My blood courses red and thick. It wails in the distance like the Egyptian women so long ago. It sweats profusely under the August sun. It kneads the dough at high morning and dusts the china it’s never owned. It nurses children that grew in foreign wombs. It lays at the will of the master. Not its own. It will bear him a bastard child. Unloved. Unwanted. It sings the old spirituals to pass the time. Its feet crack and fill with the Earth’s soil. Its wrists and ankles cut and ooze red life at the mercy of the wrought-iron chains. Its back is riddled with welts that crawl and claw and fill with pus. They do not call it beautiful. They cannot call it beautiful. But, it will flow to the beat of the distant drums that we had almost forgotten to listen for.
My grandmother has traced our family tree back to its trunk. She is excited. We are many and far apart, but soon we will know how to return home. She lowers her tired bones onto her dinette chair delicately. The cushion’s lush leaves and plump fruit have faded over the last fourteen years. The apples strain under her weight. I watch her closely. Where are her papers? Where is the proof that she’s found? I am ready to know. Was he tall? Did he have nappy hair? Did he sojourn on the famous railway, escaping by night and hiding by day? Or, perhaps, did he purchase his freedom? Did he help set free a wise old woman or an orphan child? She has found him. She has discovered the man from which my family has sprung. She has seen his pen scrawled on yellowing pages. She knows him. Finally, I would know him too.
When her thin lips part, I expect to see his large black hands toiling in the fields. I expect to wipe the sweat from his brow and sing to his infant child. I expect to feel the grooves on his back, to see the earth beneath his fingernails, to hear the pining in his songs. But, these are not the truths she tells. Instead, I see a bed covered in white lace and adorned cotton linens. It is stained Crimson. I see her shaking. There is anger in her eyes, helplessness in her legs, silence on her lips, and death in her soul. He does not have worker’s hands. He does not have nappy hair. His brow was cool. His back had borne no burden. I know him. And his pen was smooth and learned.
A frigid breeze filters through my screened kitchen window. My hands grip the wooden table, still covered with a thin layer of Country Kitchen Syrup. I wonder why that never seems to come off, even when we crub with lemon-scented Pinesol. I look at my skin. It’s still brown as I remembered. It doesn’t scrub off in the shower. Mommom continues explaining how the branches crook and splinter to create me, the chestnut-colored flower they decided to name Amaniah*. My name is Hebrew for faith. Most people think it’s African, but the traditional African spelling is Imani. Most people call me Imani by mistake anyway. Her words mesh together. I can only make out one startling sentence: the patriarch of our family is Scottish. The memories burst through the gates of my sanity.
Mommom says I’m not paying her no attention.
I remember that day in fourth grade when Ms. Josephine played her favorite documentary for black history month. When the images poured across the screen, they felt so familiar. When they smiled, I smiled with them. When they lamented, I wept for them, inwardly of course. I imagined myself comforting them and lifting them up with whispers of encouragement. I willed them on, assuring them of impending victory. All the other kids squirmed in their seats. They diverted their attention to the chalk residue permanently staining the green blackboard. They adjusted their stockings. My very best friend, Alexandra, reached over and touched my shoulder gingerly. She whispered “I’m so sorry.” I didn’t respond. It was 2004. I was attending a Christian school. There were a total of three black kids in the expected Class of 2012. When Alexandra refocused on the screen, I looked at her. We’d had sleepovers. I’d braided her hair on the playground. Her hair blazed, wild and untamed like a California forest fire. I turned my attention back to the movie. I did not whisper, smile, or weep. Instead, I wondered why they’d decided to make the film black and white.
I remember my first crush, Charlie Eleutheria. I had just learned to write, and my daddy bought me a faux fur diary for Valentine’s Day. In it I kept juicy secrets like Molly didn’t actually go to sleep during nap time and Jazmine’s hair actually came from a horse. But the juiciest secret of all was Charlie Eleutheria. I kept my diary hidden between my Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia and my Little A book. I thought nobody would ever find it there, especially because nobody, other than me, ever needed the books in my pocket-sized library. My mother found my diary and despite all my trust, it simply could not keep any of my secrets from my prying mother. The words would not keep quiet. She picked me up that day and asked me to point out Charlie. I waved to him, and he smiled at me. His smile was missing a few parts. It still made me kind of fuzzy inside. She expressed her approval in few words: “He has good hair.” She returned the pages that betrayed me.
Later that night my father came in my room. He sat on the edge of my bed with his hands folded nervously in his lap. I expected him to tell me I wasn’t allowed to like boys yet. He did not. The conversation went as follows:
“So, I heard you have your first crush.”
“I also heard that he’s white.”
“Oh, there aren’t any black boys in your class.”
“Yes, Daddy. There are.”
“Why don’t you like any of them?”
“I don’t know, Daddy. Do I have to?”
He then left to discuss this sticky situation with my mother. They decided that taking away my diary privileges would solve this problem.
I remember my first Black Student Union meeting in Mr. Bradford’s room. Darrel scrawled on the board in green expo marker the topic for today. The topic never really mattered much, but he faithfully wrote it on the whiteboard in chicken-scratch font. Regardless of how the discussion started, it ended with us complaining about being black, while simultaneously voicing our undying pride for the triumphs of our forefathers. I’d had a bit of a rough time fitting in at my new school. I’d just discovered that the only friend I had talked about me constantly. Black Student Union was precisely what I thought I needed.
Darrel made eye contact and smiled. It was my turn to speak. I told them how I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, and still go to church there on Sundays. I told them how the kids at church didn’t really talk to me. How they made fun of me for speaking properly and that nobody believes my hair is real and that when they finally do I’m chastised for getting a perm and that I didn’t feel welcome or accepted in the black community and that it bothered me that lightskinned black people thought they were better than darkskinned black people and that what really upset me most was that I couldn’t even take refuge in one of these groups because I was neither lightskinned nor darkskinned. When I was done, Darrel’s smile was different. It was twisted so that it was almost hidden, guilty. I looked around, and some had played a better game of hide-and-seek than others. But, I got the point.
Mommom rises from her chair in frustration to tend to the mail. She doesn’t understand why I’m not excited to discover where we’d come from. She doesn’t understand why I’m not enthusiastic to find that I’m actually Portuguese, Spanish, Scottish, Italian, Nigerian, Cherokee, Sioux, Blackfoote, Redfoot. Our family owned 100 acres of cotton fields in Georgia, and they worked it themselves. Our family had pride and dignity. Maybe they marched that day when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech. Maybe they became stops on the Underground Railroad. Maybe they ate at a White’s Only counter, or refused to ride the buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Maybe.