Don’t you know who I am? I’m an individual!
I sat up, lit another cigarette, emptied the bottle into my glass. I knew I was being too hard on poor Joyce. The truth was that I understood her, her and all the other black kids who felt the way she did. In their mannerisms, their speech, their mixed-up hearts, I kept recognizing pieces of myself. And that’s exactly what scared me. Their confusion made me question my own racial credentials all over again, Ray’s trump card still lurking in the back of my mind. I needed to put distance between them and myself, to convince myself that I wasn’t compromised-that I was indeed still awake.
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punkrock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
But this strategy alone couldn’t provide the distance I wanted, from Joyce or my past. After all, there were thousands of so-called campus radicals, most of them white and tenured and happily tolerated. No, it remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.
I thought back to that time when I was still living in the dorms, the three of us in Reggie’s room-Reggie, Marcus, and myself-the patter of rain against the windowpane. We were drinking a few beers and Marcus was telling us about his run-in with the L.A.P.D. “They had no reason to stop me,” he was saying. “No reason ’cept I was walking in a white neighborhood. Made me spread-eagle against the car. One of ’em pulled out his piece. I didn’t let ’em scare me, though. That’s what gets these storm troopers off, seeing fear in a black man….”
I watched Marcus as he spoke, lean and dark and straight-backed, his long legs braced apart, comfortable in a white T-shirt and blue denim overalls. Marcus was the most conscious of brothers. He could tell you about his grandfather the Garveyite; about his mother in St. Louis who had raised her kids alone while working as a nurse; about his older sister who had been a founding member of the local Panther party; about his friends in the joint. His lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off-balance, like a younger brother who, no matter what he does, will always be one step behind. And that’s just how I was feeling at that moment, listening to Marcus pronounce on his authentic black experience, when Tim walked into the room.
“Hey, guys,” Tim had said, waving cheerfully. He turned to me. “Listen, Barry-do you have that assignment for Econ?”
Tim was not a conscious brother. Tim wore argyle sweaters and pressed jeans and talked like Beaver Cleaver. He planned to major in business. His white girlfriend was probably waiting for him up in his room, listening to country music. He was happy as a clam, and I wanted nothing more than for him to go away. I got up, walked with him down the hall to my room, gave him the assignment he needed. As soon as I got back to Reggie’s room, I somehow felt obliged to explain.
“Tim’s a trip, ain’t he,” I said, shaking my head. “Should change his name from Tim to Tom.”
Reggie laughed, but Marcus didn’t. Marcus said, “Why you say that, man?”
The question caught me by surprise. “I don’t know. The dude’s just goofy, that’s all.”
Marcus took a sip of his beer and looked me straight in the eye. “Tim seems all right to me,” he said. “He’s going about his business. Don’t bother nobody. Seems to me we should be worrying about whether our own stuff’s together instead of passing judgment on how other folks are supposed to act.”
A year later, and I still burned with the memory, the anger and resentment I’d felt at that moment, Marcus calling me out in front of Reggie like that. But he’d been right to do it, hadn’t he? He had caught me in a lie. Two lies, really-the lie I had told about Tim and the lie I was telling about myself. In fact, that whole first year seemed like one long lie, me spending all my energy running around in circles, trying to cover my tracks.
Except with Regina. That’s probably what had drawn me to Regina, the way she made me feel like I didn’t have to lie. Even that first time we met, the day she walked into the coffee shop and found Marcus giving me grief about my choice of reading material. Marcus had waved her over to our table, rising slightly to pull out a chair.
“Sister Regina,” Marcus said. “You know Barack, don’t you? I’m trying to tell Brother Barack here about this racist tract he’s reading.” He held up a copy of Heart of Darkness, evidence for the court. I reached over to snatch it out of his hands.
“Man, stop waving that thing around.”
“See there,” Marcus said. “Makes you embarrassed, don’t it-just being seen with a book like this. I’m telling you, man, this stuff will poison your mind.” He looked at his watch. “Damn, I’m late for class.” He leaned over and pecked Regina on the cheek. “Talk to this brother, will you? I think he can still be saved.”
Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. “Marcus is in one of his preaching moods, I see.”
I tossed the book into my backpack. “Actually, he’s right,” I said. “It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”
Regina blew on her coffee. “So why are you reading it?”
“Because it’s assigned.” I paused, not sure if I should go on. “And because-” “Because…”
“And because the book teaches me things,” I said. “About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.”
“And that’s important to you.”
My life depends on it, I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell Regina that. I just smiled and said, “That’s the only way to cure an illness, right? Diagnose it.”
She smiled back and sipped her coffee. I had seen her around before, usually sitting in the library with a book in hand, a big, dark woman who wore stockings and dresses that looked homemade, along with tinted, oversized glasses and a scarf always covering her head. I knew she was a junior, helped organize black student events, didn’t go out much. She stirred her coffee idly and asked, “What did Marcus call you just now? Some African name, wasn’t it?”
“I thought your name was Barry.”
“Barack’s my given name. My father’s name. He was Kenyan.”
“Does it mean something?”
“It means ‘Blessed.’ In Arabic. My grandfather was a Muslim.”
Regina repeated the name to herself, testing out the sound. “Barack. It’s beautiful.” She leaned forward across the table. “So why does everybody call you Barry?”
“Habit, I guess. My father used it when he arrived in the States. I don’t know whether that was his idea or somebody else’s. He probably used Barry because it was easier to pronounce. You know-helped him fit in. Then it got passed on to me. So I could fit in.”
“Do you mind if I call you Barack?”
I smiled. “Not as long as you say it right.”
She tilted her head impatiently, her mouth set in mock offense, her eyes ready to surrender to laughter. We ended up spending the afternoon together, talking and drinking coffee. She told me about her childhood in Chicago, the absent father and struggling mother, the South Side six-flat that never seemed warm enough in winter and got so hot in the summer that people went out by the lake to sleep. She told me about the neighbors on her block, about walking past the taverns and pool halls on the way to church on Sunday. She told me about evenings in the kitchen with uncles and cousins and grandparents, the stew of voices bubbling up in laughter. Her voice evoked a vision of black life in all its possibility, a vision that filled me with longing-a longing for place, and a fixed and definite history. As we were getting up to leave, I told Regina I envied her.
“I don’t know. For your memories, I guess.”
Regina looked at me and started to laugh, a round, full sound from deep in her belly.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, Barack,” she said, catching her breath, “isn’t life something? And here I was all this time wishing I’d grown up in Hawaii.”
Strange how a single conversation can change you. Or maybe it only seems that way in retrospect. A year passes and you know you feel differently, but you’re not sure what or why or how, so your mind casts back for something that might give that difference shape: a word, a glance, a touch. I know that after what seemed like a long absence, I had felt my voice returning to me that afternoon with Regina. It remained shaky afterward, subject to distortion. But entering sophomore year I could feel it growing stronger, sturdier, that constant, honest portion of myself, a bridge between my future and my past.
It was around that time that I got involved in the divestment campaign. It had started as something of a lark, I suppose, part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain, a subconscious end run around issues closer to home. But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role-contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy-I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea. When we started planning the rally for the trustees’ meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted. I thought my voice wouldn’t fail me.
Let’s see, now. What was it that I had been thinking in those days leading up to the rally? The agenda had been carefully arranged beforehand-I was only supposed to make a few opening remarks, in the middle of which a couple of white students would come onstage dressed in their paramilitary uniforms to drag me away. A bit of street theater, a way to dramatize the situation for activists in South Africa. I knew the score, had helped plan the script. Only, when I sat down to prepare a few notes for what I might say, something had happened. In my mind it somehow became more than just a two-minute speech, more than a way to prove my political orthodoxy. I started to remember my father’s visit to Miss Hefty’s class; the look on Coretta’s face that day; the power of my father’s words to transform. If I could just find the right words, I had thought to myself. With the right words everything could change-South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.
I was still in that trancelike state when I mounted the stage. For I don’t know how long, I just stood there, the sun in my eyes, the crowd of a few hundred restless after lunch. A couple of students were throwing a Frisbee on the lawn; others were standing off to the side, ready to break off to the library at any moment. Without waiting for a cue, I stepped up to the microphone.
“There’s a struggle going on,” I said. My voice barely carried beyond the first few rows. A few people looked up, and I waited for the crowd to quiet. “I say, there’s a struggle going on!” The Frisbee players stopped.
“It’s happening an ocean away. But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not. A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No-it’s a harder choice than that. It’s a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong…”
I stopped. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. “Go on with it, Barack,” somebody else shouted. “Tell it like it is.” Then the others started in, clapping, cheering, and I knew that I had them, that the connection had been made. I took hold of the mike, ready to plunge on, when I felt someone’s hands grabbing me from behind. It was just as we’d planned it, Andy and Jonathan looking grimfaced behind their dark glasses. They started yanking me off the stage, and I was supposed to act like I was trying to break free, except a part of me wasn’t acting, I really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.But my part was over. I stood on the side as Marcus stepped up to the mike in his white T-shirt and denims, lean and dark and straight-backed and righteous. He explained to the audience what they had just witnessed, why the administration’s waffling on the issue of South Africa was unacceptable. Then Regina got up and testified, about the pride her family had felt in seeing her at college and the shame she now felt knowing that she was a part of an institution that paid for its privilege with the profits of oppression. I should have been proud of the two of them; they were eloquent, you could tell the crowd was moved. But I wasn’t really listening anymore. I was on the outside again, watching, judging, skeptical. Through my eyes, we suddenly appeared like the sleek and well-fed amateurs we were, with our black chiffon armbands and hand-painted signs and earnest young faces. The Frisbee players had returned to their game. When the trustees began to arrive for their meeting, a few of them paused behind the glass walls of the administration building to watch us, and I noticed the old white men chuckling to themselves, one old geezer even waving in our direction. The whole thing was a farce, I thought to myself-the rally, the banners, everything. A pleasant afternoon diversion, a school play without the parents. And me and my one-minute oration-the biggest farce of all.