[Content warning: Profanity]
By Freda Epum
You board a bus and it seems as though there is a sea of Black people. If it weren’t for the fact that your skin is brown, your hair is curly, your eyes are black and almond, and you’ve got a nice ass (or so you’ve been told), you’d think there were no Black people in Ohio. You count on your hand the number of conversations you have with another Black person in one week. Three if you’re lucky, and one is your therapist. It’s as if you were an alien, an other worldly body with green skin, suction cups for hands, one eye, and an antenna that sticks out of your head. Like that purple Teletubbie you used to watch when you were little. You carry a surveillance video of Michael Brown’s death embedded in your chest to plead your humanity. It’s a part of you but no one cares and it’s on to the next Teletubbies video. Nice try.
You had just spent three weeks in Arizona where you wander through the desert taking pictures of those cute multicolored adobe houses that line the streets of downtown. You cry again on New Year’s when a boy tells you that the two of you can’t be together again. You were once explosive. Bursting manically like bombs dropped in Afghanistan. But today what are you? Happy? Not quite; you cry again on New Year’s. You wander through the desert past a bright cyan colored adobe house with Stop Sign red trim. There’s a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign posted in the window. You wander through the desert past the you that cries over some dumb white boy. You walk past the door and go up the stairs to your parent’s house and you text your friend to tell them that you hate it there and you’re not sure why you came. You hear some dumb white boy on the TV downstairs and your dad yelling “fool” and “cow” at the dumb white boy wearing a suit and a red tie and a red face in the White House. You think of how and when a Nigerian calls someone a cow that’s pretty much the worst insult the world could ever have the misfortune of giving you. You think of the time Taylor tells you about the BLACK LIVES MATTER sign her landlord told her to take down in Ohio. And then there’s the sinking feeling where your expectations are met that this is America and she hates you.
You sit in a classroom and your feet dangle off the floor. You’re wearing your dope light up sneakers your mom bought you from Payless, your melon orange overalls, and your Spy Kids backpack. You’re innocent and fly as fuck. You look down at the assignment and you find out you’ll be reading Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” in English class. Another alien, you think. You read stories by other dead dumb white boys (oh and Emily Dickinson) for the rest of the year. What happens to a dream deferred? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
At this time you’re too young to think of all the ways America hates you.
Your feet can touch the ground when you sit now but you’re still innocent (and fly as fuck). Your friends at school are mostly Anime obsessed white girls and one Latina. You no longer fit into your melon orange overalls or your dope light up speakers. A checkered pink knapsack sags like a heavy load on your back. All the cool kids have a Jansport bag. The bell rings and all of the kids run away from four square and tetherballs back to class. You’re running and you bump into another alien—she disappears like a phantom. You learn about Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute in Social Studies but you don’t hear the name W. E. B. Du Bois until college, when light up sneakers are now a thing of the distant past. When you find out Du Bois was under surveillance by the FBI you figure you never learned about him because he was too militant.
At this time you’re old enough to think of all the ways America hates you.
It’s Black History Month and you have zits on your chin. You’re writing variations of Mr. and Mrs. Vasquez in your notebook (and Mrs. and Mrs. Torres). You start dating a football player, another alien like you. They’re serving fried chicken and watermelon in the cafeteria because, you know, Black History Month. Everyone asks you if you celebrate Kwanza. You don’t. You hate Black History Month. It reminds you of the time your Mexican friend’s grandmother apologized that there was no soul food while walking out the door. You wish your alien boyfriend was there.
You’re on a college campus in Massachusetts sitting in a film class. The professor goes through the syllabus and you’re excited for the semester, especially the end, when you get to “Multiculturalism and Other Perspectives.” You think of all of the other class periods you’ve had in school devoted to race. The one out of one hundred eighty days in the school year. You appropriately name them “Race Days.” You walk past Race Day and try to go back. She’s gone like a phantom, like the alien girl you bumped into after four square. She stands in the front of the bus but in a sea of dumb white boys. You’ve only met her a handful of times but you think she’s fly as fuck. She has a television embedded in her stomach that plays 12 Years a Slave only with a twist ending—Brad Pitt doesn’t save the day but Solomun Northrup saves himself. Race Day cries again on New Year’s Eve remembering the shooting of Oscar Grant. She sheds one tear and then many, covering her body like the brightly colored cyan houses you walk past in the desert. Soon there is an ocean of tears, a river of tears that extends from Arizona to Ohio to Massachusetts and back. The tears surround you and you nearly drown in them—you and your alien boyfriend, light up sneakers, orange overalls, Spy Kids backpack, tetherball, and fried chicken. You board a bus and it seems there is a sea of Black people. At the cross streets of Hamilton and Chase Avenue there’s a cool comic book and record store that catches your eye. You leave the sea of Black people and rummage through some comic books looking to spend the last of your twenty dollars before your paycheck comes tomorrow. You start reading a comic about a fly as fuck feminist, you think this is the one. You flip through the pages and the blonde girl stick figure (okay not quite a stick figure) stops saying, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” and starts saying nigger. You hear it over and over and over as you flip through pages and you wonder what the artistic merit of this is. Again you hear it—nigger, nigger, nigger. You can’t even remember what the rest of the comic is about because you’re too busy thinking that this is America and she hates you.
You walk past an alien wearing a BLACK LIVES MATTER T-shirt. The bus with the sea of Black people swoops around and you board. There’s bustling conversation over Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois and Madam C.J. Walker and Josephine Baker and Ida B. Wells and you see Race Day in the corner and she’s smiling. Her tears have stopped and her screen is glowing.
Freda Epum (FREE-DUH EYY-POOM) is a Nigerian-American writer and artist from Tucson, AZ. She is the Program Director at Public Allies Cincinnati. Her work has been published in Entropy, Bending Genres, Cosmonauts Avenue, Heavy Feather Review, Nat.Brut, Third Coast, Atticus Review, Rogue Agent, and elsewhere. Freda received her MFA from Miami University in Oxford, OH. A 2018 Voices of Our Nation/VONA fellow, her work has also been supported by the Ohio Humanities Council, Tin House Writers Workshop, the Ragdale Foundation, the Anderson Center at Tower View residency, and the Jordan Goodman Prize. Freda is co-author of The Black American Tree Project, a participatory performative history lesson which has had over 200 participants for international and national conferences and nonprofits. She is the author of the chapbook, Entryways into memories that might assemble me (Iron Horse Literary Review). Currently, she is at work on a memoir about the intersections of race, illness, and belonging in America. You can find her at fredaepum.com and on Twitter @ByThePunchBowl.