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Blackness

In August of 1989 when I was 12 years old, my friend S (I’m using initials here) put a cassette tape in her boom box and played a rap song.  

I don’t remember which song we listened to, but I do remember that my musical taste at the time leaned more towards Madonna and the Bangles.

“Nigger music,” said S with a smile while bobbing her head to the beat.

I had never heard that word before, but it would soon be one I’d never forget.

“Where did you get the tape?” I asked.

“V gave it to me,” she replied.

V was her new “boyfriend” and, since we would all be starting the same junior high a few days later, she was eager for me to meet him.

I had known S from the time we were toddlers and had always envied her trendy cool. If Liz Claiborne purses and Keds were all the rage (which they were) she had both, but paired them with a Kmart top so she didn’t appear to be trying too hard. I remember thinking that even dating V, a black student who was also entering the 7th grade, was so typically cool of her – if only because it seemed a little taboo at the time.

A few days later we entered our new school and the need to fit in was intense. The first days of junior high are awkward enough as it is, but for a shy, frizzy-haired girl who was used to being the last one picked for kickball, it was especially difficult.

I was desperate to fit in but, since I didn’t know where to start, I basically just kept my head down.

A couple weeks into the school year, I went to lunch with a friend from class at the Hardee’s across the street from our building. While we were waiting in line, two football players walked in – one of whom was a tall, blue-eyed seventh grader who I thought was super cute.

As they stood in line behind us, it was clear that the football players were talking about the Metallica song One that had been released not too long before.

My friend turned around and said, “I love that song.”

“You don’t listen to Metallica,” I joked, trying to impress my new crush. “You listen to nigger music.”

I smiled at my friend, whose mouth dropped almost as fast as his eyes widened. Sensing I had said something horribly wrong, I turned toward the football player only to find his face less than three inches from mine.

His demeanor had completely changed and he said in a low, controlled voice, “Well let’s just go find some.” 

With that, he and his buddy left and I instantly felt my legs begin to shake. “I think you’re in trouble,” said my friend as he looked at me with a combination of fear and pity.

I wondered whether to run.

My house was a few blocks from the school and so I could have easily gone home, pretending to be sick. By the time we had finished our lunch, however, my friend and I had convinced ourselves that it wasn’t a big deal, just an innocent mistake after all, and that everything would be okay.

On the way back to school, however, I discovered that everything was not okay. In fact, things were very, very bad.

Huddled outside the school’s main entrance, I saw a group of about ten black girls, one of whom yelled, “Where is she!?”

At that exact moment, someone in the group looked right at me, but since no one knew who “Emily Bennington” was (and this was obviously pre-Facebook), she didn’t say anything.

I was saved – temporarily at least – by my obscurity. 

I stood there paralyzed for a few moments when suddenly the bell rang, signaling that it was time to go to class.

I had never heard a sweeter sound in my entire life and I watched – deeply relieved – as the group walked into the school without saying another word.

Nonetheless, still scared that I was going to get jumped at the front door, I walked all the way around the school and entered through the band room. Safe at last, I thought, although my respite didn’t last long.

“There she is,” said J. 

J was a black student, also in 7th grade, who I had spoken to maybe twice up to that point and so we weren’t exactly friends, but he was very close to the football player who had gotten in my face at Hardee’s.

J had clearly been looking for me and, not only that, but he had brought his cousin with him. I knew the cousin, whose first name I can’t remember but I know his last name was Turner so I’ll call him that.

Turner was a popular upperclassman who was also on the football team and he pointed at me as he and J approached from across the hall.

“Are you Emily?” he said.

“Yes.”

I could feel my eyes welling up as I looked at the ground. That stupid bell, which had saved me before, now meant the three of us were alone in the hallway – and I had no idea what was going to happen next.

“Did you use the word nigger?” said Turner.

Still looking at the ground, I shook my head yes.

“You know that’s not cool, right?”

For the first time I met Turner’s eyes and they weren’t angry at all. They were soft… kind even.

I looked at J, standing behind his cousin with a smirk, clearly enjoying my squirming.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

 “I believe you,” said Turner, “but I just wanted to come and, you know, talk to you about it. Do you even know what it means?”

“Not really.”

“Then you should read your history. Be smarter than that,” he said as he touched my forehead.

Then Turner did something truly extraordinary. He looked me right in the eye, shook my hand, and said, “Have a great day.” 

Without another word, he and J walked away. I don’t know if Turner personally called off the witch hunt, but no one ever brought it up again.

Why am I sharing this story with you? For starters, after Friday’s post I received some messages that made me think. Here’s an excerpt from one:

What disrupts the conversations we could be having is that…instead of listening, someone shuts us down by telling us what OUR problem is.

This general idea was echoed in a few other emails and so – especially after this weekend’s riots in Milwaukee – I began to wonder if my best contribution to this topic isn’t to offer advice but simply to share my experience.

Granted mine is just one story, but it’s a story that reminds us that maybe it’s not bigotry that divides us, but ignorance. Simply put, maybe we don’t know enough about each other and so we unintentionally escalate situations that could be resolved simply if we knew how to communicate.

This is why we need more Turners in the world. 

In other words, we need people who are slower to outrage and quicker to see that there are other, more meaningful, ways to make a point. I think about Turner sometimes and wonder what his life is like now.

If he’s half as wise as he was in ninth grade, I’m sure he’s just fine.

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P.S. On Friday I promised to share an insight from Brown University professor Glenn Loury with you, but I think I’d rather point you directly to the interview that inspired me so you can listen yourself. It’s two hours long, but well worth the time if you’re interested in this topic. 

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