Middle Passages

Reverie Koniecki

I am in middle school. There is a slight incline in the stretch of hallway between homeroom and French class. I stop at my locker. Turn the dial. Spin. Right. Left. Right. Click. An open door. Books in hand. Three minutes until the bell rings. A hand reaches from behind me and slams the door shut. Another hand knocks the books I cradle to the floor. A voice whispers, “Go back to Africa, you black bitch.” It is the daily ritual between Jake and me. For an eighth grader, he is tall and muscular. Two years of slammed lockers, fallen books, unseen shoves, fights, and an all-you-can-eat buffet of racial slurs. Mouli. Black bitch. Coon. Nigger. Slave. Middle school is the first installment of the Scream franchise. I am the black girl who will die first.

            My friend Patty knows about Jake. We pass notes in French class. Patty tries to cheer me up. I tell her she is my best friend. She is elated. She says she never had a best friend before. It is the eighties, so the likelihood we will become blood sisters is high. Patty has two older brothers who are in high school. I can’t go to Patty’s house because her oldest brother Matt will beat her up. It started when their uncle died in the Vietnam war. Even though he died before any of us were born, when Matt learned of the race of his uncle’s killers, he began to hate Asians. Except Patty and I probably call them Orientals because we are not yet politically correct. From Asians, Matt’s hate spreads to Jews, and then naturally to Blacks. Patty doesn’t understand his hate, but she fears it. She tells me even though her younger brother Corey acts like he’s racist when Matt is around, she knows he isn’t racist in his heart.

            Patty and Corey go skating over the weekend. Matt is not present. Patty sees Corey talking to a black boy. She sees Corey laughing and racing the black boy. She sees Corey touch the black boy’s arm with tenderness. She approaches her brother. “You’re not racist,” Patty declares.

            “No, I’m not,” Corey admits. “But we can’t tell Matt.”

            Patty’s skin gets dark in the sun. She says her father’s skin is darker than mine in the summer. Her father won’t talk about his family or his past. Patty and her brothers wonder about their family’s dark skin, but their father’s lips are sealed.

            Patty lives two miles from me. I live in an apartment complex where my brother will go out to play one day wearing his yellowjacket-colored sunjammer sunglasses that he is so proud of. His bike, which has recently shed its training wheels, and t-shirt match in color scheme. It is long before Wiz Khalifa will make an anthem of the color combination.

            I live in an apartment complex where my brother will come back crying. He will be walking his bike and his broken sunjammer sunglasses will hang lamely from his neck. My six-year-old brother will hiccup as he tells me and my mother how five ten-year-old boys jumped him. My mother will envelope him when he tells us how those five ten-year-old boys knocked him off his bike. I will stand stupidly in the corner as my brother replays how those boys hit him and kicked him. I will start to cry as he tells us how they put his face in dog shit. I will feel guilty because he was alone.

             I will start to have migraines. My mother will take me to the doctor who will give me ibuprofen and teach me Lamaze. I will lay on the bottom bunk after school each afternoon and imagine myself slowly becoming a ragdoll. I will imagine myself with fire red yarn hair with both ends looped into my scalp. My skin will become pasty. My eyes will become black triangles juxtaposed onto tapioca skin as if they don’t belong there. I will ask my doctor if I can imagine something else. She will tell me to visualize myself as a container of water with holes in the soles of my feet. I will ask, how will the water drain from my arms? She will tell me to imagine my fingers also have holes or to raise my hands above my head.

            I wake in the middle of the night screaming. My mother slaps me into consciousness. It is way after midnight, and I have no memory of anything. In the morning, my throat is sand and I can barely open my jaw. This is our nightly ritual.

            My mother invites my cousins over for a barbeque. The five of us go to each boy’s apartment. My brother rings doorbells and asks if a boy can come out to play. My cousins and I hide around the corner. Two of the five boys are not home. The other three we hold down, while my brother does the hitting and kicking.

            Patty’s brother Matt has a job. Her brother Corey has a black friend. Patty and Corey share secrets. Patty and Corey tell their father about Matt’s threats. Patty’s father tells Matt to tell Patty and Corey they can be friends with whomever they want. Matt obeys. Matt is going to be working Saturday. Patty invites me over. She lives on a dirt road, on several acres of farm. She has her own room and an indoor, heated pool. We swim. We go back to her room and giggle. When we are hungry, we go to the kitchen for a snack. Matt comes home. Patty introduces me. He says hello and heads to his room. My mother picks me up. It is the best weekend since I moved to this hellhole. In French class on Monday, Patty shows me her bruises. I never go to Patty’s house again.

            When we are in our thirties, I will run into Holly, another middle school friend, on Facebook. Holly will post a photo from the Quebec trip when we tried to sneak out of the hotel. We will laugh about how I shimmied out the window first. (The piece of tape on the outside of our hotel door left us with the window as our only means of escape.) Once I hit the ground, the weakness of our plan strikes us, and we spend the next hour figuring out how to get me back in. I am too short. Patty, who is tall for her age, jumps out the window and lends me the extra height I need to reach the other girls’ outstretched hands. We both make it back into the hotel room undetected.

            Holly remembers Jake. I tell her I hate him. She doesn’t understand. I ask her if she remembers how he treated me. She has no memory of him punching my locker. Of him threatening to kick my ass. Or of any of the racial slurs he introduced me to. She does not remember me being afraid to tell anyone for fear that the spotlight would make it worse. She doesn’t remember my mother coming to the school once a week to pressure administration into protecting me. She doesn’t remember the teaching staff’s response was to act as if I was invisible no matter how rotten I behaved. She doesn’t remember me pushing the limit to see if anyone would call me on my attitude and meeting no resistance. She doesn’t remember Jake holding up a crayon and loudly declaring, “Look! I have a BLACK crayon!” and laughing uncontrollably. She doesn’t remember how no one said anything in my defense. She doesn’t remember how I put my head down and just cried. She doesn’t remember Mrs. O. pulling me out into the hallway and asking me what was wrong. Or me telling her how I wished that people would just treat me as a normal person. She doesn’t know that my blackness precludes me from being “normal.”

            I am teaching George Orwell’s 1984 to sophomores. We don’t have time to read the entire book, so we watch the movie and read only the first three chapters. Even after seeing Parsons mindfuck Winston by holding up four fingers and insisting there are 5. Even after witnessing his lobotomy, electric shocks, and extreme hallucinations, the students are still confused about the concept of doublethink. When I ask them to form an opinion about Orwell’s commentary on the nature of reality, they don’t understand my analogy of the tree falling in the forest any better than they do 2+2=5. They don’t remember that Hitler rewrote history and tried to credit the invention of airplanes to Germans. There is too much space between them and that war. So, I tell them that our histories were left out of the narrative. And I ask them, who benefits from this redacted history? I ask them to identify the people who have control of the narrative here in the United States.

            “Rich people? The government?” They offer, unsure.

            “Yes. That is true.” I say, “But who, or what group of people, decides what stories get included in curricula?”

            Holly still doesn’t remember any of Jake’s offenses even after I remind her about how he carved NIGGER into the side of the music teacher’s car. I don’t know why I feel a sense of loss.

            The music teacher is the only other black body at the middle school. I am in choir and stay after school Tuesdays and Thursdays for practice. Jake comes in and hands the music teacher a wad of cash. He doesn’t look in the teacher’s eyes. His words are no longer a hiss.

            The music teacher repairs his car. Jake comes to practice each week with a new wad of cash. The music teacher never meets my eyes. I wonder if he knows we are both victims of vandalism.

Reverie Koniecki is an African American poet and educator living in Dallas, Texas. Reverie is currently working towards her MFA in Poetry at New England College. She is a poetry editor for The Henniker Review.  Her poems and prose have appeared in Entropy, Thimble Magazine, and Off the Margins.

Comments are closed.