Sunday, June 28, 2015

She Called Me Nigger and Everything Changed



Her name was Tanya and her best friend Dora always brushed her strawberry blonde curls while they sat on the stoop. We lived in the same apartment building on Decatur Avenue in the boogey down Bronx. We were both around the same age: pre-teen. She lived on the second floor. I had to walk-up to the fourth. Those were the things that differentiated her in my mind. Nothing else. 

Oh and this stuff too. We weren't allowed to go outside while my parents worked. We didn't have a baby sitter and my assignment was to watch the three younguns during the day. Her mom, well seems like all the other moms, stayed home. Their dads worked. Tanya and her friends hung out in front of the building from mid-morning until dinner time.  

I spent the majority of the day hanging my head out of the window, wishing. My wish was always the same: to float down to the sidewalk or climb down the fire escape, either would work. To be part of their crew. To draw chalk outlines for hopscotch and jump double-dutch or walk to the corner bodega and buy some sugar daddies or a lemon Italian ice.

It happened a few days before the blackout that summer of 1977. The dust covered blades of the fan propping up the window and circulating hot air sputtered to a halt. I stuck my head over the window's guardrail hoping for a breeze to cool off. When I looked down, Tanya spat up. At me. 

"Nigger!"

I didn't hear the car horn warning her brother running into the street after the pink ball that bounced off the wall to interrupt their handball game. Gloria Gaynor's latest song blasting from Ray's beatbox on the other side of the street got sucked into a vortex along with every other sound cluttering that moment. Everything except her venom.

It wasn't so much what she said that slowed my perception of time. I'm not sure that I even appreciated her insult. No, what I remember is that word defining a different unconsidered reality. 

You see, in my birth country most people are the same color. Even when we aren't we claim the same heritage. Where I come from, the blond-haired blue-eyed, the Indians with straight jet black hair and brown skin, the Chinese with their sleeked angular features, we are all considered the same. "Out of Many One People" is a motto we Jamaicans believe in and are proud of. 

It never crossed my mind that I was black. Before that day, color and race had no connection to who I saw in the mirror or my surroundings. Those two words were not part of my vocabulary when describing other human beings. They just weren't. 

Because of Tanya I associated the word "nigger" with not only a derogatory, less-than, unworthy, invisible, name-less, alienated, nobody, but even more unfathomable, the actual color of my skin. That awareness of not being judged by the content of my incredible, intelligent, sassy, outspoken, one-of-a-kind, character had awakened. And my insides shriveled.

Fearlessness castrated with fear. Ebony beauty contorted into ugliness. Confidence mutated to doubt. Acceptance distorted with confusion. She snuffed out some of the spark that fueled my soul. Two days later New York surrendered to total darkness.

She called me nigger and everything changed.


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