By Zoey Miller
Illustration by Meg Shamblen
Exhausted, the mother sleeps as the baby is taken from her. The grandmother plucks it up with the gentle swiftness of an adept hand. Her skin, only slightly wrinkled from age, belies her experience. “Phone the father,” She urges the child’s aunts, “Phone him now and tell him he’s a daddy”. The child’s aunts call a bar tritely named the Tropicana and ask for the father. They tell the bartender that it’s a boy and the entire bar erupts into cheers. Backs are slapped, glasses crash into each other, and the drunks roar their applause. Two years later he would end the relationship with the mother and he wouldn’t see his child again until precious years had passed, but today everyone celebrated the boy’s birth and the drinks poured freely. On that day a mother was made, and a father, a father could have been too.
The boy is now seven years old and in the second grade. His teacher, Mrs. Winshire, is asking the class to go through a box of crayons and pick the one that is his same color. He smiles as he goes through each Crayola, delighted by the colors, his fingertips oiled and smeared with a rainbow of them. He finally finds one wedged so tightly in he has to use his other hand to hold the other ones down as he pulls it up. He smiles as he looks at it. It is called Sienna and he thinks it is beautiful. He calls the teacher over to tell her that he found one; a color he thinks matches his own. Mrs. Winshire laughs and smiles at him. Her hair is long and blonde and her teeth are full and straight and he thinks that she is beautiful. She tells him that Sienna is not the color that he is. She rifles through the crayon box and picks out a solid stoic black. ‘This,’ she says, ‘is what you are.’ She smiles broadly. Mrs. Winshire is beautiful. He looks at the simplicity of the crayon. He is not the beautiful Sienna that he thought he was, he is black now, he knows it.
They are going to have to put him into another class, they explain to the mother. She holds the boy’s hand. They are in an office at the school surrounded by teachers and faculty. ‘His reading comprehension far exceeds that of the other students’ the Principal explains. They want to put him in an experimental class to nurture his intelligence and the boy’s mother excitedly agrees. The next day the boy is put into a classroom by himself where he is forced to take tests every day and he is almost positive he is being punished for something.
￼He is thirteen years old as he makes his way down Parsons Avenue. It is spring and it is sunny but he wears a hooded sweatshirt regardless. Two chapter books are tucked underneath his arm as he makes his way to the public library. His head is full of the silly thoughts and dreams that usually fill a boy’s head during adolescence so when the pickup truck flies past him and a small brown haired boy pokes his head out the passenger side window and screams ‘nigger!’ it takes him a moment to piece it all together. The truck speeds away down the road; he is stunned and unsure of himself. He knows from TV shows and movies that he’s supposed to react, to become angry and offended but there is nothing but hollowness in his center. He briefly wonders if there is something wrong with him before shrugging and continuing on to the library.
He is a young man now, obsessed with books, movies, and music and while everyone else would rather meet up at the basketball courts down the street he’d rather stay inside binge watching PulpFiction and My Neighbor Totoro until three in the morning. He tries to explain these brilliant and beautiful stories to the people around him but they usually give him an odd look, beleaguered with confusion, before asking him what the fuck he was even talking about. It makes him laugh every time.
He is with his family and it is Christmas. He tags along with his younger brothers as they make the rounds, chatting it up with cousins and grandparents. He greets an uncle he hasn’t seen in quite some time. The uncle ignores the boy, shouldering past him. ‘Boy,’ the uncle says, ‘You talk white. You always wanted to be white anyway.’ There is an odd silence that lingers in the wake of the statement. No one else comments on or retorts the sentiment. But of course they wouldn’t, it echoes what they have already felt. A cold rage seeps into the boy but he says nothing, just clenches his teeth together, locking his jaw. He decides then that he will go to college and that he will stay as far away from these people for as long as he possibly can. His fists tighten. He is in a crowd of his own kin and he is alone.
He is in a car speeding down the freeway. The driver is a wideeyed young Indian girl with long black hair that tumbles down her shoulders in waves and curls. They’ve just returned from dinner with his mother and stepfather and he is relieved and pleased with the experience. She is the only girl he has ever introduced to his parents and the longest relationship he has ever let last. He smiles to himself as he thinks about how much he loves her. ‘Next we’ll have to meet your folks,’ he says to her. Her fingers grip the steering wheel and she blinks nervously. She tells him they wouldn’t understand, that she hasn’t even told them that she was seeing anyone the entire year that they’ve been together. He doesn’t ask her why, he knows it’s because he’s not the right ￼shade of brown. He looks away from her, unsure how to feel. ‘I love you’ she assures him, her eyes pleading with his for understanding. He nods and smiles weakly. A month later they stop seeing each other. She finishes her degree in premed and is soon accepted into a medical school.
He is becoming something angry and jaded. He sees this in himself.
The housing market has crashed, or so the news keeps telling him. It is 2008 and he’s 23 now and although he has never felt like a child in his life he certainly isn’t one now. He lives with the friends he met in college, friends with cell phones and cars and furniture. His room feels sparse in comparison and although he has never finished college he knew he was never well off enough to have ever finished anyway. He tells his roommates he is again short on rent for the month. The job he works now can’t afford him full time and can’t afford to lose him either way. Sometimes they pay him late, most times weeks at a time. But they are kind and luckily it’s a mom and pop restaurant so they feed him the occasional meal, it keeps him sustained and grateful. A roommate suggests he take a quick loan from a loan store to pay bills. It is a cold winter and even though it’s not the coldest he’s ever endured the wind seems far more unforgiving the day he walks to the loan store. He stops just before he opens the door, a funny thought has struck him; if his father and mother would have known what kind of life they would have conceived, would they have done so anyway? Would they have taken responsibility for who he is now? His fingers let loose of the door to the check loan store, he blinks back tears as he turns to walk back home. Tomorrow he would search for another job, but today he would allow his pride and emotions to pummel him there on the sidewalk on that long winter’s walk home.
He is thirty now and he finds himself in a bar with every television set tuned into the Baltimore City riots. He sits just two or three stools from a passionate and loud man with thinning blonde hair. The man is drunk and he is slovenly and he is illbred but in a way he is beautiful in his whiskey coaxed honesty. His breath weighs heavy with cigarettes and Taco Bell as he leans across the bar. The man is desperately telling him truths, truths the man is sure he doesn’t understand. Of how the ‘black race’ ought to be glad they’re getting any media attention at all. Of how ‘they’ do nothing but destroy their own impoverished neighborhoods and how ‘you don’t see white people doing that’. The man assures him, however, that he is no racist. His hands are tightening around his beer.
The world shames him and he is persistently suffocated by it.
It is a beautiful Saturday in May 2015. A friend has convinced him to come out to a peace rally in solidarity of the Baltimore City protests. At first he is nervous, unsure of what to expect but then he sees the crowd of protesters. They are Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Gay and Transgender and the sight of them swells his heart as he merges with the crowd. He blends seamlessly into the group of misfits and outcasts with their picket signs and their Chuck Taylor’s and their faded denim jackets. ‘Link arms!’ A rally leader commands through a megaphone. A pretty faced brunette smiles shyly at him and offers her elbow and they link together. Forward they all march, chanting protest songs and rally cries. Eventually the girl he is linked with raises her fist in solidarity of black empowerment. She is lost in herself momentarily, her slender pale arm raised high, until she looks over at him, self conscious and unsure. He nudges her in the rib in assurance and her elbow straightens, her fist raised high. He raises his too, fist and arm high in the setting sun. It is a fist raised in black empowerment and racial equality but to him, with his fist raised there in the light of the sun and his skin baking in its warmth, to him it is Sienna and to him it is beautiful.