Mom always talked about the importance of ancestry. She’d say that most Black people don’t know their history. She’d sit me down, and go over a list of books: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, From Slavery to Freedom, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Things Fall Apart, Black Boy, and Black Like Me. I was not interested in most of the lessons. And it was as if she could read with one eye, and keep the other eye on me—waiting for my response.
“Do you know why the caged bird sings,” she asked me. I told her no, with a long exhale of my chest. Then she said, “the cage bird sings because it has to, to prove it’s free.”
I didn’t understand what she meant; I didn’t understand freedom, or at least, not freedom like that—something involuntary. But I’d look and listen intensely while Mom took on those narratives, as if Maya Angelou was a distant relative. And then she’d flip the book over and show me the author photo.
“Look,” she’d say with dignity and pride. “That could be you.”
I would look, and try to find some similarities in the author’s face, something that might look like me. But my lips were thinner, my nose sharper, and my hair much too curly. Maybe they looked like Mom or my other family members, but not like me; I was black like none of them.
Mom gave me those books as a prerequisite, an instructional manual to being Black. Mom said that even though I was only half Black, one drop of the blood made me black enough.
“You need to learn about your people. Schools don’t teach everything about our history.”
But after a long day of school, more learning was the least of my concerns. It became a chore. And we’d sit at the kitchen table for what felt like hours, with the supplemental books scattered around each end, and highlighters and posted notes, and sheets of paper.
“When Black people came to America as slaves,” she’d continue on. “They were not just stripped of their freedoms; they were stripped of their language, their families, their history. Slave master’s split them up, and by splitting up families, history was loss.”
She said that’s why Fredrick Douglass learned to read—so he could tell our stories. And then she showed me pictures of the Middle Passage, and said, “Look, we were the cargo.”
Mom thought schools were not teaching the whole story, and especially, nothing about Africa—nothing besides the Slave Trade. She told me that Africa should not be defined solely by slavery—that Africa was a beautiful country with kingdoms, and riches, and not just wars, feminine, and AIDS. She read Chinua Achebe and told me about Okonkwo’s coming of age journey—that he and I are alike, too because we were stubborn and came from the same people. We read stories about King Shaka Zula, the Egyptians, and a chapter of From Slavery to Freedom called, “The Land of Their Fathers”—the history of Africa’s different countries, like the long prosperity of the Ghanaians.
When Mom finally closed whatever book we were reading, she’d end with the same question: “Without history, who are you?”
I never had an answer. I didn’t know who I was, or where I fit into the Black narrative.
Timelines were important to Mom. She said, “to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from”. She emphasized this, and made it applicable. For example, of her mother she said, “You know Nana had to move up North for many years because how bad things got in Alabama. It was called The Great Migration, and everybody was trying to escape the recesses of slavery, like the Jim Crow Laws.”
“It got so bad,” she continued. “That Nana’s uncle was killed for doing nothing, just because he was out on a Saturday night with no job”. The police called it loitering. They took him into holding and booked him. He never left. The police killed him that night. She cried as if it happened yesterday and said, “You should always take injustice personal.”
Mom stockpiled those books, and when we stopped reading them together, I told her I would read them on my own—but I never did. They stayed in the dust of my teenage-mess, in a drawer of old socks and forged parental signatures. Instead, I read Harry Potter.
In February, Mom always probed me about what we were learning in school. I spat whatever random knowledge about Black History I knew—something about peanuts, the Thirteenth-Amendment, Harriet Tubman, and the gist of every handout I was given. Maybe my defiance was out of spite. In some way I was saying, “I do not want to be different from my classmates.” So, I began to hate February. I hated the way Mom questioned me. I hated that I suddenly felt a spotlight in my classrooms. I hated the way I became something obviously different from the other kids.
As a result, my grades dropped. I misbehaved in class. I tried to escape lessons—to the principal’s office or to the guidance counselor. And there, I’d be questioned about my recent decline in attitude and work ethic. I never gave them an answer, at least not a real one. I was too embarrassed—embarrassed to say that I did not want to be Black in the month of February. When I got home, Mom would be at me again, fiercely reminding me what my people did for an equal education: Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.
“Black people died for your future,” she said. “And how dare you not take advantage of what our ancestors did for you.”
To be fair, I agreed with her. But we lived in a town with 0.8% Black population and 96.6% White population. I felt like a peppercorn in a salt grinder.
In English class, we discussed To Kill a Mockingbird in a reading circle. I counted each student and each paragraph to anticipate who was next to read aloud. I hoped to God it wouldn’t be me because of the sheer amount of racial slurs that occurred every other sentence. I searched, as if looking for a typo—anticipating one word: nigger. I swear I could feel it getting closer, as if this dorsal fin from out the pages. There was an irrefutable reaction towards the two-syllabic sound, like an anaphylactic trigger, deep in my gut—and a titan of a thing would be released from the innermost part of me.
I couldn’t say it. I wouldn’t say it. And though I’d try to predict who would be next to read with enough time to excuse myself to the bathroom, it seemed I could never outrun it. The damn thing smelled my blood and ate me whole.
Somehow, it resurfaced again and again. Not just when specifically learning about Black people, but in other forms of academia. In Music History, we learned about the evolution of music. We discussed a variety of the greatest musicians. We discussed the 60s and 70s era’s Rock & Roll musicians: The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. We listened to each band’s most popular songs and read their mini-biographies. We learned about their influences, and tried to answer what made them so revolutionary to American music. They were movers and shakers, and still were influential to the day. Our teacher said that music would continue to change with the different generations. She asked us for other examples of newer genres. We said: Pop, Heavy Metal, Alternative, Folk, Techno, and Rap.
She agreed, but then paused, and said, “Rap is not a genre. It’s not real music”. She seemed adamant about it, and almost bothered. “It’s explicit, and the lyrics are disgusting and offensive, Those rappers aren’t even real musicians.”
It felt as if she were talking straight at me, channeling years of frustrations to the only Black student in class. And I wasn’t even the student who mentioned Rap as a genre; I knew better than to willingly turn that spotlight on myself. But that hot seat was boiling, and I slid down in my chair to try and hide behind the person in front of me. I got that same uneasy feeling, like my stomach was in the sea, and everyone was watching me capsize. Everyone must have been thinking I would have some retort. Of course, I had to love Rap. I had to disagree with our teacher, and spring into an argument—fight for my people.
For I was, like always, the only person of color in the classroom. And then what was sudden but yet, felt premeditated, our teacher directly asked me, “Why do they say niggar so much if they hate being called niggars?”
In American History we learned about Emmett Till. We saw pictures of black bodies hanging from trees, and crowds of people smiling and posing, as if the bloated things were sport, like big game quarries from last night’s hunting: deer, turkeys, elk, and men. The human ugliness displayed full screen on the projector. While looking, I questioned myself. I questioned the overwhelming sadness I felt. Was it basic human empathy or something different—something intrinsic, like a piece of me was suspended from those trees. I thought about Mom. I imagined that man dangling on the Main Street tree in whatever town could have been her brother or her uncle or one of her sons. I remembered Mack Parker, in Black Like Me—and I wanted to close my eyes, and look away, like always.
The pinnacle of Black History in school, for me, was when we watched Roots. Our teacher rolled in the television, and pulled one disc from the brick-sized DVD box. We normally felt a rush of relief to watch movies in class, like Rudy or Dead Poets Society—but this was different. This was not entertainment as we often thought. It would not be a few racial epitaphs or uncomfortable and unsettling photos—or like the handful of chapters in our History book, and the footnoted descriptions of shackles and the deeds to the human property. No. This was slavery, a thousand-and-eighty minutes of slavery—spanning through a hundred years of slavery. Slavery made for TV. A history of an entire race of people in eighteen sixty-minute episodes.
Before it started, I swore I’d wear my toughest skin. I wanted to be strong and brave. I wanted to pretend it wouldn’t affect me how Mom said it would. She told me about Roots, and how her family watched it premiere on ABC-TV in 1977. Every night, they all cried after each episode like someone they loved had died. I wouldn’t let that happen to me. I couldn’t. I had to keep up the facade that none of this ever bothered me. That I was a participant to learning like everyone else, and not the thing that was being learned. I had to prove to my classmates that I was somehow different than the people they now watched on the TV screen. After every moment—every wrong that was being done—their heads slowly turned, like they were looking for someone. Always looking for me, as if wanting to ask: “Is this really true? Are you upset? Does the n-word offend you? I’m sorry about that.”
I wanted to cry. I felt offended. I imagined every one of my Black family members being lashed and beaten and broken like the branches on the old tree that hanged more bodies than it had rings of bark. Despite all that, I kept still and silent, and waited. Though, I was unsure of what I was waiting for. Maybe I was waiting for someone to turn and ask me why. I waited for the moment I could grit my teeth and tell them, “But I am not Toby.”
Davon Loeb earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University and a B.A. in English from Montclair State University. He is an assistant poetry editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Davon writes creative nonfiction and poetry. His work has been featured in Tahoma Literary Review, East Jasmine Review, Apeiron Review, Across the Margin, Harpoon Review, Connotation Press, Portland Review, and elsewhere. Davon is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Currently, he is an English teacher and is writing his first book.