Every Month is Black History Month
Susan Straight on How to Deal With Racists in the Schoolyard
This essay first appeared in The Common, Issue 12, which launches November 7th at Housing Works.
When my youngest daughter began her freshman year of high school, I said casually to her, “Do you ever see Christian?”
She gave me an incredulous and dismissive look. She replied, “Why would I see him? He doesn’t go here. He’s probably not in school at all. He probably fried his brain dying his hair all those colors.”
And then she was done. She talked about something else. But I kept picturing him. Forever to me he will be the boy who called my child a nigger and spat on her when she was ten.
What he was to her, I didn’t ask. I didn’t want him to have that importance. Maybe he is a loser, and she really has forgotten him. But maybe one day he’ll pop up on a Facebook page and one of her friends will send it to her, because she doesn’t have Facebook. Maybe he will follow her on Instagram, where she posts pictures of herself and her two sisters, and her friends of all races, and maybe he will have turned into an identifiable or anonymous racist who bullies women of color with horrific words, with the same word, with images. That is what I am thinking about this fall, because the world is a different place from that elementary school playground.
She’s twenty now. It was ten years ago that she was called nigger. Now my three daughters and I see the word everywhere, of course, in music and social media and public discourse. But this was not true when their father and I were growing up in the 1970s, here in the same Southern California city where we met in the ninth grade of a high school equally divided between black, white, and Chicano students, with many Japanese American and Native American kids as well. It wasn’t as if no one ever said the word back then. A musician in a visiting white rock band said it during a concert on the steps of our campus back in 1976, and our high school erupted in a riot that made the Los Angeles Times and kept us home for two days. Back then no one would say it casually and not expect a fight.
My father-in-law was called that word many times in segregated Oklahoma, in segregated Southern California, and he had outlawed its use in his house and the driveway where we all gathered for years. He castigated his four sons and their friends if they said it—he even forbade them to play Richard Pryor’s genius LP Bicentennial Nigger on the truck’s eight-track player.
My three daughters graduated from the same high school as did their grandmother, Alberta Morris, who married their grandfather, General Roscoe Conklin Sims II, days after her commencement. Here at my desk, I have my mother-in-law’s 1952 high school yearbook. One of her friends was the sole “Negro Representative” for the Girls’ League; there were also the “Spanish-American Representative” and the “Japanese-American Representative,” amid the sea of white faces. Two of Alberta’s best friends were on the school’s swim team, which practiced at the local YMCA, but they could not be on the diving team, as the only pool deep enough for diving was in a local hotel which did not allow them to swim. At family gatherings, they mention this to my girls with the same intense anger they felt decades ago. Many of my mother-in-law’s friends became the first black men and women to work at the newspaper, at the post office, or in the city fire department, years later.
When I was fifteen, I read the poems of Countee Cullen in the Riverside Public Library. I had become obsessed with poetry, having read Stephen Crane and William Blake and Emily Dickinson, and I opened Cullen’s collection. This poem, “Incident,” was published in the 1920s:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
I remember when the culture shifted. I remember when my husband and I saw Rodney King being beaten on television, because this was documented, on camera, for the world. This was when my husband’s face changed. The officers surrounding King were shouting the epithet. The word itself, not the terrible blows but the word, morphed from nigger to “the n-word” during the trials. I know that’s when we first heard the euphemism as part of public discourse. Mark Fuhrman, the police officer testifying about what happened in that vacant lot, under the helicopters’ glare, said his fellow officers called Rodney King “the n-word.” Time after time after time.
Then white kids started listening to NWA and other rap groups from Southern California, and suddenly, my husband and my daughters and I heard people like Mel Gibson, John Mayer, Dr. Laura, and then Justin Bieber and hundreds of other white people casually toss out the word as if it meant nothing.
When my youngest daughter started high school and reported on which kids from elementary school and junior high were in her classes, I thought of Christian, and the timelessness of his idiocy and hatred, wondering if he’d insult her again, and how Alberta might have thought his kind would eventually give up. But they have flourished.
This summer, black actress Leslie Jones temporarily quit Twitter after she was subjected online to a barrage of racist insults and threats of violence, both sexual and murderous, after the release of the new version of Ghostbusters, in which she’s an unabashed star. A few weeks later, a young black singer for the pop group Fifth Harmony was asked during a live Facebook fan chat to describe one of her bandmates, and she paused before replying. This pause infuriated the bandmate’s fans, who went on a rampage, bombarding the singer with racist invective including an image of her own face photoshopped onto the body of a woman in a print dress, dangling from a tree, lynched. “Problem Solved!” was the caption a young woman attached to this image, which has now been seen by millions of people. The singer is twenty years old.
You cannot erase that from your memory, no matter who loves you in your own family and in your own house.
* * * *
There were so many boys named Christian, white and Mexican American and black and Filipino American, that after he called her a nigger, in November of the year she was ten, my youngest daughter had to describe his particular appearance. The next morning, I realized I’d noticed him before. White kid, stocky, usually wearing camouflage pants. His hair was highlighted and colored. (Boys that young with statement hair always made my daughters and me suspicious. He’s ten—shouldn’t he be out riding bikes or feeding the dog, rather than sitting for extended periods with complicated beauty products on his head?)
I went to the school office and told the vice-principal, a tall white man, what had happened, and he flinched when I said the word to him. I saw how he wanted me to say “the n-word.” He said he would talk to my daughter.
She came home furious. Not only had someone called her a word that stings and penetrates and goes inside the cartilage, but then she was summoned from her classroom to the principal’s office, for the first time in her life. She had perfect attendance. Straight A’s. She had been summoned first, as if she were the troublemaker. Livid might be a better word for her face that afternoon when she crossed the playground toward my car.
It is difficult to explain how infuriating this feels, unless you’re speaking to a parent of a black child in America. I see people watching my mouth, but not understanding. My daughter was questioned first. She would not forget that.
After two weeks, she received an insincere sorry note from this boy: the punishment mandated by the vice-principal. We studied it, her sisters and me. Joke. Christian wrote that he hadn’t known what the word meant, and that since then he’d studied “the black civil rights” and he wanted whites and blacks to get along. (Since this elementary school was heavily Latino, we thought that was funny.) My youngest daughter gave it a vicious and accurate grammatical and handwriting critique, and then threw it in the trash.
He avoided her for a time, and then, after Christmas, went back to subtle attempts at playground intimidation. She was taller than him, fast and strong. There were incidents on the swings. We laughed them off. We called him pathetic. Then one day, while she sat on the swings, he hawked up a glob of saliva and spit on her jacket sleeve.
Standing in the hallway, where my daughters always told me things near their bedrooms, as I was collecting laundry, I was stunned. I asked, Did he do it on purpose? Yes. Did he spit on anyone else? No. What did he do afterward? Handstands, she said.
I didn’t know what to say. My first inclination was to tell her to spit back. She gave me the early incarnation of her sarcastic incredulous look. “I thought about it,” she said. “But I don’t even know how to do that.”
Of course she didn’t. I hadn’t trained my three girls to collect their spit and use it to insult people. And for the rest of the day, she was angry. I was dizzy with fury. Punches or throwing dirt were usual kid stuff. This was an escalation, a message, the liquid tool used to deliver the message during all those years of segregation and civil rights and busing and riots. It was spit. It meant something.
* * * *
My ex-husband still remembers with vivid clarity the first time someone called him a nigger. He was eight, visiting a fishing lake outside LA with his cousin, and the white boy was not much older. It’s in the cartilage and blood and memory. He has told our daughters this story many times.
On the night of saliva, when I called him, he kept his fury inside. But we made our usual plan, the careful presentation we had perfected over years of protecting our three daughters: mixed-race, with hair everyone noticed first, with intellect that classmates didn’t always trust or celebrate, with intense emotions and my sentiment and his wariness, with too many words for some people and not enough words for others.
Our youngest daughter heard me on the phone. She knew that, the next day, I would dress particularly well, being the white mother who cannot wear sweats or faded jeans because my children are black, and we have seen in doctors’ offices or school auditoriums how that goes. She knew I would bring out the big gun. There was no alternative.
Her father is six-foot-four, weighs three hundred pounds, and by now has worked for twenty years as a correctional officer. For afternoons such as that one when our daughters were young, he favored a particular wardrobe: Big Dog shirt, size XXXL, and black wraparound sunglasses. He rarely had to say more than a few words to be effective. Previously, when our middle daughter had had trouble with four boys, trouble involving the way they hit her in the head with palm fronds and frozen water bottles found on the playground, Daddy had stood near the ramp at the exit to the portable classroom door as school let out, and said exactly four words: “Which ones are they?” Our middle daughter pointed. The four boys ran. The trouble ceased.
On the day after the saliva, we went to see the vice-principal together, near the end of the school day. We did not require our youngest daughter’s presence. She did not need interrogation, and it was not her job to provide details for Christian’s racist insults.
These I pointed out in specifics, also citing the summons which had mortified her in the classroom in November. The vice-principal understood nothing of this, and was uncomfortable, waiting to hear the word nigger.
I spoke about the saliva. “Spit,” my ex-husband said. “He spit on my daughter.” The vice-principal had an administrative reaction which did not take history into account. He said he was glad we had not panicked about germs. We frowned. He added, “You know, viruses.”
We looked at each other. We were not worried about germs, and clearly, he was not understanding us, and again, it was not our task to educate him, any more than it had been our daughter’s. The one who hears the word nigger and sees the spray of saliva cannot continue to be the one who has to teach history.
My ex-husband and I said nothing else to him or each other, and we left the office. The playground we crossed is the same one where my ex-husband’s youngest sister played when she was a child. We headed toward a different classroom. In our old neighborhood, any parent could reprimand any kid for behavior that was disrespectful or violent or dangerous, and that was community. Times are different now.
Still, our youngest daughter had known, without asking us, what would happen. She knew the night before, because the word nigger is in her blood and memory and cartilage, and while I washed Christian’s spit off her jacket in the laundry sink (she watched me spray Shout on the spot, which we thought was funny), she knew that her father would stand the next afternoon near the door of the portable classroom next to her own, because that was Christian’s class. She could already picture her father’s massive arms folded, his shoulders the width of the picnic tables nearby. When the fifth-graders in that room began to stream down the wooden ramp toward the playground, her father would not approach the boy, or speak to him at all. He would use only four words, asking her in a measured tone, “Which one is he?”
Our child pointed, and the boy looked up, and I nodded at Christian in formal greeting, and terror mixed with realization on his face, and then he ran. (“He runs like a girl,” my ex-husband noted dispassionately.) We had to hope that when she walked off the playground with us, everyone staring at her father, she keeping her chin high in disdain, it would be enough.
* * * *
We know better now, of course.
This fall, he and I talked about it one afternoon, after we moved our youngest daughter into her apartment for senior year of college, both her sisters helping. Twenty-seven years of trying to help our daughters navigate the looks and words and physical manifestations of racism, like all other parents of black children. But contemporary playgrounds are legion and without boundary of any kind. There are no consequences for dragging with your fingers the digital face of a young woman onto the body of a young woman who died a terrible death for reasons not even known, in a history not considered relevant by large segments of America. My ex-husband and I speak in code, and with some wistfulness, about all those days we spent pushing back, during which we hoped we had effected change in a few racists, because now we know that the only tangible was the pride and relief on the faces of our daughters—that we always had their backs.