The Discovery of What It Meansto Be a Black Boy
It was wintertime, early in the morning. I was in the third grade,standing on the rectangular asphalt playground behind HolyTrinity Interparochial School in Westfield, New Jersey, palming atennis ball, waiting. Ned, nearsighted and infamous for licking thedusty soles of his penny loafers in the back of social studies class,was splayed against the cold orange brick wall of the school building.He had his head down and hands up, legs akimbo with his buttout, like a South American mule bracing herself to be searchedby border patrol. “Not so hard!” he cried, glancing back over hisshoulder through smudged Coke-bottle lenses.
“Put your head down!” another boy yelled.
“Fine, just do it and get it over with, then,” Ned muttered.
“Head down!” the boy said. I wound my arm back and let fly afastball that seemed to hang in the air for a second before rico-cheting from the small of Ned’s back like a Pete Sampras ace offsome hapless ball boy at Wimbledon. Ned jerked upright andhowled in pain. All my classmates screamed and high-fived me asthe bell rang and we rushed to grab our book bags and line up insize order before our teachers came to lead us indoors. I was stillthe undisputed king of Butts-Up, I thought to myself as I pulled myChicago Bulls Starter jacket over my uniform. Standing in line, waitingfor the younger grades to file past, I began mumbling to myselfbits of a song by Public Enemy, a song that my older brother hadbeen playing at home and that had gotten stuck in my head thatweek like the times tables or the Holy Rosary. “Yo, nigga, yoooooo,nigga, yoooo-oooooo, niiiigga . . .” I repeated the refrain over andover under my breath, unthinkingly, as I relived in my mind’s eyethe glorious coup de grace, the deathblow I’d just dealt Ned fromover ten yards away—Blaow!
“But you’re a nigger, too,” a voice said from behind me, and I halfmade out what I’d just heard, but not fully. I went on singing mysong, which I couldn’t claim to understand on any level, but whichsomehow made me feel cool as hell, and that was all that mattered.The voice repeated itself, louder this time: “But you’re a nigger,too, Thomas, aren’t you?”
“Huh?” I said, pivoting to see Craig standing there, his dirtyblondhair cut by his mother’s Flowbee into the shape of an upsidedownserving bowl, like a medieval friar without the bald spot.“What did you just say?”
“You’re a nigger, too, right, so how can you say that?”
“How can I say what?”
“‘Yo, nigga, yo, nigga’; how can you say that when you’re a nigger,too, right?”My mother is white, my father black. They met in San Diego in thelate 1960s. Both were entrenched on the West Coast front of whatat the time was called the War on Poverty. After San Diego, theywent up to Los Angeles. From L.A. they made their way north andmy father pursued doctoral studies in sociology at the Universityof Oregon. In 1975, and over my maternal grandfather’s dead body,they were married in Eugene at the county courthouse. They hadlittle money, fewer blessings, and plenty of love. Later, they movedagain to Spokane and my mother, Kathleen, gave birth to their firstchild, Clarence, named for my father. From Spokane the family continuallymoved east: first to Denver, then to Albany, then to Philadelphia,and finally to New Jersey, where I was born in 1981.
When I was one year old, my father switched professions andthe family moved again, this time from Newark, where he had beenrunning antipoverty programs for the Episcopal Archdiocese andmy mother had been raising my brother and me, to Fanwood, asmall suburb thirty minutes to the west on U.S. Route 22. Fanwood,like the space inside a horseshoe, is bordered on three sides by themuch larger township of Scotch Plains, and these two municipalitiesby and large function as one. They share a train station andpublic school system and together act as a kind of buffer groundbetween wealthy Westfield to the east and poor Plainfield to thewest. Riots and waves of white flight long ago left Plainfield avexed cross between a legitimate inner-city ghetto—with all therequisite crime, poverty, and hopelessness that go with that—andan emergent middle-class suburb that in many ways resemblesWestfield, except for the condition of the houses and the color ofthe residents. No such white flight occurred in Fanwood, ScotchPlains, or Westfield, although like so many small towns in NewJersey, they had their designated black pockets.
When my parents first began searching in the area, real estatebrokers only wanted to show them homes in Plainfield or on theredlined black sides of town. They said families like ours tendedto prefer things this way, but my father, whom we call Pappy in anod to his Southern roots, had led a childhood that was boxed inby formal segregation in Texas, and no longer could stand to betold where to live. Out of principle he said to the brokers thankyou but no thank you, and insisted on seeing all listings. Reluctantly,they caved and the four of us settled into a three-bedroomranch on Fanwood’s decidedly white side.
It was a neighborhood of well-kept homes with yards that wereflaired-up with inflatable IT’S A BOY! lawn signs, lighted holiday displays,and the occasional life-size Virgin Mary shrine. There weretwo main downtown areas in either direction of our house, withmore pizzerias than banks or dry cleaners and, to Pappy’s lament,without a single bookstore between them. Our neighbors werewhat my parents called “ethnic whites,” and they tended to growup, buy homes, have children, and die within a twenty-mile radiusof where they had been born—a fact that always seemed to strikeMom and Pappy as bizarre. As a family, we did not fit in with thesepeople, who often didn’t know what to make of us. Once when Iwas a very young boy, I was at the grocery store with my mother,misbehaving as little children do, when an older white womanwalked by and said, “Ugh, it must be so tough adopting those kidsfrom the ghetto.”
Despite my mother’s being white, we were a black and not aninterracial family. Both of my parents stressed this distinction andthe result was that, growing up, race was not so complicated anissue in our household. My brother and I were black, period. Myparents adhered to a strict and unified philosophy of race, the contentsof which boil down to the following: There is no such thingas being half-white, for black, they explained, is less a biologicalcategory than a social one. It is a condition of the mind that isloosely linked to certain physical features, but more than anythingit is a culture, a challenge, and a discipline. We were taught fromthe moment we could understand spoken words that we would betreated by whites as though we were black whether we liked it ornot, and so we needed to know how to move in the world as blackmen. And that was that.
Questions of the soul were less clear. My mother is Protestant,the daughter of an evangelical Baptist minister. My father is whathe calls a Geopolitical-Existentialist-Secularist-Humanist-Realist,which really is just his way of saying he doesn’t put much stock inorganized religion. Nevertheless, after very nearly being homeschooled,Clarence and I were enrolled in private Catholic schoolsfor what my father described as “the superior levels of discipline”they offered in relation to the public schools nearby.
Another factor in the decision was the day Clarence camehome from School One, about a half-block away from our frontdoor, dazed and unable to speak. He was in the second grade andmy father had given him an oxblood leather briefcase. Apparently,this made him stand out among the other boys. So did his suntannedskin, which after the long hot summer was the color ofmaple honey; and his hair, which was styled in a large sphericalAfro and which in his childhood was light brown with strands ofblond and something like sherry in it: beautiful. My mother andsometimes my father would comb my brother’s Afro in the morningswith an orange tin can of Murray’s dressing grease and a blackplastic pick. “You look distinguished now, son,” Pappy would say,and smile when he was finished with him, distinguished being therarest and highest compliment in his vocabulary.
Clarence was a quiet boy with thick hair, good muscle tone, andintelligent almond-shaped eyes beneath bushy brown eyebrows.That day at school a group of white children had cornered andtaunted him on the yard, asking what a fucking monkey had to dowith a briefcase. Either the other black students didn’t see thishappen or they chose not to intervene. Pappy yanked Clarencefrom public school the next day. By the time I was old enough, beingin class with our neighbors was not even an option.
Unlike some children of mixed-race heritage, I didn’t ever wish tobe white. I wanted to be black. One of the first adult books myparents gave to me, around age seven, was Alex Haley’s The Autobiographyof Malcolm X. Often my mother would come into myroom in the evening and discuss with me what I was reading. Forseveral nights, I lay awake long after she had turned out the lights,haunted by the image of Malcolm’s father lying prone on the railroadtracks, his body torn in two and his cranium cracked openlike a coconut husk. I didn’t want to resemble in any way whatsoeverthose men who did things like that to other men.
It was a fortunate thing for me, too, that I didn’t want to bewhite. It was fortunate because I really didn’t have much choice inthe matter. My parents were right: Around white kids, I simply wasnot white. Whatever fantasies of passing may have threatened tosteal into my mulatto psyche and wreak havoc there were dispelledearly on, when Tina turned around in her chair, flipped herbronze ponytail to the side, and asked me point-blank, and audiblyenough for the whole classroom to hear, “Hey, why doesn’t yourhair move like everyone else’s?”
“It’s because I’m black,” I told her, and I wasn’t angry or embarrassed.It was just a fact, I felt, the way that she was husky orbig-boned.
Though we didn’t speak about it outright, I don’t think mybrother, Clarence, ever wanted to be white, either. He just didn’tseem to see race everywhere around him like my parents and I did.Or if he saw it, he fled from it and didn’t want to analyze it or haveto spend his time unraveling it. He didn’t want to be forced tomake a big deal out of it. He was forgiving and trusting and foundcompanions wherever they would be his. His two best friendswere black, and he dated a quiet Asian girl for a spell during highschool. Mostly, though, he fell in with a set of neighborhood whiteboys with lots of vowels in their surnames and little in their heads.These white boys were almost certainly the same ones who, yearsearlier, had demeaned my brother with racial epithets on thatSchool One playground (the neighborhood is not that big). ButClarence never knew how to hold a grudge, and that was ages agoand these were his neighbors and they liked to do the things thathe liked to do: ride bikes, ride skateboards, talk cars, smoke cigarettes,cut class, hang out. And they did take him in as one of theirown, that’s true, although I could see even as a child that they didso without ever fully allowing him to rest his mind, to forget thathe was black and that he was somehow other. Still, I can’t fault mybrother for going the way he felt was most comfortable. He was achild of the late ’70s and ’80s; hip-hop hadn’t completely circumscribedthe world he was formed in. I was a child of the late ’80sand ’90s, on the other hand. I went the other route.
Not that it was always an easy route to go. It was not enoughsimply to know and to accept that you were black—you had to lookand act that way, too. You were going to be judged by how convincinglyyou could pull off the pose. One day when I was around nineyears old, my mother drove Clarence and me over to Unisex HairCreationz, a black barbershop in a working-class section of Plainfield. Back then we had a metallic blue, used Mercedes-Benz sedan,which from the outside seemed in good condition, though underneaththe hood it was anything but, as the countless repair billsPappy juggled would attest. While the three of us waited for thelight to change colors, I became transfixed by the jittery figure of along, thin black woman in a stained T-shirt and sweatpants, a greasyscarf wrapped around her head. She was holding an inconsolablebaby in one hand and puffing on a long cigarette with the other,stalking the second-floor balcony of a beat-up old Victorian mansionthat had been converted into apartments.
I must have really been staring at her, because all of a sudden Inoticed that she wasn’t aimlessly pacing back and forth anymorebut pointing and yelling specifically at our car. “What the fuck areyou staring at?” she howled. “You rich, white motherfuckers in yourMurr-say-deez, go the fuck home! You think you can just come andwatch us like you in a goddamn zoo?”
She was making a scene. Passersby in the street were takingnotice and looking at our car, too. That was a time when Benzeswere the shit and you had to be careful where you parked becausetough guys would pull off the little hood ornament and wear itfrom a chain around their necks—ready-made jewelry. I was terriblyuncomfortable being the center of attention there in that backseat,mentally pleading for the light to turn green. I was alsoconfused as hell. Who were these white people this woman keptreferring to? Was she talking about . . . us—was she talking aboutme? Of course my mother was white, but I didn’t understand howshe could think I was white, too. After all, I was on the way thatvery moment to have my hair cut at the only barbershop in thearea that would cut hair like mine—curly, nappy hair. The kindthat “didn’t move,” the kind of hair that disqualified me from gettingcuts at the white barbershop two blocks from my house. But thiswoman was talking to me.
“Just ignore her,” my mother said, and finally we drove away. ButI couldn’t drive that woman’s angry face out of my head. She hadsomehow stripped me of myself, taken something from me. I felt Ihad to protect myself from ever feeling that kind of loss again.
When I stepped into the barbershop that day and every secondSaturday afterward, I was extra careful to pay attention to the otherblack boys sitting inside, some with their uncles, some with theirfathers and brothers, some sitting all alone. These boys becamelike models to me. I studied their postures and their screwfaces,the unlaced purple and turquoise Filas on their feet, their mannerisms,the way they slapped hands in the street. These boys wouldnever be singled out and dissed the way I had been. I decided Iwanted whatever it was that protected them.
Inside Unisex, it smelled deliciously of witch hazel and Barbasol,and there were three long rows of cushioned seats facing fiveswiveling barber’s chairs like bleachers in a gymnasium. Therewas an old, fake-wood-paneled color television suspended fromthe ceiling in the far back corner. If a bootlegged movie wasn’tplaying on the VCR, the TV stayed stuck on one channel in particularthe rest of the time, a channel I soon learned was called BlackEntertainment Television. At the time in the morning when I usuallycame into the shop, the program Rap City would be showing.These barbershop Rap City sessions were not my first exposure tohip-hop music and culture, of course; I had been aware of it vaguelythrough the tapes my brother brought home and played in hisbedroom. I don’t believe, though, that I had ever noticed BET before,and in the strange, homogeneously black setting of UnisexHair Creationz and the city of Plainfield beyond it, the sight of thisall-black cable station mesmerized and awed me. Watching BET feltcheap and even a little wrong on an intuitive level—my parentswouldn’t admire most of what was shown; Pappy called itminstrelsy—but the men and women in the videos didn’t just contendfor my attention, they demanded it, and I obliged them. Theywere all so luridly sexual, so gaudily decked out, so physically confident with an oh-I-wish-a-nigga-would air of defiance, so defensivelyassertive, I couldn’t pry my eyes away.
One morning, Ice-T’s “New Jack Hustler” video came on, andthough I didn’t know the meaning behind the title—or evenwhether I liked what I was hearing—I knew for sure that the otherboys in the shop didn’t seem to question any of it, and I sensedthat I shouldn’t, either. All of them knew the words to the song andsome rapped along to it convincingly. I paid attention to the slangthey were using and decided I had better learn it myself. Terms like“nigga” and “bitch” were embedded in my thought process, and Iwas consciously aware for the first time that it wasn’t enough justto know the lexicon. There was also a certain way of moving andgesticulating that went with whatever was being said, a silent bodylanguage that everybody seemed to speak and understand, whetherrapping or chatting, which I would need to get down, too. Over theweeks and months that followed, as I became more and moreadept at mimicking and projecting blackness the BET way, andwhile it was all still fresh to me, what struck me most about thisnew behavior was how far it veered not just from that of my whiteclassmates and friends at Holy Trinity, but also from that of my fatherand the two older black barbers in the barbershop—sharpmen who looked out of place in Unisex and who held the doorand brushed parts on the sides of their heads.
One afternoon I came home from the barbershop sporting anaerodynamic new hair creation of my own. “What on earth did youlet them do to you, son?” Pappy said as soon as he saw me. (Ourhouse was not spacious; the front door opened directly into Pappy’sstudy, which he had converted from what ordinarily wouldhave been a living room. To enter the house was literally to stepinto his scrutinizing gaze.)
“Huh?” I said, touching my hand to my head. The top was so flatand cylindrical it resembled an unused No. 2 pencil eraser; thesides and the back were shaved all the way down, revealing a shaftof high-yellow scalp.
“What, they didn’t listen when you told them what you wanted?”
“No, they did,” I said. “This is what I wanted.”
“You wanted that?”
“Well, yeah, it’s what everyone is wearing, Babe; it’s what’s onBET and in all the magazines.” (We call my father Babe when speakingto him casually, kind of a tu to the vous of Pappy.)
“And you want to look like everyone else, son? Is that what youwant?” He was staring at me intently now.
I stood there before him, studying the Air Flights on my feet. Ididn’t have a response he would find remotely respectable. Thething is that I did want to look like everyone else—everyone elsein the barbershop and on that TV screen. After all, even in the backseatof a big ol’ Murrsaydeez, the woman on the balcony wouldnever mistake a brother with a flattop like this for being white.
Annoyed or dismayed by my new coif as he was, though, Pappyallowed Clarence and me a generous amount of latitude when itcame to our personal style, as long as we were giving him our bestefforts in what he cared about most: the development of our minds.What this meant, giving him our best, was not that we were pressuredto place first in our classes or even to get straight A’s on ourschoolwork, although it would have been welcome if we did. Wewere expected to maintain decent grades, but it was deeper thanthat. Pappy, no longer working as a sociologist, now put his PhDand extensive store of personal knowledge and reading to use runninga private academic and SAT preparation service from ourhome. From the second grade on, giving Pappy our best meant weneeded to try hard in school, but much more important than that,we needed to study one-on-one with him in the evenings and onthe weekends, on long vacations, and all throughout the summerbreak. If we could not do that, he was able to make our home themost uncomfortable inn to lodge in. When Clarence began blowingoff work, he didn’t just get grounded, he came home to find hisbedroom walls stripped bare, his Michael Jordan and Run-D.M.C.posters replaced with pastel sheets of algebra equations Pappyhad printed out and tacked up.
As for me, the first time Pappy called me into his study to explainmy summer schedule, I was seven and my eyes betrayed me,welling with tears against my will. When he looked up from hisnotes and saw this, he got so offended that he stormed out of theroom and I fell into my mother’s lap crying. I did not want to do thework he had planned for me. I wanted to play with my friends andhave sleepover parties. I wanted to capture fireflies in ventilatedSmucker’s jars and beat Super Mario Brothers on Clarence’s Nintendo.That was the truth. However, more than anything, I wantednot to disappoint my father. With my mother’s encouragement andsome Kleenex, I followed Pappy into his bedroom and told him thatI had just had something in my eye and that, in fact, I had not beencrying. I was eager to start studying, I told him. He suspended hisdisbelief and led me back to his desk, where he proceeded to layout an intensive program of regimented work in syllogistic andspatial reasoning, vocabulary-building, Miller analogies, arithmetic,and reading comprehension—his signature cocktail.
If Pappy was a tyrant, he was a gentle and conflicted one, whodid not relish the role. He yearned for a time when he would ceasehaving to be one at all. What he hoped was that if he could somehowjust make reading and studying appealing enough to his boys,eventually we wouldn’t need his prodding anymore and we’d simplydo it on our own. To that end, he made sure not just to danglepunishment over our heads, Sword of Damocles–style, and leaveit at that. He went out of his way to be fair. If we just did whathe asked without too much complaint, he would do us some realsolids in return, such as paying us generously for our time (“Study-ing is your job, and an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’spay”), intervening on our behalf when our mother doled outchores (“Studying is their only job”), and tolerating a slew of hair,clothing, and dating choices that were in flagrant violation of hispersonal tastes.
Despite these enticements, Clarence would always find it diffi-cult to take to long periods of study, and he went through fits ofresistance routinely. Being the younger brother, I had the advantageof learning from his mistakes and avoiding most of his battles. Iwas what Pappy called a “dutiful son.” Most of the time this dutifulnessof mine sufficed. We were rarely in open conflict with eachother, and he was almost always patient and playfully encouragingwith me.
“Thomas Chatterton,” he’d say, addressing me by my middlename as I sped through his study on my way to the kitchen, obliviousto my surroundings. “Do you know you wear the name of abrilliant poet, son?” he’d call from the other room.
“Yeah, of course, Babe,” I’d say, poking my head into the refrigerator,looking for something sweet.
“And do you know they call him the Marvelous Boy, his poetrywas so fine?” he’d say, still talking to me from the other room.
“Uh-uh,” I’d say with my mouth full.
“Well, they do. His poetry was so fine, in fact, and he was soyoung when he wrote it, that the adults couldn’t even believe thework was his own. They all accused him of copying someone else,someone much older.”
“They sure did. And do you know that he became so distraughtby this, he became so discouraged, that he killed himself when hewas only seventeen years old? He decided he couldn’t live withthe dishonor.”
“Yes it is, son. Life is not fair. But now you’re going to bring honorto his name, aren’t you? It’s very important that you do that, son.”
“But I don’t know how to, Babe,” I’d say, returning to the studywith a bowl of ice cream or a glass of soda in my hand.
”Well, you don’t have to be a poet, son. You can be a great philosopher,for example—pull up a seat.”
“A philosopher?” I’d say, and sit down.
“Yes, in fact, you’re a philosopher already, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think so,” I’d say, my cheeks flushing.
“Well, yes you are, son. Think about it: Do you question thethings around you? Do you reflect on their meaning? Are you interestedin the truth?”
“Then you’re a philosopher, son,” he would tell me, and I wouldlaugh, embarrassed because I didn’t feel at all like a philosopher,whatever that was I could only imagine. I felt ignorant, which iswhat I confessed to him. And he would tell me that ignorance isthe beginning of knowledge and talk of men named Socrates andConfucius. He revered these two men perhaps above all othermen, Socrates for his edict to know thyself and Confucius for hisdevotion to learning and personal excellence, he said. I would sitthere at Pappy’s desk, exhausting whatever sugary collation I hadbrought with me from the kitchen, and listen to him talk. “Well, I’vetold you enough,” he’d eventually say. “Now, you tell me—how amI going to grow up and be smart like you?” We’d laugh and I’d tryto come up with some reply. These questioning talks I had withPappy were so frequent in my childhood that to this day the nameSocrates remains mingled in my mind with the image of my baldingand bearded father seated in his study. I cannot think of onewithout inadvertently conjuring the other.
Sometimes, though, Pappy grew impatient waiting for the loveof learning to take root in me. “I don’t understand,” he’d say in momentsof frustration, “how you can keep walking past all thesebooks and never stop to pick up a single one of them. My peopletold me not to read—don’t you know what I would have done tohave all this? Don’t you ever get curious, son?” These were simple,honest questions that sometimes he put to me with a shake ofthe head and wry smile. Sometimes, though, he didn’t smile at all.In these latter moments, the look on his face was nothing likeanger and something like pain—a sort of deep, serious pain I haveonly seen replicated in pictures of black faces of a certain age anddemographic. It was a pain that I knew I couldn’t have caused butsomehow must have mistakenly activated. I would stand therelooking at him, frozen, like a deer suspended in halogen beams,and stammer some weak response.
That particular afternoon after my visit to the barbershop,Pappy let drop the subject of my rectangular head of hair andhanded me my work for the day. There was no long talk and nosadness in his face that afternoon. “Memory exercises and thenvocabulary, both synonyms and antonyms,” he said. “Write them allout on flashcards and then come see me.”
“OK, Babe,” I said, and went to my room carrying a pale greentachistoscope, a stack of SAT and GRE word lists, and a thickMerriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, glad to have dodged aconfrontation. After a morning spent at the barbershop, submergedin Black Entertainment Television, speaking and thinking in myflorid second tongue—Ebonics—it was time now to return to thestaid and familiar language of my father.