Say It Loud
The year is 1987.
Five year old me walks into the kitchen and asks his grandmother if she has any baby powder. She says no. Five year old me goes back upstairs to the bathroom. He climbs up on the sink so that he can see himself in the mirror. He begins to scratch his arms…a lot. He has severely dry skin so the scratch marks are visible. After covering his arms in white scratch marks, he moves downward to his thighs and eventually his calves where he does the same. He goes back downstairs to the kitchen. He opens the lid on the flour and is about to put some on his hands when his grandmother stops him.
“Boy, what the hell are you doing?”
“I wanna be white.”
If I were writing a book about my life, that day would be one of those pivotal moments for which I’d dedicate a chapter. I guess you could call it the day that my cultural awareness went online. My grandmother has a house on the outskirts of Capitol Hill. It’s a buffer zone neighborhood meaning that if you went one block west towards the capitol then you’d see nothing but white faces. Go one block east and you’d be in the hood. Her street had a mixture of people and the people next door were white. They had two kids, Max and Willie.
I always played with Max and Willie outside, but on this particular day my grandmother lifted her “Don’t you go nowhere with nobody” rule and let me go inside their house to play. I was amazed to see that the house directly next door could look so different on the inside. They had a spiral staircase with a chandelier and I remember asking their mom why they had a window on the ceiling. She said, “It’s a skylight. Of course you’ve seen one of those before.” Nope. I hadn’t seen half the stuff they had in their house…like a washer and dryer in the basement.
We had a washer but no dryer and the washer was like something from the fifties with rollers on top of it to wring out the water from the clothes. When that died we went back to washing clothes in a bucket in the tub. Max and Willie’s room had model airplanes hanging from the ceiling along with a model of the solar system. All of their toys were in a toy chest unlike the old Price Club diaper box that I kept mine in and they had Lego men and sets like Lego Forest. I had a million legos but they were free with a kids meal at Chesapeake Bay Seafood House so none of them formed anything other than a giant lego stick.
After about two hours their mom called us downstairs to say that it was time to eat lunch and she said, “We’re going to McDonalds.” I thanked her for letting me come over and turned to leave when she said, “You don’t want McDonalds, Ordale?” First off, I didn’t even know I was included in the trip, but, right hand to God, I said, “Oh no, I don’t have McDonalds money, so I can’t go.” She looked baffled like I was speaking another language. “What’s McDonalds money?” I had to explain it to her. I told her that I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t pay for my food which meant that I couldn’t go. She looked at me pitifully like I was one of those starving African kids from the commercials. She told me that she was going to pay for everyone.
We piled into their car, got the food and came back to the house to eat. She sat us at their dining table, broke out place mats and cloth napkins and then sat with us to talk about school and what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was weird because that was what teachers did but only because they were paid to do that. Later in the day their dad came home, gave them hugs and played on the floor with us. Then we all watched ET on their huge television. When it was over, I went home and asked my grandmother if we had any baby powder…and that’s pretty much where this story started.
At that moment everything started coming together (albeit incorrectly). Race and socio-economic status became one amalgamated pile. White=money. Black=no money. White=mom and dad at home. Black=calling grandma “mommy.” I wanted to be white. When I explained this to my grandmother she had another anti-80s sitcom moment. She looked me in the face and said, “Don’t you ever let me hear you say anything like that again. You’re black and that’s all the hell you’re ever gonna be and you keep your ass from over their house.”
That Saturday I saw my father and explained it to him and he nearly crashed the car as he pulled over to the side. “You wanna be what!?” He proceeded to give me (a five year old) a lecture on Brown v. The Board of Education, crisis of identity and then reached in the glove compartment, pulled out a cassette and popped it in. He turned the music all the way up and made me sing along for about twenty minutes…
“SAY IT LOUD! I’M BLACK AND I’M PROUD!”