guy named Brad, and we’d lead the group in singing Christian songs. In between songs, people would share what God had done for them that week.
One day, a Black man came to the S&S. As soon as Dodd, the main staff person, saw this Black man come in, he (Dodd) and some of the other guys in the group called out, “Gloria!” They feverishly started looking for me so I could meet this man. When they introduced me to him, all they knew was that he was a Black man, and presumably a Christian. But the way they introduced me made it obvious they were setting me up so I could finally have someone to date! I’m pretty sure the man was looking for fellowship with other believers, but instead, he was greeted by a dating service. Needless to say, he never returned. At the time, I wish I had whispered to him, “We’re the only Black people they know.” I’m sure he would’ve nodded in recognition!
One Sunday night, Janie and I visited the predominantly Black Baptist church that I had been attending until she and Dodd demanded everyone attend the same church together. (We pretty much did everything together.) The reason was to recruit more young Black college students to join our group. Janie presented a slide show and gave a talk, and when she was finished, she opened the floor for questions. A teenage Black girl raised her hand. She said, “How come there are no other Black people in the group?” Janie became embarrassed and tongue-tied. She kept backpedaling and stumbling over her speech, trying to produce a good answer. I’m glad she never turned to me and said anything like, “Gloria! You tell her!” Because then, I would’ve said something like, “Oh no, keep going, you’re doing great.”
Janie just kept saying things like, “We’ve been praying for God to bring more Black people to the group.”
On Friday nights, we would also hold an event called Rec Night (which consisted of volleyball, and then, Sing and Share—or S&S—afterwards). Just like with the S&S event on Wednesdays at noon, Brad and I would play guitar and lead singing, while people would share something in between songs. One night, a woman shared something that happened to her in North Portland, which is a predominantly Black area of Portland, OR; hence, “North Portland” has always been synonymous with Black people. I’ve known of so many white people who would confess that they were afraid to drive through North Portland at night.
So, as she shared her story, she said, “Now, I’m sure most of you know that North Portland has a lot of lower-class people who live there.” As soon as she said that, everybody in the room turned around and looked at me, and some were smiling, smirking, and/or laughing a little bit.
When she said, “lower class,” she didn’t mean lower socioeconomic class. Otherwise, nobody would’ve turned and looked at me. What was especially hurtful was the fact that nobody spoke up and challenged her. There was just an embarrassing silence that followed. I think I just went back to the song leading after that, and I’m pretty sure people roared with laughter to ease the tension they felt, even though it wasn’t at all funny (to me).
If someone had made an insensitive statement like that today, I’m 99% sure that somebody would challenge it and say something like, “What do you mean when you refer to them as ‘lower class’? Explain that.” Or, they would’ve even said, “That was a racist remark that you just made.”
One time, I was sitting near the Student Union, and when these two white female students saw me, they began talking to each other about what they didn’t like about Black girls—basically, that they saw Black girls as “uppity” and unfriendly.
“They’ve always got such an attitude!” said one girl, to which the other girl said (while delivering her parting shot), “Right! At least Black guys are friendly!”
But I couldn’t believe the audacity of these girls to stand in front of me, while clearly talking about me. Was I supposed to feel bad about myself, because of what they said? If so, then they certainly achieved their goal.
So many times, I would be the only one in the room with a differing opinion (because I’d also be the only Black person in the room). Occasionally, someone would speak up and say, “Gee, Gloria, it looks like you’re outnumbered.” To which I would say, “I don’t need you to tell me I’m outnumbered. I CAN SEE.”
One time, during one of our occasional all-day workshops, everyone came and hung out at one of the apartments. One day, either I or another Black woman, Alice, who sometimes attended events, put on the gospel album called, “Amazing Grace,” by Aretha Franklin. As it played, the white people in the room began holding onto their chairs with shocked looks on their faces, as if they couldn’t believe what they were hearing, or because they thought what they were listening to was so weird.
Finally, somebody stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I need to put something else on. I hope you understand.” Oh, I understood all right—loud and clear.
I don’t remember what he played instead. Probably Pat Boone.
Sometimes, we’d have dinner with the parents of the other student leaders, as well as the minister of the church we attended, and his family.
I can’t believe how many parents would apologize to me for not knowing how to cook “soul food!” When we visited one family, I remembered there being a young child at the table, who was maybe about 6 or 7. She was really fascinated by my hair.
“You know what?” She said. “Your hair’s weird!”
I don’t remember what I said to her. But what I do remember is that nobody spoke up and told her that it wasn’t nice to talk to adults in such a way. Once again, this was a situation where I was on my own, and nobody was willing to defend me.
Afterwards, I told one of my roommates that I was hurt by that, and she said something like, “Oh, she’s young, she’s just a little kid. Don’t worry about it.” Since they had harsher standards for me, I wonder to this day what would’ve happened if the tables had been turned.
Gloria Jackson-Nefertiti (she/her) is a Seattle-based published author and late-diagnosed autistic adult (in May 2019, six months before turning 63 years old). Her upcoming memoir is called “A Different Drum: A Black, Autistic, Polyamorous, Mentally Ill, Former Fundamentalist Christian/Cult Member and Breast Cancer Survivor WHO JUST WANTS TO FIT IN.”