by Georgena Michelizza
It’s 1993. Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” plays on 97.3 Kiss FM constantly. It’s my favorite song so I don’t mind. I’ve started growing awkward pointy breasts that are too easily noticed under my oversized t-shirts. Bill Clinton is president; I know this is important, but I’m not entirely sure why. I like the way he plays the saxophone because I also play Alto. I know that Dan Quayle can’t spell potatoes and that there’s a war in Gaza. I’m only 10 years old.
This is the year my dad starts carrying a walnut-stock shotgun around. It must be almost the end of the school year in Taos, or the start, because I know it’s hot. Heat emanates off thick adobe walls as I walk to the plaza after school and floats in illusory ripples above the black asphalt when we drive home. Everywhere my father goes the shotgun goes. It drives to school with us, laid across the two flip-down seats in the rear of our red and gold Chevy. It sleeps on the floor beside his mattress and sits, propped in its beige canvas case, in the far corner of his shop all day. She’s our silent companion.
~ ~ ~
“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.” Click.
My dad looks at me with those pleading honey-brown eyes and pushes the blinking green triangle on the answering machine again.
“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.”
“I don’t know Dad. Maybe it was the same voice from the prank call this morning. I’m not sure,” I say, avoiding his needy eyes. Tension ties my jaw in bumpy knots and pulls my lips back in an awkward Cheshire smile; one hell of a coping mechanism freaky smiling is.
“This is serious, Georgea. You need to try and remember.” His voice is deep and resonant, the way he usually sounds after meditating, but the fine lines between his eyes and on his forehead show me he is not at ease. His sense of urgency is palpable, and I want to have the right answer. I want to know what’s going on.
“I couldn’t really understand the guy on the phone this morning, dad. I’m sorry.” I take my yellow Jansport backpack off and lay it behind the long desk that served as a bar for previous tenants. “He just sort of mumbled. I couldn’t make out any words. I thought it was just a prank call, so I hung up,” I keep talking, nervously trying to fill the space between us with words. My dad pushes the blinking green triangle again and sits down with his forehead in his palms, shaking his head “no,” gently, back and forth. A wriggly blue vein bulges beside his temple. I know this vein, it’s his angry vein, but he doesn’t look angry now. He looks sad. Sad and scared. “Do you think it was the same person?” I ask, wanting to show that I appreciate the gravity of the situation.
“I don’t know, Georgea. But, somethin’s not right. Not right at all.” I’ve never seen my dad appear weak or penetrable, and that is distressing alone. I’ve seen him worried when he says he is balancing his checkbook, or “figuring out what to do next.” Money, I know can cause those lines on his brow, “the business” can narrow his eyes like this, but never before has he appeared fragile.
I’m no longer allowed to walk the short 10-minute distance from school to our rug gallery in the plaza. Instead, he parks on the street directly outside my final class of the day, watching me make my way down the school steps and to his truck. We circle the plaza numerous times, bumper-to-bumper, trying to find parking. Shotgun in the backseat all the while. I don’t ask why she travels with us everywhere; I know the answer, “You’re gonna die nigger, you’re gonna die — boy.” I’m scared of her, both of the irrevocable damage it could cause and of why it suddenly has become present in our lives.
Gone are my 25 cent giant Jawbreakers from the huge glass jar at the candy shop on my way home. Gone is my blossoming sense of independence. I understand I need to be kept safe, but I don’t entirely understand why. My father’s attentiveness is warming, but unusual. “Sometimes you gotta learn the hard way,” was his mantra and that’s exactly how most of his tutelage was passed down; the hard way.
Beyond the “N-word,” I knew what the caller meant by calling my father “boy.” My six-foot-five-inch father was no boy. He was big and he could be pretty scary. People in town called him, “Big A.” He was the guy you called to haul your 200-pound Mastiff Shepherd down the stairs when he’s too scared to walk down on his own. He’s the guy you call when you need help moving the heaviest couch on earth, or to build a deep-set fence to keep the neighbor’s cows out of your clover field. He’s not a man that many would cross. Yet, someone was not scared of him. Some drawled, barbed voice on the other end of the answering machine knew they had power over him, and they exerted that power with the word “boy.”
The death threat was not the first time I had experienced racism. Upon reflection, it was the first time I became aware of it…
“Don’t be offended, Georgea, I’m just not attracted to black girls,” says my 10-year-old best friend, Jessie, in the school-yard when he is supposed to run up and kiss me in some variant of tag we were playing. I’m not offended, but I do wonder if all the other boys I know feel the same.
“My mom told me you can’t wash dreadlocks.” School kids would say. “Gross. Do you wash your hair? I bet it stinks. Georgea’s got dog hair.” All too familiar schoolyard exchanges. I did wash my dreads, and my father also washed his. Oddly, I never registered the vitriol that underscored these comments. I was happy to explain to my peers.
“No, of course we wash them. We just don’t brush them. We pull them apart so that they don’t mat up into one big gnarly Bob Marley dread.” Perhaps they went back and told their parents what they had learned. Perhaps that is why they came back and told me they were no longer allowed to play with me because I’m “black.” Perhaps that’s why I decided to cut off my dreads that year.
Sprawled out in a giant tractor tire in a dirt schoolyard, Nicole looks at me and questions, “Maybe your skin is brown because God pooped on you?”
“Maybe yours is white ‘cause God peed on you and bleached you pale.” I get out of the tire as the recess whistle blows. Feeling self-righteous about my quick-witted comeback, I walk towards the haphazardly forming line to reenter the school building.
I truly did not believe she was trying to be mean. I would go on to have many sleepovers at her house. We’d drown out Rush Limbaugh’s agitated voice coming from the living room big screen with THE Dave Mathew’s Band cranked full blast on her Sanyo boombox until we were told to “turn that racket down.”
Joining some other classmates towards the front of the line, I’m told by a popular girl wearing an athletic-style headband, “Nuggers in the back.” I don’t know what that means. I know nigger is a hate-filled word, but I don’t know what “nugger” means. Does she mean nigger? The dusty schoolyard is chaotic and loud. I just want to get inside.
A big sixth-grade girl appears. She drapes her arm around my shoulder and pulls me in close. She feels like a sister. I wish she were my sister. Her hair is big and curly and she smells like coconut and Dr. Pepper Lip smackers. “Come in the 6th grade entrance with me,” she says, flipping her chin, neck, and hair around in the most confident display I’ve ever seen. Once inside the back part of the school in which I’d never been, she points down the hall and says, “Your classroom is that way. You’ll be OK.” She starts up the green-tiled stairs beside the water fountain when she turns and shouts down the hall, “Just ignore them.” I plant those words in my heart and live them as creed.
The halls are clean and almost empty as the lower grades have not yet been let in. I drink in the peace and try to step in each tile squarely, avoiding the cracks until I reach my door. The poster on my classroom door is a black and white picture of Dr. Martin Luther King with an excerpt from his, “I have a dream” speech.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I memorized those words that year and carried them as truth, my own illusion of colorblindness blinding me to the reality around me.
Heartbreaking as this all sounds now, it didn’t break my heart then. That came later. That came after the message. The message changed the tone the light cast on everything that came before.
During any one of my father’s empowerment lessons, he smiles that warming, charming smile that turns all the women around him into globby goo. “You can be and do whatever you want. You may have to work harder than some other people, but whatever you want to be in life, you can be. You just gotta play the game.” He looks like a superhero beaming down on me. Anything is possible, you just gotta be strong. Strong and proud; the burden of a black woman.
He tightens his turquoise bolo tie in the mirror and puffs up his chest as he swats the lint off his torso. I love to look at him when he’s dressed up for work. He’s taught me about the black cowboys in Oklahoma where his father is from, and I think secretly he wants to be a cowboy.
“Perception is reality, Georgea.” He always says my name after laying down some hardcore truths. “It matters how you speak, how you’re dressed, how you walk. People are gonna try and judge you, make decisions about you without axing you.” I register the mispronunciation of “ask,” and look up at him. “Asking,” he corrects himself smiling, his gold lateral incisor glistening in the sun. “You can’t change their minds, but you can control how you show up.” He adjusts the denim collar of his shirt, grabs his black wide-brimmed hat, and walks out of the room planting a sweaty kiss in the center of my forehead.
Raised to believe I had nothing to be ashamed of, I was happy to educate people about melanin in skin, the history of the slave trade, the ancient kingdoms of Africa and the Orient, and how my slightly wider nostrils helped my equatorial ancestor’s intake more air in hot climates. I truly believed that I could educate people out of ignorance, and I felt no shame in doing so.
“They’re just ignorant,” my dad would say. And so, for some time, this was my belief. People are not filled with hate, they are just ignorant. If their lack of knowledge was not elective, that meant I could simply provide them with knowledge and they would be healed, liberated. If they chose not to accept my knowledge, that was their loss. This stance carried me through much of my childhood and provided a cottony bubble of empowerment that burst when I learned that ignorance can be a choice.
“I’m Georgena. Georgena Tann. My name wasn’t called,” I say to the 5th grade ski club administrator in the auditorium. The words are hard to get out behind my suppressed tears. My voice trembles more than I want it to. She looks up from her scribbling with only her eyes.
“Right.” Eyes back on her clipboard. “I see your name here, Miss Tann. You were absent yesterday. Rule is, you don’t show up to school, you don’t ski the next day. You know that.”
“But it was a holiday. It was Martin Luther King’s day. It’s a holiday. I didn’t miss school. We celebrated.” I plead, genuinely surprised and confused.
“Not here it’s not. Everyone else was in school. Now, go back to your class. I’ll give you a late pass.” She hands me a yellow slip of paper without meeting my eyes.
I forget about my backpack and all my gear sitting in the 5th row. I run out of the auditorium, down the white-tiled halls, past a bumbling teacher, and out through those big green double doors. I run down those massive steps and all the way to my dad’s shop.
My father and I return to school that afternoon to speak with the principal. We’d been there only a few weeks back when I was sent home for the day for listening to “explicit content” on my Walkman. The song was a “Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gay single I’d stolen from my mom’s cassette library.
This was not the first or the last time my father spoke to a school principal on my behalf; not the only time I would register apprehension in her eyes as she closed her office door looking nervously at the aides on the other side of the glass.
“Big A” was intimidating. He couldn’t help it. He was born this way, brown and tall. The risen, rippling burn marks covering much of his right arm, hand, and body didn’t help diminish people’s concern.
So… my dad, big and intimidating, sat in front of that little principal woman, me beside him, and told her that Martin Luther King Day is now a federally observed holiday statewide and if the school was refusing to observe the holiday he would pull me from school, and — “take it up the line.”
We signed some papers and huffed out of there after collecting my things from the auditorium. The following day I returned to the private, “hippie school” I had attended in previous years. I had begged to go to public school to “feel normal.” My old, new school was directly across the street from Enos Garcis, the public elementary I had just busted out of, and at lunch recess the kids across the street would throw oranges and other fruit over the chain-link fence and chant, “Hippie Kids, Hippie Kids.” Maybe they hurled more intimidating insults, but my memory has kindly kept only, “Hippie Kids.” We had no ski-club, and our 30-person school was housed in an old church, but I was grateful to be back where things made sense. I still might not be kissable, but at least I could listen to Marvin Gaye.
~ ~ ~
I wonder if my father anticipated me not being able to ski and pulling me from that school. I wonder if he had planned the whole thing, or if it really was an innocent mistake. I wonder if he thought about how sad and left out I would feel sitting in that auditorium, while everyone’s name was called but mine. I wonder how I’ll teach my young, white-passing, daughter’s about the privilege they wear on their skin.
The following year Enos Garcia observed Martin Luther King Day.
~ ~ ~
So what happened with my dad and his 12-gauge? I remember the look of concern and fear in my dad’s squinting eyes. I remember the words on the answering machine verbatim. I vaguely recall tall men in sleek suits standing out against the south-western décor of the hotel lobby, which led to our family business. I don’t why it happened, or if the matter was ever resolved. I don’t know when my father finally stopped toting the gun around, or why.
What I do remember is my father explaining to me what a hate crime is. I don’t recall the exact words, but what I took from that explanation was that people might want to hurt you just for being who you are. Raised to believe I could be and do anything I wanted, safely, this was a potent deviation from all my father had instilled in me. So why does it matter? If I can’t remember any of the details beyond a dreamy blur, why has this memory become embossed into my psyche? Why, as Black Lives Matters protests swelled across the US last summer, did this memory move me to tears and often panic?
This experience subconsciously added a new filter to a little ten-year-old girl’s perceptual reality. The new awareness; we are not always safe in our skin.
Despite being college-educated, having two-passports, and speaking three languages (in sum, being blessed by privilege) the yoke of this awareness chokes me now as I, like my father 28 years prior, keep pushing play. I keep watching a black man die below the knee of a police officer. Over and over I watch. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” I can’t either. Am I safe? My supercomputer intelligence pulls up all the instances in which I have felt unsafe in my skin and begs me to explode into fight for flight. I’m flooded with cortisol and trembling despite sitting safely on my couch, phone in hand.
This is how trauma works, it creeps back up and takes hold of your most primal instincts when you least expect it.
Georgena Michelizza is a mixed-race, German/American dual citizen. She writes about growing up between cultures and skin tones. From the lens of a first-generation American she reflects on race, and wonders how to teach her very fair children about the African blood that discretely runs through their veins. Follow Georgena here.
Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.