Last year, flash mobs were booming in Philadelphia. They gathered, collected, rallied, and attacked, breeding superior rule over commoners who are plainly shopping, socializing, generally milling around city streets on otherwise innocent Saturday evenings. That is how I interpreted the news reports. I had not put a color on the skin of flash mobsters. If a photo is included with an article, I had not taken notice. Not until The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story on flash mob victims in the B section of Sunday’s edition sometime last year.
The Inquirer article, written by Monica Yant Kinney, states, “…the galling fact that the perpetrators of these violent attacks are black and the victims, nonblack.”
But what does that mean? Nonblack. And black. And what difference does it make to flash mobs? What button is she pressing here?
I learned about being black in 1976, in a kindergarten class at Hampton Elementary School located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I was five.
I didn’t enjoy my peers back then. And the jury presently remains out on that issue. Regardless, in kindergarten, I flew solo. I painted at the easel, I perfected my handwriting in meticulously kept copybooks, and I played quietly during outdoor recess on the monkey bars until other children wanted to do the same. At which point I found pleasing solitude on the slide. I could climb high, sit at the top, and survey the ant-like creatures that ran in circles below me. When all of the above failed to provide me solitude, I chose jigsaw puzzles. I constructed the puzzles on the carpeted floor area near the bookshelves which no kid chose to occupy during free time. Reading wasn’t pleasure for those kids. It was a chore. All the better for me.
I liked new kids, though. Kids who were brought into class mid-year, presented to us in front of the blackboard, nervous and anonymous. I liked those kids for their potential to be my twin.
I believed that there was someone out there in the world like me. A twin, I called it. I told my mother about it at Roy Rogers in the Capital City Mall one day. We were having lunch together because my sister had just been born and my mother told my pediatrician that I was having issues with the baby in the house. Dr. Forti articulated to my mother that I was suffering an identity crisis and that she was to take me to lunch on Saturdays. Her favorite place to eat was Roy Rogers.
I told my mother about my belief in having a twin because I wanted her to know that I felt different from the other kids at school, but I hadn’t lost hope in finding one like me. At the age five, I didn’t have the words that matched what was going on inside of me. So I told her I was looking for my twin and that I thought the twin might be living in China. I knew, even then, that China was a far cry from Pennsylvania, but I believed that the twin could find her way to me. I wasn’t concerned about the distance between us, nor was I concerned about the chance of finding one kid in this world who was compatible enough to be my friend. I was certain that fate would overrule logistics and on one unexpected day my twin would show up in my kindergarten classroom in the form of a new kid.
At the time, I was also very concerned as to whether or not I would have long hair to my waistline by the time I was in college. I asked my mother about this at Roy Rogers as well. She assured me that my hair could easily grow to my waistline by the time I was in college. She expressed, however, uncertainty regarding the aspect of me finding my twin. Especially if my twin indeed lived in China.
The new girl’s name was Shannon Johnson. She showed up in April. She had white stuff on her skin.
“What’s that on your arm?” I asked her on her first day at Hampton Elementary School, after Miss Stoup had introduced her from the front of the classroom. I figured that if Shannon was going to be my twin, I might as well cut right to the chase in finding things out about her. I started with the white residue on her arms.
“My mom puts that on me,” Shannon replied.
“I don’t have it on my arms,” I said, revealing my arms sans white stuff. “Can I touch it? Maybe I can rub it off.”
Shannon shrugged her shoulders. I grabbed her wrist in one of my hands and rubbed the areas of her arm covered in white with my other hand. The residue came right off.
“See?” I said. “It comes off. I knew it would. It looked like it would come off.”
Shannon looked upset. “But my mom likes it there,” she explained. Her eyes looked wet.
“She won’t care,” I said. “It doesn’t look right on you anyway.”
I took Shannon’s wrist in my hand again and rolled her arm around to the underside.
“Look,” I urged her. “I didn’t even get it all off. There’s still some on you, right there on the underside.”
I continued scanning her appendage for further white stuff, but stopped, my eyes caught in the palm of her hand.
I rubbed my fingers across her palm, peach-colored with brown creases running like streams through her flesh.
I wanted to tell Shannon that her hand looked funny, but her eyes were already wet and even at the age of five, I knew that some things were better left unsaid.
I dropped Shannon’s arm like a hot coal and returned to my prerogative of doing things in the classroom by myself. I hadn’t completely struck Shannon from the potential twin opportunity, but something wriggled in the back of my mind whispering that she was not the one.
Leaving Shannon with wet eyes at her desk, I scanned the classroom. I pulled a puzzle from the shelf and toted it to the carpeted book-reading area. It was a good puzzle. Butterflies in the Amazon.
“Can I help?” Shannon asked, squatting beside me.
I was alarmed. Had she not been notified that the carpeted book-reading area was my domain?
“No,” I replied with bold authority. And without making eye contact.
“This one goes here,” she said, touching a puzzle piece.
“Stop it,” I said quickly, implementing a get-out-of-my-space tone of voice.
“And this one goes…”, Shannon started. But she didn’t finish because I slapped the puzzle piece right out of her hand and pushed her to her back where I hovered over her and uttered through my teeth, “I don’t want your help.”
My words were clear and concise as to ensure the avoidance of further misunderstanding.
Incidentally, Shannon was not my twin.
Principal Masterson was a large, bald man who hollered messages of discipline and reprimand like a barbarous Viking throughout the school. I felt small sitting in the chair opposite his large, chunky wooden desk. He tapped his fingers against the blotter that covered the top of his desk. He twiddled a pen in the other hand. Then he ceased both activities and rubbed a palm across the top of his shiny, bald head.
I took a deep breath and released an exaggerated sigh into space between us. The pending doom was inevitable. I would be punished with recess at my desk for a week. Miss Stoup would call my mother. I would be without TV for another week. Blah, blah, blah. I knew I shouldn’t hit other kids. But damn, if they’d just leave me alone, no one would get hurt. And that’s when I decided to take the upper hand.
“Mr. Masterson,” I began. “I don’t want other people touching my things. I do things by myself. I like it that way. They are my things and I know Miss Stoup says that they are really her things or the school’s things, but when I’m doing a puzzle, it’s mine and I don’t want other people touching my puzzle when I’m doing it by myself.”
There was a silence.
I didn’t know if I should keep talking or go back to wondering if Mr. Masterson was born bald and stayed that way for the rest of his life, or if bald is something that happens to people when they grow up. Like a sickness. I knew about sicknesses. By kindergarten, I had already lost two grandparents. I made a mental note to ask my mother at Roy Rogers on Saturday why some people are bald.
“Saranne,” Mr. Masterson said, breaking my train of thought on baldness. “Shannon is a very special little girl in this school. Her family is a very good family. They are special people. I have spoken with her mother and her father and they are very kind, good people who are very special to us.”
What. The. Hell. Is wrong. With this guy. I wanted to say it out loud. Just like that. With the “hell” and all. But I didn’t. I was curious to know where Mr. Masterson was going with this one. Me cursing in his office ran a tremendous risk of him losing his own train of thought.
“Okay,” I said in response to the special people in our lives at Hampton Elementary School. Maybe Shannon lived in that development across the creek with the big houses being built up in the woods that my dad says costs an arm and a leg, which apparently is far more than we can afford with three kids at the dinner table. Or maybe Shannon’s mom worked a fancy job in an office in the city. Or maybe Shannon’s dad was the President of the United States. That surely constitutes being special.
Mr. Masterson developed himself a grin that stretched from one ear to the other. He leaned back in his puffy swivel chair and told me that he knew I would understand.
“Shannon needs good friends like you, Saranne,” he added. “We need to be extra nice to Shannon and her family.”
Then he dismissed me from his office. No indoor recess at my desk. No telephone call to my mother. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Instead, I was simply returned to my kindergarten classroom. Shannon was standing by the bookshelf. I approached her with caution. When I was close enough to her, I gently took hold of her arm, like I had done before, and lifted it so that I could see the remaining white residue, the powder that I hadn’t wiped off the first time. I brushed the patch of white from her skin with my free hand.
“It’s baby powder,” I whispered. “I can see it on you because your skin is brown.”
Shannon pulled her arm from my grasp. She took a few steps backward, away from me.
“Is that what makes you special?” I asked. “You being brown?”
I didn’t get an answer because Shannon started to cry and I was removed from the classroom – again – and sent home for the day.
Last year, in her Inquirer article, Kinney referred to flash mob victims as “nonblack.” And then wrote the following statement in parentheses:
“(And no, I’m not avoiding white. One innocent was a Cambodian shopkeeper.)”
In parentheses. Like she had to whisper the line into the facade of reporting on flash mobs in Philadelphia. Let’s face it. Kinney’s story wasn’t about flash mobs. It was about black kids breaking the law and ruining Philadelphia. No different from NPR’s Morning Edition report on the difference in income between black and white families. The story aired around the same time that the mobs were a popular past time for teens. One study, the NPR report indicated, has extended beyond 30 years of research and data collection. To the naked ear, a listener may have heard a report on economic quantification. But listen a little more carefully. The story included the voiceover of the female reporter, voices of the black family, and voices from the white household. The black family chosen was homeless just a few years ago, lived in a shelter for a while, reaped the benefits of welfare stipends, and currently does not own a home, “…not uncommon among black and Hispanic families,” the reporter added. While the white family voiceover included a six-year-old child reading Dr. Seuss out loud as her father droned on about acquiring Aunt Lucy’s family inheritance with which he will be building a multi-million dollar home on the family estate property.
It was a fight over a puzzle.
They are kids gathering in mobs and reeking havoc.
Our economy is failing.
Some people have wealthy relatives.
They are not special. They are not black. They are not white. These are elements of our lives that should not be defined by hue.
Rather than teach me to share my toys that day in kindergarten, I was taught to see the color of someone’s skin for the first time in my life.
And rather than report that today’s youth needs constructive evening activities and an upgrade in influential parenting, the Inquirer blamed violence on the color of children’s skin.
Rather than speak of social class, NPR relied upon stereotypical (and somewhat historical) portrayals that were rich enough in color to stand as cover art for The Saturday Evening Post.
I have spent most of my life trying to figure out the rules to this game, the guidelines. I have tried resolving why the color of someone’s skin constitutes being special, and later researched why that color might mean something bad. I have aced African-American History courses, devoured Black Women’s Literature curriculum. I have studied Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, all of Toni Morrison, and Alexander McCall Smith among others. I have read The Help and cringed, then celebrated something I saw in the beauty and love and unity among a segregated race.
As far as Kinney, Masterson, and NPR are concerned, I don’t belong to a race of color. Don’t call me black, and sure as hell do not call me white. Both terms serve as vessels through which news media and racists choose to paint us. Sound juvenile? Then so does every ignorant fool who believes that color plays a role in who we are. I was almost homeless a little more than ten years ago. And I do not have an Aunt Lucy. Nor a family estate property.