“You’re coming with me to the Halloween party, right?”
My roommate, Lourdes, is sifting through her share of our overstuffed closet, clucking her tongue at the outfits she deems unacceptable. The tape on our boom box clicks. There’s the familiar crackle of static and snow, and then Lauryn Hill’s voice slices through our silence, shaping sounds into heartache that hits like a brass-knuckled punch to the face.
Summer left long ago and the earth is prepping for a long hibernation, a deep sleep. Boston’s pulse has slowed like the trickle of water through a cracked dam but the tourists still flock to the city when the sky is clear and they need a dosage of New England foliage.
If there’s one surprising thing that Lourdes and I can bond over, it’s the fact that we’ve been appointed life-long members of that elusive species known as “weird black girls.” Lourdes is a weird black girl because her name sounds like a love letter to Catholicism and not the byproduct of a disillusioned teen mother who worshiped the fantasy of France. She is also a weird black girl because she can’t dance for shit but can kick her way out of a mosh pit in a pair of steel-toed boots.
Society at large is absolutely mystified by our existence, our unreadable aura, our undeniable air of otherness.
Two months into our new lives as college freshman and people on our floor think we’re standoffish, that Lourdes is a loudmouth who rabidly enforces anti-racism. Her passion is one of the reasons why I’ve latched onto her. I don’t have to explain myself, to apologize for the paradoxes of my personality. We’re black and yet not black enough, our personalities, habits, and dispositions reduced to indicators of racial authenticity. We are pariahs. We have betrayed our race by refusing to live up to dangerous stereotypes and fatal expectations. We have betrayed the sisterhood by wanting to be a whole person, whole young women, away from the dissection knife of white culture.
When you grow up in the predominantly white suburbs like I did, your blackness is not the product of deep self-enlightenment. In fact, your blackness is determined by the white majority. Your identity is forged by ignorance and reinforced by willful blindness. The uncertainties of your identity spawn a pilgrimage. To say that I define myself using one umbrella term is not a reflection of my struggle, but a refusal to put down the master’s tools. Lourdes says that the worst insult you can call a white person is racist.
I have been attending Boston University for a little more than a month. I still feel as though I’ve been banished to the fringes, like I’m staring at another world through the limited scope of a narrow keyhole. The idea of approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation induces a breed of searing anxiety akin to chugging hot lava, a sort of self-inflicted burden of doubt that Olympic athletes must feel before they perform. On my first day of classes, I avoided the dining hall. If it hadn’t been for Lourdes, I would probably spend my days going back and forth from class to the comfort of my bed.
I was worried that Lourdes and I wouldn’t get along. I entertained the worst possible scenarios that pessimism could conjure. When I stepped into our dorm room, I was greeted by a short brown girl lost in the fog of her own world, rapping along to Nas. Her voice barked with authority as she swung a sleek mullet the color of black cherries. A small gold hoop dangled from her septum and a matching hoop had been pierced through her right eyebrow. She wore a pair of cutoff denim shorts, dirty ankle boots, and a white shirt with a pot leaf ironed on the front. When she spoke, her voice was surprisingly husky, as though she’d just woken up. She gave me a hug, told me that her older brother had baked weed brownies and would I want one, but they were potent? At my high school, all of the stoners had been preppy and white and unapologetic, born with parents who bought them new cars every time they cracked up the old ones. The few times that I smoked pot, it’d always been due to a rare turn of luck, never when I’d actually craved it.
Though Lourdes used the bravado of a wizened all-knowing cynic, she was both embarrassed and proud to be from Detroit. It was an important part of her identity and her personality. There was something affectionately critical in her portrait of the city, like the recollections of a gruff war hero conjuring memories of his platoon.
I’ve never been proud of where I’m from. But don’t confuse my lack of pride with shame. I was born and raised in a nondescript Rhode Island suburb, a speck of idleness nestled near the shoreline. My town is a tourist snapshot in New England austerity. People are not so much friendly as they are eager to know your business. They feed on misery and a good fall from grace. For example: everyone knew that my father had cheated on my mother with one of his female co-workers before my mother found out. No one wanted to say anything, but everyone waited for their marital implosion. What people don’t say, they will reveal with the switchblade sharpness of their gaze.
Surprisingly, Lourdes’ parents are still together and according to her, they’re like the Huxtables. They started dating when her mother was a junior in high school. He was a senior. She brought a picture of them to tape to her wall. In the picture, her parents are sitting on a mustard-colored couch in their living room. Her mother is wearing a purple dress, big gold hoops and wooden sandals. Her father, seated next to her mother, has his arm wrapped around his wife’s waist, his folded legs offering a brief glimpse of his statuesque height. Her mother is a slender dark-skinned woman with fashion-model-sharp cheekbones and a tiny waist and big feet. Her father is a few shades lighter and he is just as slim as his wife. Lourdes showed me this picture on the first day we met, showing off her parents with the same tone she reserved for Detroit. Later, one night while she was bored and couldn’t sleep, she constructed a frame for the Polaroid out of construction paper.
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