STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're ending a week in which much of the news is focused on race in America. We're also ending another chapter of our regular feature, StoryCorps. The project just finished a full year of recording the stories of African Americans. The StoryCorps Griot is the largest oral history of black American life in decades. This morning's story is hard to listen to as the truth often is. It comes from Mary Ellen Noone who stepped into a StoryCorps booth in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ms. MARY ELLEN NOONE: My great-grandmother was born before the turn of the century. Her name was Pinky Powell. She was a petite woman, probably 95 pounds wet, but very strong. She would tell us that she could pick 100 pounds of cotton by lunchtime. She never smiled, but I could tell when I looked in her eyes that she really loved me.
One night I was sitting painting my nails and she said to me, You know, there was a time we couldn't wear no fingernail polish. And I said, Why Mama Pinky? She explained that when she was a girl - and this was around 1910 - she lived on a plantation in Lowndes County, Alabama. She said that she would wash and iron for this white woman and that one day the lady had thrown away some of her old perfume and nail polish. So she took it home and when Sunday came, she got all dressed up and painted her nails and put on that perfume and went to church.
On Monday, she went to the general store and when she was ready to check out, the white owner asked her, What are you doing with your nails painted up like a white woman? He proceeded to pick up a pair of pliers and he pulled out my grandmama's nails, out of its bed, one by one.
I often wondered as a child why her nails were so rough looking, so deformed. Every time I look at enamel red finger polish I have a flashback, and I see red. I still have that anger inside of me that someone would have that control over one person just because they wanted to feel like a woman.
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INSKEEP: Mary Ellen Noone's interview will be archived at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and at the Library of Congress. You can hear more at npr.org.