“Who We Are”

Camille Acker

October 22, 2018 
The following is from Camille Acker's collection, Training School for Negro Girls. The collection explores the irony and tragicomedy of "respectability" and the role it plays in the lives of a wide-ranging cast of characters. Camille Acker's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hazlitt and VICE, among others, and received support from the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, Callaloo Writers' Workshop, Voices of Our Nation Arts, and others. This is her debut collection.

We walk down the halls like we are coming to beat you up. Even the teachers move out of the way. No one wants to catch an elbow in their rib or a foot in their stride. They look away when we pass. Or take a turn down a hallway where we are not. We will make them into a joke anyway. Something about their face. Or their clothes. Or their name. We decide who they are.

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When we go to lunch, we take up three tables. We need only two. Nobody will ask us to move. We sign up for the same classes. The easy ones. The white kids want the advanced placement classes. They make you take tests to get into them. Tests we never have liked. We don’t like teachers either. They tell us what to do. We don’t let anybody tell us what to do.

We cut class. Almost every day. The security guards are black like us so we just dap them up. Then, we go. When we leave, we go to the movies down the street. Pay for one. And then go theater to theater seeing all the shows we want.

We eat. At McDonald’s. Or the Chinese takeout. Or sometimes we go to nicer places where they give you real menus. We sit there eating and laughing. The owners say we should quiet down. We decide that to teach them, we won’t pay. And we run out on the bill. Sometimes even when they don’t say something, we run out on the bill.

And then we stroll all around Upper Northwest. We walk past real nice houses with real nice cars. Only one car in the driveway. The other one gone. Probably in some garage at the State Department. Or on the Hill. Or Downtown at one of the law firms. Every house has a big porch and around Christmas they have lights wound around the columns. A lit-up plastic snowman. A wreath on the door. And at Halloween, the houses have a skeleton and cotton made to look like cobwebs. A cackling witch.

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We go to school with some of their kids. Or their kids go to Sidwell. Or Holton-Arms. Or Georgetown Day. Their kids take classes at colleges too. A couple of days a week at American or GW. They come home and tell their parents about how the Germans get talked about more for what they did in World War II, but some people think the Japanese were worse. We don’t tell our parents things like that. We pretend we don’t even know things like that.

“We sign up for the same classes. The easy ones. The white kids want the advanced placement classes. They make you take tests to get into them. Tests we never have liked. We don’t like teachers either. They tell us what to do. We don’t let anybody tell us what to do.”

We go to this field with this old, abandoned stage. We sit there because we don’t sit in grass like white people. We sit on the warped old wood. It cracks and we crack on each other. And sometimes we make out. And sometimes we act like having someone else’s tongue in our mouth is nice. Or that having hands on our body is good. When we get to underwear, we stop there so we don’t get embarrassed.

And some days, there is alcohol from a cousin who says not to tell our parents and some days there is alcohol from way back in the cabinet on the lower right side of our parents’ stash. Once or twice, there is weed. And we lie on the stage, venturing splinters, surrounded by each other, not looking anybody in the face. And we feel lots of things we can’t say. Until we hit each other or pull each other’s hair and go back to pretending we don’t feel anything at all.

When we leave for the day, we get on the Metro. We swing around the poles. And lean over the people sitting in priority seating and act like we’re looking at the map. We laugh and curse and scream. The people in suits and ties and nice dresses and heels give us looks. Until. They turn to look out the window. Or look down into their Washington Posts. We talk louder to make them look. And we don’t stop until we see that they’re afraid. That they walk way down to the other end of the subway car to exit through that door instead of the door near us.

We always see an old lady on the train. Not the same one, but one tough enough to not look away. We won’t notice at first that she sees us. Then, when we do, we call her out on it.

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“Excuse me, ma’am?” we say. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am.”

“Yes?” she answers and smiles.

“Well, ma’am, I wanted to ask you a question. If it’s not too much trouble,” we say with our serious face.

“Go ahead,” she says. Encouraging us. Discouraging her fears.

We smile at her. “My friend wants to know if you’d suck his dick,” we say. We laugh big. With our faces. With our bodies. We fall into each other. We fall over the seats. She moves as far away from us as she can. We have her surrounded. She is trapped in her seat. She pushes against the window as if she could escape. Get out of the train. Tumble onto the tracks. We calm down. Only for the rest of the ride, we call out to her, “Ma’am? Excuse me, ma’am?” so we can laugh some more. When we get off, we can see that the old lady is still scared. That she hates us because we are everything she has tried to deny that we are. We are everything she has thought but has never said.

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We have shown her.


From Training School For Negro Girls. Used with permission of Feminist Press. Copyright © 2018 by Camille Acker.

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