Man, I was tired. Tired from running up and down soccer fields in Poughkeepsie like a madman, chasing boy after boy, ball after ball. I was 13, and it was my ability to run, paired with unrestrained aggression, that had earned me a spot on the team. But on that day — during a tournament in upstate New York — I wasn’t used solely as the boy to run and get the ball. On that day, I set plays, I did my best to make sure we did more attacking than defending, I slaved out there in the hot sun. And it paid off. We came in second place. My teammates, their parents, and even our coach said I had done a good job: something I’d always wanted to hear.
I remember trying out for the team. One of our final drills was a sprint. I placed my toes on the field’s chalked line, looked to my left and right, and saw only white boys. Once the whistle blew, I leaped down the field, strides ahead of the closest boy, and crossed the finish line with a grin. Some of the boys congratulated me. One told me I won only because I’m black. I asked what being black had to do with winning, and he patiently explained, “You have an extra muscle in your leg, so blacks will always be faster than whites.” I didn’t respond because I didn’t know if it was true. All that mattered was I’d made the team.
Now, extra muscle or not, I’d proven that I was more than just a runner. And despite being the only black boy there, I finally felt like one of them. Maybe that means I felt white. Maybe it just means that I no longer felt like an outsider. But what I do know is that it felt damn good to be accepted. Getting there, to a moment I’d been waiting for, wasn’t easy, but I had done it.
Some of the boys congratulated me. One told me I won only because I’m black.
As I lay in bed that night, on the top bunk in a room full of 13-year-old boys, I felt the electricity of the day snap and crackle over every inch of my sun-darkened body. A goofy smile stuck to my face, but no one would be able to see it in the darkness of the room, so I allowed myself to enjoy it.
With the parents outside our room having a good time, the 15 of us lay quietly with the lights off, tired but happy. Then one boy said, “Let’s play a game.” We stirred in our beds and asked what the game was. The boy said, “It’s like Penis.” Penis being a game where one person whispers “Penis,” and another has to outdo him by saying it louder, the word going around and around until some maniacal soul screams it loud enough for everyone within a one-mile radius to hear.
“But,” the boy explained, “instead of ‘penis,’ we’re going to say ‘nigger.’”
I was no longer tired. The blissful electricity that surged over my body now stung. The goofy smile I wore was replaced with a clenched jaw. Fingernails cut into my palms. Then it began.
“Nigger,” one boy whispered. You could hear the smile in his voice, like he was getting away with murder. I flinched but told myself I’d be sleeping soon, so there was no need to make a fuss.
“Nigger,” another said, louder this time. Who said that? I wondered, failing to pair the voice with a face.
“Nigger,” a third said, quicker, as if spitting it out would help him taste just enough to decide if he liked how it sat on his tongue before sweeping past his lips.
“Nigger,” a fourth said excitedly, like the trembling fingers of a boy when stealing a swig of vodka from his parent’s alcohol cabinet.
“Nigger,” a fifth said, louder, and with a relaxed confidence that expressed he was no stranger to the word.
Silence. I let out of a heavy breath of air I hadn’t known I was holding. And then, even louder than the others, came the game-winning buzzer beater. The boy who had started the game screamed my name, resulting in a room full of laughter. The meaning was clear. Not only was I not one of them, but I was worse than an outsider. I was, to a room of tired 13-year-old boys, a “nigger.”
I shrugged it off, knowing that what occurs in the night often never sees the light of day. And I was right. When morning came, it was as if it never happened, except it did. What did I do? I took the easy route. The “boys will be boys” route. The “don’t be soft, they didn’t mean it,” route. The route that allowed me to continue playing with the same boys, hanging out at barbecues in summer, going on snowboarding trips in winter.