Pink, In The Midwest by Jasmon Drain
It was the first time that I’d seen them. Probably the first they saw someone like me as well, especially going to same school. I’m from Chicago, one of the major cities of the country, the city most people think of when you talk about the state of Illinois, or the Midwest itself for that matter. I’d lived there my entire life up to the age of 12 or so, then things changed. Drastically. I had to move.
My mom and dad had a long fight. Looking at it now it was a permanent fight; the kind where even if you aren’t looking at the person you’re angry with, you still argue with their shadow, or even yourself, as if they were standing right there, eyes focused on you. That’s the way my mom and dad were always: fighting.
My father shifted to Wisconsin. He packed no clothes – not one shoe – so there were no bags, or even a plastic grocery sack to carry that favorite button down shirt of his; the one with the sleeve longer than the other. He went to Green Bay, Wisconsin. I was supposed to live there with him initially because it’s assumed that a man can raise a man better.
Then, it was time for seventh grade and I was in junior high school. In Wisconsin I was exposed to a town full of white people, only two or three blacks – who were really white – and them: The Indians. I’d spent all the years of previous schooling reading books influenced by the expeditions of Christopher Columbus and map making of Amerigo Vespucci. They said I should expect to see men and women with faces redder than paint on new cars, muscular people with small flaps in the front of their bodies covering private areas, with fierce feathers flooding their heads, and they’d speak English in two-word sentences like;“How-you?” and “Me-Indian.”
That wasn’t the case.
Surely they had preconceived notions of me and my cultural traits before I’d arrived. However, as I sat in the seventh grade classroom, the bright lights contrasting my dark skin and face weighed heavy from thick glasses, I could see how history books truly told lies. And they lied to me, terribly. The Indian skin was a beige tint, not red but pinkish, and just a shade darker than that of white people. Their hair was long – longlong, thick and fluffy, like it was made for blowing in wind. I can remember how I wanted to touch it, make it my own. At that point I was still uncontrollably influenced by society and its prejudices.
Often I wondered how these ‘pink’ people from the Oneida reservation viewed me. I was one of the first ‘black’ kids to walk their halls. No, I didn’t have the baggy jeans or the stiff and stern stare that’s usually associated with Black people. Neither do I recall using my then miniature hands to grab a pre-pubescent crotch. What did they really think, though?
There were white kids at this school; hundreds and hundreds of them because Wisconsin at that time was predominantly white. So I stuck out, not like a sore thumb, because, to some degree it still resembles the other four fingers of a hand. I ignorantly assumed though, that I’d be immediate friends with the Indians because surely they hated white people as much as I’d been taught by my surroundings to do. They were cheated out of land, lost quite a bit of their heritage, lived on reservations sectioned from what I thought was normal life, and were virtually extinct. Certainly we had something in common.
They didn’t agree.
During my first few days I ate lunch in the large cafeteria with forty or so silver benches that were bolted to the table. Those benches were filled with other kids. I was alone. Initially I pretended that it was my intent to sit alone, with my dry salami sandwich on rye bread and nacho chips which needed more nacho than chip. But they made no contact with me, wouldn’t answer any question I’d posed, even after I’d asked for leftover packs of ketchup or if someone would like some of my nachos.
And at that age I was rather athletic, a quick and nimble basketball player, and assumed this would open the door to assimilation. At worst I’d fall into another stereotype of all black people being able to run and play sports with exception. I was willing to make the sacrifice. Later in the semester there were tryouts for the team and I decided this was the perfect time for me to show what I could do. I dribbled and shot the ball in ways I thought never possible for a pre-teen, begging for the admiration of other kids who wouldn’t give the satisfaction of speaking my name. Not only didn’t I get that, but I didn’t make the team either. Never did I question the decision to leave me from the team was based of something other than sheer basketball playing ability, until later, older, I remembered the fact that the coach was from the reservation as well.
He was a tall and pudgy man, his body looked as if it decided to one day just grow in any direction it darn well pleased. The coach was at least six feet or something, with that nice brown hair. He wore it in a pony tail. Coach never said a word to me directly, not even during the tryout practices. Come to think of it, I never got a chance to really try out. I only played in the pickup games that were set as warm ups, and when it was time to run and display your skill set, my number seven was never called. No mind, at that time I had no clue.
That kind of treatment continued. In class I made sure I sat way in the back, in the corner of the room where desk chairs didn’t fit, where dust safely accumulated. Initially, I assumed it was because of my thick glasses that no one associated with me, or maybe it was because I was ugly? Sitting in the corner hid all those things. I was safe with the dust. As time went on though, even that didn’t work.
Things got worse. My cornered and always silent mouth could not disappear far enough. I began hearing the slight jabs: nigger, darkie, etc. I’d already expected that, but not from them. Not from TheIndians. In the beginning, it didn’t affect me much. Their words blew in the wind like their hair. No one was talking to me anyway, I played ball on the outside courts with another dreadfully un-athletic white kid in glasses. Every afternoon I rode my bike home to a father’s house who was always working. He’d come with hefty bags around his eyes, slouching his dense shoulders and dragging shoes that were too tight for his feet. There’d be twenty-minutes for conversation, seeing as though he got in from work usually around 10:37 and I was to be in bed by ten. So, my mouth would race to force out all the trivial things I choked on during the day: how the Indians called me coon, how my teacher’s were too busy to help with math, how my bike chain kept slipping. It didn’t matter, my father was tired. So, in the morning I was alone, in the afternoon too, and most certainly at night, even for those twenty-three minutes.
When I retuned to school one morning, a Tuesday, after a ‘normal’ night with my father and huffing and puffing from bike riding, I saw them staring at me. Staring hard like I owed them money. I’d grown frustrated and resentful but didn’t know why. It could not have been only because I was black that they treated me so badly, there were a couple other black kids. Maybe they were not from the city as I was, but nonetheless, they were there.
Loneliness is a feeling that even as a youth destroys all morality. And those nigger and darkie insults, especially from Oneida Indians, who my father said spent all their time drinking and beating each other crazily, coupled with my insecurities, my loneliness, my failing math grade, made me miss home.
That’s when he walked up to me. His feet stomped against the concrete like he weighed two thousand pounds. The sun wasn’t shining but I could see he was taller than me, hair in a normal round cut, just below his ears. I don’t remember his name but his arms were as big as my thighs. And he was another seventh grader. He called me those names and pressed his pink skin close to mine. The kids – white, Indian, I think the three blacks too – were laughing. This Indian boy said it over and over. The fact that I was homesick made the words seem like fists, hard punches right in the rib area that makes you want to throw up from spoiled milk. So I swung back, but really, I’d swung first. We went back and forth by the bike rack.
Ironically it took only twenty-minutes to figure out that I was to be expelled from school. They said it was because I started the whole thing. Never mind the comments he made: nigger, darkie, etc. or the fact that I was ostracized for an entire semester.
Within eight days I was back in school in my old neighborhood, but for some strange reason, a reason I cannot figure to this day, I never was happy about leaving.