In Flux by Jonathan Escoffery
2016 Waasnode Fiction Prize Winner, Selected by Tiphanie Yanique
It begins with “What are you?” hollered from the perimeter of your front yard when you’re nine, younger probably. You’ll be asked again throughout junior high and high school, then out in the world, in strip clubs, in food courts, over the phone, and at your various menial jobs. The askers are expectant. They demand immediate gratification. Instead of extracting any such satisfaction this first time, the question lifts you slightly off your preadolescent toes, tilting you, not just because you don’t understand it, but because even if you did understand this question, you wouldn’t yet have an answer.
Perhaps it starts with, “What language is your mother speaking?” This might be the genesis, not because it comes first, but because at least on this occasion you have some context for understanding the question when it arrives. It intends to separate you from the norm.
You immediately resent this question.
“Why does your mother talk so funny?” your neighbor insists.
Your mother calls to you from the front porch, has called from this perch overlooking the sloping yard time and time again since you were allowed to join the neighborhood kids in play. Always, this signals that playtime is over, only now, shame has latched itself to the ritual.
Perhaps you’d hoped no one would ever notice. Perhaps you’d never quite noticed it yourself. Perhaps you ask in shallow protest, “What do you mean, ‘What language?’” Maybe you only think it. Ultimately, you mutter, “English. She’s speaking English,” before heading inside, head tucked in embarrassment.
In this moment, and for the first time, you are ashamed of your mother, and you are ashamed of yourself for not further defending her. More so than to be cowardly and disloyal, though, it’s shameful to be foreign. If you’ve learned anything in your short time on earth, you’ve learned this.
It’s America and it’s the 80’s, and at school, in class, you pledge to one and one flag only, the Stars and Stripes. Greatest country on earth is the morning anthem. It’s the lesson plan, a mantra, drilled into you day in, day out—a fact as objective as two plus two equaling four—and what you start to hear, as you repeat this to yourself, is the implication that all other nations—though other nations are seldom mentioned in school at all—are inferior.
You believe this.
Your brother, your parents, all of your living relatives are Jamaican. A cousin you’ve never met moves to Miami from Kingston, and when he winds up in your class, refusing to pledge allegiance to your flag, you know to distance yourself from him. You say a quiet thanks that your last names are different.
If you’d had any context for the question of what you were when it first came, you might have answered, “American.”
You were born in the U.S. and you’ve got the paperwork to prove it. You feel pride in this fact, this inalienable status. You belt Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” on the Fourth of July, and even more emphatically after visiting your parents’ island-nation for two weeks in your seventh summer. You disagree with every aspect of the island life, down to the general lack of central air-conditioning. You prefer burgers and hotdogs to jerked or curried anything.
Back at home your parents accuse you of speaking, and even acting, like a real Yankee. You don’t like the tone inflecting it into something disgraceful, dirty, but if by Yankee they mean American, you embrace it. “I speak English,” you say proudly.
Your parents’ patois, and what many deem as indecipherable accents, still plays as normal, almost unnoticeable against your ears, except that it is increasingly paired with the punitive. For instance, when your mother says, “Unoo can spill di t’ing on di tile, but unoo can’ clean it?”
And your brother says, “No me, Mummy.”
And you say, “I didn’t do it, Mummy.”
She’ll say, “Den who did? Mus’ be a duppy.”
The duppy becomes the scapegoat for all of the inexplicable activity that takes place in and outside of your house. The duppy broke your mother’s vase then tried to glue it back together. The duppy hid your brother’s report card underneath his mattress. The duppy possessed your father, dragged his body out for drinks after work, and didn’t bring him home until morning.
A duppy, or ghost—or even a grown man—can be difficult to discipline, so you and your brother alone share the punishments.
In school, when your World Geography project is announced and you’re made to choose from a list of countries to present on, you choose Mongolia. It’s not till another student chooses Jamaica that you consider the tiny island a viable option.
Part of your geography project requires cooking a dish native to the country you’ve chosen. This is fourth grade. Your mothers do the cooking. When they meet each other on presentation day, eyes ringed dark from having wrestled with foreign recipes so late into the night, they nod imperceptibly, too exhausted for pleasantries.
As your classmate begins her presentation on Jamaica, your mother sucks her teeth—a sound akin to industrial strength Velcro ripping apart—drawing glances from several of the other parents. “Me could’ve brought in leftovers,” she leans in and whispers, “if only you chose home.” For the first time you feel guilt for so thoroughly disowning your heritage.
In your fifth grade History section, you learn more about the founding of America. You learn about the subject referred to simply as “Slavery.” It’s an abbreviated, watered-down lesson, much like its subject heading. It’s: Mostly good people made a big mistake. It’s: That was a long, long time ago. It’s: Honest Abe and Harriet Tubman and MLK fixed all that nasty business. It’s: Now we don’t see race.
An air of shared embarrassment infiltrates the classroom during this lesson; the students agree this was a terrible event. You’re mildly aware that some of your classmates are supposed to have descended from the perpetrators of this atrocity and that some descended from the victims. You’re not quite aware that many descended from both. Should you feel slighted by this country you love so dearly? Once again you feel yourself tilting into uncertainty.
This is not necessarily the first time you’ve heard of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as your father never misses an opportunity to denigrate your country of birth. In his boisterous version of the lesson you learn, “That’s why these Black people act so, the ignorant monkeys. Them come out o’ bondage not two seconds ago, now them must act civilized? Boy I tell you, White people wicked, you see.” At the height of his rant, he’ll add that slavery in Jamaica ended hundreds of years before slavery ended in America, a claim you’ll later learn is off by hundreds of years.
He has a word, a Jamaican word, for the Blacks of either nation he deems inappropriate: buttoo. If ever you do something that might cause him shame, he’ll say, “You can act like real buttoo sometimes.”
“What am I?” you’ve repeated to your mother by now. You’ve been asked enough times by strangers to implore of her the answer.
Her response seems somewhat prepared, but not so definite or clearly defined as the seems to demand. Your mother tells you that you are made up of all sorts of things. She lists countries, several countries, and assigns great grand this and great grand that to these many nations. These grandparents rarely come with names, so you easily confuse
them. “Our last name comes from Italy,” she says, “by way of England.” Most of the countries she lists are European, and though she’s sure to add African, as though it were a country or ethnicity or an afterthought, she never mentions race.
You want a one-word answer.
“Am I Black?” you ask her. That, after all, is what you want to know. Race has descended upon your world, sudden and grating, and what you fear most is that others recognize in you something that you’ve yet to grasp or be filled in on.
When only the kids asked, you assumed their limited experience in the world left them as ignorant as you are. But adults are beginning to fish for answers, as well. Some of your teachers simply gawk at you with confusion, while others ask how it is you speak so well.
At first, you’ll reply, “I’m American,” certain they are distinguishing between your and your parents’ accents. But this answer only confuses your teachers. Later on, especially when asked by teachers whom your parents have never met, you realize they mean something else entirely.
“Are we Black?” you’ll ask your mother.
Agitation grips her. A shudder shakes her skin, wiggles it over her bones, and she quickly finishes the family genealogy, down to the last shaky details. “Your father’s father’s mother was Jewish. Your grandmother’s mother was Irish,” she’ll say. “Your grandmother’s father,” and she’ll lower her voice to a whisper when she says this part, “may have been an Arab.”
You’ll stare at her blankly, noting, “You haven’t actually answered the question.”
Her agitation inflates to ire. “Chuh. I was never asked such stupidness before coming to this country. If someone asks you,” she says, “tell them you’re a little of this and a little of that.”
You’ll see her response is final. Again she’s avoided the one-word answer, what you’d hoped was a simple yes or no.
The decidedly Black kids who have moved into the neighborhood find you befuddling. They are the ones who first insist that you state your allegiance. “Are you Black?” they demand.
You’re actually a rather light shade of brown, if skin color has anything to do with race. Your parents share your hue. Your grandparents on both sides, even in the color photographs that fill your living room’s shelves, appear sepia. Your best school friends, Jose and Luis, are the two whose tones most match yours outside of your household. But when they flip back and forth between English and Spanish you feel excluded. And when they flip their hair back and forth in a mock head-banging motion, it becomes painfully apparent that your hair isn’t long or straight enough to bang along.
Additionally, your neighbor, Julie, informs you that—after half a decade of friendship—you are no longer allowed to play together. When you ask why, she says, “Because your family doesn’t believe in god.”
“Of course we believe in god,” you know enough to say.
But she just shrugs and says, “My dad says Jamaicans don’t.”
Your mother says to you and your brother one day, “Unoo better no bring no nappy-headed girls home.” In your mother’s defense, or perhaps to further disparage your mother, her list of girls not to bring home will stretch to the point where you’ll wonder if she ever wants you to bring home girls. “Don’ bring home no coolie,” she’ll start to warn in high school. Upon seeing your uncut-coffee-colored Panamanian prom date she’ll lock herself in her bedroom. For her your mom will have no words at all. And after you graduate, she’ll say, “Please, just not a White girl. Promise me that.”
But this is fifth grade still, and you’re confused about this first warning. What constitutes “nappy” hair to your mother? You study hers—as fine as Jose’s and Luis’ guitar string follicles—then study the cotton candy curls on your head. You wonder about your own hair’s nappiness. You wonder who can’t bring you home.
The duppy returns, more mischievous than ever. It hides your father in a bar, in a bacchanal, in a dimension your mother can’t reach him in. Before he rematerializes, plastered in Jouvert paint, your mother reports him missing. As she talks to the police over the telephone, you and your brother huddle near enough to hear the man on the line say, “Ma’am, I can’t make out a word you’re saying. Is there someone there who speaks English?”
She passes you the handset before breaking into sobs. The man asks you to describe your father. “He’s 6’1”,” you tell him. “Skinny.”
“Black or White?” the man asks.
You look to your brother. “Not White,” you say.
“Brown,” your brother says.
“Your father go missing often?”
“How often should your father go missing?”
The disembodied voice tells you, “He shouldn’t.”
“Oh,” you say. “Then too often.”
In sixth grade, a hurricane named Andrew pops your house’s roof open, peeling it back like a Campbell’s soup lid, pouring a fraction of the Atlantic into your bedroom, living room—everywhere—bloating carpet, drywall, and fiberboard with sopping sea-salt corrosion. It disinters the kidney-colored fiberglass from the walls and ceiling, splaying the house’s entrails on the lawn. The storm chops your neighbor’s house to rubble, parks a tugboat at the far end of your street.
In Andrew’s wake, your family flees north to Broward, where race and self-identification become simultaneously more confusing and crucial.
In your new school, you again fall in with the Brown boys. These boys, you come to learn, are the Puerto Ricans. One, Jorge, has taken you under his wing. You sit with his posse in the lunchroom, and every once in a while, when they break into Spanish, you stare into your lunch tray’s partitioned green peas and orange carrot cubes. If you are still enough, no one will notice you in these moments, you’ll become invisible. If no one can see you, no one can realize tu no entiendes, that you don’t quite fit. Jorge seems aware that you don’t speak the language, but he’s forgiving of this fault, and steers the conversation back to English.
Perhaps it’s that you’ve taken to shaving your head, inadvertently concealing the thick curls that might otherwise peg you as different, or perhaps you look enough like these boys’ family members, despite having a touch more African running through you, or perhaps they assumed you understood that at this school and at this age people stick to “their own kind.” Either way, it dawns on you just a little late that these boys believe you too are Puerto Rican.
They make cracks about White people: “White people smell like Cocker Spaniels. But only when they’re wet.”
They take cracks at Blacks: “Why do Black people stink so bad? It’s so blind people can hate them too.”
Finally, one day at lunch, a member of the group asks you, not without a level of disgust, why your parents never bothered teaching you Spanish. You half expect Jorge to intervene, but he awaits your answer with equal anticipation.
“Because they don’t speak Spanish,” you say. The boys share confused glances. “My very Jamaican parents speak only English,” you clarify.
“Wait, you’re Black?” Jorge asks.
The trouble is not just that you’ve outed yourself as different, but that there is another clan of boys in school with whom this group happens to be at war. The factions claim turf around the schoolyard, occasionally brawling under a nearby overpass. Your newness left you ignorant of the beef, but you’re told that these rivals hail from an island just two countries over from Puerto Rico: Jamaica. Jorge supplies you with this information as a parting gift. You are no longer welcome at his table.
The Jamaicans, some of whom are in your classes, look nothing like your family or the family friends who fly up for visits. And from the skepticism you find in their faces you’re certain that you scarcely resemble anyone they hold warm feelings toward. The difference can be noted in the names they and their American counterparts give you: Light Bright, Red-Naygah, White boy. At times, they simply call you “Spanish.” Having been booted from the Brown enclave, your vulnerability becomes your fragile, frantic, solitary friend.
Your older brother, having four years of experience over you, and picking up on your ever-deepening entrenchment in this liminal space, finally clarifies things: “You’re Black, bredren,” he tells you. “In Jamaica we weren’t, but here we are. There’s a ‘one-drop’ rule.”
With a smirk, he adds, “Sorry to break it to you.”
You attempt to befriend your Jamaican classmates. These attempts involve enduring humiliations, including quizzes about what Jamaican cities you can name (Everyone knows Kingston, that doesn’t count.), and what patois (You know what’s a batty boy, batty boy?) or what Jamaican dances you know (You can Bogle? Ok, show us!), till it becomes obvious that they will never accept you amongst their ranks, especially not after your having spent time with the Browns. Members of both groups go out of their way to trip you in the hallway or knock over your lunch tray.
You disappear to the library’s “Science Fiction and Conspiracies” section during lunchtime. It’s the one place you feel safe. This double exclusion will solidify one thing for you: You are the Black sheep, if nothing else.
Your brother starts traveling south, back to Miami with your father on weekends, chaffed leather tool pouch shoulder-slung, like the heavyweight championship belt. His biceps grow round and taut overnight, as though tennis balls have been implanted beneath the skin overlaying his arms, forced in with a shoehorn at the crooks. Softballs bloom inside his shoulders. The skin darkens, terracotta-colored under the facial hair that’s sprouted on his cheeks, his cheekbones burnt ashen.
“Roof work,” he explains. “Di sun wicked, you see?” He says this grinning, thumb-brushing his chin hair, modeling skinned knuckles.
With your father and uncles’ guidance, he is rebuilding; rebuilding the house, the life Andrew washed into oblivion. He is constructing manhood.
They disappear Friday nights and reappear Sundays. You’re told they sleep in a tent, pitched in the wreckage of the living room or kitchen, depending on which they worked over that day.
You beg your father to bring you on these trips, to allow you to rebuild.
“This no pickney business, boy,” he says. His decision is final, rendered before you’d even asked.
Weekends, you sit with your Sega and kill things: Vampires and aliens and time.
One Sunday night, your brother returns to your bedroom, reeking. You could scrape the salt, sweat then left to crust, off his arms. You could pat his clothes and disappear into the plaster cloud emitted. On his breath you taste beer, warm and stew-like. He climbs to collapse in the top bunk, his tan boot dangling over the mattress’s edge. You wonder if he’ll make it to class the next morning, but you don’t say this.
You say, “How much longer?” You say this every Sunday night. Always, the answer is vague, placating: Soon come.
You translate then repeat this to your teachers, any who will listen. “Not long now,” you say. “Here’s my homework. You can grade it, if you want, but don’t expect me back Monday. I’ll be gone any day.”
Every Monday you return, they say, “With us another week, Miami?”
You gaze into the chalkboard, forcing your vision to double over, working to deaden the expression in your eyes, in your voice. “It won’t be long,” you say evenly.
This time, How much longer? is met with your brother’s yawned, “It almost done. It going to be nice, bredren. Better than before. Stronger.”
“I hope soon. I don’t belong here,” you say.
“Thing is,” he says, stifling a burp in his fist. “You won’t go back. Not there.”
“What do you mean I won’t go back there?”
He pauses, realizing he’s said something he shouldn’t have, then commits. “Dad told me this weekend. You and Mom aren’t coming with us.”
A week before the start of seventh grade, your mother moves you back down to Miami, to Kendall, where no one is American anymore. You might be a gringo, you might even be Black American, but solidarity under the Stars and Stripes has ended for you.
In school, Black girls still scream red at you when you walk through the halls. The boys still make fun of the way you speak, calling it White. You, of course, deny any connection to Whiteness. You swear allegiance to Blackness. It’s the music you listen to now, the baggy clothes you wear.
The most popular kids in school, even in your predominantly Hispanic middle school, are Black. They’re viewed as the most charismatic, the most athletic, the least likely to give a fuck. You want in on this Blackness, on its enigmatic pull. You mimic these boys. You ape the way they walk and talk. Specifically, you begin to drag your feet and limp then bop, and limp then bop, then limp when you walk home from school. You suspect this has less the effect of helping you blend, and more one of making you stand out as drunk or special needs, but no one gains cred beating on a disabled kid, so you keep it bopping. You begin to drag your words and cut consonants, cut entire syllables, ‘cause fuck ‘em if they’re keeping you from your rightful membership in the circle of Blackness.
The member perks are simple: No one will fuck with you once you’re a card carrier. The neighborhood gangs, comprised mostly of middle class, suburban Latino boys, are wary of the Blacks, whom they vastly outnumber, but who have brothers and cousins and uncles in Overtown and Liberty City and in prison who are famous for having murdered people. Being Black, you realize, just might save your life.
But somehow you keep falling short.
When you do stupid shit, it’s just stupid. When they do stupid shit, it’s contagious.
They call each other nigga and dog. Then the Hispanics say my nigga and dog. Then the Whites say my nigga dog, even if quietly, even if looking over their shoulders first. Even if ironically, because that’s how it gets you.
First you say, My bad, and giggle. Pretty soon it feels more right in your mouth than sorry. Years later, you’ll see it on Friends and hear it on your nightly news.
Now when people ask, “What are you?” the answer is simple. “Black,” you say. And soon enough people start to believe you.
Weekdays, your mom leaves her office at 5 pm and reaches home around 7 pm. Her commute to and from Ft. Lauderdale threatens to steal hours from her life, so she fills these hours with Speak Italian Now! on cassette. Somehow it’s her American accent that grows stronger. She collapses in front of the television at night with barely the energy to ask, “Are things okay with you?”
“Things are okay with me,” you say, no matter how things are.
“How are your grades?”
“My grades are okay.”
“And your friends? You making any friends yet?”
“My friends are okay.”
The house your mother purchased is larger than the one you grew up in, and much emptier. She spends her weekends furnishing the common areas with armchairs and artwork and rugs, but they never seem to fill. A third bedroom, the one she keeps for your brother—the whole reason you moved back to Miami Dade—goes largely unused.
Your father visits infrequently and takes you exactly once to his and your brother’s house. Upon entry, you see that the living room’s grey-blue carpet is gone. The juice stains and stiff patches of carpet fiber that mapped your childhood have vanished with it. The mostly bare walls host mirrors instead of family portraits. The sun reflects against the tile and mirrors and newly painted white walls swathing the house’s interior in ever-shifting halos. There are few shelves and these shelves hold none of the knick-knacks or figurines or ornaments that cluttered and warmed your childhood.
Most notably absent is the wall that once separated your bedroom from the kitchen. They’ve converted your bedroom into a kind of dining area. A green and white lawn chair and a burgundy rolling desk chair sit on either side of the unvarnished dining table. The house is pristine, except for the coffee mugs and newspapers that litter the table’s rough surface.
Your brother, a junior in high school now, reclines shirtless against the lawn chair’s vinyl straps, flipping through the paper’s classifieds. He’s lean and ripped and looks ever more like your father’s son.
You measure your growth against the kitchen counter, one of the house’s few unchanged features. As you survey the house, your father looks your clothes over disapprovingly; his ears perk up at certain words you do or don’t use. You’re unsure which, as you’ve used few in his presence. “You been running ‘round with these Black people?” he says. “The American ones?”
You look to your brother, who lifts his muscular shoulders then sets them back in place, before returning to circling job postings.
“More and more you’re turning into some kind of buttoo,” your father says.
You answer, “Don’t blame me ‘cause you used me for a green card. I didn’t choose to be born here.” You seem to be grasping more about your position in the world, even if you understand little about what you might do to alter it.
In high school, teachers stop asking how you learned to speak so well. They stop asking much of you in general, until you’re accused of plagiarism when your research paper sounds “too sophisticated.” You might talk and dress Black, but you still write White, and there’s a discrepancy to account for.
Blackness, you realize, might get you kicked out of school.
Your science teacher, Mr. Garcia, forces you to rewrite the essay, to make it sound “like someone like you wrote it.” You rewrite your thesis: Niggas be like, Why for when bullets fly, niggas die? Newton says it’s ‘cause objects in motion be staying in motion. That was one scientific nigga, my nigga.
Your revised paper earns an emphatic check mark and a D-.
As you learn more and more about what it means to be Black in America, you finally make strides to understand your Jamaican heritage.
You start simple.
You suddenly like jerked and curried everything. Your flag switches from red, white, and blue, to gold, green, and black. You fill your drawers with Jamaican flag bandanas and wristbands and headbands. Your one-word answer switches to “Jamaican,” which you find more inclusive, more all encompassing.
Plus, the times “Black” failed to satisfy and you followed with “American,” the askers shook their heads and said, “No, stupid. Where are your parents from? You know what I’m asking.”
“Jamaica,” is the solution. “Jamaican,” is as specific as it gets.
But half the time, when you answer, “What are you?” with “Jamaican,” you’re told, “You don’t sound Jamaican. If you’re Jamaican, where’s your accent?”
You go deep. Not Shaggy, Mr. Lover-Lover, radio-friendly deep. I talking Capleton, More fire-Mix-96 underground radio deep. Panyard warehouse dancehall deep. Me say, me can’ rate rap music, ‘less unoo say Kool Herc, a Yardie, invented hip-hop deep. Or Biggie’s moms is Jamaican deep. And he’s the best to ever do it deep.
You nuh turn Ras, but you chat ‘bout I and I principles deep. You’ll chant, Fire ‘pon Bush, but still bless-up Colin Powell deep. You nuh praise Selassie, but you big-up Marcus Garvey deep.
Bully-beef deep. Build a Saturday Soup with chocho deep. You nyam Marie’s Patties and Sango’s deep, like you live ‘pon Colonial; like unoo live ‘pon ackee and salt fish diet deep. Fish and festival deep. Johnny cake and fritters deep.
You can chat ‘bout JLP versus PNP policy deep, deep like Red Stripe vs. Heineken. I talking Bayside Hut, heel an’ toe on di Bookshelf riddim deep.
Deep like, Why’d the Wayans have to do us like that? deep. Deep like you root for Screwface in Marked for Death deep.
In school, in February, when teachers speak of the atrocities enacted against Blacks in America, you nod, then disassociate, thinking, It’s not my history. My family wasn’t even here back then. Simultaneously, you cultivate disdain for America, though America does most of the legwork. You suspect, on some level, that this disdain functions because you believe this history is your history.
Still, you hope that looking outside of the U.S. will offer a kinder alternative to the oppression-centric narrative for people of the African Diaspora. At best, what you discover is loopholes in the designation of Blackness; terms like coloured, half-caste, and mulatto; semantic parachutes that might allow escape from Blackness. You reject these terms, come up with your own: Halfrican and Negro-light.
When you meet boys your color and darker, boys with kinkier hair, fuller lips, and broader noses, who cling to their Puerto Rican or Cuban or Dominican heritage in an exclusionary way, as in, “I’m not Black, I’m Dominican,” you join your friends in calling them sell-outs. Uncle-Tom-ass-self-hating-ass Negroes. You want your Blacks strong and unified after all.
But one day, after one in a never-ending string of racial injustices gets concentrated media coverage, a band of Black American boys crowd around, screaming chico and oye, and at first you stand idly, searching out their target, thinking Someone’s about to get it, not realizing it is you who will receive the sharp edge of their vengeance. A dozen dark hands ram you against a chain-link fence, shoving your body, as though pushing to strain the Blackness from your flesh before the White that remains can be justly beaten.
Before a punch is thrown, though, Shells, your mutual, unquestionably Black friend ambles miraculously by and gives you a pass. “Nah, he’s cool,” Shells says, noncommittally. And this is enough.
How can your Blackness be so tenuous?
How does speaking Spanish make you not Black? you want to know. How does being from an island in the Caribbean make you not Black?
No, seriously, you’ll want to know this, because post-high school some of the Jamaicans in your circumference start to openly make similar claims. We’re very different culturally, they say. You’ve heard this from your own family. This becomes popular enough that even your Black American friends repeat this back to you.
At the warehouse you work at, a White coworker asks you to help him “nigger-rig a pallet.”
“Is that really the kind of thing you want to say to me?” you ask.
“What do you care? You’re not Black, you’re Jamaican,” he says. “I have a Jamaican friend who explained the difference to me.” You wish someone could explain the difference to you.
Suddenly, Black Americans are the only Blacks. Blacker than Africans. Black in the (lowered voice) bad way.
When you’re out in Miami, let’s say, at Dolphin Mall, and the cashier addresses you in Spanish, and you state, “Sorry, I don’t speak Spanish,” then answer the requisite survey on why you don’t, you’ll be offended when the cashier tells you, “But you don’t look Jamaican.”
“What do Jamaicans look like?”
She’ll rub her forefinger against the skin of her wrist, as if trying to remove a smudge, and say, “Black.”
She promises you that you must be Dominican.
When you finally move away for college, what shocks you most is how no one in the Midwest assumes you are Dominican. Here, you are simply, unquestionably Black. No one asks, “What are you?”
Instead, your classmates ask what it is like to have just survived Katrina. You explain that thirteen years earlier you lived through Hurricane Andrew—that Andrew was Miami’s Katrina. At this, they blink and lose interest.
In seminars and at readings, people want to know the Black perspective on things. Their eyes flash disappointment when you say, “I’m probably not the one to ask.” You suspect this is always the right answer, no matter who is asked. You wonder how integral denying (to yourself and others) that you’ve had the typical “Black experience” is to the Black experience.
You wonder what would’ve happened if a real Black man had been admitted. You envision your classmates running for their lives. You picture your classmates throwing their pale naked bodies at his very dark feet. You wonder if another Black person will ever be admitted. You watch the years go by as none are.
In the Midwest, you are unquestionably Black, still you’ll marvel at just how white your skin gets in the winter. You’ll stare for hours in the mirror at your hair, the loosened curls, newly freed from the weight of Miami’s humidity. Some of it shoots straight out in singular strands, while other parts cling in wavy, feathery tufts, and others still spiral in tight coils. Not even your hair knows what it is supposed to be.
In the halls of your university’s English department, your Korean friend will accuse you of perming your hair. Your White classmates yank at it in seminars then apologize, then yank at it in bars and don’t. You thought this was just a stereotype, that the myth was grossly overblown. You are embarrassed for humanity.
You stumble drunkenly out of a dive bar and into a cab one night. You tell the Somali driver, “Take me to Black people.” He nods and takes you downtown, to a hip-hop club. When you enter, you nearly tear up in joy, feeling the thumping bass vibrate through you. But when you peer into the crowd, the pattern, the multiples of very dark men grinding against very pale women, will startle you.
In the Midwest, what comes into question is not whether you are Black, but whether others around you are really White. Your Chinese American friend, Caitlyn, confides in you that she feels White.
“What does Whiteness feel like?” you ask her. “I imagine it’s like walking barefoot on a shag rug.”
“Oh, I forgot,” Caitlyn says. “You must hate White people.”
“Why should I hate White people? I moved all the way to the Midwest to discover White people.”
“I just mean that people expect me to have some kind of minority perspective on things. Like I’m supposed to be the ambassador for Chineseness. My mom and dad are the only Chinese people I know. Plus we’re so well off. I guess I feel too privileged not to be White.”
“That must be difficult.”
“I know how this must sound, especially to you, but that doesn’t change the way I feel. You couldn’t understand. How could you?”
“It sounds like you’d prefer if people treated you less like a generalization and more like a human being. Like how White people treat White people.”
She bites her lip for a second then says, “Right.”
“And your outward appearance is the only thing preventing this from becoming a reality.”
“Exactly!” she says.
“I know what you’re feeling,” you say. “And I don’t think it’s Whiteness.”
You attend what the students at your college refer to as a party. You’ve been to parties, of course, but here there is a distinction made between “parties” and “dance parties.” At dance parties, people have permission to dance. At parties, people are permitted to stand awkwardly, discussing their studies, shielding their stomachs and chests with red plastic cups, or else bobbing dizzily around these cups, holding on for dear life.
In Miami, as far as you are aware, all parties are dance parties. You are way behind the learning curve for small talk.
You meander through your host’s crowded living room toward a partially formed circle of girls whom you recognize from class. They are taking turns, speaking passionately about something or another. You hope it’s a topic you can contribute to; you’re all English majors and transplants to the Midwest: You should have things in common.
The girls make room for you to complete their circle, but continue speaking rapidly, looking only into each other’s eyes. One of them is saying, “It’s like with me, people here find out that I’m from Mexico and they think of Mayans. My family’s bloodline goes directly back to Spain. I’m no Indio. I mean, not that anything’s wrong with that, but there’s a clear difference.”
“I know,” the other black-haired girl in the conversation says. “I’m Argentine. We’re more similar to Europeans than South Americans.”
“It’s so true,” the third, a brown-haired girl says. “Just because my mother is Jewish, all of a sudden I’m treated like I’m not White here.”
“Oh, you’re White.” The Mexican girl places a sympathetic hand on the brown-haired girl’s arm. “Don’t worry.”
“Aw, you’re White too,” she says, returning the arm pat.
“I’m White,” the Argentine says, shakily. Her eyes struggle to hold back tears.
“Oh, of course you are!” the other two say. “We’re all White.”
“We are White.”
“We’re White,” they say.
You start to date two White American women casually, simultaneously. They both happen to be called Katie. Nearly every woman in the Middle West is called Katie. Or Caitlin. Or Kathryn. Or Kathleen. But these two are
Katie. They’re both in their mid-thirties and both seem to be going through the same crisis that led them to date you in the first place.
They worry aloud about their fast-closing window of opportunity to have children. They speak casually about the fact that they come from wealthier families than you (they never actually ask). You’re insulted, especially considering how much of your scholarship money you spend on your clothing, and how much time you put into your general appearance, but ultimately you come to understand they’re both right. Although they haven’t outright said so, the Katies believe they are smarter than you, but that you are better looking than them, and they’re willing to bargain their money and brains for your youthful attractiveness.
What you don’t tell them, what you keep closely guarded, is that you dicked around after high school, performing unskilled labor for years before bothering to apply to college, that you’re a handful of years older than they assume. Brown guys don’t get frown lines, so you’re never asked what you’re doing in undergraduate classes. Besides, the Katies already have your narrative written out in their heads, and who are you to disappoint them?
And what you, my friend, like about them is that they’re so taken by your…your what exactly?
They try to play it cool in the beginning. But soon they let slip comparisons between you and other men they’ve dated. Or imagined dating. These comparisons are meant to sound complimentary.
Katie says, “Your skin’s so much smoother than guys I’ve been with. I didn’t think it could be so smooth. Be grateful you’re not all ashy.”
“Who knew your lips would be so soft?” Katie says. “Like plush little pink pillows. Thank god they’re not all chapped and burnt-looking.”
Katie even says, “There’s pink in your nipples! Brownish-pink, but pink. I didn’t think that was possible.” Sooner or later they each begin obsessively to insist, over and again, “But you look mixed.”
“I am mixed,” you say.
“No, I mean biracial.”
“Well…more or less. I mean…probably. When you add it all up—”
“No,” they say, “I mean like one of your parents is White.”
In a diner, a woman tries to sell you the Qur’an at one in the morning. When you refuse, she curses you for betraying your Arab heritage. You promise her you have no Arab heritage, that you are not Muslim. At this, she passes a hand over your face and says, “Of course you are. Look at you.”
Your two Black friends in the Midwest incessantly ask what you’ve done to your hair to make it look like it does. Actually, they point to it and say, “You don’t wake up like this, do you?”
“No. You don’t,” the other says.
“I wash it from time to time,” you answer.
They stay mad at you for only dating White girls, then for only dating Asians. They get mad at you for dating their Haitian friend. They’re mad when you break up.
“I told Gabriella not to mess with you,” Sheila says. “You’re on some taste the rainbow shit.”
“Stick another fork in Black Love,” says Neya, whipping her head this way and that.
You wonder if yours and Gabriella’s could have qualified as Black Love. Your complexion might fall further from hers than from the Katies’. You’re careful not to wonder this aloud.
When Sheila and Neya notice a family photo on your bookcase, the one that includes your dad, they go apeshit. “Oh, he has good hair,” they say. And, “Oh, no wonder. I thought your father was Black. I thought you were just light-skinned.”
You want to point out their use of such a denigrating phrase as good hair, and to ask where this tribe of just light-skinned people is supposed to originate. You want to know if your father isn’t Black, and if his hair alone disqualifies him. Instead you blurt, “My mom’s is even straighter. What makes his so good?”
They lean in close to inspect the photograph, then pull away, laughing. “Your mom’s hair isn’t straight,” Sheila says, a string of giggles chasing her words.
You look to your mother’s image—at the bangs, the hair flowing well past her shoulders—then to Neya, whose laughter has stiffened into a smirk. “Her hair isn’t really straight,” she agrees. “That’s nothing but a perm.”
At the formal events you attend in the Midwest, you still manage to be surprised that the only Black people present are there to serve. Somehow you’re still surprised when Black staffers stop you always, always to say, “You look just like a guy who works here.”
Black bartenders refuse your drink order until you acknowledge this statement. They rush to wait on your friends and colleagues, but for you they stand idly, smiling crookedly, as though you’ve told a joke, or as if they’ve remembered something amusing and you’ve said nothing to them at all. They might produce a damp rag and wipe down the bar before making eye contact. They might shuffle the ice scoop through the cubes in the freezer or stack cocktail napkins atop the dispenser, though the white paper squares are already beginning to lean.
When they finally acknowledge you, they make a production of sizing you up. Their heads wag especially slowly if a date is on your arm. “You look just like a guy who works here,” they say. And if you repeat your drink order, ask them, “Could we have two whiskey gingers, please?” they’ll bare their teeth, look deep into your eyes, and repeat, “You look just like a guy who works here.”
And you’ll nod. You’ll nod or go thirsty.
“That was really weird,” your date might say on the walk back to your table. She might go as far as to explain micro-aggressions to you.
You’ll take your seats; move on from this slight, until the waitress comes around, quietly and briskly placing plates before the other guests at your white linen-clothed table. She holds your plate for last, as seems to be protocol. If you’re not paying attention, if you’re engaged in conversation for example, she’ll tap your shoulder, interrupt you mid-speech, and say: “You look just like a guy who works here.”
You understand she means, “You look like a guy who should just work here,” of course, especially because ever since you left Miami you’ve felt consumed by the idea that no one in this entire state looks anything like you. You wish some Dominicans would move into town.
Still, in buses and on downtown street corners, drunk Black men stop and point at you, saying, “We’re brothers. Don’t you forget.”
In Jamaica you’re Brown. Your peers look overwhelmingly like you, some varied combination of African and European, with splashes of Indian or Chinese. They look like your family and sound like your family, and this makes you feel at home, even amongst strangers. Your peers here recognize mixed features as standard within the middle class, and for once, on this grant-funded excursion to your parents’ country, the eyes on you don’t question or judge, but accept.
Until you open your mouth.
“Oh, a Yankee this,” they say when they hear you. “But your parents them must be Yardies. Me can see it ‘pon you.” Some assure you that, no matter where you were born, you have “Jamaican blood.” Others, the younger ones especially, find it preposterous that you would utter the words Jamaican or Jamaican American as your ethnicity or any other kind of self-identifier. “But what you know about Jamaica?” they ask.
You’ve been taken in by this particularly skeptical mix of men and women in their early to mid twenties, perhaps because they feel sadness for your having lost out on a proper Jamaican upbringing, or perhaps because they all seem to be home from the medical schools and law schools and universities they attend abroad, and having been away from Jamaica themselves, they need a foreigner present to remind them they belong here.
Whatever the case, they succeed in convincing you that your parents ruined your life the moment they abandoned the island. Your new companions take you for fish and festival at Hellshire Beach, where onyx and camel-colored bodies glisten in the turquoise wet. They take you to National Stadium to see the fastest women and men alive qualify for their Olympic runs. They order their helpers to cook you jerked pork and curried goat and stew peas. They take you on boat trips and to nightclubs with names like Fiction and Envy. You’ll count all of this as research, postponing your visit to the library at UWI indefinitely.
Your companions’ parents insist you meet their friends’ or siblings’ daughters. For the first time in your life someone’s mother—several mothers—thinks you’re an appropriate match for her daughter, and you agree. You want to propose to them all, to add posthaste to the caramel-beige population. These are the girls your mother wanted you to bring home, you realize: these walking multi-culti mosaics, these brides of racial ambiguity.
Where else are people like me mass-produced? you ask yourself. And, How can I ever go back?
On drunken nights you try your best Jamaican accent, which might pass under the thumping subwoofers’ bass, or when everyone in your proximity is absolutely wasted, but having spent the last few years sequestered in the Midwest, away from the music and food and people so easily located in Miami, you’ve already lost large percentages of your parents’ tongue. At hearing your attempts, your companions crack smiles then look away, pretend not to be embarrassed for you.
Eventually, you’ll admit to yourself that you are tired. Tired of trying to convince anyone of anything, especially yourself.
When you’re brought to the house your grandparents owned before they died, the one you visited when you were seven years old, you realize how small it actually was or is when held up next to your memories. Everything is relative.
One afternoon, reclined in a lounger on your hosts’ expansive veranda, you set aside the Wray & Nephew long enough to ask two of your companions the question that brought you back to Jamaica to begin with, the one you’ve come here to write about.
“Amongst your friends,” you start, “do people tend to think about or talk about their ancestral roots? Pre-Jamaican, I mean.” You’ve been thinking about your mother’s list of European grands and how your parents still speak so highly of the British school system they were educated by, pre-Independence, and you think of the Rastafarians who lament Ethiopia and Mama Africa. But what you want to know about is the modern middle-class twentysomethings. You want to know how you might feel, had your family never left. “Do any of you look to England or anywhere in Africa as, you know, the motherland?”
“But what kind of foo-foo thing you asking?” Camille, the light-eyed browning you’ve been semi-dating says. “Only Americans think ‘bout these things ‘cause them have no culture. Them lost.”
“So typically,” you say, “Jamaicans just feel…Jamaican?”
Camille’s cousin, Steven, turns to her. “Boy gone, you know. The whites lick off him head and him gone-gone.” And to you, “Ease up, man. The rum there going mash up that t’ing between your ears.”
“You think French people don’t feel French?” Camille asks.
“That’s different. You’re not the original inhabitants of this island.”
“So what? How long we must go back? You think generations never migrated in and out of France?”
“I’m talking about colonialism, mass enslavement.”
“Chuh. Only you Yankees hold on to that,” she says. “That’s what separates us from all of unoo.”
“But, I mean, the poor people we pass on the street, the ones living in shacks and bussing for miles to come clean your house, they can’t see you all in nice cars and nice clothes and houses and think there’s one Jamaica. They’re still suffering the results of colonialism, no?”
“Well, you see, some people don’t wan’ work hard,” Camille says. “I know it sound wicked to say, you know. But—”
“Must be you want Brown people in houses and Blacks in tin huts.”
“Class issues, bredren,” Steven says. “There’s no racism here. We’re all Black, man.”
You decide to press the issue no further, fearful you’ll offend your hosts. But later, when you ask how the private security forces whose billboards litter Kingston’s skies, and who are rumored to arrive during home invasions and shoot thieves on sight, distinguish between the robber and the homeowner, Steven points out that, “They wouldn’t shoot people who look like us. Them only shoot you if you’re black-Black.”
Your reentry into the Midwest is startling, much more jarring than when you first left Miami. You begin to feel pangs of loneliness, discontent.
One night, you get into it with Neya and Sheila about your feelings of isolation.
“Maybe if you’d date Black women…” Neya begins.
“Where? Where are these magical Black women?” You make a show of surveying the room. “There’s not another in this whole bar. There isn’t one in my whole department.”
“See that’s your first problem,” Sheila says. “What kind of Black man studies literature anyway? We can’t afford to have college-educated artists. We need to be building wealth in our communities.”
You’re three-deep in tequila shots and the surface of your high top is littered with beer mugs, all of which have been emptied. You look to your left, toward the bar, hoping to spot the waitress, to order another round.
Instead, you see what, for a split second, you believe to be your mirror image. There’s a very light brown young man, sitting on a stool near the bar, and as you turn to him, he turns toward you. His hair is shorter than yours, though, and his eyes are lighter. His lips are rosy in his golden face.
You would normally look away, but you keep your eyes planted on him for the moment. You’ve always had an intense interest in studying mixed people’s features, in parsing what makes them like yourself. You think, It’s like belonging to a club you’re never allowed to talk about.
The man at the bar smiles and approaches your table. He says his name is Justin. Justin appears to be alone. Perhaps he suffers from a similar affliction.
“Grab a seat, Justin,” you say. “We were just discussing Black responsibility in the twenty-first century.”
Justin looks to your companions to see if you’re being serious. You wonder if he’ll engage, if he even identifies.
“What we were discussing,” Sheila says, “is whether we need another artist in the Black community. How does that advance us?”
“Well,” Justin says. There’s a hint of thoughtfulness in the way he speaks, or maybe in the pause just before. “The artists are the heralds. They’re our mirrors, our light. They reflect our reality, our past, present, and future. Without them, we wouldn’t have much gauge of whether we’ve progressed or not. We’d be like children, groping for each other in the dark.”
“Just great,” Sheila says.
“A poet,” you say.
“No, not really,” Justin says. “I’m a Musical Theater major, though.”
“Tell me, Mr. Musical Theater,” Sheila says. “What can your musicals tell me that a census or a Pew Report can’t?”
“Well,” Justin begins again. He squints and his jaw looks marginally stressed for a moment. He exhales slowly, as though releasing cigarette smoke. His face relaxes. His dark beauty marks dance around his light flesh as he speaks. “A census tells us the what, but not the why. But even if we have the why—let’s say, wealth disparities result from discriminatory housing practices—we still wouldn’t have the humanity that’s essential to conveying the real message, that human lives are at stake.”
“Plus factor in representation in a larger sense,” you say. “If I don’t create characters who look like me, who will? Visibility is important. Otherwise, it’s as if we don’t exist.”
“Right,” Justin says.
“Well aren’t you fric and frac?” Neya says.
“So you’re a writer?” Justin asks. “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind looking at a piece I’ve been working on. It could use another set of eyes.”
That’s how you wind up exchanging numbers.
You meet Justin at a coffee house. You’re meeting him so that he can give you a copy of the story, or play, or script he’s been working on. You’re not too clear on those details. He’s got it in hand when he greets you.
“So this is the piece you wanted me to look at?” you say.
He says yes, but keeps the manuscript on the table beneath his folded arms. “Thanks for agreeing to.” He looks around. “I’ve never been here. It’s a nice choice.” His golden brown fingertips flick the corners of the manuscript, giving it bunny ears. He notices you watching his fidgeting. “Sorry.” He smiles. “I’m just a bit nervous, I suppose.”
“Why?” you ask.
He shrugs and looks down at his hands. “I’ve actually never done this kind of thing before.”
“Listen, don’t be nervous,” you say. “It can be awkward at first, putting yourself out there. Putting so much trust in someone else. Exposing yourself. I mean, we all worry about what people will think. It’s only natural. But after the first time it gets easier. You’ll get used to it, and pretty soon you’ll start to love it.”
“I hope so,” he says. He twists a silver ring around his pinky.
“Can I ask you something? I don’t mean to be intrusive, but I’m curious.”
“You might as well at this point.” Justin smirks.
“What’s your background?”
He sits up a bit straighter. “What do you mean by ‘background’?”
“I mean where are your parents from?”
“That’s an odd question,” Justin says. “They’re from here. As were their parents before them.”
“Yeah, but I mean racially,” you say.
He stares at you in silence, looks around, then faces you again. “Is this some kind of fetish for you?”
“I get it if you have a type, but—”
“I’m not into the whole exotification thing.”
“Type? What do you think this is?”
You stare at each other, each waiting for the other to clarify things.
“I just came to read your story, dude.”
“Sure, you did,” he says. “And help me expose myself?”
“I meant creatively.”
“I’m actually going to go now.”
“Wait,” you say.
He hesitates a moment, hands poised to push himself up from the table.
“Can’t we be friends?”
He laughs. “I already have friends,” he says. “Besides, I think you have some issues you need to work through.”
In the final fall semester of your undergraduate career, you force yourself to stare into the fire-red bursting in the leaves, to take in the breeze, crisp and invigorating along the skin poking from your sweater. Tell yourself, this is magic, this doesn’t happen where I’m from—I’ve come so far.
In the blistering, skin-biting nights that follow, though, you wish only that you were back in Miami, saturated by swampy warmth, engulfed in the sticky-hot. But you are not in Miami. So you puff hot breaths into your scarf, hoping they melt back feeling into your face. Tuck your head and lift your boots, trudge silently through the snow.
A couple months before you graduate, before you pack up the U-Haul and drive the 1,811 miles back to Miami, you decide to take a DNA test. You spit into a tube, mail it out, and await the findings. Six weeks later an email notifies you that your results are ready. You log into your account and a little box pops up stating that you are 38% West African. This is your highest percentage from any single region (as large and varied as this region may be). This seems about right, or at least it doesn’t strike you as particularly wrong, given your Jamaican heritage and the history behind the populating of the island.
But when you click to pull up your complete ancestral breakdown, the top of the page shows a near 60% European (with the smaller, broken-down percentages spanning the continent). Lower on the page, 1% Middle Eastern ancestry. The remainder is inconclusive.
“Holy shit,” Katie says from beside you on the couch. She backs away, so that she can fully take you in. “I’m dating a White boy.”
Can these numbers be right? You’d always assumed the opposite: You were supposed to be a bit more Black than White. You, who live as a Black man, are being told that you contain more European ancestry than African. You, Negro, are mostly European.
“You’re still Black,” Katie says, turning serious.
This is the first raw data you’ve ever been provided about your race, and even in this case, it’s not actually race, but something closer to ancestral ethnic make-up that you’ve been shown. Race, you know, is a social construct. It can’t be measured because it doesn’t (biologically speaking) exist. So how can you allow this information to rock you? If the results had shown 99% European and 1% African, as long as your skin was brown and your hair still coily, you’d still be Black and just Black by American standards. Have you forgotten this?
The binaries and the absolutisms disturb you, though, no matter how scholars or laymen or racists or pragmatists of any race try to simplify it. You think of the times you’re asked to check a box on a form—the census or an intake form at a doctor’s office or a teaching evaluation at the end of the semester. It’s one of the few times that you’re asked to self-identify by a voiceless entity incapable of correcting or denying you, at least in the moment.
You’ve dabbled on and off with the “Other” box, true, but, in light of this new information, when offered the choice of checking multiple boxes, you still can’t see yourself checking Black and White. You are not the progeny of a Black person and a White person. You are the offspring of two “Others.” You are multi-generationally multiracial, but what does that actually say about your race or identity?
You’d hoped somehow that taking this test and receiving scientific evidence would make easier the process of claiming one thing or another. Or even a firm combination of things. To feel empowered to say, Regardless of what you see me as, I’m this. To say, I’m this, regardless of what city or country or company I’m in. But in the language you’ve been given, in and outside of your society, not even the testing of your DNA and the knowledge of the detailed breakdown of your ancestry can help you answer, in one truthful word, “What are you?”
Jonathan Escoffery’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and an AWP Intro Award, and has been selected for publication in Prairie Schooner, The Caribbean Writer, Salt Hill Journal, Solstice, Pangyrus, and elsewhere. Jonathan earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Minnesota. He currently resides in Boston, where he teaches creative writing at GrubStreet.