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ON AN EARLY AUTUMN morning in 1975, as fog rolled off the Pacific Ocean and covered the Vista Grande School playground, my first-grade girlfriends and I decided to squeeze in a quick foot race before school began. A row of backpacks marked the starting line and, two at a time, we dashed to the chain-link finish. On this morning I ran against one of my closest friends, Tammy, a freckled white girl with auburn hair. I bunched my large hands into fists and pumped my arms and legs in a full sprint to reach the fence well before she did. I could hardly hide my smile, so I knelt down to pull up the knee socks that pooled around my ankles, not wanting to gloat. Tammy trailed after me, pigtails bouncing, the corners of her mouth down turned in defeat. The warning bell announced the beginning of the school day as we collected our belongings and headed for the sprawling complex of single-story brick classrooms. In the din of children's voices, silence fell between us, and I struggled to think of a remark to break it.
Tammy spoke first. It didn't matter that I beat her, she explained. I waited to hear what she had to say, assuming she was trying to be a good sport rather than a sore loser. “My dad already told me,” she said, “black people have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people.” The claim rang in my ears like an accusation of cheating or cutting in line. Hours of barefooted play at her house and mine had allowed me to observe her feet and my own. My third left toe was shorter than the fourth one, but her toenails were longer than mine. Our feet were different, but I felt nearly positive that I did not have something hidden in mine.
The bickering match that erupted between us had become a full-blown argument by the time we crossed the asphalt and reached the door of our classroom. We appealed to our teacher, Mrs. Branch, a bottle brunette who sported a poor imitation of Farrah Fawcett's hairstyle. She hurriedly declared that my friend's father was right—black people indeed had something in their feet to make them run faster. My breath caught as her words hit me as hard as if she'd given me a slap. I tried to protest. If black people had special feet, I thought to myself, why didn't I know about it? It didn't sound right. Mrs. Branch ignored the shock on my face and cut across my objections with the order for everyone to take their seats. My jaw clenched. I felt trapped and betrayed. I brooded through the morning and glared at my teacher. Then I scowled at Tammy across the lunch table.
By afternoon play period, I felt desperate to settle the matter of my feet. Almost all of me believed that I would know if something special lurked beneath my skin. But doubt kept creeping into my mind because I had been wrong plenty of times. If Mrs. Branch and Tammy's dad knew something about my body that I did not, then I could retreat from my anger. Mrs. Branch could maintain her authority. When I saw Tammy's dad again, I would swallow my embarrassment that he knew more about me than I did. I could also keep my best friend, even though I might have to give her a head start if we raced again. Ignoring Tammy even for a few hours had made me sad and exhausted. I did not want to have to do it for the rest of the year unless I had to. I wanted to know the truth because the stakes of not knowing had become unbearable. I had to be absolutely sure.
The final school bell droned. I gathered up my belongings and raced through the classroom door to intercept my older sister, Natalie, before we reached the car pool line. Natalie was nine years old, three years older than I, which made her a trusted authority in my eyes. She always seemed to know more than I did, and her routine victories in our is-so-is-too arguments proved her wisdom. She was graceful and well liked and had far fewer playground battles than I did. Children and adults admired Natalie's beauty, manners, and charm. People interpreted her shyness as poise. On the off chance that black feet held a secret, I was sure that Natalie would have known before me. In the same way that Natalie's baby book was thick with pictures of her infancy, and mine was thin and sparse, my sister often had more and better information.
I knew that I had very little time to pose the question. Mom and Dad both worked more than an hour and several freeways away in Los Angeles and couldn't get back to Palos Verdes by the end of school. Any minute our babysitter, Mrs. Molting, the housewife who watched soap operas and babysat kids for extra cash, might pull up in her pea green station wagon. As the seconds passed, Natalie's friend Helen, a British girl who loved Engelbert Humperdinck, chattered on about her middle-aged idol. I broke into their conversation.
“Do black people have something in their feet to make them run faster?” was all I blurted.
“No,” Natalie said. I knew that ever since that white boy at our new church had called her a nigger, Natalie hated to discuss the differences between black and white people. The way she whipped her two long braids as she spun her head to look at me made it clear I'd upset her. She focused on Helen and ignored me.
I exhaled in relief that I had not cheated my way into victory. I felt flush as I realized that in another way the situation was as bad as I feared, which drained me of any urge to right the wrong. This was much more than a playground dispute that I could hash out with Tammy. She had to become my enemy. As much as losing a friend hurt, I knew I could do it. But when I told Tammy she was wrong, I'd also be calling her father a liar, which meant that adults were also involved. If Tammy's father was wrong, that made Mrs. Branch a liar, too. I'd never called a grown-up such a thing. I'd already begun to despise my teacher, but she'd have to be confronted and corrected. I would have to tell my parents to set the grown-ups straight, and that seemed scary because I knew they'd be angry. I had to bring home bad news, which both my parents hated.
Bad news disrupted the family routine, they always complained, and I already knew that we could not afford disruptions. Everyone in the family had to do their best to avoid conflicts and “stay on track.” Staying on track for me meant that I had to sleep with a pair of clean panties over my head, so as not to mess up the hairstyle that my mother had given me the previous evening, and to get myself dressed in the mornings. I had to pour my own breakfast cereal without spilling the milk. I had to eat whatever my dad packed for lunch, even if the carrots he scraped with a dinner knife and wrapped in aluminum foil turned brown by noon. There were no “sick days”—I had to attend school and take an aspirin with my lunch, unless I could projectile vomit or had a thermometer bursting from my fever.
I brimmed with dread by the time Mom picked us up from Mrs. Molting's house—a house that smelled like burnt margarine and kitty litter—three hours later. I knew how much my mother hated being greeted with bad news, especially after she just finished fighting more than an hour of rush-hour traffic. We loaded into her Pinto and drove home in relative silence. I watched Mom clear her mind. At home, I placed my lunch box on the kitchen counter and went upstairs to change into my play clothes.
I saw the sun drop lower in the sky. I tracked the golden light that bathed the vast field behind our yard from my seat at the kitchen table as I ate my dinner with Natalie and Mom. Dad wasn't home yet; he'd made a late sales call and was stuck in traffic. As I finished my glass of milk, which always signaled the end of my meal, I knew that the time had come.
“Do black people have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people?” I asked. I tried to sound innocent and didn't look at Mom.
“Why would you ask such a thing?” she asked. Mom hated to answer questions with questions and always corrected us when we did it. As soon as she broke her own rule, I knew this was only going to get worse. On top of that, Mom hated any kind of talk about which parts of black people's bodies were good or bad, especially hair and skin.
“Because that's what Tammy's dad said.”
My mother put down her fork.
Natalie sat perfectly still and just watched Mom.
“That's ridiculous,” she declared. She narrowed her eyes in close inspection of my face to make sure that this was not one of my pranks.
“That's what I said,” I began, “but when I asked, Mrs. Branch said it was true.” I braced for my mother's reaction.
Mom's entire demeanor soured. The red undertones in her skin emerged as the muscles in her jaw clenched. The vein in her forehead—the one that bulged when she got really angry or drank red wine—appeared. Mrs. Branch had gone and done it.
My mother, the person who had decided to move our family to Rancho Palos Verdes in the first place, then cajoled and berated my father into agreement, had chosen the upscale and predominately white community for two reasons: the clean, smog-free air and the top-ranked schools. She feared that the orange chemical cloud that hung over our old house in Carson, the all-black suburb built near a refinery, might kill us. She was an elementary schoolteacher to black and Latino kids in Los Angeles. She knew the state rankings of each school district and the entire elementary school curriculum by heart. I never heard her complain as she rose before dawn each morning to beat the traffic. Whenever I asked Mom why she never met me after school, she explained that she was willing to work in the city and drive for hours so that Natalie and I had the best, the Palos Verdes schools. She celebrated the day that I began first grade and told me that I had become a big girl. She saved the money she used to budget for my private preschool and kindergarten tuition to buy real estate. Mrs. Branch's comment revealed a crack in Mom's plan, a crack that had to be repaired immediately. I read her disgust and disappointment in her narrow eyes. My mother worked too hard to allow some teacher, especially a white woman, to ruin her daughter because she peddled some bit of madness as truth.
“What in the world!?” Mom said. She pursed her lips to reveal the feathery traces of rust lipstick that still rimmed her mouth. Then she made her face blank, as if dropping a curtain, and part of her disappeared. Mom could escape inside herself and conceal her feelings from everyone, especially if she got angry or sad. In those moments, Mom became more than just silent; she became impossible to read. Natalie and I didn't know what she was thinking, but we knew that Mom's expression meant trouble—real trouble. We watched her and waited.
“Girls, clear the table,” my mother said. Her voice sounded too sweet, like June Cleaver or Carol Brady, though it barely concealed her fury. We both scurried to obey. If the place mats, Wish-Bone dressing bottle, and our plates didn't disappear instantly, her anger might focus on us. I could almost hear the gears turning in my mother's head as she considered the situation and plotted her next move. When we'd finished, Natalie went to her room to practice her violin. I hung around the family room and listened to the silence. Then, even though I did not yet receive homework from school, Mom gave me a math worksheet to keep me quiet and busy.
In a little while, I heard my father raise the door as he pulled into the garage. Then I listened to him kill the engine on his pumpkin-colored Mercury sedan. His fat ring of keys clinked as he opened the door, and finally he whistled to announce his arrival. He wore a starched white dress shirt and his perfectly knotted tie. Dad looked particularly dashing. His praline-colored skin flashed against the dark wool of his suit. He set his briefcase by the door and dropped his keys on the entry table. Then he sang my name when he saw me, which always made me giggle. Not even my worry about my feet, Tammy, and Mrs. Branch could erase my delight at seeing Dad. I loved the way he used his sweet baritone and beautiful phrasing to shape my name into a song that felt warm. Seeing him always made me feel special. I gladly received his kiss and grinned.
But my mother ordered me upstairs, and I knew that Dad's good mood would not last. I felt sorry that I had something to do with it. I hung around the top of the stairs trying to hear what they said, but Mom had lowered her voice and Dad had taken her cue. Dad didn't hide his anger or sadness like Mom did, and the slamming cabinets and rattling drawers first told me that Dad had gotten the news. He was as upset as I'd feared. In another second, a flood of curse words poured from Dad's mouth. Standing at the top of the stairway, I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard get Dad this angry. When everything got quiet again downstairs, I crept back to my room and tried not to make any noise.
Near bedtime, I still hadn't seen Dad again. I changed into my gown and brushed my teeth in silence. I was too afraid to go downstairs and kiss Dad good night. When she came upstairs, Mom said very little as she unbraided my hair and brushed it. But the way she pressed the plastic bristles of the brush into my scalp and made me wince told me all I needed to know. Even when she tucked me in and turned out my light, I could not find the courage to ask her anything else about my feet.
The next morning seemed normal on the surface. I awoke to the sound of the news radio my father listened to as he dressed. I removed the clean panties protecting my hair, put on my dress, and watched Yogi Bear as I ate my cereal. Dad was subdued as he drove the usual route to school, but he wouldn't look at me and didn't smile. When we arrived at the front of Vista Grande, Dad swung the car into the parking lot rather than into the car pool line. When he killed the engine and opened his door, I knew instantly that his getting out of the car had something to do with my feet, the race, and my teacher. Dad took his suit coat from the hanger in the backseat and put it on in a single fluid movement. He walked us past the administrative office and into the school. Natalie and I scurried to gather our backpacks and keep up. The heels of Dad's polished Johnston & Murphy shoes echoed in the corridor. Natalie, armed with her backpack and violin case, kissed Dad and then headed for the playground. A door away from my classroom, my father finally turned to me.
“You play out here. I need to speak to your teacher,” he said. He strode to my classroom, knocked on the door, and entered when Mrs. Branch answered. I could not see my teacher's face but knew that my dad was about to ruin her day.
I turned cartwheels on the grass in front of the classroom. Then I sat on the metal rail where we lined up for lunch or trips to the library and felt the cold metal on the backs of my knees. I looked for worms. I peered at the tinted windows of my room and wondered what my father was saying. Finally, the door opened. I trotted up to Dad as he closed the door. I looked for the easy salesman's smile that usually warmed his face and could not find it. I noticed but could not understand the anger in his eyes, his faint but tight grimace, and his otherwise vacant expression. I listened as he hastily told me that he had taken care of the matter of my feet. This was the first time he'd mentioned the incident to me, and I wondered why he offered no details, why he seemed so subdued. I did not understand the balance my father had struck to assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, dangerous black man in a first-grade classroom. I never knew exactly what he said or what it had cost him to defend my victory.
A few minutes later the bell clanged and hundreds of kids surged off the playground. Mrs. Branch called Tammy and me over to her. I watched Mrs. Branch's face flush and her eyes blink wildly. She looked down into my thin, brown face as the words “I am sorry” choked in her throat. An apology from an adult was utterly new to me, so I took a cue from my father's demeanor and said little. I held my breath and made my face still. I watched Mrs. Branch turn to Tammy. “Your father was wrong,” she said to Tammy as her voice cracked from tension. “Black people do not have something in their feet to make them run faster.” Red splotches rose on Tammy's face and I savored her shame. But neither the apology nor the correction could get back what I had lost in the incident: a friendship, respect for my teacher, and my belief that school was a safe and open place. I hated that teacher, Tammy's father, and my former friend. My victory felt tainted and diminished.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the fact that I could run on a playground against a white girl whom I considered a friend and the fact that my father could confront a white woman behind a closed door without risk of lynching marked tremendous strides in my family's history. An early boyhood in Louisiana had put my father on a first-name basis with Jim Crow. He entered elementary school at the same time he began to work in the rice and cotton fields. By the time he started high school in Port Arthur, Texas, my father had already received more formal education than any of my grandparents. My victory, dents and all, signaled a kind of progress that no earlier generation of my family could experience.
I hated Tammy. We sat apart at lunch. I beat Tammy in dodgeball whenever I could. I never picked her to play on my team, and she never chose me for hers. We barely spoke, but we argued all the time. The school principal had to settle our disputes because neither of us trusted Mrs. Branch, and she steered clear of our constant battle. By the Christmas holidays, I was ready for a break from my siege with Tammy. Then my parents announced that my father was about to open his own metals distribution business, the first black-owned distributorship in the country. I didn't understand his achievement. But when they explained that we were moving to a bigger and better house right after the New Year, to live among aerospace executives and law partners instead of engineers and legal associates, the change became a bit clearer. I felt proud of Dad and thrilled at my good luck. I wished that I could change schools as well as houses. Mom told me I'd have to finish the year at Vista Grande and transfer for second grade. As far as I was concerned, I couldn't leave Tammy, my ignorant teacher, or my old playground fast enough.
There was plenty about my life on Verde Ridge Road that I knew I would miss. I would definitely miss the backyard field that I considered my real playground and the place where I experienced my greatest sense of freedom. I'd passed the best hours of many days in that twenty-acre expanse of wild fennel, weeds, and other brush that towered two feet over my head. I'd skipped joyfully through a sea of green and brown. When I grew thirsty from running, I'd stripped down the wispy leaves, sucked the stalks, savored the juice that tasted like licorice, and then gnawed them like sugarcane. I'd rubbed the budding flowers and fronds in the palms and inhaled the peppery sweetness on my hands. I'd crossed a drainage ditch by walking over a two-by-six board with my arms outstretched to plunge deeper into that wilderness. I'd carried a stick to probe some mound here or there or to whack a path through the brush. Hawks circled over my head, their cries making the only sound besides the trickle of water. I'd never felt afraid. I'd loved to watch the sunset from out there and see the sky turn orange. I would miss being able to see the Pacific Ocean from the field and from every room in our house.
Our new house on Chelsea Road was a block from the ocean. We moved in January 1976. I could stand on the balcony overlooking the street and always smell the Pacific, hear the surf crash and foghorns wail, but I couldn't see it. The house had a wrought-iron gate, rather than a picket fence, that separated the driveway from an inner courtyard dense with ferns and calla lilies. Instead of the cookie-cutter tract houses on Verde Ridge Road, every house on the new street was distinct—French chateau, English country, colonial, or Italian. Home owners had to abide by the rules of the local architecture board, which approved all exterior changes to a house, including the rooflines and paint colors. Our stucco house had a clay tile roof and was fashioned to resemble a Spanish villa. We had moved into a neighborhood so exclusive that it had neither sidewalks nor street lamps. We moved up to live among new neighbors, dressed in golf shirts and tennis whites, who took their purebred dogs for after-dinner strolls. We all hoped that, with a move to the more exclusive town of Palos Verdes Estates, we had outrun race. We were sorely mistaken.
February mornings on Chelsea Road often dawned with a soaking, thick fog that saturated everything. We had settled into something of a routine in the new house. The smells of fresh paint and wallpaper paste lingered in the air because Mom was still redecorating the house one room at a time. She had just resumed her work around the house after taking a break to complete all of the new Black History Month posters and displays for her classroom. After dinner she just reviewed her new lesson plans and made new dittos for the next day's projects.
One morning shortly after we moved in, I awoke to find my new house far too quiet. It was a Thursday morning. Tension replaced the usual percussion of our weekday mornings. Natalie was in the bathroom getting ready as usual, but I knew something felt wrong. I entered the master bedroom where my mother, dressed and made up for work, stared through the window into the courtyard. Why hadn't she taken me into her bathroom to brush my hair before she went to work? I wondered.
“Are you staying home today?” I asked.
At the sound of my voice, Mom drew the curtains and turned her back to the window. She walked toward me but did not give me a hug.
“No,” she said, taking her blazer off the chair.
I heard the door that led down to the garage open and my father call out, “Janet, you've gotta go.” There was too much force in his tone. His feet fell too heavily on the stairs. I knew something was very wrong before I saw his face.
“Get dressed,” Dad barked at me as he followed my mother back down the stairs.
I withdrew to my room feeling confused and put on a white blouse, a navy blue sweater with red apples around the waist, and blue pants. I pulled up my knee-high socks and tied my shoes.
As I descended the spiral staircase and saw through the window that my parents remained in the driveway, my concern deepened. Why hadn't Mom left yet? She never missed work. I could not hear their discussion through the closed window or over the warming car engine. Mom's defiantly raised hands told me that my parents did not agree on something. But after Dad took my mother in his arms, she got into the car. He stood aside while she backed away, then he walked to the end of the driveway to watch her drive up the street. He did not move. A few seconds later, the black-and-white police cruiser emerged from the cotton bale of fog like a phantom. I panicked. What were the police doing at our house?
My father squared his shoulders. He moved toward the cruiser and waved them down. As a former probation officer, Dad knew how to talk to the police. He had never called them for help before. I became even more confused when I realized that the police had not turned on their lights or sirens. My father waited for the white officers to emerge from the car and position the clubs on their belts. Dad had summoned them, I finally understood. What was so bad that he needed their help?
My mind raced as they exchanged words at the curb. Dad and the officers looked stiff. I pressed my nails into my palms as he led them up the driveway toward the iron gate. I ran into the living room and peered through the sliding glass door but dared not open it. They all bent their heads. I could not see what they saw even as I stood on my toes and craned my neck. The officers returned to the car and talked on their radio. My father, in the same place, sensed my presence and looked up at me. The hardness in his face made me back away. I had never seen that particular combination of anger and distress in his eyes.
I found Natalie upstairs making her bed. She did not know what had happened either, which made me even more anxious. Another police cruiser had arrived by the time I returned to the window. I had no sense of time and forgot about Frosted Flakes and The Flintstones.
Finally, Dad came inside. We stood on the glazed adobe tiles in the entry that always made the downstairs feel cold.
“Dad,” I whispered, “what's happened?”
“Last night, someone wrote something on the front walk,” he said. “Get your backpack or you will be late for school.” Whatever had happened outside had made my father even more determined to keep our family on track.
“What did they write?” I asked, trying to imagine what words could bring the police to my house so early in the morning.
“Go home, niggers.” He spat the words out of his mouth like sour milk. Disgust and fury mingled in his eyes as his brow furrowed. His jaw twitched.
“Mr. Baszile,” an officer called from outside. Before I could say anything else, Dad descended the steps two at a time and was gone.
The fog had lifted and the sun rose higher in the sky when I hurried through the garage. I needed to see the words for myself and walked around the pink bougainvillea bush to the place where the officers and my father had been standing.
Every letter was capitalized. “GO HOME” the top line insisted. “NIGGERS” sat centered and underlined below it. The uneven, thick brushstrokes showed all the times they had stopped midletter to dip the brush back into the bucket. The enameled lines and curves glistened in the light, and the paint seeped in the crevices of the concrete.
My head felt heavy; I could not take my eyes from those words. I had been called nigger. Sometimes boys whispered the word as I walked by them at school. But I had never experienced hatred in this way: plural, intimate, and anonymous at the same time. Fear seized my empty stomach and my eyes stung. My parents had taught me that people who used those words were white trash, rednecks, or crackers. Until that moment, I thought that they lived somewhere else. “Prejudice,” as my parents called it then, was the product of ignorance. Executives, doctors, engineers, and lawyers lived on our street with their families. I knew how long my parents had worked to put miles and money between our family and white trash. I kept rereading the message and shivering; everything but the words seemed out of focus.
I puzzled over the instruction, “Go Home Niggers.” We were home. There was no place else to go. This house, nestled in a town so remote and exclusive that residents drove twenty minutes to the nearest freeway, was supposed to provide a sanctuary from our striving. This refuge, with its garden courtyard and wrought-iron gate, was meant to make me safe. This home was supposed to remind us, and everyone else, how much we had overcome. This was the house where I was just supposed to be the black girl next door.
But it hadn't been that way for the past two weeks, and the words meant that I couldn't deny that fact anymore. On another foggy morning, Mom had discovered that someone had defaced the recessed tile fountain in the courtyard of our house. They had walked through the iron gate and painted the playful cherub who spouted water through its mouth black. Mom and Dad had minimized it. But I was upset because I loved that fountain. As soon as I heard about it, I had run outside in my pajamas to see what had happened. I had fumed and stared at the bow-shaped lips, perfectly round eyes, chubby cheeks, and tousle of hair that all seemed so animated in white stone dripping with distortion. On that earlier morning, Dad had tried to play down the incident. He and Mom had tried hard to convince all of us that it was a prank. I tried to believe them. As I had stood there staring at the black enamel that dribbled from the cherub's chin like spit and made him come alive, I let Dad convince me that it was no big deal.
Dad had agreed to let me help him scrub the paint off the cherub and drain the fountain. With bunches of steel wool and paint thinner, we had scrubbed black paint from its hair, skin, eyes, ears, and lips. At first, I peppered Dad with questions about why anyone would paint the cherub black and what it meant. But he had directed me back to the task of cleaning the cherub and avoided the answers I so desperately wanted him to provide. Cleaning the cherub was a big job, and we worked until nearly dark. The combination of enamel and paint thinner had penetrated the soft stone and turned it gray. By the time we'd drained the fountain of its brackish water, wiped down the tiles, and filled it again, I'd given up asking Dad questions. In the days after the attack on the cherub, I had tried to forget what had happened. I couldn't, so I had just pushed it to the far corner of my mind. We had gone about our business. We had barely talked about it among ourselves and hadn't complained to anyone else about it.
But “Go Home Niggers” cast a new shadow on the gray cherub and changed it into a minstrel. It also proved that my parents' decision to remain silent had been a mistake. Dad had been wrong about my cherub, and that made me all the more worried about the words. For the first time in my life, I didn't trust him. The police standing beside their cruisers told me that Dad stopped trusting his own judgment. What would happen next? I wondered.
Dad left the huddle of policemen, walked up the driveway, and stood by my side.
“Who did this?” I asked him, my voice flat with despair.
“I don't know,” my father answered. His voice sounded as flat as mine.
“Why did they do this?” I asked.
He had no answer to my question. “It's time for school,” he responded. Dad could not confront the people who attacked us, so he sought disruption instead.
I longed to remain close to my father. The thought of leaving that spot in front of the gate seemed impossible. The westerns I watched on Sunday afternoons told me that this was the time to hunker down and circle the wagons. Dad urged me back inside.
“What if something happens while I'm at school?” I asked my father. I needed to know what to do. The words to me stuck on my tongue. School felt like a perilous place where bad things had already taken me by surprise. Things seemed like they were getting worse. I knew Mrs. Branch wouldn't protect me. Our new house was my retreat from a bad teacher and a mean girl, but “Go Home Niggers” made my hold on it feel slippery. Right then I realized how much those words had stolen from me. I didn't feel safe in my own yard or on my own street. I began to wonder if there was anyplace where I could escape from these problems. Where could we go? Nowhere seemed to be the answer, and that frightened me.
“Nothing is going to happen,” he said and seemed to know what I was really asking.
Even though I needed to hear exactly those words, I doubted them as much as I doubted Dad. He did not know the answer. None of us knew, but I prepared to leave anyway. Natalie had only glanced at the words for a second before getting in the car. We didn't talk about what had happened on the way to school. Dad made no promises of safety as he dropped us off at Vista Grande. I drifted through my day in near silence and didn't tell anyone what had happened. I didn't raise my hand a single time in class. I even avoided Tammy because I couldn't bear to fight on two fronts. I skipped lunch. “Go Home Niggers.” Those words were stuck in my mind.
Mom burned up her brakes as she raced home from the babysitter's house. As we pulled into the driveway, my empty stomach lurched, afraid of what else I might find. I jumped out of the car and ran over to the message. Mom and Natalie followed me, and the sight of the words made us all very quiet.
I was surprised but relieved to hear Dad pull into the driveway a short time later. I hurried into my shoes and ran outside. I stopped in my tracks when I saw Mr. Shorter, our only black neighbor, greet my father. Mr. Shorter lived two houses down from us and had the prettiest roses and the greenest lawn on the block. Friendly but not friends, our families had a lot in common. Mr. Shorter had a doctor wife and two teenaged daughters. Although my father was younger by a generation, both men hailed from the South. Years of California living had mellowed the accents of their boyhoods. The men conferred at the curb, standing close together, their bodies rippling with tension and frustration. Something in their stillness told me that I would not be welcome. It was as though they stood in dark space reserved for black men. As much as our neighbor's presence gave me comfort, it also deepened my worry. How had Mr. Shorter and his family avoided this assault? I wondered. Why were we attacked and not them?
From the instant Dad came inside, I trailed him like a cub. He changed out of his suit into an old blue warm-up jacket with white piping on the sleeve, an old pair of pants, and a worn-out pair of his Johnston & Murphys. These were the exact same clothes he'd worn two weeks ago when we'd rescued the cherub. I could still see the black splatters on his pants and jacket. When I figured out that he was preparing to remove the words, I asked if I could help. Working with Dad to clean the cherub had made me feel safer, closer to him, and I wanted to feel that way again. He said no.
His refusal hurt, but I was grateful that Dad did let me stand beside him. I understood that he wasn't rejecting me. We had left the realm of pranks and couldn't deny the meaning or the message any longer. He didn't want someone else's fury to stain my hands or ruin my life. He didn't want me to have to clean up someone else's mess. As he removed the hate from our house, I stood and watched. The sharp smell of paint thinner stung my nostrils. The wire brush flicked diluted paint onto my dad's hands, the scraping bristles echoed in the yard. Dad knelt on one knee beside a pile of rags and scrubbed the message away one letter at a time. When he wiped, rinsed, and scrubbed, the fog rolled back in and the sun began to set on the two of us. Dad didn't stop until even the faintest trace had disappeared. I stayed out of his way but remained by his side until we both went inside together at nightfall.
Saturday morning, Dad rose even earlier than usual to meet the paperboy instead of the police. He had called the news desk at the Palos Verdes Peninsula News, the newspaper that covered the four towns of the peninsula, after the police left. I looked over his shoulder as he opened the paper. Above and below the fold, my father stared out of the photograph as he pointed down at the three words that leaped off the front page. My eyes skipped to the place in the article where Dad said he feared for our safety. He and Mom didn't like to hear me talk about how hard it was being the only black kid in my class, so Dad's admission that we were attacked because we were black really terrified me. Just to ensure the local police and our neighbors knew he was serious, Dad had called the FBI field office after he'd called the newspaper. The FBI agents had spent the morning going door to door questioning our neighbors.
Even though three days had passed since she'd discovered the message, Mom still seemed shocked, if not surprised. But I didn't know much more than that about her reactions because she hid the rest of her emotions from us. No one had ever called her a nigger, she'd explained the first time it happened to me at Vista Grande. She couldn't say that anymore and she must have hated it. I sat in the backseat while Mom drove from one newspaper dispenser to the next. She placed three nickels, the price for a single paper, into the news racks and pulled out stacks of paper. Mom had spent her own Detroit girlhood on the cusp of hardship and learned early not to waste money. She wanted to mark the moment and planned to put one copy in our own family scrapbook and then send the other clippings back east and down south to our relatives. She wasn't proud of the attack, yet she refused to be isolated by it. But Mom planned to do something in the neighborhood first.
When we returned home, she gathered the remnants of her Black History Month materials—scissors, poster board, glue, and a thick marker. Sitting at the family table, she cut out the article and pasted it on the poster. In Mom's teacher-perfect penmanship she wrote “These Are Your Neighbors” above the article. Then Mom taped her project on our mailbox for all the twilight dog walkers and evening strollers to read. As always, my mother wanted to have the last word. The paint was gone, but she wanted the community to bear the shame she refused to feel.
For the next three evenings, I hid in the corner of our living-room and watched our neighbors looking at the poster. From the slump in some of their shoulders, I guessed that Mom's tactics succeeded in spreading the shame around to more people than just us.
A week of fog and sunshine warped the poster board and yellowed the newsprint, but the incident remained sharp in my mind. As carefully as my mother controlled her emotions, I lost control of mine. First thing each morning I looked out of my parents' window and checked the courtyard for new messages before I even went to the bathroom. Each afternoon, I braced myself for a newly blackened cherub. I looked over my shoulder more often when I walked or rode my bike in the neighborhood. In the early evening, I watched my neighbors from our balcony.
Although I feared something else might happen, I also longed to hurt the people who had hurt me. The coward still lurked in my neighborhood and part of me wanted to coax him from the shadows. I was one of the youngest and smallest people on the block and could not force anyone to do anything. I could not tell off adults because I could not use the swear words I knew or yell at them. I practiced mean faces in the mirror. I glared at my neighbors and hoped to provoke a confession. It never worked. Still, I thrilled each time my unwavering stare forced an adult to look away first. I patrolled our driveway like a cop. Everyone needed to know that I was mad. Everyone needed to know that I was watching and would not be fooled again.
The Saturday following the newspaper article, I emerged from the garage and noticed a sharp smell tinged the briny air. The smell was familiar but out of place so early in the morning. It was fuel, probably lighter fluid. As I mounted my bike at the end of the driveway, I recognized the faint aroma of smoke and realized that something had burned. My nostrils flared instinctively. I did not hear fire engines. Still, I felt anxious. Someone had burned something, but what? Why? I pedaled slowly down the driveway and sniffed again and again. A quick look up the block assured me that everything behind me was fine. I looked from one side of the street to another, scanning chimneys, looking for smoke. The first house seemed okay. Then I passed the vacant lot. No one had thrown a cigarette into the weeds by mistake.
The smell grew stronger as I got closer to Mr. Shorter's house, and my nose confirmed the source before my eyes processed the scene. I nearly lost my balance as I stared in disbelief and rested my toes on the curb. I leaned my forearms on the handlebars of my bike. A perfectly symmetrical cross smoldered right in the center of the Shorters' immaculate lawn. The sharp outlines of the profane symbol and the carefully controlled burn identified it as the handiwork of the same people who had attacked us. The patch of turf was as charred as the cherub and reignited my anger. No one else was on the street or had done anything about it, so I guessed I was the first to spot it. I had not been watching carefully enough. Fear flooded me again as I wondered who might be watching me. I went back to our house and told my parents what I'd found. My father and Mr. Shorter met on the curb later that morning.
Week after week, I watched Mr. Shorter coax new grass to sprout from seed. As those tender blades emerged, I wondered whether the neighbors who tried to torch his pride still wore hoods. I gave up scowling even though I wanted to know who had done this to us. I wanted them to stop hiding so that I could feel safe.
As much as I doubted my neighbors, I still ached to believe in my parents. My father had set Mrs. Branch, Tammy, and her father straight. Even though Dad had called the police and my home felt like less of a sanctuary, nothing else happened to our house. So every time my parents insisted that we were not going anywhere and we would be fine, I tried to believe them. But it was still hard. As they would tell me often in the days after the attack, as children my parents longed for the chance to compete. Integration was a form of competition. We would stay, they insisted, because our every victory was a test and a testimony: a test of our endurance, a testimony to the will of our entire family. I just wanted to be normal. I wanted to disappear. I knew I could do neither.
I didn't completely understand it then, but I was part of a family running and fighting for more than just ourselves. My parents, sister, and I ran to redeem grief and unspeakable humiliations that no one named. My every victory not only proved my talent and my skill but also bore witness to the strength of my entire family. But along the way, we were collecting too many pictures that captured the trouble we were facing. The race we were running in Palos Verdes was getting tougher by the day. I was just beginning to understand that some things were impossible to outrun.
© 2010 Jennifer Baszile