(I posted this short story on Reedsy.)
I attended an all-white high school in Ephrata, Washington — a small sleepy farming town with little to do. My white mom slept with a Black dude, whom I’ve yet to meet, and well, here I am. I hadn’t seen another person of color. At least not in person. If Menace II Society and 2Pac represented Black culture, I was more than okay with that. I watched MTV when Mom wasn’t home, and the dangerous lives they purported to live resonated with the anger I had for being misunderstood. Even though I lived in a small town, I wasn’t immune to racism. Folks in this conservative town feared what they couldn’t understand. Being biracial, I felt caught between two worlds, black and white. My high school brain told me I had a binary choice. Do I identify more with whites or blacks? I couldn’t wrap my mind around such a choice, yet it was mine to make. And mine alone.
In elementary school, a kid told me he couldn’t play with me because I was Black, so I had few friends. It did not occur to the kid that there might be a third option. I was biracial. But kids, like most adults, are binary in their judgment of people. I don’t know what it was about that comment, but I still ruminate over it. A young kid hyper-focused on race confirmed my suspicions of what white folks say behind closed doors. And this was in 1994, not 2022, where conservatives allege a global cabal of woke people want to instill values of compassion and tolerance! God forbid! I trusted a few people and tried to steer clear of conflict until, one day, I couldn’t.
Justin Cartwheel was the typical jock. Plenty of girls chased him for his squared jawline and all-star quarterback arm. Most girls have or were waiting their turn to date the guy. I could see through his facade. Justin had unaddressed insecurities that he projected onto others.
I had my book open to read as I made my way to science class. I’d look up and drop my eyes to the lesson.
“Watch out, you little nigger,” Justin Cartwheel barked as though he owned the walkway and gave me a stiff-armed shove. My feet fished for the earth, and I fell like a sack of bricks directly onto my back. It all happened so fast. My back, my neck, everything hurt. He and his friends laughed as they departed. Nigger? I was fifteen and hadn’t heard that word directed at me before. In rap songs, I’d heard the word nigga, but not the word nigger with the hard er. I sang along to songs, not knowing the meaning of the word. N.W.A. didn’t explain the words; they just rapped them. Snoop Dogg gave me a glimpse into a world I’d never known. A world that seemed foreign. It did, however, seem better than living my boring life. I’d never had a run-in with Justin, so I was stunned. We’d had the same class before, but I never spoke to him.
Too shocked to respond, I gathered my books, stood up, and brushed snowflakes from my face.
The word and the surrounding kids laughing ruminated through my mind until the day let out. I had to find out the definition. I said goodbye to the one friend I had and took a bus to the library to read the word’s meaning. The librarian guided me to the dictionaries and then went on about encyclopedias. “Maybe next time,” I said. I flipped through the pages, looking at the small black print. I tapped my finger on the word and read it. My jaw dropped. Something had to be done. I closed the book and headed home. I’d tossed around the phrase until it sunk in. It had no place in anyone’s mouth, especially Justin Cartwheel. And I couldn’t tell Mom. It’d only give her an excuse to march to the school and breathe a fire of insults at the principal. I didn’t need Mom to solve my problems.
I had a body-sized bedroom mirror. After school, I’d crank up Eye of The Tiger. I’d begun shadow boxing in the mirror, throwing precise jabs to bust Justin’s mouth or knock him out. How cool would that look? I thought. I’d gone from not wanting to hear that word uttered again to begging him to say it.
One day before Christmas break, I locked eyes with him in front of Mrs. James’s class.
“Say it,” I said under my breath. I balled my fists. Warmth flooded my cheeks, and my gaze saw revenge through red eyes.
Justin cracked his knuckles. “We got a problem here, Nigger?” He poked my chest with his finger.
“What did you say?”
Justin wiped his mouth and let out a cocky chuckle. “I called you a nigger.”
I took a step back. I lifted my fists to a fighting position. I spread my flat feet shoulder-width apart. I intended on punching from my shoulders, not swinging my arms to reserve strength.
Justin giggled and brought his friends into the bullying. “What the fuck are you going to do, tar baby?”
Just like you practiced, I thought. I lost count of the times I slugged his face. Justin stumbled back, placing his hands in front of his face to lighten my blows. His grin turned to wide eyes of shock with a locked jaw. He fell on his ass. Justin cried, and his friends laughed at him.
“Call me a nigger again, and you’ll need a body bag.”
After that, Justin bothered me no more. His friends looked away when I weaved crowded hallways. If Justin, or his friends, saw me on the street, they’d reverse course to avoid stepping near my presence. I’d attended college, and Mom adopted a girl, now my age. Danica was in an out of foster homes and group homes. Mom asked Danica if she wanted a permanent family. Danica did, and we had a spare bedroom. I called her, sis.
I came home from college on Thanksgiving. I heard Sis laughing and talking to a guy. I sunk into the couch and asked Mom who Danica was talking to.
“She’s got a boyfriend,” Mom said, looking up from the newspaper, then returning her eyes to the sports page.
“He any good for her?” I leaned forward, wringing my hands.
“Justin is a nice boy. He has a—”
“Hold on,” I said, waving my hands. “What’s his name?”
“Justin. Justin Cartwheel,” Mom said. “Why? Do you know him?”
“Do I know him? I went to school with him. He’s the—”
“Danica, your brother is home.”
“Be right down, Mom,” Danica said.
Danica and Justin entered the living room.
“Look, I didn’t know she was your sister until recently.”
“If you ever hurt her, I will beat your ass.”
Justin motioned. “Enough said.”
“Okay,” Danica said, wiping a tear. “Let’s eat.”
(© 2022 AC)
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