man child and the white boy float atop the broken promised land
there’s this white boy sitting next to me on the plane. his angsty hands keep flashing towards the window too quickly. jerky motions that jut out just near my face as he points towards the window i’m sitting next to. the boy sitting next to him is brown with short straight black hair. the two of them hit each other back and forth. do as young boys do. i try not to keep score. try to ignore my mind as it does what it’s inevitably bound to. which is tally who hits who more and who initiates the hitting. but my mind has a mind of its own. or perhaps just preexisting conditions that won’t allow it to not go where it’s inevitably bound to.
i’m reading Kiese’s Heavy and considering what it means to be a trapped man child in a Southern black man’s body. How sixty years ago, when my Pensacola born granddad would have been near the age I am now, he could have felt similar agitation to what I feel now. but for any expression of it he may have found his proud regal black frame in lord knows whose pallid hands. how his journey, presumably an escape from the vice grip of the South, led him to chasing Northern stars, singing on stages in NY city night clubs next to Nipsey Russell, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
how for those shining lights, he left his son in Florida, who would one day leave me in Brooklyn and then eventually leave this Earth. how after that my mom dragged me and my brothers out of Brooklyn for New Orleans. and while much of my Bucktown ways still linger in my bones, my frame has been baptized in the dirty dirty. so now i’m thinking of the unspeakable walls of whiteness in the insane asylum we call race in America. how its mores straight jacket black bodies into immobility like Tupac’s in that one picture. if my heart had a face right now it would be Tupac’s in that picture.
the stewardess comes by. she tends to the white boy and the brown boy next to him. offers them several snack options to which they respond by accepting some chips and candy. she moves on to the next passengers. the white boy looks at me and asks if I want her. i nod my head. then he taps her on the arm and points in my direction. her taut, wrinkled mouth and stiff eyes spell out every expectation I already have. her deep Southern accent underlines my expectations in red. pretzels and water i say dryly. then imagine the stale face i’m gonna serve her ass when i walk off this plane. eat the pretzels. stare out the window…
the white boy flings his hands in my direction again. damn near hits me in my face. reminds me of the little 5 year old black boy that did the same yesterday, but intentionally. while i sat under the dryer, locks freshly twisted, his too. little Ty’Kai, who I’d never seen in life prior to walking in the shop, insisted on walking up to me and playing with me like I was his big brother. grabbing at my wrists something strong with his little five year old self. we played a little game. i darted my finger an inch from his face, to which he responded by grabbing at it quickly. i then snatched my finger away, wove it around like a wand before he could catch it and as soon as he reached for my roving hand i’d thrust a finger back an inch from his face. he grabbed and missed, grabbed and missed. till the laughter rolled out his mouth like water he didn’t have room for and he reached for my face to even the score.
i thought how this would never fly back in my classroom.
how enabling similar freedom of motion in my students would unravel the class in seconds and i’d never get it back. how the administration would frown on this and cancel my contract not long after. but how here, in this black hair shop, all those rigid standards dissolved and this young brother was just that, if not the wily son i never had. we carried on with our little back and forth until his grandmother walked back in the shop telling him to “leave that man alone ‘fore I whoop you.” Ty’Kai sheepishly obeyed and wandered off. i winked at him, pounding my fist into my palm as if to say it was on as soon as she left.
then i think what would an old black woman do if she sat in my seat on this plane. cause i know what she would do to my ass if i did what this white boy is doing. then i think what would she have done sixty years ago. One hundred… sixty — suddenly: two horses spear off in opposite directions at the snap of a bearded old white man’s whip. ropes tethered to the horses tug at the wrists and ankles of the old black woman. her limbs spread like a viper’s mouth. and the most venomously pained scream emerges from her. winds up slow as a vinyl record sketching out its first sound. then blares like a fire truck siren. the black women’s mouth opens wider like all the earth quaking. and a band of hundred thousand banshees ride the waves of her cry.
“this your first time going to California?” the white boy says. looks at me all blue eyed manic and eager. hunger in the pimpled, pock marked face. hunger in the naive smile, yellow teeth, and gridded braces atop them. “nah. you?” i respond. “nope. this is my second time. my tenth time flying. my second time back in California.” “that your friend?” i ask him. “no that’s my brother.” his eyes all agape part fearless wonder, part curious joy. then a slight flinch at closer inspection of the black face in his reflection that doesn’t know what to make of this reckless specimen in front of him so momentarily guardrails his countenance in stern angry black man. stern angry black man. it’s a font for the lettering of emotions on black man typeface. a mood as the kids say. one the zealous white boy doesn’t quite know what to make of. zealous white boy’s flash of fearful wonder is blurred blue ink on a blank page.
stern angry black man font softens. eyes lowercase. inspecting the white boy’s slowly morphing countenance like an editor. like a detective. turns away. back to the window. silence…
“we’re going to visit his dad.” “yeah… but y’all live in Louisiana?” “yeah well he’s from there and i just been living there a year. i was in California 15 years.” “Fifteen years???” you don’t look a day over 12 or 13.” “yeah…” his smile as close to bashful as its been yet. “where you go to school?” “Beauregard.” “get outta here. I teach around the corner. you probably go to school with some of my old students.” absent head nod and smile. “how old is your brother?” “eight.” “so he looks big for his age and you look small.” little brown boy bows head and smiles all bashful. makes the closest thing to eye contact he’s made yet. big brother darts eyes restlessly. fingers his brown full rimmed straw hat.
“what you doing with that hat? you trynna be a cowboy?” “yeah.” eager again. face all yellow teeth and braces, all pink splotches of awkward growth probing through. zany blue eyes threatening to leap out their sockets. “yeah well you should try to ride a horse.” “I did. me and him. we both rode horses.” “well that’s alright.” retiring to old man status now. i sound like somebody’s grandpa. running out of words to say. or sense to make of this strange de force into normalcy with the odd presence next to me. i stare out the window at a bridge that seems to span the length of the ocean beneath us. “i’m scared of that bridge. every time we’re on it i fee like we gonna fall off,” eager white boy says to his brother. “that the Golden Gate Bridge?” I ask them. “no. Golden Gate Bridge is farther up. That’s the…” and he looks to his brother. “i can’t remember what bridge that is.”
minutes later, we’re only a few dozen feet from the ground. nothing but water beneath us. “where’s the bottom? it feels like we’re gonna land in the water,” the white boy says. but then, sure as sunset, the plane’s wheels make their requisite ka boom onto the runway. as we get off the plane, i unload my bags from the cabinet overhead. then i turn around to tell the white boy and his brown brother, “y’all have fun in California. and take care of your little brother.” they smile back nodding at me. the white stewardess lady smiles. i turn to walk.
soon as I step into the welcoming lobby, folks are scattered about awaiting passengers as we exit. the most prominent of which is a huge Latino man in black t-shirt, baseball cap, and the unyielding countenance of a man who knows how to handle himself in the street. he nods his head at me. my eyes nod back. i’d been trying to imagine what kind of man the little white boy’s mom would’ve made his little brother with. tall and domineering? short and diminutive? who’s to know? then… a bend of the corner and a few minutes later, the big unyielding Latino man walks out of the airport with the two boys.
in less than an hour, i’ll be immersed in the streets of Oakland, where the rigid binary of colors that code my every breath and step back down South will be blurred into a rainbow cornucopia of shades of brown that erase any knowledge of where the Chicano ends and where the Mestizo begins, who exactly is Philippino and who’s Honduran, Taiwanese or Chinese, Dominican or Haitian. who’s to know? but in the murky world i’m slowly emerging from, we wear black and white like prison stripes, and all that rainbow is muted in shades of grey.