The Discovery of What It Means to Be a Black Boy
It was wintertime, early in the morning. I was in the third grade,
standing on the rectangular asphalt playground behind Holy
Trinity Interparochial School in Westfield, New Jersey, palming a
tennis ball, waiting. Ned, nearsighted and infamous for licking the
dusty soles of his penny loafers in the back of social studies class,
was splayed against the cold orange brick wall of the school building.
He had his head down and hands up, legs akimbo with his butt
out, like a South American mule bracing herself to be searched
by border patrol. Not so hard! he cried, glancing back over his
shoulder through smudged Coke-bottle lenses.
Put your head down! another boy yelled.
Fine, just do it and get it over with, then, Ned muttered.
Head down! the boy said. I wound my arm back and let fly a fastball that seemed to hang in the air for a second before ricocheting from the small of Neds back like a Pete Sampras ace off some hapless ball boy at Wimbledon. Ned jerked upright and howled in pain. All my classmates screamed and high-fived me as the bell rang and we rushed to grab our book bags and line up in size order before our teachers came to lead us indoors. I was still the undisputed king of Butts-Up, I thought to myself as I pulled my Chicago Bulls Starter jacket over my uniform. Standing in line, waiting for the younger grades to file past, I began mumbling to myself bits of a song by Public Enemy, a song that my older brother had been playing at home and that had gotten stuck in my head that week like the times tables or the Holy Rosary. Yo, nigga, yoooooo, nigga, yoooo-oooooo, niiiigga . . . I repeated the refrain over and over under my breath, unthinkingly, as I relived in my minds eye the glorious coup de grace, the deathblow Id just dealt Ned from over ten yards awayBlaow!
But youre a nigger, too, a voice said from behind me, and I half made out what Id just heard, but not fully. I went on singing my song, which I couldnt claim to understand on any level, but which somehow made me feel cool as hell, and that was all that mattered. The voice repeated itself, louder this time: But youre a nigger, too, Thomas, arent you?
Huh? I said, pivoting to see Craig standing there, his dirtyblond hair cut by his mothers Flowbee into the shape of an upsidedown serving bowl, like a medieval friar without the bald spot. What did you just say?
Youre a nigger, too, right, so how can you say that?
How can I say what?
Yo, nigga, yo, nigga; how can you say that when youre a nigger, too, right? My mother is white, my father black. They met in San Diego in the late 1960s. Both were entrenched on the West Coast front of what at the time was called the War on Poverty. After San Diego, they went up to Los Angeles. From L.A. they made their way north and my father pursued doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Oregon. In 1975, and over my maternal grandfathers dead body, they were married in Eugene at the county courthouse. They had little money, fewer blessings, and plenty of love. Later, they moved again to Spokane and my mother, Kathleen, gave birth to their first child, Clarence, named for my father. From Spokane the family continually moved east: first to Denver, then to Albany, then to Philadelphia, and finally to New Jersey, where I was born in 1981.
When I was one year old, my father switched professions and the family moved again, this time from Newark, where he had been running antipoverty programs for the Episcopal Archdiocese and my mother had been raising my brother and me, to Fanwood, a small suburb thirty minutes to the west on U.S. Route 22. Fanwood, like the space inside a horseshoe, is bordered on three sides by the much larger township of Scotch Plains, and these two municipalities by and large function as one. They share a train station and public school system and together act as a kind of buffer ground between wealthy Westfield to the east and poor Plainfield to the west. Riots and waves of white flight long ago left Plainfield a vexed cross between a legitimate inner-city ghettowith all the requisite crime, poverty, and hopelessness that go with thatand an emergent middle-class suburb that in many ways resembles Westfield, except for the condition of the houses and the color of the residents. No such white flight occurred in Fanwood, Scotch Plains, or Westfield, although like so many small towns in New Jersey, they had their designated black pockets.
Excerpted from Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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