For many teenage girls, part of turning “sweet sixteen” is the benefit of pursuing first romances. In Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba enjoys a relationship with her first crush, Vince, a classmate from her former high school. She also develops a romantic friendship with Link, a white student at Central High, whose desire to protect Melba both within Central High and outside of its walls suggests his affectionate feelings for her. Unfortunately, Melba does not develop a full romance with either boy due in part to their inability to understand her experience or empathize with it. She notices that she and Vince have fewer things to talk about and that he treats her more like a celebrity than as a friend. Meanwhile, Link, who was raised in a white supremacist family, fails to fully understand the difficulties of Melba’s exclusion or her reasons for wanting to be at Central High. Melba’s relationships with both Vince and Link demonstrate how Melba’s political activity makes romance difficult and show her that there are no fellow students outside of the Little Rock Nine who can empathize with her circumstances. Ultimately, Melba suggests that the ability to empathize is key to success in relationships—especially romantic ones—but that people’s capacity for empathy is often not strong enough to overcome vast differences in experience.
White students at Central High, even those who are sympathetic toward the Little Rock Nine, do not completely understand the nine black teenagers’ personal sacrifices and tend to focus on their own feelings of being “occupied” and missing out on cherished school events due to the integration of Central. Melba’s interactions with Link, who is sympathetic and protects her by feeding her information about the segregationists’ intentions to sabotage her, nevertheless reveal how the separatism enforced under Jim Crow makes it difficult for whites to understand or relate to the pain and subjugation of black people. The normalcy of white supremacy made it difficult for many whites, even those who wished to help, to identify with the Southern black experience.
Link calls Melba one evening, furious that “many of his senior class activities” will be canceled due to concerns about violence erupting at the school due to integration. Link does not sympathize with Melba’s inability to participate in school events as she had at her previous high school. Instead, he boldly demands that she do a television interview claiming that the students at Central were “not such bad people” and that things were getting better at the school, despite this not being reflective of Melba’s experience. The conversation causes Melba to question Link’s motives for helping her: was he being nice only so that she would lie to the media and provide a positive story about Central High? Though Link does not prove to be as duplicitous as Melba initially suspects, his willingness to use her and discount her feelings to get what he wants is evident of an inability to identify with her experience of oppression.
During their last meeting, Link insists that Melba come with him when he moves “to the Northern town near Harvard University where he [will] attend college,” but Melba insists on returning to Central despite the threats against her. Melba recalls how Link was “talking loud and frightening [her],” and how she calmed him down by saying that she would “think about running away to the North” with him. Though Link’s offer is kind, it is also unrealistic, influenced in part by his romantic interest in Melba. Melba later mentions that the reason she didn’t pursue a romance with Link—her unwillingness to date a white man—causes them to fall out of communication in adulthood. Link’s desire to have Melba run away with him may have stemmed from his desire to protect her, but it also stemmed from his own romantic interest in her and blindly ignored her own desire to graduate from Central so that her sacrifices would not have been for nothing.
Vince is Melba’s only close friend from Horace Mann High School who remains a constant presence in her life (since her friend Minnijean moves to New York to attend New Lincoln School), but they grow apart due to Melba’s fame as a member of the Little Rock Nine and the maturity she develops as a result of her unique experience. When Vince arrives at Melba’s birthday party, she finds it hard to distinguish between him and the white boys who torment her in school because he is so light-skinned. She reminds herself that Vince is one of her people, despite how light-skinned he is, and also reminds herself of how much she enjoyed their first date together. Still, Melba finds it difficult to make conversation with him and notices that she daydreams about him much less than she used to. Vince also mentions that she does not return his calls. Vince represents the period before Melba enrolled at Cnetral—a period in Melba’s young life in which she was more innocent and carefree. She has since come to view white people, and those who look like them, with skepticism and mistrust—habits that she has developed to ensure her survival. She does not mean to apply this perception to Vince, but she has come to rely so much on instinct that she has to remind herself when she is in the company of those who are on her side. In this way, even subtle differences between people are shown to stand in the way of their ability to empathize with one another.
Though Grandma India encourages Melba to extend a standing invitation to Vince to spend time at their home, Melba still finds it difficult to feel that she has meaningful things in common with him. He calls one day to say that he will “come by on Christmas, with Mother’s permission.” The thought of spending time together on such a special day elicits a romantic feeling in Melba again, but that feeling is extinguished again when Melba realizes what little they now have in common. Vince spends much of their time together asking “about Central and teasing [her] about being a celebrity.” Her fame, as well as her isolation due to the potential dangers that face her outside of her home, cause her to live a kind of “fishbowl” existence in which people—even those whom she knew and trusted before—treat her as a subject of curiosity rather than as a fellow teenager.
For a sixteen-year-old, social isolation can be devastating. Melba’s isolation is further complicated by her inability to enjoy her first romances as a teenager, though she desires to. Her torment at Central, much of which comes at the hands of white boys, complicates her ability to trust Vince, who is light-skinned enough to look white, and Link, who is a product of the white supremacist society that she is fighting against. Coupled with the highly unusual nature of Melba’s own experience at Central, these factors cause her budding romantic life to falter, showing that such relationships are only worthwhile if those inside them are able to empathize with one another despite their subtle—or not so subtle—differences.
Relationships, Romance, and Empathy ThemeTracker
Relationships, Romance, and Empathy Quotes in Warriors Don’t Cry
I pretended to become intensely involved in my book. I was reading about Mr. Gandhi’s prison experience and how he quieted his fears and directed his thoughts so that his enemies were never really in charge of him. All at once I was aware that one of my hecklers was coming toward me. “Niggers are stupid, they gotta study real hard, don’t they?” he said in a loud voice. “Thanks for the compliment,” I said, looking at him with the pleasantest expression I could muster so he would believe I wasn’t annoyed. “Study hard now, nigger bitch, but you gotta leave this place sometime, and then we got you.” “Thank you,” I said again, a mask of fake cheer on my face. He seemed astonished as he slowly started to back away. I felt myself smiling inside. As Grandma India said, turning the other cheek could be difficult […] it was also beginning to be a lot of fun.
Meanwhile Mrs. Huckaby, the woman I considered to be somewhat near fair and rational about the whole situation, had lapsed back into her attitude of trying to convince me there was nothing going on […]. I was seeing things; was I being too sensitive; did I have specific details? When she stopped behaving in a reasonable way, she took away the only point of reference I had […]. I supposed that she must be under an enormous weight and doing her best […]. But once again I had to accept the fact that I shouldn’t be wasting my time or energy hoping anyone would listen to my reports. I was on my own.
In 1962, when I had attended the mostly white San Francisco State University for two years, I found myself living among an enclave of students where I was the only person of color. I was doing it again integrating a previously all-white residence house, even though I had other options. I had been taken there as a guest, and someone said the only blacks allowed there were cooks. So, of course, I made application and donned my warrior garb because it reminded me of the forbidden fences of segregation in Little Rock.
And yet all this pomp and circumstance and the presence of my eight colleagues does not numb the pain I feel at entering Central High School, a building I remember only as a hellish torture chamber. I pause to look up at this massive school—two blocks square and seven stories high, a place that was meant to nourish us and prepare us for adulthood. But because we dared to challenge the Southern tradition of segregation, this school became, instead, a furnace that consumed our youth and forged us into reluctant warriors.