cw: racism, violence
so i’m in all of these classes, right? liberal arts classes at a private, midwestern, liberal arts institution. boutique classes with names like American Whiteness and Politics of Emotion. classes filled with the same fifteen pasty faces interrupted by the occasional person of color, the occasional other brown person who makes eye contact with me on the first day of class after the white girl in the corner, let’s call her helen, decides to educate the class on what it means to be marginalized, followed by either a plea for the two black kids in the room to personally educate her on being a better ally or some backwards connection to her own struggles of being a lesbian. classes like that. classes that make white people feel really good about themselves.
i’m in all these classes and after every session i attend i feel a little bit more of me being drained out into the atmosphere. one time after class a white girl, let’s call her carol, stares me in the eyes after i talk about my own experience as a mentally ill black female-bodied person and asks me to consider how my vocalization of my problems is isolating. on this campus, they don’t understand how the world sees me.
at 19 i am liable.
at 15 i am a liability.
at 13 i am a hoodlum.
at 9 i am a nuisance.
always, i am a nigger.
i’m going to tell you a story about the scar on my forehead. the scar on my forehead is the size of my thumb nail. it is warped, a noticeably darker color than the rest of my skin, closer to black than brown. it is rough to the touch and disturbing, scraggly and sharp-edged like a birthmark, and with twice as much baggage. i love touching it; it is a visibly ugly marker about myself. i hate touching it; it is something visibly ugly about the white society i live in.
at 19 my brother stands before a panel of white men. he holds his body still like ice; even his breath is cold, coming up in spectral puffs between his full lips. behind him i watch the muscles in his back go taught at their raised voices, how he strangles the urge to bring his hands up in cautionary defense. he knows what these men want to do to him, even if they have not quite figured it out themselves. he knows what they will do to him if he gives them the chance.
i watch my brother try not to sag beneath the invisible chains their mouths throw across his shoulders. i don’t want to blink; i could lose him in the time it takes for the darkness in their hearts to slip behind my eyelids and out again. my eyes strain open and forward from where i lay, face down, in the grass. the wound on my forehead aches and when it heals into a triangular shadow just below my hairline i will not be able to forget the blank look in the officer’s eyes when he crouched in the grass next to where he had thrown me and told me don’t you dare move a fucking muscle.
the grass irritates the cut. i watch them pat my brother down, again, the muscle of my brother’s sharp jaw clenching with every rough pat. he tells them, again, that we live just a few blocks down the street, that we were born in this city and were just on our way home from the baseball field. we had been walking beneath the lowlamps and talking about stories, the power of words and magic. as if by magic, we are reminded why we love them: they fooled us into thinking we had power.
my writer’s notebook is in my backpack with the gold outlined pen my brother had saved up for and given to me as a christmas present just two days ago, and when my brother mentions it as proof one of the officers comes over to me and searches my hoodie pockets. he lays the notebook on the grass almost gently, and takes the pen. i already know i will not get it back. i try not to think about the last time i white man laid his hands on me without asking, also days ago, at a san diego club, like he owned me. i want to vomit and scream and rip myself up from the ground all fury and frenzy and animalistic vice, i want to be the big black ugly monster they are asking for and i want to devour them, badges and all, and show them how it feels to be treated like shit.
my brother, though. he is better than me. he’s the levelheaded one. he’s always been steady and put together. that’s why he’s standing and i’m shivering in the grass — they saw the rage on my face and put me down like a dog. as my brother repeats our alibi again one of them circles him, looking for something i will never see. i wonder what white men see when they look at him. what catches their eye first — the quicksilver bucktoothed smile, the laugh lines, the black hoodie, the class ring, the dreadlocks, the slight frame, the dark skin? i wonder if it is more of a case of what they don’t see. no white skin. no badge. no power. the absence of supremacy draws a great white ‘o’ on the center of our high foreheads, and every few centimeters there is another ‘o’, and another, great white hollows hedging in our perceived lack like rows of shark’s teeth, or the rings of a target. our lack brands us casual victims. they see our victimhood before our personhood.
in a loud voice the officer in the middle asks my brother why we are out so late. he tells them again that we are writers, prone to fits of wandering and speculation, and then he says, in a quiet voice, “are you going to let us go?”
they do, eventually, after riffling through our clothes and huddling in a circle to talk to themselves. one officer hauls me off the ground and tells me to brush myself off. they get into their cars, white headlights burrowing holes into my grass-stained chest, and then they are gone. just like that. just a series of pinpricks fading into the night.
i remember the night tasting thick and sweet like jasmine. i remember the way my arms and shoulders itched from close contact with the wet grass. i remember the burn of salt at the wicks of my eyes. but more than anything i remember the careful way my brother did not look at me, the silent breath he took, the cemented set of his shoulders and the single, tremorous shudder that ran through the mountains of his back like an earthquake. i remember him taking my hand and squeezing, once, and i remember the taste of bile that bubbled up at his signal.
one squeeze for how powerless we were.
one squeeze for the sudden chill the night takes on.
we held hands throughout the long walk home. we walk in silence, the only sound a clamor of crickets and the rushing of the occasional car. if either of us shivered, it was blamed on the wind. when we get home we take turns showering and went to bed without a word. we hold each other and stare up at the ceiling.
here is what we don’t speak: the way i crawl into his bed that night to hold him because there is no certainty that i will be able to touch him in anyway that isn’t beyond a coffin come day light. the way my brothers lip stretches with each splintering smile as i hold him. the way black berries grow ripe in his skin and the way his smile shines like its own solar instrument.
that night the officers call him kid and boy and you but his name is kamal. meaning perfect. complete. whole. a gift given by god.
i laid in bed, in the dark, for hours, restlessly awake long after he’d dropped off to sleep, running my hand over the scabbing cut on my forehead, and when i closed my eyes i imagined blood seeping from the wound, washing over my entire body, swallowing me up in so much red.
the next time i see helen, or carol, or rebecca, or bethany, i probably won’t tell her this story. but it will be there, maroon-colored and pulsating, throbbing at the surface of me in time with her white rhetoric.