I started a new school in the sixth grade, moving from the backward, poor, ‘leftover’ school (not the one with the dangerous kids, not the one with the money) to a place with kindergarten through twelfth in one small building, a school district with only two black families, mine and the other one … a level of integration that was constant nearly the whole time I lived there.
When we moved in, the Johnsons and the Taverniers were already there. So the Taverniers had to leave. Then the Johnsons left and the Christmases came. There was one crazy year when there were suddenly two extra black families in the neighborhood. (The Quota Monitors at the border must have lost their jobs over that one!) It didn’t last, though. Neither family managed even a year in residence. When the Guidry’s moved in, neither the Christmases nor our family started packing. The Christmases did eventually leave, but then we got another family and no one left … and maybe that was because three black families had stopped seeming like a bad or frightening thing … or because that new family had the same last name as my family, and the Quota Monitors were confused.
The lack of contact with black people made for some … moments …
Walking home from school with the kid who lived a few doors down: “You’re actually pretty,” he said, “I mean, you’re black but you’re actually pretty. Must be because you don’t have liver lips like most black people.” Talking to my girlfriends about actors and singers we loved: “Mick Jagger is so sexy, even though he has those nasty nigger lips.” Reaching up to grab my flute from a shelf in the music room and having another girl from the section reach out and touch my hair: “Oh, it’s soft, not like straw or anything. It almost feels like real hair.” Working with the music teacher after I was chosen to sing in competition … and given a Negro Spiritual to perform: “You aren’t singing like a black person. Can you sing more black? You should be saying ‘dem’ and ‘dis’ and ‘dat.’ Like black people do. Try it the right way.” Studying the two paragraphs covering the Civil Rights Movement in our history book and having my teacher inform the class that it was Miss Jane Pittman who wouldn’t give up her seat, who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Yes, Jane Pittman, a fictional character … though brought wonderfully to life on the small screen by Cicely Tyson). And, when I corrected him, having that teacher mock me in front of the class for not knowing such an important piece of my own history. Going into the shower at gym and having my friend take my forearm and rub it roughly: “I just don’t see how this works,” she said. “Shouldn’t you just turn white if you washed properly?”
Moments. One after another after another. Some made me sad, some made me angry. Two pushed me to violence.
First there was John, who waited outside my 7th grade history class every day so he could put himself in my face and say one of his three stock lines: “Ugly black bitch,” “Lazy black bitch,” “Stupid black bitch.’ First I ignored him. Then I tried to engage him (“Why do you think it’s ok for you to do that?”), and when that didn’t work, I went back to ignoring him. And when I did that, he felt victorious. He stepped into my path and laughed in my face, said there was nothing I could do to stop him, that he’d be there every day, and I was powerless.
So I took my big, out-of-date, hardcover history book, and I slammed it into his head.
Yes, yes, yes, I should have ‘used my words’ and all that. Of course. But the book was so satisfying … not just in that moment, but in all the moments afterward when John would move to the other side of the hall when he saw me coming, when he would avoid me whenever possible. Yes, I could have found some eloquent way to turn the other cheek, but subtlety and intelligence were lost on John. And, too, even as the meek-and-mild child I was at that time, the idea that some ignorant lout thought he had power over me was just unacceptable. That cloth-bound slap said everything I needed to say. Right to the point.
Then there was 8th grade and Michael. We were rearranging the desks and chairs and I caught Michael’s finger between two desks. It was an accident, but knowing that wouldn’t have made it hurt any less, and I’m sure it hurt a lot. But instead of a yelp of pain, I got: “You stupid nigger.” I don’t have a memory of thinking anything in that moment. It was the first time anyone had ever called me a nigger. I have no memory of thought, all I know is that somehow my hand closed around Michael’s throat and dug in. “Say it again,” I said. “Say it one more time.” Then I got the yelp of pain. Poor Mr. A, our mild teacher. He tried to pry me off, but I wouldn’t budge.
He finally got me loose and sent me to the nurse’s office … yes, I was sent to the nurse, even though it was Michael with the rough gouges in his neck. Mrs. Workman (all these names are real names — I’ve no interest in ‘protecting the innocent’ here) was furious with me, couldn’t understand how docile, mousy me could have done such a hideous thing. “You hurt that boy,” she scolded. I had no reaction. “What’s wrong with you? Young ladies don’t act like that. Only wild animals act like that. Are you some kind of wild cat or are you a lady?”
I looked at her a long time. “Has anyone ever called you a nigger?” I asked. She was a white woman, so I was pretty sure I was right to think she’d never had to worry about such things. She backed off and went to her desk, picked up the phone. “Let’s see what your mother has to say.” She got my mom on the phone and told her that I had attacked another student ‘for nothing.’ My mother asked to speak to me. She asked what had happened. I told her. She asked if I was ok. I said I was and passed the phone back.
Again, I know violence isn’t the answer — I knew it then and I know it now. I’ve never resorted to violence again after that day, but on that day …
I didn’t hear anything my mother said to Mrs. Workman. I saw Mrs. Workman’s face register surprise, then go a little pale, then red. Then she said goodbye and hung up the phone. To this day, I have no idea what my mother said (I know you’re reading this, ma chère mère, and I’d still love to know!). I know it wasn’t what Mrs. Workman wanted or expected to hear, that my mother didn’t express appropriate shock and outrage at my behavior.
“Well, I’m sure she’ll want to talk to you when you get home,” Mrs. Workman said. I just smiled. I knew my mother wouldn’t scold or punish me, knew that she wasn’t an advocate of violence but that she would back my play, that if she ‘talked to me’ that night, it would be to make sure I really was ok, to be balm not brickbat.
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.