Creative Writing

Between Howard University and Me

photo (7)I won’t delay the fact that I think Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is absolutely genius because it is. Even amongst a weird Facebook status from Cornel West and the middle-American book reviewers who clearly didn’t get it— are tweets galore of praises of this timely memoir. Not to mention that my idol gave Coates a review on the cover. I mean after Toni Morrison tells you that something is “required reading” do you even have a choice? After blocking out the commentary, I rested my eyes on the pages that sat me at the feet of Coates as he told his son the candid reality of being Black in America. It was poetic, rich and yet effortlessly easy to read. But most importantly it was a jewel that reminded me what Blackness continues to be– and Coates did that through his authentic and moving portrayal of Howard University.

My Howard experience was the same but very different from Coates. Unlike him, I didn’t have a family connection and I had never even been to D.C. in my life. I understood what he meant about the Black “body” growing up in Detroit– I saw blight, fights and crime amongst an abundance of love. I wanted to see more. Howard was my escape and with an army of supporters back home I took a leap of faith. It was a life changing experience, like Coates alluded in the book, there were beautiful Black people everywhere with accents from everywhere. I felt like there was a place for every “type” of Black person at Howard; you could be the most eclectic girl from Minnesota or have the longest weave sold in Brooklyn– at The Mecca you were not alone.

In this book laden with Coates’ not-so-distant memories of police brutality and educational disparities, he awakened memories of my own. Memories that included my walk with the Dream. Coates talks about the Dream we all know; where we work hard, get a nice job, marry well and live happily ever after. My family sacrificed a lot for me to attend Howard, so this Dream had to come true for me. As much as I was awakened by a previously unknown exposure to the African diaspora, professors like Dr. Greg Carr and the campus’ Different World vibe– I could not go home empty handed. My family loved me but like most Black kids I was pushed from very birth to know that I had to work obsessively to eat enough to stay alive in this country. I had to intern every semester at Howard and work to help pay towards my being there. I had to network, network, and network. I couldn’t make mistakes or relax on The Yard too many afternoons in a row. I couldn’t make time to be the creative writer that was at my core. Coates called this “losing your softness.”

This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile. No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much. It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled plunder. It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of  being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.”

A reviewer of Between the World and Me stated that this book doesn’t give people “hope.” For some reason that reminded me of something Toni Morrison said in a recent interview.

She said:
“Don’t settle for happiness. It’s just not good enough. Life has to be about more than whether you feel good.”

Leaving Howard taught me about what that means. America teaches us that the Dream is this career in public relations I have, this new car I drive and the receptions I schmooze and booze at. It is light and happiness– and it is a lie. In fact, being a part of the corporate America, idealistic world makes the Dream even more painful and dark. It’s an inexplicable mix of feeling like a fraud and a disappointment. Like most Howard grads permeating ourselves in the world, I had to find more than happiness. I had to find purpose and courage. I had to learn how to be a voice. This book doesn’t confirm this idea of the Dream but you would have to be knocked out to say it doesn’t provide hope. It gives me hope that the truth will inspire change. That we will stop covering up the inherent pain of racial injustice in a country that is touting its progressiveness to the world.

Coates, like Howard University, awakened my mind. I needed this because sometimes we forget what it means to live in a Black body until something humiliating happens. I haven’t been on Howard’s campus since I graduated two years ago. As Coates ended the book with his memories of taking his son to Howard’s homecoming, I think it’s only right that I too make my way back to The Mecca this fall. And when I come back from homecoming I can’t wait to tell whoever I see what happened between Howard University and me.

My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University.”
                               ~Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me)

I Will Not Run from the Sun

There was a young girl who grew up down the road from me. You could tell she wasn’t all the way colored. Her skin wasn’t fair but it was brown like peanut butter taffy. And her hair wasn’t wavy like a mulatto but it passed her shoulders and was thick and shiny though very coarse. Before her mama died, she ran a coffee shop. And all the miners with blue black skin ruined by the debris they worked with swarmed in each morning. She served hot biscuits, muffins and cinnamon apples too sometimes. And they would glee at her pretty smile and rounded hips. Rumor has it she never even wore corsets. Her daughter’s body was no different– and we began to fall in love.

I was just another colored kid running across the lands of West Virginia. But I could sang the roof off of a church house. I was a tenor. They loved to hear me roar and moan them up to Jesus. The organist howled as my voice got deeper and deeper. I knew I was singing good when the preacher jumped in and said “amen” and yes’m!” Not to mention when those fans got to swinging a little bit swifter and grandma’s and mama’s heels clicked the hard wood floors to my rhythm. But my rhythm didn’t come this Sunday, when she and I skipped out on church to go to the creek.

“Now papa can’t know about this,” she whispered in my ear behind the tree where we met. “He’d kill me if he found out ‘bout us…I mean this.”

“Na you know I wouldn’t tell nobody.”

“I know they miss ya singing in the church house this morning’” she laughed, baring her beautiful smile. I nearly melted. “But today you comin’ with little ole me.”

And because everyone was in someone’s church or kitchen– we had the creek to ourselves. Being the first day of summer, the sun gleamed down on us. It made her light brown skin glitter and the thick black braid down her back swing effortlessly. The grass was prickly under us as we plopped our bodies against it. Relaxing from our run to the murky, insect-ridden creek that was the most beautiful place in the world to us, we sat for a second. Before I fully caught my breath, she pulled off her sun dress to expose her under garments.

“Take off ya clothes,” she exclaimed, “Let’s go for a swim in the creek.”

The sun setting interrupted the trance we were in while we swayed through the creek. As she put back on her sundress, her now kinky hair plopped around her head. The sky turned more pink as the sun descended, and I had this eerie feeling as we headed back home. Like our parents were waiting to slap us across the dusty road we tread on for missing church. But she was still cackling about books she read and how much she loved butterscotch– so maybe I was just nervous to simply be by her side. Her house came before mine and soon as we got close, the door flew open as her sister ran through it. She was five years our senior and was home from one of those ritzy black colleges. Though she was big, she was pretty with wavy hair and cream colored skin. She quickly showed me why I had that bad feeling all along.

“What you doing running round with this nappy-headed boy,” she yelled snatching my first love by the wrist, “Coming ‘round here with ya hair just as nappy and ya skin black as the dirt.”

Delores, yeah that was her name, began crying. I just stood there not knowing what to do.

“If mama knew you were out being this foolish,” she began kicking Delores’ calfs angrily, “She would turn in her grave.”

Delores cried louder as people began pouring out of their doorways to see what the ruckus was about.

“And you,” she looked at me with the deepest hatred a boy like me had ever seen, “Just cause you black and worthless don’t mean you go turning my sister into you. Keeping her in the sun so you two can be the same. She ain’t yours, gon’ home.”

I went home that night feeling as worthless as her sister thought of me. But Lo, that’s what I called her actually, winked at me the next day when I walked passed her house. That girl sent riffs down my weak teenage little spine. As I got older I never forgot about her wink, her tender spirit and how she didn’t ever live in the background. No, she knew who she was and that made me feel good long after her daddy shipped her to New Orleans that fall. And ever since she left me, I let my skin bake every summer by the creek. Getting blacker and blacker than the soot that covered my skin from working at the coal mine. The women under veils and men with heads hanging down never understood why I never would run from the sun.

Survival 101

I’m victorious. I walked into my home to find my two teenagers throwing Country Time Lemonade powder in each other’s faces. Of course, it was a brand new tub my wife bought yesterday but I walked through the cloud of yellow smoke without saying a word. Like clockwork my wife came home screaming at the top of her lungs after seeing a mere particle of the powder left on the counter. I didn’t react. I just slid on my headphones as I sat on the edge of the bed, hands yellow from cleaning up the mess. But Hall and Oates couldn’t even begin singing before she raced into the room and pulled them out of my ears. When I looked into her blood shot eyes, I swear I saw the spawn of Satan in a fuchsia dress. This, my friends, is a Wednesday evening in the Garcia household.

“Dad,” I whispered into the phone while sitting on the edge of the bath tub, “I’m on my way.”

I hopped out of the bathroom window into my old green Jeep Cherokee. I had to escape that place! If it wasn’t me not doing enough, it was the kids not doing enough. Plus, another guy at the office asked for a recommendation for a Mexican restaurant. Which is not only insulting because I’m the only Hispanic but because this guy hasn’t spoke to me since I started working there. It took everything in me not to ask this idiot to step away from my cubicle and take his inquiry up with Yelp.com. I’m lying, it took nothing in me to happily give him a restaurant suggestion because I’m a loser. And this is the second time this week I’ve squeezed out of the bathroom window to escape over my dad’s house. Talk about adventure.

“You know Louie,” my dad said holding a beer in one hand and the remote in the other, “You asked for this life!”

“Dad, do I have to hear this right now?”

“Yes you do son! You were my son,” he yelled spraying spit in the air with each word, “I fought in wars! I travelled this land! And all you could do is marry a Chicana.”

“A Chicana who feeds you,” I mumbled annoyed, “You know what dad, I come over here for peace not to hear you nag like an old woman.”

“Survivors don’t nag,” he sat back in his recliner while closing his eyes and smiling, “You’ll learn one day what it means to be a  warrior.”

Nothing like my dad’s delusions of grandeur and war stories to make me return home to my family. I knew my wife would be pissed to see me enter the house and I was not up to argue anymore. It was time to make up with her, so maybe for the rest of this week I could just stay at home. Maybe even watch the baseball game in the den tomorrow in peace. I stopped at the drug store on the way home to get a cheesy “I’m Sorry” card and whatever little teddy bear they had laying around. As I walked around the aisles scattered with beauty products and misplaced magazines I remembered that it was October.

“What the hell are you smiling about?” she yelled barefoot in the same fuchsia dress as I walked through the front door, “Louie you have to stop this. It’s pathetic…”

“Mi amor,” I interrupted grabbing her hand “I just went out to get you this.”

I scrambled in my khaki pants pocket for a lapel pin. I pulled out the small ribbon covered in pink rhinestones and pinned it on her dress’ collar. She looked up at me with a slight smile.

“It’s been years,” I whispered, “But I’m still very proud of you.”

“Oh ,” she responded softly, “Now, you make me feel bad for nagging.”

“Survivors don’t nag,” I said kissing her on the forehead, “I’m sorry for hopping out of the window, tomorrow I’ll leave out the back door.”

She laughed.

Savannah

I remembered this morning why I went to jail again. How did the love of my life turn so cold? Though years went by without me seeing the outside of a jailhouse, I never regretted what I did.  What she did was much worse. I found her inside of our bed with a White man. More like a dirty mattress on the floor that had crisp clean sheets. Sheets she made even dirtier than the piss stained mattress I grew up laying on. And despite the dirty image I’m drawing, they both found pleasure on it. Rolling and rocking through that mattress, until I walked in of course. I’ve memorized that day when I killed a White man to never forget one detail. I was only 19 and we were in love. But young and dumb is what they call it, right?

The train is filled with people. I get on and say my piece.

“Hello, ladies and gentleman. How are you today?”

I’m walking down the aisle of the cart smiling. Folks are already looking down and around to avoid catching my eye. But the few who can’t help but stare are all ears.

“Last night someone called me a thug!” I yelled, “I’m not a thug or a gansta, I’m a brother who just needs a sandwich.”

I stand still leaning up against the rail to hold my balance from the rocking train. My dreads were up in a ponytail, I shook out the rubber band and let them down.

“So, if you would give me, a brother, some money for a sandwich,” I continued, “It would be gladly appreciated.”

I smiled while leaning to reach for a dollar from a Black man. He wore a leather bomber jacket with a shiny bald head. He slightly laughed at me but I knew it was my character he found funny. A young White woman reacted by digging into her purse swiftly and grabbing a dollar. She ran her fingers through her long blond hair as she handed me the dollar nonchalantly. I didn’t expect it from her.

This White woman reminds me of his sister. His sister screamed and cried when she found out, you know? She came to court and called me everything but the N-word. But I saw the word in her eyes. I felt no compassion for her lost. He was lost when he laid in bed with Savannah. Lost in a world of taboos he couldn’t handle. It was just God’s way of waking him up and putting him to bed before he messed up further. Her scream in court pierced my ears though.

The low bellow of his scream when I shot him with the handgun I stolen had no effect on me. I watched him bleed to death at my feet. Staining the already unfinished wooden floors that laid a mattress splattered in red dots. Savannah was down the street in only her black panties and bra. It was early in the morning so no one was outside. My mother was gone to her shift at the hospital. I knew she’d be devastated that the girl she took in would never be coming back. I stared at her bloody footprints on my front steps afterward. Her little feet were always cute to me. That White man didn’t know who he was messing with that day.

As I grabbed the change from the Hispanic teenager, who’s ear phones blared so loud I knew he didn’t hear my thank you, I noticed two people. Sitting in the seats in front of me was a young Black woman with a grey business suit, and a middle-age plump White man in a polo and wrinkled khakis. It looked as if they were co-workers but their casual conversation disturbed me. I didn’t like them interacting.

I walked toward them smiling and said, “You know what, you all should just be together.”

The Black woman laughed as the White man ignored me looking down at his phone. They rose from their seats to get off at the stop. Her smile as she got off made me decide not to follow them. And do what I did twenty years ago.