Poetry by Kwame Opoku-Duku

The Woman’s Dress for Success Book (1978)

You are in a classroom in Massachusetts. It is 1989. You are 1500 miles away from your mother, brothers and sisters. Your husband is at home with your children. He is burning their Spaghetti-Os. Your husband is at home with your children. He resents that you will make more money than he when you have completed your M.S.W. You find bottles of ginger brandy hidden between couch cushions when you return home. You find that you no longer dream of winning the lottery, only keeping the family together at any cost. You do your best to keep everyone happy.

You are the only black person in the classroom. It seems as if everyone is friends, except with you. The other students eat lunch together, talk about their professions, their children. You go to the parking lot and eat in your car. You find that your instructor tells you you are wrong, and when other students make the same argument, he tells them that they made a good point. You never talk to anyone.

You take your kids to the Salvation Army to look for school pants. You are in the book section when you see it. The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, by John T. Molloy. You look through the table of contents. Chapter five: Selling Yourself and Other Important Items. Page 133, Black Saleswomen:

Black saleswomen are in an extremely good position from one standpoint and an extremely poor one from another.

            They make a first impression that is not likely to offend anyone. Almost all elements in our society will welcome a black woman’s sales presentation without prejudging her.

            However, black women dealing with middle-class white executives have an authority problem. It is unfortunate, but the preconditioning of the white male executive in particular has led him to believe that black women are lower middle class or lower class. They react negatively to a black woman who takes an authority position—unless she arms herself with all the obvious props of authority.

            Therefore, all the rules for white saleswomen are thrown out the window for blacks. I suggest that all black saleswomen wear as many high authority and status items as they can. The expensive pen, the right attaché case, and the beautiful wool suit are not simply decorations—they are essential to the black saleswoman.

            When a black woman dresses right, she is probably the most exceptional salesperson there is.

You buy the book for one dollar and read more. The next Saturday, you wear a wool suit to class. You raise your hand as much as you can. You try to perform “authority.” Your instructor asks you to “tone it down,” advises that you might be intimidating the rest of the class. You want to cry. You do not want everyone to see your tears, so you pack up your things quietly and get up to leave. The instructor asks you what you are doing. You tell him you are not feeling well. “Oh, come on,” he says. “You don’t have to be so sensitive.” You sit back down. You don’t cry.

You don’t say a word.

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