So, my friend and podcast co-host James High gave everyone some homework stemming from a panel that he attended on race and poetry at the Chuckanut Writer’s Conference. The assignment is this: write about the first time you became aware of your race. So here goes.
I was a little child. I think it was before I was attending school, but maybe it was just summer. In my mind’s eye we were living in the beachside house in Anacortes, WA, with its empty lots next door and the big stone facade with big windows facing the sea.
But that can’t be true. So I think we were living in the Fox Hall neighborhood in Anchorage, Alaska. The Anacortes house takes the place of the Fox Hall house because it is the earliest house that I remember, possibly because I’ve been back to visit it as an adult. Such is the subjectivity of human memory.
This was before my mother cut my hair as punishment and I lived a school year insisting that I was a girl to all my doubting classmates.
I was outside, walking up to the house, and my dad was outside, wearing a blue jacket and sort of hiding a lit cigarette behind his back. I think he was taking a break from some kind of yard work. He saw me coming up the driveway and he asked me if I’d been off playing with that little black girl.
I don’t remember the girl’s name. I have a vague memory of a dark skinned little girl with her hair in twisted pigtails. I don’t remember what games we played or if we played at her house. I don’t think she played at mine.
Maybe I had heard my father talking about black people at some point when he didn’t know that little ears were listening. It’s possible; my dad was the second youngest of a big farm family in Arkansas. He was a casually racist man, though he later reformed.
So maybe it was the awareness, the uncomplicated awareness of a child that my father did not approve of black people that made me feel like I had to defend my friend. Maybe it was that which caused me to feel like calling a little black girl a little black girl was an insult.
So I looked up at him, and said, “she’s not black! She’s brown.”
My dad laughed in the way that you laugh to indulge a child who doesn’t understand how the real world works, and he continued to laugh, telling that story among family, in front of guests, to men from his office.
I walked past him, up to the house, having now absorbed the understanding that there was something different between her and I other than being different colors like kittens in a litter. Something silent, something that adults didn’t talk about around children.
I didn’t keep up with that little girl after we moved, which if we were in the Fox Hall house would have been the move to Anacortes. If we’d been in the Anacortes house, it would have been the move back to Anchorage. I was too young to keep a pen pal and there was no internet. Keeping in touch with her would have required a lot of help from my parents.
And my parents had little enough interest in me, let alone a little black girl from the neighborhood.