SWIRL GIRL: Confessions of a Racial OutlawTaRessa Stovall
The following is an excerpt from “Swirl Girl.”
To read Chapter 2 click here.
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Chapter 3 ‘Cross’
I adored the poetry of Langston Hughes and wanted nothing more than to write like him someday.
His word-jazz was music to my eyes, more delicious each time I read it. And I was excited to hurry home from school to and dive into my latest treasure from the library, a book of poems titled The Weary Blues. As I was hoping I hadn’t read any of them before, I heard someone calling my name.
”Terri?” It was a girl’s voice, laden with sniffles.
I whirled around to see Lettie, a round-faced seventh grader with whom I’d exchanged random greetings, but never had a real conversation.
“Hey,” I said softly, studying her face. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
She shook her head and dabbed at her nose with the end of her sleeve. “They called me…” She choked on a sob.
I looked around to see who she was talking about. “Who? Called you what?”
“These girls. Black girls. They called me a half-breed,” she wailed.
“That’s all? Did they call you a bitch too?” I asked, trying to gauge the potential for an after-school fight.
Her eyes widened in horror. “No. Just half-breed. That’s bad enough!”
I looked around again, then moved closer to put my arm around her shoulder. “Where are they now?” I whispered.
She shrugged. “I can’t believe they’d say something like that,” she sniffled. “I think they left.”
The school building seemed empty, except for shadows of adult bodies moving through windows of the main office at the end of the hall.
“Did they push you? Hit you?” I asked. “Call you anything else?”
She shook her head, thick brown ringlets flying around her shoulders. Her hair, skin and eyes were all the same shade of golden brown. She looked like a cute tan doll.
“Okay,” I sighed, confident that we were out of physical danger. “Sometimes people call us stuff. That’s just what they do.”
“But whyyyyyyyy?” she wept loudly.
“Shhhhh Lettie, stop crying,” I said, handing her an unused but crumpled tissue from my sweater pocket. She dabbed her eyes.
“They call us names because they’re confused,” I said in a conspiratorial tone. “We’re like a mystery they can’t understand. And it makes them mad.”
“They called me confused,” she said.
“See, that’s stupid,” I said. “They’re wrong.”
“How do you know?”
“What are you?”
“Mixed. Black and White.”
“See? No confusion at all.”
She shot me a dubious look. “Guess so.”
“No!” I shouted, startling both of us with my sudden intensity. “You know so.”
She nodded. “What do you do when they call you that?” she asked.
“I say, ‘Yeah, I’m a half-breed. What about it?’”
“But you’re not!” she protested.
“Sure I am, Lettie. I’m a half-breed and so are you. I’m proud of it, and you should be too. If you don’t feel bad about it, they can’t hurt your feelings.”
After a long stare to assess my level of crazy, Lettie nodded slowly, and asked if I’d walk her home.
Along the way, she chattered about which boys were fine, the new songs and dances she was learning, and how her older sister, an eighth grader like me, acted like she didn’t know Lettie when they were at school.
When we reached the corner to go our separate ways, she gave me a hug and thanked me for helping her feel better. I raced home to devour the new Langston Hughes poems I’d gotten from the library.
I let myself in with my key, savoring the slice of solitude before Mom and Greg came home from work and school. I made cinnamon toast and chocolate milk, then settled into the overstuffed chair and flipped the book open to the first poem.
I read it once, first with surprise, and then with growing horror.
Twice while pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t having a nightmare.
And then I threw the book across the room.
I was too upset to even enjoy my cinnamon toast and chocolate milk treat.
How could Langston Hughes betray me this way?
After a long moment, I hurled myself from the comfort of the chair, and stomped over to pick up the book. I slammed it shut, cursing under my breath.
And then I opened it to the offending page to read again, aloud this time:
My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m going to die, Being neither white nor black?
This was just as bad as those girls calling Lettie a half-breed, and her crying about it. Langston Hughes was light-skinned with wavy hair, but I’d never seen him described as Mixed. I couldn’t decide what would be worse: if he were Mixed and wrote this self-hating stereotypical mess, or if he wasn’t and just wrote it to mock us. Mock me, his biggest and most devoted fan with that damned Tragic Mulatto, always confused.
I thought about the things I’d said to try to reassure Lettie that she wasn’t the one who had a problem. And then my very favorite writer in the whole entire world has a poem just as bad as what those girls said to Lettie.
Maybe worse. Who was he trying to insult? Whose feelings was he trying to hurt when he wrote that garbage? Did he really think, as a Black man, that he was so much better than all Mixed people?
I was so busy fuming that I almost didn’t hear the front door opening until Greg ran down the stairs and zipped past me to turn on the TV.
I tucked Langston under my arm, grabbed my snack and stomped off to my bedroom, resisting the urge to slam the door and risk The Wrath of Mom.
As she bustled around the kitchen, and the smell of my favorite dinner — pepper steak with sliced bell peppers over steaming white rice — filled the house, I fumed over that damn poem until I couldn’t take it anymore.
I slammed it onto my desk, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, and scribbled my response:
Dear Langston Hughes:
I love your writing so much, but I don’t understand why you had to write a poem saying that Mixed people are confused. Why did you do that? I know you live far away and I’ll probably never meet you. So here is what you need to know.
Sometimes they call us half-breeds
Say we don’t know where we belong
Where to live or die, laugh or cry
But you — and they — are wrong.
Just because my mom and dad
Are from two different races
Doesn’t mean that I’m confused
Or wear conflicting faces.
Folks like you look down on us
From your perch on high
Scorn the lowly half-breed
Who doesn’t know where to die
I’ve always loved your writing
But now that I’ve felt your scorn,
How can you be my favorite?
My heart is sad and torn.
So for your information
You can stop looking down —
My Mixed blood is not a cross
To bear — it is a crown!
Terri Stone copyright 1968.
I made a neater copy, then folded it into thirds and slid it into an envelope, addressed to Mr. Langston Hughes in care of the publisher of that book.
“Terri! Greg! Come eat,” Mom called. As she served our plates, I rushed to set the forks, knives, spoons and napkins in their proper places. Though she’d worked all day as a secretary, then rushed to pick Greg up from school and get home to make dinner, she always looked glamorous. Her ink-black hair fell in waves to just above her shoulders. Her apron protected her stylish dress, and she bustled about in nylon stockings and heels, always graceful.
Greg filled our glasses with juice and set them down, then we took our seats. His curls framed his mischievous aren’t-I-innocent face that won him the title of “the cute one” in the family.
I wasn’t ugly, but with a mother and brother of outstanding beauty, I was okay with the “smart and talented” label, grateful not to be pressured into leading with my looks.
“How was school?” Mom asked, glancing at me.
I shrugged. “Okay. Somebody called this girl Lettie a half-breed, but I told her they were just stupid and not to let people make her feel bad.”
“Did she beat their butts?” Greg asked.
I shook my head.
“That’s awful!” Mom said. “Did they say anything to you?”
“No,” I said. “But Langston Hughes did.”
“Who’s that?” Greg asked.
“Terri’s favorite poet,” Mom said. “What do you mean?” she asked.
I sighed. “He wrote a stupid poem insulting Mixed people. So I wrote a poem back to him.” I got up and ran to my room, returning with the sealed, addressed envelope, and handing it to her. “Will you please get a stamp and mail it for me?”
Mom gave me a long look with those blue-green eyes that seemed to see right through you to uncover any secrets you might be hiding, then nodded. “I’ll send it tomorrow from work.”
“You wrote a poem to a poet? That’s funny!” Greg said.
“Maybe,” I smiled. “Just don’t let anybody call you confused, okay? I’ve had enough for one day.”
All rights reserved. SWIRL GIRL: Confessions of a Racial Outlaw © TaRessa Stovall 2015