LEARNING TO BE THE BLACK/BODY
“The fear is that some physical distance will be crossed, and the virgin sanctity of whiteness will be endangered by that proximity.”
In Catholic school, the recess field is just as sacred as the altar. It is where the world comes to teach shame to its children. I am in Kindergarten at Blessed Virgin Mary Elementary School. I am young, and I have cornrows that run like vines down my scalp. I am my mother’s child, a full head of hair, a wide nose, endlessly brown skin. Cleanliness and classism go hand in hand and my mother, not wanting me to look as poor as we were, would take great care to assure that I was the purest-looking boy in class.
One day at recess, the other boys noticed something about me. They began whispering. The biggest among them, a paper mache-skinned boy, turned to me and asked “Why are you so dirty?” I was confused. I responded, “I’m not dirty. I’m clean.” Now they were confused. “But why are you brown?” I had never thought of that. Brown is the color of dirt, dog poop, everything unholy. I had no answer for them. Had I just entered the world this shade of sin? I didn’t know why or how, but I wasn’t as clean as they were. Even though I bathed with all the soap and washcloths we could afford. Even though I was spotless, I wasn’t.
We skip recess. Instead we go into the boys’ bathroom. There, with soap and fingernails, the boys scrub my skin. They scratch and peel. I cry. I say, “I’m just like you. I’m clean. I’m just like you.” We are all confused. My skin is pruning from the sinkwater, but it’s still brown. Eventually, I begin to scrub too.
I go home covered in scratches. My mother is angry. Then sad. Then helpless. She simply tells me “David, it doesn’t wash off. It never washes off.”
* * *
I switch schools. My best friend in the first grade is Valery. He is a second-generation Ukrainian student. I don’t know where Ukraine is, and for most of our friendship, I assume Ukraine is in outer space, but with lots of potatoes. He tells me of his mother’s famous pierogies, made with lots of cheese. I don’t know what pierogies are, but I know I like cheese. He says he’ll ask his mother if I can come to his house for dinner. We can swim in his pool afterwards.
The next day, he comes into school looking like he has learned the secret to the world’s woes. He tells me “My mom says you can’t come over because the Blacks like to come and trash our pool.” This is the first time I had ever heard the word “Black” like this. It stings. From the look in his eyes, I can tell that he is talking about me without saying my name. He sees something in me that I didn’t know was there. I imagine a pack of shadowy black monsters running into his good clean yard, pleasantly manicured with lots of green space and freedom. I imagine the pack of wild things breaking in and throwing trash everywhere. Breaking all the windows and all the good dishes. I imagine them beastly, slobbering creatures. Destroying everything they touch. Everything that was clean is now dirty. Everything that was sacred is now sacrilege because of people like me.
I was angry, but I couldn’t tell him why so I told my teacher. Valery was given a time-out during recess. We stopped being friends. I never got to swim in his pool, even after it was restored.
* * *
“the black body is circumscribed as dangerous, prior to any gesture, any raising of the hand, and the infantilized white reader is positioned in the scene as one who is helpless in relation to that black body, as one definitionally in need of protection by his/her mother.”
Somehow my birthday, March 2nd, always seemed to land on a weekend or on a day when I wasn’t in school. The first time this wasn’t the case was in the fourth grade. On this day, I made cupcakes for everyone in my class. My close friend at the time, E.J., wasn’t in the room when I gave out the cupcakes. When he returned after snack time, he asked me where his rightful cupcake was. I told him I had run out. He looks at me like I have broken his heart. He makes some precocious statement, something along the lines of “I’ll see you at recess.”
The bell rings and he finds me on the blacktop shooting a basketball. He confronts me. Asks me why I didn’t save him a cupcake. (Honestly, I just forgot. I may have eaten one too many, but it was my birthday. Why was I bringing food for these other kids anyway?) He pushes me. This wasn’t too serious. People pushed all the time. I push him back. He pushes me. I push him back. He winds up and kicks me with his trained soccer legs. In this moment, everything escalated. This was no longer horseplay. He was swinging limbs. He was attacking. He was elevating the stakes.
I felt that anger resurge. The anger that I had felt all throughout my childhood, in the face of all adversity. My fists clenched. The white insides of my hands pulsed red. Everything hardened. I swung once. I hit him square on the temple. He spins back to the ground and starts crying, holding his face. I walk towards him, ready to keep going. He shouts for his mother. I did not need my mother. I was my mother. I was my mother’s hands. My mother’s rage and sadness. All of that awakened inside of me with one punch.
The recess warden sees me and my fists. She grabs me and brings me directly to the principal. I protest, “I didn’t start it! He swung first! I can show you the bruise from his foot in my side! He swung first!” I was suspended. Perhaps I was that shadowy beast. The monster who trashes pools and ruins the faces of nice, innocent boys. Perhaps I was everything they thought I’d be. Perhaps they were right to be afraid.
* * *
“Consider that it was possible to draw a line of inference from the black male body motionless and beaten on the street to the conclusion that this very body was in 'total control,' rife with 'dangerous intention.'"
I am coming home from high school. I am a sophomore at The Haverford School, a private school outside of Philadelphia. I come home late because I have play practice until 9:00 pm for the school musical. There is a 90-minute, multi-bus commute to get from the high school in the suburbs to my home in West Philly. It is around 10:30 pm. I am still wearing my blazer and tie from school.
I am one block away from my house. I am walking. A car drives next to me. Before I realize that it is a police cruiser, a bright white light shines on me. The spotlight covers my body. I look like a ghost. Immediately, I put my hands up, showing my light-skinned palms like a white flag in the wind. I feel the anger coming back, and it is rivaled by the fear. They hold the light on me, sizing me up. I just want to go home. The anger overcomes me and I shout, “I live here! What do you want?” People have died for less. The cop turns on his siren. My skin is painted in red and blue light. Funny, in that moment, I was every color of the American flag except white.
The car drives as close to me as it can, and then it speeds off. Perhaps it was a joke. Perhaps they saw my blazer and tie and it made me less of a threat. Perhaps they were scared too. But I knew one thing for certain. I was helpless. They could have taken my life and I would have been the blame. All of this must have been my fault. I should have smiled brighter. I should have worked harder. How can I outlive myself?
I was one block from my house. I ran home and began writing. Furiously. I had to leave my mark on something. I had to destroy something. I had to rip the page. I had to make sure something would be left once this skin caught up to me. I look just like all those people on the news. I had to make something before I became them. If I was a monster, let my monsters live in these lines. Let my mother’s hands know freedom here. Let me love this dirt until I am buried in it.
It doesn’t wash off.
It doesn’t wash off.
It doesn’t wash off.
*All passages taken from Judith Butler’s “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia."