I hand my neighbor a snack bag of baked okra, seasoned with curry, cumin & salt. “It’s got a bit too much salt,” I say, “I usually don’t cook with salt. . .” I trail off and look away. This is the first time I’ve fed my neighbor. He bites into the okra & says it’s the best okra he’s had. It’s not much by way of compliment. He hates okra. He told me so only an hour ago, which is what reminded me I had okra in the fridge and that I was planning on baking it. I told him I was going to go & bake some and bring him a bit. He invites me in but I tell him I have the writing bug, that I have to go to the office and write. He doesn’t ask me what I’m going to write about, and I’m grateful.
This morning he comes walking up the sidewalk with a box in his hands. I enjoy watching him walk across the street, a bakery box in his hands, dirt permanently stained in the lines cornered in his eyes, the lines boasting a life of laughing at the edges of his mouth, the dirt permanent in his fingernail bed. He’s wearing his daily uniform: a navy blue shirt and navy blue khakis, his uniform for his city job working on large trucks. Yesterday, wearing the same uniform, he sat in a coffeehouse with a newspaper spread on the table in front of him, his right hand pressing a phone into his ear. He was reading someone the weather report. I sat outside & he came to join me for a minute. He told me about the cake he’d ordered for the neighborhood July 4th gathering, a cake decorated with the flag. “It’s not a Confederate flag, Metta.” He laughed. I laughed. I was aware of the white man with all of the tats sitting across from him at the open picnic table, the black man sitting behind me at a table for two. “Well, that’s too bad,” I said, after I’d recovered myself from laughing. “I’d love to cut into a red velvet cake hiding beneath the Confederate flag. Imagine the gore.” “You know,” he said, a wicked gleam in his teeth, “I should get a Confederate cake & you should get a U.S. flag cake and we take those to the party!” He jaunted off and I continued laughing as he mounted his bike.
I returned to the book I was reading by Katherine Min, to a passage about the narrator, a young Korean girl who is dating a young albino guy, who is questioning what it means to be American, what this couple looks like to the “typical American”. The narrator, Isa, is suddenly aware of how she is viewed by people outside of her small community, of how her boyfriend, Herold, is viewed outside of their small community, how she doesn’t “fit”. They’re on a bus with their white friend who is absented from the scene, because the white man on the bus who harasses Isa & Hero don’t see her. She’s one of them.
My neighbor brings his bakery box onto my porch, opens the box and presents the heart-shaped U.S. flag decorated cake. “They did a good job,” he says. “Yeah, it’s beautiful,” I agree. He sits down and we chat. I ask him if he’s seen the news today, about the young man who brought an assault rife to the mall. He hadn’t heard about it, so I tell him the sheriff is quite insistent that the young man posed no threat. He wants to talk about guns and gun laws and I want to talk about race, so we blend the two. I agree with him, if we have tougher gun laws, it won’t matter much to people who really want to get them. We don’t agree about the question of race. I tell him that it’s strange for a sheriff to insist that a person carrying an assault rifle in public is posing no threat, that he seemed to defend the young man’s actions by saying the rounds he was carrying were in his backpack. We talk about open carry laws and I mention Ohio. All the time I’m avoiding saying “race” overtly. So, I mention Tamir Rice and John Crawford III and the folks in Ohio who open carry without being killed by police. I finally ask him why these black people are being killed by police for carrying BB guns and toy guns in an open carry state but white people are not being killed. “I don’t think that’s the case, Metta,” he says.
For days now I’ve thought about writing this post & here’s where it was going to begin:
For decades I had, primarily, white friends. Our family integrated a neighborhood. At some point, an Indian family moved down the street; the horrible old man who often called us “nigger” moved & my best friend and her family moved in. We were suddenly two black families on the street. The white girls me and my sister played with until her father caught us and then moved the family out were replaced by a multigenerational black family; a couple of doors down a black nuclear family moved in with two Dobermans and two doors down from them, a single black mother and her two sons. The rest of the residents on that long street were white, some fine with having black neighbors, some not. Thirteen years, when I was in my final year of high school, my ex-English teacher confided to me that she was going to retire from teaching once we graduated. Things were changing, she said, and pointed at Anthony, a new student to the high school who had gone to elementary and junior high with us for a year; Anthony, the bad kid, who had been shipped off to one of the black schools. He was back and still the same Anthony. It’s getting dangerous, she said, still looking at Anthony and clutching her neck. Word was Anthony had threatened her but the truth was that Anthony asked her how she got that long scar on her neck and laughed as he walked down the hall. Anthony wasn’t a fan of that teacher and she clearly wasn’t a fan of his. As bad as Anthony was, he wasn’t worse than the white kids who robbed cemeteries, tipped cows, egged cars, mouthed off to the teachers, skipped classes and smoked in the courtyard. Anthony was restless in class and got into fights with students. He often ended up in detention and was often skipped a grade. Sometimes the bad white kids got detention but they rarely got held back a grade & they rarely got suspended. I told the teacher it was a good thing for her to retire, if she thought the school was going to be dangerous just because a few black kids were being shipped to the school. She looked at me as if I were a traitor. I rolled my eyes and almost told her to grow up. I wasn’t a fan of that teacher. I left AP English because of her, although I knew that doing so would have a horribly adverse affect on the black student population. I was one of two black students in AP English, but I didn’t care. I was tired of her telling me that my analysis was unsound, asking the students to vote on my comments. The other black student in the class was all about upholding the status quo. We were friends but she got on my nerves. She had opinions but she refused to voice them in class. “I want to get into a good college,” she’d say to me in response to me asking her why she didn’t speak up in class, why she kept her ideas to herself.
Here’s how this post was going to begin:
Every white friend I’ve ever called friend has betrayed our friendship. My parents warned me, said this would happen, and I told them to keep their Civil Rights Jim Crow histories to themselves.
2001: I’m a few months from graduating. My so-called best friend, who has moved to the town I live in & go to graduate school in, has moved out of our shared apartment while I’m at a conference. When I return, the friend who watched my cats for me said I needed to watch my back. That same day, the landlord came upstairs to tell me that he let my so-called best friend out of the lease, that I now owed him the whole rent. We got into a big argument, he kept saying “Considering what you did, you should feel lucky that I haven’t called the police.” When I returned to campus, I went to my so-called best friend’s job to ask her what was up & to give her the utility bills so she could pay her half. She began screaming “Leave me alone”. My mentor, who I had begged to hire her, came out of her office and told me to leave, that I had caused enough trouble. In class, she asked me to back out of the class trip so my so-called best friend could attend. I was completely confused. What have I done, I wanted to know. A peer called me up and told me I should be ashamed of myself. My other professors gave me the side-eye accompanied by the wary eye. My friends were being weird. It finally came down the pike that my so-called best friend had staged the most astonishing lie about me: she said I’d held her captive in our apartment, that I raped her every night and locked her in her room, that I let her out to go to class, to go to work. “And the gym,” I retorted, “and on dates?” My friends said she was believable, that she’d said she had a restraining order. I told them to accompany me to the police station, that no restraining order had been issued. Before the lie, my so-called best friend’s mother had come to town to help her through a surgery. Her mother wouldn’t leave her room except to bathe and eat. I kept asking her why she was holing herself up in there. Now I knew, she’d been told the same thing. All of these friends, professors, mentors, the landlord, all of these people who had known me for years, who had known her for months, who believed this astonishing lie told to them by a white person against me, a black person. They were all white.
2001: I’m a few months into the start of a new academic year in a new town in a new program. 9-11 has happened. I’m emailing with a white friend and her ex-boyfriend, her best friend, her brother and her father about nothing. Eventually we talk about something explosive, maybe 9-11, maybe I said something about how people were being wholly irrational and finding excuses to fear Muslims. Whatever it was, my friend’s father exploded and cursed me out, threatened my life, asked me if I’d heard about some young black thugs who were shot outside a gas station in our town. He said he’d shot them. That he’d shoot me down like he shot them. I responded, fearlessly; his daughter, my friend, jumped in to defend her father. I reminded her that he threatened to shoot me. She said he’d worked in the pentagon, that he was traumatized. Her brother came in to curse me out. I was shocked. I shouldn’t have been. She’d been my friend for a few years, but she was a white person. Her father was a white person threatening me, a black person. She refused to see any side other than his.
2001: I’m a few months into the start of this new academic year at this new program. I’m in a writing workshop with 6 white male students, a white male professor and a Japanese female student. The professor calls images in the woman’s poems “Oriental”. The male students jump to her defense. They complain to the director of the program, who removes the student from the class. The professor tells me he can’t understand my poems because they don’t sound black. The male students agree, saying my poems were incomprehensible because they weren’t black enough. I was left alone in that class with seven white men.
2001: I’m a few hours into the start of this new academic year. My temporary advisor asks me what I enjoy, besides writing. I tell him I enjoy the natural world. He asks me if I write black nature poems. I see a forest at night, I see a forest burned, I see black spots on mushrooms. I tell him I’d never heard of black nature poems. He said, “Well, you’re black and you write poems about nature. . .” He was white. I should have understood immediately.
2001: I’m a few weeks into the start of a new academic year in a new town. My peers ask me to teach them the new slang and the new black dances. This is the third writing program I’ve been in — BA, MFA, now PhD– this is the third time I’ve been the only black person in the program, the third time I’ve been the only or one of two or three people of color in the program. No one sees the problem with asking me to teach them the new black dances and slang. They are all white. Of course they see nothing wrong with this.
2002: I’ve got a semester behind me. I’m in a class on Emily Dickinson. The teacher tells us she’s going to make us black cake. She suddenly bursts into laughter, catches her breath and looks at me and says, “No no, Jade*, not like gangs, the color of the cake is black!” Later in the semester, I say something about images merging, a student says “You mean fusion” and I say, “No, I mean ‘merge”.” He retorts, “Well, I think you mean fuse,” and reiterates my point, using the word fuse. I say, “I said merge and I meant merge. You’re talking fusion which makes no sense.” He gets angered and snaps, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Yes, I do,” I say, “it seems that you’re having a difficult time hearing what I’ve said, though.” He says something in return and when I open my mouth to reply, the teacher screams, “Stop it! This is not a corner street, Jade, and we’re not having a gang war in here!” I look around at all of the white students looking at me or looking away. No one says anything. I’m the only black person in the room. No one says anything. At the end of the semester, she hasn’t made the black cake. She says that she knows I was looking forward to having another black in the class, and she’s so sorry. She’s invited a librettist to play music, accompanied by a suite of Dickinson poems. She has picked out 20 poems. There are 20 students. She assigns each student a Dickinson poem. She skips me and says, “Well, I guess someone will have to read two poems or I can read the last one.” The librettist says, “What about her; she didn’t get a poem,” points at me. The professor says, “Oh no, we can’t have her read these poems. This is Dickinson.”
1994: I’ve declared my majors as French and political science. I’m in the first semester of Conversational French. The professor is dismayed by my presence. “French is not made for black tongues,” she says. She shows us a film set in Senegal. The characters are speaking French and Wolof. “See,” she says, “I mean, do you understand anything they’ve said?” Several of the students in the class ask me to tutor them, ask me to be in their study groups. One student has spent a semester in France and has the worst enunciation and the worst memory in the class. “A waste,” the professor says, and patiently enunciates what she wants the student to repeat. At the end of the semester she gives us a surprise final exam: a conversation in French. I go to her office, nervous about my black tongue. She speaks. I respond. She shakes her head. When I get up to leave she says, “It’s just not meant for you black people. Your tongues are too thick.” A year later, I change my major, but not before complaining to the chair of the department. He shakes his head and says, “Well, that’s just sad just sad.” “What’s sad?” I ask. “You are. You let her intimidate you and that’s sad.” He was white. Why did I expect him to understand?
2000: I’m in my Modern Poetry class. We’ve gotten to Langston Hughes. There is a student who is set to present on Hughes. He tells us that he’s found some great audio of Hughes reading his work. The professor tells him that she’s decided that I should read Hughes’ work. That I’m black and I can understand the vernacular in his work and I can read it properly. When I was five I began imitating the sounds coming from the throats of NPR personalities. By the time I was fifteen, everyone thought I was from England or Boston. Everyone thought I should go into radio. “I can’t read vernacular properly,” I say. “Nonsense,” she says, “You’ll read for us at the next class. Go home and practice.” I looked around at all of the white faces looking away. Such a familiar scene. I skipped the next class.
2002: In no certain order: 1 white male student passes around a rumor about my father molesting me; the same student tells people that I shoved our professor’s head in my breast at a coffeehouse. Another white male student goes on to be the editor of a national literary magazine. I send them poems. He rejects them. The other editor is friends with a friend. He begs her to tell me that he wanted to publish them, but that his co-editor hates me, that he’s blacklisted me. My friend wants to know what happened. I recall that this same friend believed the so-called best friend who said I’d raped her. I tell her the truth, that I critiqued his work in class and that no one had ever critiqued his work. That he was angry. She gives me a skeptical sound over the phone and says, “Well, he’s blacklisted you!” She takes certain glee in these dramas.
2004: This same friend tells me that her sister didn’t get a coveted scholarship for college; in fact, she got no scholarships for college. Before I can sympathize, she says, “It’s not fair! I mean, she wasn’t even eligible to apply for the big scholarship in town, because she’s not black!” She throws black out of her mouth as if it’s a snake. We get into an argument. I think, well, another one bites the dust. We don’t talk for a few years. Eventually, I forgive her. I always forgive them, eventually.
My mother once said to me: “When the apocalypse comes, you think your white friends are going to save you? They’re going to save each other and forget all about you. You’ll see, when the time comes to choose between you and a white stranger, they’ll choose the white stranger.”
Years later, I look at the number of white friends who have blacklisted me, who have called me an instigator, who have condemned me for my use of the term ‘whitefolks’, who have said I don’t give them enough credit, who call me harsh, trouble maker, insensitive, uncaring. The white friends who want to be congratulated for every little step they make to atone for not being aware of race and racism. The white friends who tell me I need to find a more generous graceful tone when I talk about race.
Every word I utter about race Every word I write about race, there looms the threat of the white person who is itching to ruin me. So I write words about race. I utter phrases about race. I talk more race than I ever thought I’d talk.
My neighbor always turns his head away when I mention that I’m the only person of color in our entire community. The next door neighbor stopped me, last week, to tell me he’s just returned from vacation in Charleston. He has an agenda. I can see it in his shoulders, in his hands that he tries to keep on his lap. I try to keep walking, but he keeps me there, his voice getting louder. I give up and stand in the alleyway, looking up at him on his porch. He tells me that the people of Charleston are “generous” and “graceful”, that they found an “elegant way” to deal with the problems mounting, that there were some “outside agitators” who came in “but the people of Charleston told them to go home, to get lost, this is their community”. He keeps repeating the word “community”. He tells me it’s all about “community”: “If you have a strong community you can weather any storm,” he says. I want to walk up his stairs and smack him. I smile and look at his friend who has arrived from nowhere. I am grateful. I think my next door neighbor will stop talking. He doesn’t. He has momentum. He’s on and on about community, about how the people of Charleston didn’t riot, how rioting is about a divided community or no community at all. His friend is shifting from one foot to the other. He finally winds down and I smile and say, “Well, good.” I walk away. There is a law office across the street from his office. All white lawyers. A Chinese woman cleans the offices when they’re gone. Next door, a design firm. All white employees but one. A Mexican woman cleans the offices when they’re gone. Every day I sit on my porch and look black and look back at the white people staring at me as they drive or walk by.
My neighbor stretches and says, “Well, Metta. . .” When he says “Well, Metta” and trails off, I know we’ve come to the end of the conversation, that moment that he says, “Let’s agree to disagree.” I stare at him and smirk. He says, “Well, Metta. . .” again. I look away and pick up my mug of coffee. He stands up. “Okay, I’m going to go and get the wild ones. They’ll want to see you.” He returns with the two dogs I’ve donned “The Wild Ones”, he hands me the leash of one of them and we walk to the back yard, let the dogs loose and talk about the state of the garden. Some other day we’ll talk about racial problems again. He’ll say something about progress and a few bad seeds. I’ll decide how much is okay to broach that day; how much should be left for another day. For now, I’m okay with squatting, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun trying to burst through the fog, and saying “Well, where do you think we should put our bird bath?”
*I used to go by the name ‘Jade’.