Clarence was a quiet boy with thick hair, good muscle tone, and
intelligent almond-shaped eyes beneath bushy brown eyebrows.
That day at school a group of white children had cornered and
taunted him on the yard, asking what a fucking monkey had to do
with a briefcase. Either the other black students didnt see this
happen or they chose not to intervene. Pappy yanked Clarence
from public school the next day. By the time I was old enough, being
in class with our neighbors was not even an option.
Unlike some children of mixed-race heritage, I didnt ever wish to
be white. I wanted to be black. One of the first adult books my
parents gave to me, around age seven, was Alex Haleys The Autobiography
of Malcolm X. Often my mother would come into my
room in the evening and discuss with me what I was reading. For
several nights, I lay awake long after she had turned out the lights,
haunted by the image of Malcolms father lying prone on the railroad
tracks, his body torn in two and his cranium cracked open
like a coconut husk. I didnt want to resemble in any way whatsoever
those men who did things like that to other men.
It was a fortunate thing for me, too, that I didnt want to be
white. It was fortunate because I really didnt have much choice in
the matter. My parents were right: Around white kids, I simply was
not white. Whatever fantasies of passing may have threatened to
steal into my mulatto psyche and wreak havoc there were dispelled
early on, when Tina turned around in her chair, flipped her
bronze ponytail to the side, and asked me point-blank, and audibly
enough for the whole classroom to hear, Hey, why doesnt your
hair move like everyone elses?
Its because Im black, I told her, and I wasnt angry or embarrassed.
It was just a fact, I felt, the way that she was husky or
Though we didnt speak about it outright, I dont think my
brother, Clarence, ever wanted to be white, either. He just didnt
seem to see race everywhere around him like my parents and I did.
Or if he saw it, he fled from it and didnt want to analyze it or have
to spend his time unraveling it. He didnt want to be forced to
make a big deal out of it. He was forgiving and trusting and found
companions wherever they would be his. His two best friends
were black, and he dated a quiet Asian girl for a spell during high
school. Mostly, though, he fell in with a set of neighborhood white
boys with lots of vowels in their surnames and little in their heads.
These white boys were almost certainly the same ones who, years
earlier, had demeaned my brother with racial epithets on that
School One playground (the neighborhood is not that big). But
Clarence never knew how to hold a grudge, and that was ages ago
and these were his neighbors and they liked to do the things that
he liked to do: ride bikes, ride skateboards, talk cars, smoke cigarettes,
cut class, hang out. And they did take him in as one of their
own, thats true, although I could see even as a child that they did
so without ever fully allowing him to rest his mind, to forget that
he was black and that he was somehow other. Still, I cant fault my
brother for going the way he felt was most comfortable. He was a
child of the late 70s and 80s; hip-hop hadnt completely circumscribed
the world he was formed in. I was a child of the late 80s
and 90s, on the other hand. I went the other route.
Not that it was always an easy route to go. It was not enough
simply to know and to accept that you were blackyou had to look
and act that way, too. You were going to be judged by how convincingly
you could pull off the pose. One day when I was around nine
years old, my mother drove Clarence and me over to Unisex Hair
Creationz, a black barbershop in a working-class section of Plainfield. Back then we had a metallic blue, used Mercedes-Benz sedan,
which from the outside seemed in good condition, though underneath
the hood it was anything but, as the countless repair bills
Pappy juggled would attest. While the three of us waited for the
light to change colors, I became transfixed by the jittery figure of a
long, thin black woman in a stained T-shirt and sweatpants, a greasy
scarf wrapped around her head. She was holding an inconsolable
baby in one hand and puffing on a long cigarette with the other,
stalking the second-floor balcony of a beat-up old Victorian mansion
that had been converted into apartments.
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