Reflections from childhood
This blackness. This caramel body, gray ash knees, 4C wonder, too sun-fried skin and wide hip, thick lips blackness. This blackness, she gave me. This blackness, he gave me before he wound up dead and she, wail deep and mourn in cocaine. This blackness, born too early: just a coffee bean, a caramel kiss, a bastard baby some blackness gave away.
She follows me around the store with her camera while I work. She, scrawny adolescent. I bet she is eleven. Me: 16 at the time. She hides behind her IPhone but I can hear her click-click-clicking. “I have never seen another black person before,” she breathes. As if this is okay. As if her laugh excuses her. As if taking pictures of me as a novelty is normal.
I have learned how to use whiteness to shield me. Trailing behind momma, I pick up a shirt. I can smell the saleslady behind me; hear her breathing hitch as I fumble for chapstick. I know how to lose her though. I know how to make this end.
“Momma.” A white, middle-aged woman turns, her smile half irritated. But she turns, and I know she is wondering what I want now. “What.” Her voice is tired, but I smile. Because just like that, I watch the saleslady behind me disappear. Just like magic.
Historically, I am told that white people used to sell us on a block. I am told that white people used to rip our families apart that white people and black people are too different to ever be together. That white people cannot be trusted. I am told that black people and blackness and this hair and this body are too dirty and too different to be in this white space.
I am told that black people left me. That black people didn’t want me and that is why I am here with these white people.
I am told too many confusing things. I cannot comprehend why white people who don’t want black people wanted black people that black people did not want. I cannot comprehend why white people who love black people are still…white people. I cannot comprehend why black people who love white people…are nothing.
Your child should not be your first multicultural friend
It’s nighttime and I’m wearing a dark hoodie in my car when I hear the sirens. The police officer that pulls us over goes to my side of the car: the passenger side. He says “Good evening gentleman”, and asks me for my license. It’s only then that I realize what he sees. Me, with my newly cut hair shrouded in shadows in an oversized hoodie and my white husband.
He asks to see my white husband’s driver’s license and registration. I start counting backwards:
I am thinking of gutters. There is one close to the car and I wonder what would happen if I am found there…later. I toss the thought away. I am thinking of the wine bottle spilling beneath my seat. We had brought it for family night. It is open. Is carrying a bottle illegal? When the sirens blared, I accidentally kicked it. It spilled. I sprayed perfume to cover the scent. Can he smell it? Does he know? I didn’t drink but will that sound like a lie? My husband didn’t drink and he is driving. Will that sound like a lie? I test out the words “But I wasn’t drinking.” My voice is shaky and small. I am not shaky and I am not small. And, I’m not a man. I’m a woman. Cops don’t shoot women…right?
I am thinking of gutters again. Of how easy it would be to make me disappear. I am already “disappeared” underneath this hoodie and in this body. I am already disappeared when my husband pats my leg and tells me that everything will be fine.
This isn’t fine.
I breathe. And breathe. And breathe. Is he scared too? Does he know what he will do?
Nobody taught me to fear the police. We didn’t have those conversations. We didn’t talk about Sean or Michael or Philando or Freddie or Walter or Eric or Tamir of Terrence. We didn’t talk about the black girls missing in DC. We didn’t talk about the deaths of Charleena or Natasha or Rekia or Shereese or Kendra. But, somehow my body is already tense. I sit still. I say “sir,” and my voice sounds small.
We are okay. We are safe. We are okay. We are safe.
I repeat the words. I say the names of all of the police officers that I know. That I have worked hard to build relationships with. I say their names like a prayer, their whiteness will protect me.
I remember the police training I participated in for emergency situations. I try to forget how many times, in the training, the police accidentally shot victims because they were so confused. Because their adrenaline was so shot. Because some of them had been police officers for over thirty years and their had never been the money to fund such training.
But I’m fine now. Right?
My hands sweat on my pants. I resist the nervous urge to tap my fingers on my lap. I resist the urge to scream. I resist the urge to cry. I resist the urge…to be a, wrongly assumed, black “man” in a car with a white man.
I force myself to not think about our location. To not think about the fact that when you cross the township line in which my parents live, the first sign says “Welcome to________this is not a gun free zone.” I try not to think about the houses decorated with confederate flags. I try not to think about the fact that when we moved to this township, my sister and I moved the percentage of black residents from 0.01% to 0.26%. I try not to think about this.
His feet crunch on the grass as he walks back to my side. The passenger side.
He hands my license back and won’t meet my eyes when he faintly corrects himself, “ma’am.”
He gives us a warning. Our tail light is out. We should get that fixed. He asks my husband where he is from. Tells him to get a PA drivers license.
We are driving again. We are still in the car.
Everything was fine.
Now, wasn’t that magic?
If I name drop all the right white names from my white community, you like me better. If I don’t, and I hide all the photos of my white family, and I forget to speak cultured English, you pass me with the same look I see when you look at any Black person. What does it mean when I hate the part of me that wants to tell you, but I can sound white too.
They like to think we can vacation anywhere. So we go rural. Backwoods Missouri and Delaware. Maine. Colorado. Kansas. We go West and South and East. Small towns where there are only trees and skyline and woods so dense you can piss naked. Confederate flags and bonfires and me, this black tumbleweed. I wonder if they don’t notice that maybe this is uncomfortable. That maybe I have an opinion about where I want to be and where we are. They never ask because maybe they never thought to notice. But then again, if you can afford not to notice it is easy to forget what is at stake.
The first black baby doll I ever got I named Awikinaba. Just some made-up gargle. But she looked like me, and she was perfect. I could hold her in my hands and for a moment, my black body and her black body were just beautiful and normal.
I met my first non-trans-racially-adopted black person of a similar age in High School. This must’ve been the first time my white classmates had met another black person too because from the very first day, I was reminded by seemingly everyone, that finally there was a boy I could “be with.”
I do not want to go to the salon, but I do – nails biting into my palms, I open the door and prepare myself for the questions about my hair. Growing up, no one went to the salon. Mom was the salon, but that isn’t an acceptable answer. She appraises me from across the shop, and I abruptly move my hands to my pockets, willing myself to keep my head straight and to meet her eyes. I cry anyway, two tears sliding down my face that I hastily wipe away.
She wants to know why. Why my hair is this way. What happened?! I am 24, she says. Split ends. 4C hair that hasn’t been straightened. Doesn’t my husband like long hair? Why do I want to cut it off? Why do I look like a boy? Why? I try to tell her. I try to explain. I tell her that I went natural. That I have been taking care of my hair. That I like the short look. That I feel empowered fully natural. That I feel beautiful.
But, she side-eyes me so hard I want to run out of my chair. Her words cut:
“Didn’t your momma teach you how to take care of your hair?”
I swallow. I remember braids and hours and hours of sitting on chairs, feeling mom’s hands pull and comb and part and braid until my hair looked like every other black child’s. I remember those warm, sunny days spent practicing cornrows and beads and extensions and twists and puffs. I always remembered those times wrapped in that everlasting floral and coconut oil scent of African hair-care products.
I don’t want to tell her that my mother is white. It’s as if this sudden need to protect her enshrouds my voice, so I whisper it. “I was adopted by white people,” I say. Her eyes soften. “Oh honey.” She says. “We can help you out.”
A black girl and Mennonite walk into a bar
When my husband asks me to take out my weave so he can see my natural hair, I cry.
“I love your 4C natural hair,” he whispers. Who knew that the world could be made right in a single sentence? Who knew that a white man would learn with such dexterity how to tie bantu knots with ease? Or to make his fingers curl and smooth back hair without feeling the need to tame its wild beauty?
Be honest. Do you want to hire me because I am black or because I am educated or because I have a white background?
Because he is older and a patriarch, they told me I had to listen. He has a story he wants to tell you, they’d coax. I’d go and listen, my face a telling-7-yr.old disdain. His favorite “black-person story,” was the one he’d tell me at least once every couple of years. It’s the one where he called them greasy men.
All these years and the only apologies she gives me are the ones given in afterthought. The whispered excuse for why her friend complimented me on my English. Or, why she is sorry about the “white savior” comment.
Except. I am not a fresh air kid. Just this transracial adoptee. Do people really count equally if they have an abbreviation first?
When he tells me he doesn’t see color, I wonder why he even says that. Not seeing color only benefits one of us. Not seeing color only gives him an excuse for staying silent.
This blackness. This double shot espresso, freshly turned soil, this roll of thunder rainstorm and wildfire mane. This blackness, I found. This blackness, I revel. This blackness, I claim.
So, why…this blackness…must I also survive?
Someone told me that the best thing I can do as a black woman is to marry a white man.
How can you be my friend if you never want to talk about this blackwhiteblackwhite world?
She calls me to tell me about all the new black people she meets. Probably unconsciously, I surmise. Probably not doing it on purpose, I reason. I want to tell you that I am a black person.
Does she hear me calling her to tell her about all the white people I meet?
I want your skin to protect my child. But then again. I don’t. I want your voice to.
A middle-aged white man stops us in the middle of the mall. He points at me, and says to my husband “that’s a good decision for a white man.”
She says something mean about black people. Then she sees me and says, “well, you’re not like them,” and laughs.
I’ve wished everysingleday to be white. Except today.