Everything I ever learned about white people, I learned from the enormous color television set that sat front and center in our ramshackle living room. I did not have access to any actual white people’s homes, so the television was all I had to educate me as to what all the fuss was about. Day after day and well into the night, I sat there in my threadbare pajamas, eating a bowl of cereal or a fried bologna sandwich while the colored lights danced across my face, teaching me the Ways of the White.
Sitting a foot from the screen, I learned that white children were ethereally beautiful and perpetually innocent; even their mistakes were charming. White children got sent to their rooms or were given a good and loving talking to—punishments that shamed the knee-jerk ass whippings I was subject to for a misspoken word or the slightest infraction. White children were given “allowances.” Allowances: money that was given to them just for being white. White children became indignant when their television parents did not raise these allowances or withheld them as punishment for some charming mistake. Their household chores seemed more of an option and not a command necessary to keep the very household functioning. Their clothes were never out of style. Their homes were beautifully decorated. They all had bicycles and their own bedrooms, and I was in thrall to the opulence and ease of it all.
My parents were perpetually angry—either at one another or at their children—and our existence was anything but opulent. Our home was a shack compared to the two- and three-story palaces that lay just at the other end of town. Money was a constant discussion: lack of it; what to do with it; where it was going to come from. It was always a problem. The white parents on television were always canoodling, doting on their children and smiling at one another with an air of playful romance, but my mother’s contempt for my father was fairly evident. I didn’t quite understand what was going on between them, but they seemed to view us as an inconvenience at best. But the white people . . . they had it all figured out. They always had money, and their problems were fixable within 30 minutes, even including commercial interruptions. I watched them through pixelated glass with my mouth hanging open, wanting so badly to be a part of their world.
Between the family sitcom I was watching and commercial breaks, there was a brief second when the screen would go black, and I would see my muddy reflection in the television screen. It was then that I knew I would never get to experience the heady highs of Caucasianism. I was so black I could barely make out my features in the darkness of the thick glass. I was just eyes looking in on a world I’d never be invited to join. In that second, I wondered if blackness was responsible for inferiority or if God just made those who were inferior black. And, now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
Warren, Ohio, is perpetually dark gray and damp, even in the summertime, and the place where I showed up every day for education was built like a prison. The school colors were red and gray, like a gunshot wound through the head of an octogenarian, and every wall in the hallways was pea-soup green. The floors were the gray kind, speckled with different colors. I would often stare at the flecks, picking out one specific color and trying to connect the dots. They looked like an infinite cosmos, an escape route I could follow while brown-bagging it or just after using the dreaded welfare lunch card, which glowed pink, begging for attention. When the steel mills closed, all of a sudden every black child’s hand was cupped around a pink card, hiding it, so as not to let on that this was how you were being fed. It was a mark, a brand that turned white fingers into divining rods for poverty and confirmed all of their suspicions and stereotypes. In the end, it was just easier to skip lunch.
A boy in my class, Alex, embodied the boys I saw on television. He had a father who wore a suit and tie and who would show up for school events and smile at his son lovingly, with open affection, like the dads on television. Alex’s mother was the typing teacher at the school, a sunflower of disposition I could be certain she didn’t come home with a scowl on her face at the end of the day only to grumble out grievances before she fell into bed exhausted. His sister was pretty and outgoing. His house, which I had to pass on the way back to the black neighborhood, was a three-storied affair—white with brown trim and all manner of shrubbery and flowers surrounding it, which someone tended to vigilantly. Alex himself was the epitome of the sensitive and thoughtful boys I could only have access to via the electricity that my family could barely keep on half the time. I wanted him, and I wanted to be him.
Homosexuality, as it so often does, attacked me in my bed when I was least expecting it. I let my guard down for a minute, and though every fiber of my being screamed, “That way lies madness!” I followed it and let the thought of Alex wash over me night after sticky night. I wanted to hold Alex. I wanted Alex, with his chocolate brown eyes and coal black hair, to love me. I didn’t even mind his pimples. I thought they were charming. I wanted him to save me and take me away into his television world. Alone in my bed, thinking about Alex well into the night, my eyes rolled back in my head, and I didn’t quite know what to do with my hands. Much to my shame, I would figure that out later. I would stare at him openly at school like a fool. I fought my demons every night in bed and prayed that the Good Lord would take these desires away from me. The Good Lord never did. In fact, He only made them worse. I abandoned all hope. I couldn’t stop and decided that hell was the best place for me. But I wanted to take Alex with me.
Onanism became almost compulsory night after night, and I would pray and promise that this was the very last time and I would never do it again, and I would cry to Him to change me. But, God never does what you tell Him and the guilt was backbreaking. Sometimes, when I was “done,” I would imagine Alex’s mother repeatedly smashing my penis with the manual typewriter on my desk, over and over again, with pure hatred in her eyes for what I’d done to her son. I had to look this woman in the face every day, knowing that just a few hours ago, she had lost her son to me and my wicked imagination. She would come by sometimes to reposition my fingers, and I would seethe with jealousy that she got to see so much of him, but I would also thrill to the thought that maybe she’d recently touched his hair and was using the same hand to correct my wrist positioning. I smiled and hoped that she didn’t catch a whiff of the lust that might have stubbornly stuck to my recalcitrant fingers despite all of my scrubbing. All of my praying and scrubbing.
They used to like to watch me dance, the white kids, and I would dance for them. The levels of coonery I sank to were unfathomable. There were Al Jolson-style minstrel shows given in our junior high school gymnasium, starring yours truly. A real live Negro. I shucked and jived my way into their hearts every day in the gym after they’d had their lunch. The black kids from my neighborhood would look on from the other side of the gym, shaking their heads in shame and laughing at me. But I didn’t care. They were doomed to be black their whole lives. Plus, they had all called me “faggot” enough to earn my hatred forever. I had found acceptance. Someone would bring a little tape deck, and I would dance for all I was worth while they smiled and clapped me on the back and congratulated me for having rhythm. Alex was impressed as well, smiling broadly at me and clapping along goofily to the music. He noticed me in this capacity only, and I danced even harder and faster under his gaze until all the others disappeared and I was dancing for him alone. And then, one day, it happened.
“You should totally come with us to The Red Caboose on Saturday!”
The Red Caboose—Warren, Ohio’s hottest dance spot for the junior high school set. The invitation was squealed out by one of the many white girls with whom I kept company during school hours. They liked when I would tell them how pretty they were, and I made them laugh.
“Oh my God, I’m soooo serious! You should totally come to The Red Caboose on Saturday!”
The rest of the white girls agreed that my dance moves were being wasted in this high school gym and that I would be better served to show them off in public. Even the white boys agreed, and the smile on my face could not have been blown away with dynamite. This was the exclamation that was going to start it all for me. After school, I ran home to ask my mother if she would give me a ride to the club on Saturday night. Her reaction was about what I’d expected. She complained about gas money. She complained about the five dollars it was going to cost to get into the place. She complained that she would be too tired to pick my ass up at midnight when the club closed. She told me a million different times, in a million different ways, that we couldn’t afford it. That people like us didn’t do things like this. There was no way for me to impress upon her what a misery my life was, that this was my only chance to break out of the dull, fetid dishwater that was our home life. There was no color between the walls of our home. There was no beauty in my life. It was all pea green, gray, boxed in, and all she could tell me, over and over again, was that we didn’t have the money. I hated her. I hated her more than anything in the whole world, and I did not know why the God who I was taught was so merciful continued to curse me. I did not know why he didn’t just kill her. I prayed for it that night. Our whole lives were a black embarrassment.
• • •
The first time I ever considered onomatopoeia, I was in a parking lot, alone. A paper flier, pushed by a gentle autumn wind, made a noise on the pavement in front of me. It made a “skittery” sound, and I wondered if skittered would be considered an onomatopoeic word. I contemplated this as I pressed my tongue firmly to the roof of my mouth and swallowed back rage, embarrassment, and shame.
The Red Caboose was everything I dreamed it would be: loud music and strobe lights and a sense of camaraderie I’d never felt before in my life. Kids chanted “The roof is on fire,” and the DJ played the latest tunes. I showed off. I showed off so hard that it was almost obscene. I could finally let loose with my dancing skills and really show everyone how cool I was. I did the Robot, The Running Man, and The Cabbage Patch, and took it from the top all over again. I used my hips and my feet to stake a claim for myself on that dance floor, and believe me when I tell you that they noticed. A circle was made around me on the dance floor more than once. I commanded attention. I held court in the disco-lit corners when the DJ played a song I didn’t particularly like. I sat down and crossed my legs and leaned back on the wall with a friend on either side of me telling me how I moved like a rhythmic tornado. I was in my element.
I saw Alex and, oddly, I did not care. He was still beautiful, but he danced badly, and I couldn’t risk my reputation being seen with him. His moves were awkward and white boy clunky, and as he danced, he had a goofy smile on his face that I just found untenable. I ignored him. I was asked to dance over and over again, and by the end of the night, I was covered in sweat and friends, and I knew I had arrived. I felt . . . white. I paid no mind to the fact that with every undulation and every song and every request to dance and every utterance of the word cool, the night was drawing to a close, and when the lights came on, I was made well aware that I was the only nigger in the room.
When the club let out, I was at a loose end. A friend of my brother’s had dropped me off, and I had no money. One of my good white girlfriends had loaned me the five dollars to get inside. I figured she would also give me a ride home. I waited for her to exit the club, but it was as if someone turned off her enthusiasm for me right when they turned off the music. She seemed nervous when I asked if her dad could give me a ride home. She said, “Sure,” but there was something foreboding just behind her eyes. When he pulled up and I went to get in on the passenger side of his car, he just looked straight ahead. He looked straight ahead and shook his head no. Wordless. No excuse. Just no. I was not permitted. Not allowed. Not good enough. Not white.
This scenario repeated itself over and over again in the parking lot that night. I ran from car to car like a fireman collecting donations at a stoplight, and each parent looked straight ahead while their children, my friends, who had loved me just ten minutes ago, climbed into the backseats and passenger sides of cars my parents could never afford. The white kids all gave me the same look, a combination of I’m sorry and You should have known better. They all drove away, leaving me alone in the parking lot in the middle of nowhere. I could see the lights of their vehicles driving off in the distance until they reached the highway, where they just turned into fireflies. I breathed out a plume of cold air and pressed my tongue to the top of my mouth as hard as I could. And at that moment, it all became crystal clear. The flier that read The Red Caboose most certainly skittered across the pavement. There was no other word for it. It scraped across the concrete and I watched the wind shuttle it back and forth, spinning it until it stopped right at my feet to mock me. Bright pink and laughing. Bright pink as a welfare lunch card. I zipped up my coat until the collar was just below my ears. And then the flier skittered on, and for the first time in my life I was utterly alone. I don’t know how long I stood there silently panicking. I know that my fingertips eventually went numb. I don’t know exactly when I started to cry, and then there was a river of snot. I don’t know what I lost that night, but I know I’ve never gotten it back.
In a stroke of luck, an employee from the club came out to throw away a giant sack of trash and I begged him to allow me to use the phone. No one picked up for several rings, and then my mother’s sleepy voice finally answered. She did not care if I was hurt. She did not care if I was or wasn’t dead. She only cared about her precious sleep so that she could get to her precious job. The ride home would be a chilly one; I would just have to endure it. When that enormous rust-bucket of a Chrysler clunked into the parking lot at 2 am, I could feel the anger coming from my mother. I got in without a word, and for the first several minutes, all was silent. But, the silence didn’t last.
My mother told me what a fuck-up I was. She told me how stupidly I’d behaved. She blamed me for my predicament. Apoplectic. Shouting and seething all at once. She was angry at having been woken up in the middle of the night to come deal with my stupid bullshit. She would whip my ass if I hadn’t gotten so big. Her anger was the only thing holding that car together as it rattled down the highway. She didn’t look at me once, but I could see her face contorted in the traffic lights we passed. I was certain she hated me. She was confirming that she hated me. I was nothing she ever wanted; there was something freeing about that. But she was also right. I was stupid, and that was the first time in my life I remember ever feeling like a fool. Her tirade continued. It rose and fell and got silent and then started all over again, from shrieking to mumbling under her breath. It was only when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore that we arrived home and she put the car in park. My muscles tensed as I got ready to leap out of the car and rush to my bed to cry. But my mother grabbed my wrist firmly and spoke words I will never ever forget. Softly.
“Please, don’t you ever trust white people again.”
And the look on her face told me everything I needed to know. I could see but couldn’t quite make out a moment in time when she had made the same mistake. It became clear to me that the world was inexorably divided—and always would be. It was evident to me that all the yelling she’d done in the car was not out of hatred for me, but out of hatred for a situation where her child was not good enough. In slow motion replay, I ran back the hundred and twenty times she told me we couldn’t “afford” for me to go to this club tonight—and knew what she’d really meant. She had expected this. She had tried to prevent this. She didn’t want me to go exactly because of this. It wasn’t her sleep that was interrupted as much as her peace of mind. My sadness made her angry. My rejection at the hands of my peers made her furious, and she did not know how to express all that except to yell at me for putting myself in that position in the first place. It was all there in her eyes, and I read it in the span of the three seconds it took for her to say the words.
“Don’t you ever trust white people again. White people are afraid of everything. Especially us.”
I went to bed and cried. I cried for whatever they had done to my mother. I didn’t know what it was, but it hung like a ghost in the room I shared with my brother. I cried because, I thought, she loved me after all, and words and stroking and affection were foreign to her so she worked. And worked.
My mother made me pancakes the next day, something that never happened. She told me I didn’t have to go to church because I’d been out so late. She didn’t go either. She told people on the phone what a fool I had been the previous night. They commiserated about white people.
When Monday came, I was armed with new knowledge. I stood outside the front door of my junior high school, prepared to look at the world in a new and different way. The first period bell rang like an alarm clock, and I took my first steps forward. Forward into my new life.
* Illustration by Anna Hall