“After the events of dinner with my father, I decided I needed to immerse myself in the league. I started having more in-depth conversations with fellow members and writing my feelings in a small notebook I bought from Papyrus. I wrote down my frustration with my father and his lack of empathy. As I continued writing, it turned into poetry.”
This story is about race. Well, actually, it’s about me, but it’s also about race. You see, race was not a real issue in my house. We never talked about it at the dinner table, and when it would come up on the news, we would simply ignore it. It never came up at school either. I lived with my dad and my sister, so we were a pretty small family unit and mostly had the same conversations about the stock market, politics, and school. Most of the time, my dad wasn’t even home because he had to work. He always had to work because he ran one of the biggest hedge funds in the country. Every time he planned something for the three of us, I would get a call, and he would say, “Honey, I have to work. You understand, right?” It was a bit disappointing, but my sister Blake’s lively personality more than made up for his absence. She’s the best performer at school and has a small acting gig outside of school too. She would regale me with over-exaggerated stories about her day and act out almost every single action.
At school, I was just another white girl, and I was treated normally. This brings me back to race. Sure, we had the occasional conversation about the Civil Rights Movement on Martin Luther King Day, but it’s not like any of us were paying attention. I went to a pretty small school occupied by mostly white people except for one Asian teacher. Everyone knew each other, and we were all friends. There was no need to ask those awkward first-time questions because we had all been at the school since kindergarten.
My life was perfect until my dad told me that I would have to switch schools for high school. He wanted me to have new experiences before college. So I began my freshman year at a local private school named Emerson. I was not too happy that I would have to spend the entire year with my head glued to a desk, trying to catch up.
When I walked in, I took a name tag and was immediately swept up in a large crowd of people. I had never seen such a mix of people. There were black people, Indian people, Latinos, and Chinese. They were all speaking in multiple languages fluently and seemed to be star athletes, judging by their muscles. I was amazed by the bright lobby and the nonstop flow of kids just walking in as if they were stars. There was a big television screen at the far end of the room that displayed a live video feed of all the kids walking into the building. I was so overwhelmed by the school, I ran up the stairs to my homeroom. It was on the fifth floor, next to a shiny row of lockers. I chose one and then entered the room. It was big for my standards and had a nicely sized whiteboard and projector. A tall man walked up to me and shook my hand.
“Hi, I’m Mr. Kravis, and you must be Sara. You can go to the back and introduce yourself.”
Before I could answer, he walked past me and hugged the student behind me. I went to the back of the room and immediately saw that the kids had racially grouped themselves. The white girls were sitting at one corner, and the black girls at another. There was a small group of Chinese kids sitting in the middle and a few Latinas next to them. They all had very exclusive looks on their faces. I naturally walked over to the white girls and sat down.
The girls laughed before one asked me, “What’s your name?” I told them my name was Sara. Another asked, “You are so pretty, what are you?” I told them I was white, but for some reason, they did not believe me. They simply laughed and walked away.
So maybe I lied a bit. I mean, it’s not something I really talk about. My dad is white, I’ve grown up around a completely white family, but there is one dirty little secret that we don’t talk about. When my dad was young, he met a beautiful Tunisian woman on his travels to Paris. They fell in love, and he brought her back to the states. But his family did not approve and forbade him from seeing her again. They would sneak around and have dates for years. She had two children (me and my sister) before she died from a terrible accident. We don’t talk about her because my dad is still embarrassed, and his family acts like it never happened. From time to time, I feel badly that my dad does not recognize my mother and therefore does not see a certain side of me. I’ve only seen one picture of her. So sure, one could say I am black, but I don’t consider myself black. I mean, I hardly interact with them, and their problems have never affected me. I am just not black. Plain and simple.
When I got home, I checked the mail and saw a letter from the Students of Color League. I was infuriated! “I am not black,” I shouted out loud.
My sister, who happened to be in the room, started engaging me. “What do you mean, you are not black?”
“I’m just not, I… no… yuck… no!” I was surprised with my sister’s question.
“You know what, I think you should go because I think it will honestly open your eyes.” My sister was totally being an adult right now.
“Since when do you identify as black?” I had honestly never heard my sister speak like this.
“I’m not saying I identify as black, I’m just saying that I have come to acknowledge that being black is a part of who I am, and I can’t just ignore it.”
My sister was getting really persistent and kind of annoying. But she made a convincing argument, so I went to my room and asked my magic eight ball if I should go. The magic eight ball said yes, so I decided that the next day I would go.
That night, I dug out the picture of my mom and stared at it long and hard. She was really pretty and had some of the most delicate features I had ever seen. She had honey brown skin and big, red lips that seemed to be perfect. Her hair was short and frizzy, kind of like mine. Sure, I look like my dad, but I am almost my mother’s twin when it comes to facial features. Except for my fair skin, it felt like I was looking into a mirror. I took the picture into my room and fell asleep with it resting on my heart. It was a deep yearning to know my mother and a certain part of me.
The next day, I walked into the room where the meeting was held and waited for the other members to come. They were really welcoming and really had an inspiring goal. They wanted to create racial equity and diversity within the school. I thought that was pretty cool, so I decided to stay longer than I had planned. We passed around a beanbag and gave a brief description of our background and why we wanted to join. When it came time for me, I paused before I started speaking.
“Well… I really don’t know what I am, you know? I mean, I was raised by all white people, but my mom was black, so I really don’t know. I came here to learn about myself and experience the real black experience.”
The rest of the kids looked at me as if I had said something wrong. The leader of the club broke the silence and addressed me.
“There is no one black experience. I mean, look around the room. Alicia is half-Vietnamese and was born in St. Lucia. She speaks Vietnamese, French, and English. She can make the best Caribbean roti you will ever taste and the best Vietnamese noodles, too. What about Graciela? Her mom is from Peru, and her dad is African-American. She grew up eating traditional Peruvian food as well as hot dogs from Gray’s Papaya. Look, we all have unique experiences, but we are all equally black. You should be proud of all the different experiences you have had and the ones that you will encounter in the future.”
I was awestruck. I had never met so many different people who were so proud of their many different heritages. We delved into a beginner conversation on the recent events that had been happening throughout the country. Several innocent black men had been shot by the police, and the Black Lives Matter movement was speaking out. They were outraged about the police brutality that had been going on. Many of the kids in the room shared their own personal stories about being wrongfully stopped by the police and racial bias or microaggressions that they had experienced. I felt like the odd one out because I did not have a story, so I just listened intently and tried to form my own opinions. When I got out of the meeting, it was as if a white cloth had been lifted from my face, and I had finally connected with my black side.
When I went home later that day, my dad was surprisingly there. He wanted to take my sister and me out for dinner, and we happily obliged. We went to Ristorante Morini on Madison Avenue near our house. It was as soon as we sat down that I remembered all that I had learned today.
I was so excited, I didn’t even think before I opened my mouth and blurted out, “What do think about the Black Lives Matter movement?”
My dad seemed stunned. He almost choked on his pinot noir. “Well… I… um… I beg your pardon?” He seemed to be totally caught off guard.
“I said, what do you think about the Black Lives Matter?” I was sure he knew what I said, and I waited patiently for an answer.
“I think they are a bunch of crazy, black extremists that resemble the likes of the Black Panther Party that was devised from the hatred of white people. It is an anarchy that wants to destroy the very foundation that this great nation was founded on.”
I was surprised by his harsh response. “But this great nation was founded by men who had slaves, slaves who suffered for over two hundred years.” I thought it was a pretty insightful retort.
“Yes, but does that mean they need to destroy everything that we have done, reverse the progress we made?” His face was getting red, and his palms were getting sweaty.
“But what if that progress was totally against us?” I was getting angry.
“Who is us?” My dad seemed shocked that I had referred to myself and Blake as black.
“I just thought you would be more sensitive to these things considering you have two daughters who are black.” I genuinely thought my dad was more open minded than this.
“I do not have two black daughters. I have two white daughters and I will not have you insult our family by suggesting anything else. I am not black, and no one I identify myself with is black! I want nothing to do with them, and I don’t want to hear another word about this Black Lives Matter nonsense!”
For the rest of the dinner, we sat in silence. I ate a plate of pasta that tasted like disappointment in my father. Disappointment that he is racist and refuses to accept his past and our future.
After the events of dinner with my father, I decided I needed to immerse myself in the league. I started having more in-depth conversations with fellow members and writing my feelings in a small notebook I bought from Papyrus. I wrote down my frustration with my father and his lack of empathy. As I continued writing, it turned into poetry. The poetry let me enter a different world, where I was in control, and I understood exactly who I was. As well as self improvement, I also wrote about current events and all of the opinions the league held on our nation today. I used my poems to inspire young children of color to speak out against the racism of the world and the horrible violence committed against them. The poems healed me, and I was eager to share them with my peers. So one day during a meeting, I got up in front of them and just started reciting lines.
“I feel black in my bones. I feel black in my heart. I feel black in my soul. Why should I be ashamed? Why should I hide? As the black drips off of me like fresh paint, I think about my new color. Does it fit? Is this really how I want to spend the rest of my life? Yes!”
Some of the other kids were so inspired, that they asked if they could join me in making poetry speaking to the racism in this country. I was delighted and decided to make a project of it. I asked the head of high school if we could present them at a student assembly. I was so proud that I had truly found myself, I wanted to share it with the world. I wanted to get at the forefront of black power and the improvement of the perception of black people. Secretly, I wanted my dad to come and accept me. I thought that if he heard the beautiful art I was making with a pencil, he would change his mind about black people. I knew it was going to be hard to accomplish, but I was ready to climb this very tall mountain. The headmistress was delighted by the idea and jumped at the prospect of talking about politics with the students. My friends and I started practicing most days after school, while trying various types of iced tea at Starbucks and treats from Le Pain Quotidien. It was really fun, and at the same time, I was really getting to know myself and what being black meant to me, which was my first poem. It was really short, but it definitely opened my eyes.
“What does black mean to me? It means hope. It means power. It means never giving up. And most of all, it means me.”
As the weekend approached, I thought it would be fun to throw together a family dinner with my grandparents, aunt, and uncle. I would also invite my friends so we could give them a backstage tour and preview to our upcoming show that we had named Fierce. For the dinner, I hired a chef to come over and cook a simple, yet elegant meal. She made a carrot soup, a beet salad, a pappardelle, crispy French duck breast with mashed potatoes and swiss chard, and a vanilla cake. My family arrived first, baring lavish gifts and wine.
My grandmother glided into the room.“Sara! Oh honey, it’s so good to see you! You look great! How are you?” She had this kind of fake and proper voice that made me want to barf sometimes. It was almost like a mixture of Queen Elizabeth and Kim Kardashian. We hugged, and she presented me with a mink jacket from Dolce and Gabbana. I was not much of a high-end fashion person, but I graciously accepted the gift.
“Thank you so much Grandma Muffin. It’s gorgeous.” I tried to hide my sarcasm.
After some light chatter about flowers and debutante balls, my friends came.
“Hey girl,” said Sam, Jenaveve, and Ebony.
I was so excited that I was going to have some people with real personalities at dinner. My grandparents did not engage my friends one bit. They simply said “Hello,” and stared at them the entire cocktail hour, with their faces hiding behind wine glasses as if they were better than my friends.
When we finally sat down for dinner, the chef brought out drinks first. My grandmother was really chugging down the martinis. My aunt made sure to ask for the most expensive bottle of wine we owned, and when my friends all asked for soda, my aunt looked at them like they had just flashed her.
“Don’t you want something fancier?” my aunt asked Sam.
“Oh, that’s fine, I’m good with a Sprite.”
My aunt would not take no for an answer though. She just kept pushing. “Well, if you don’t know the names, or you can’t pronounce them, I can help you.”
Sam’s face suddenly looked as though a dark cloud was blocking the usually sunny face. “I just wanted soda, ma’am.”
I wanted to stick up for her, but I just couldn’t. My family wields a lot of power in this city. They’re rich, and if they don’t get their way, bad things happen. When my dad was little, he got a B- on a final Spanish exam, so they sent him to the war-stricken Nicaragua where he was forced to take care of a large farm for sixteen hours a day. With the hot sun beating down on him, he got heat stroke and had to be hospitalized, but his parents still made him stay for another month. So if I say anything to my aunt about the blatant racism she displays, I might end up on some war base in Syria, fighting for my life.
As the soup came out, my grandmother ordered even more vodka and started totally interrogating Ebony. “So Ebony, you’re such an exotic girl! Does your name mean something exotic in your country?” My grandmother was speaking very loudly and slowly, as if Ebony was stupid or something.
“Hey Grandma, chill!” I was embarrassed and trying to keep her from going overboard.
“Actually, I’m from New York, and my parents are too. They just liked the name because it sounded pretty.”
I could tell that Ebony was really trying to have a positive attitude. My grandmother, on the other hand, seemed really disappointed. She reached across the table and touched Jenaveve’s hand.
“Excuse me, young lady, do your parents work at our granddaughter’s school?”
“Shut up, Grandma!” I whispered to her and then kicked her leg under the table.
Jenaveve, who was talking to my sister, looked at my grandmother. “My parents do not work at Emerson, but I do know some kids whose parents are teachers.”
My grandmother looked puzzled, so she kept prying. “So how did you get into Emerson?”
Jenaveve looked astonished that anyone would ask that question, but she kept her cool and answered thoughtfully. “I filled out an application and went to an interview like everyone else.” She smiled at my grandmother.
“But how? I mean, was there some connection or assistance that you got? I mean you must have gotten something special.”
Jenaveve looked utterly stunned and quite embarrassed.
“I mean, let’s just be honest.” My grandmother looked around for agreement. “It’s just not possible to have these colored people get into such a prestigious school like Emerson. All they know is violence in the ghetto. It was the same with your mother!” My grandmother pointed to me and my sister. “She acted all sweet, but what she really was, was a gold-digging piece of trash that your father picked up from the street. When he first brought her home, I knew that we could not have that nonsense in the family. So I told him to toss her out, but he would not listen. Soon, she gave birth to you, and he finally got some sense and tossed her out like the trash she was.”
“That’s enough, Grandma!” I said to Grandmother. There were tears streaming down my face.
“Why don’t we get the main course going!” my uncle said, as if he just wanted to forget this whole conversation.
“No!” I said. “I will not stand by and allow you to speak to me like this. Just because you’re rich and white does not mean you can treat everyone else like garbage. You have done nothing in your life but tell everyone else how they should live theirs. The only reason why you’re rich is because your dad made a lot of money in the Gilded Age. You judge people and you don’t even know them. Jenaveve’s parents are amazing civil rights attorneys who argued for gay marriage in the Supreme Court! That’s more than you have ever done. It doesn’t matter if a person is black or if you have more money than they do. What matters is what kind of person you are, and you are a horrible person! You are a racist, homophobic, xenophobic woman whose name is Muffin! Your name is legit Muffin! I am just disappointed in you and all of our family for behaving like this tonight.”
As soon as I had given that speech, I felt lighter. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I had finally said what I needed to say to my family. Although I stood up to them, they did not apologize. They simply left. Altogether, they filed out of our penthouse, tight-lipped, not saying a single word. Then, my friends thanked me for the food and left as well.
My father sat in the armchair at the head of the table with a look of disbelief and shock on his face. He looked like he had seen a ghost. When I tried to speak, he simply raised his hand as if to shun me. “Don’t say a damn thing! Just keep your mouth shut, and give me a minute!”
So I stood there, staring at him for a while until he got up. With one swift move, he grabbed my poems from the table and threw them into the fire. I instinctively ran towards the fire, but he grabbed me and threw me on the floor.
“I have never hit a woman, but I might break that streak if you continue to test me! Go upstairs and go to bed now!”
I could not stop crying that night. I stayed up all night watching Grey’s Anatomy and trying to get over the horrors of last night. Fierce was in two days, and my poems were gone. So I decided to sleep. I was so stressed, I just slept. I slept for two whole days. I was so emotionally drained, I couldn’t move.
When I finally came to, I realized it was the day for my performance. I threw on some random clothes and ran downstairs to grab an apple. I nearly knocked down my sister as I ran out the door. I hopped onto the bus and rode it up to Emerson. It was pretty hard to relax because I had to perform in front of hundreds of people. I started reciting my poems on the bus so that I couldn’t forget them. I honestly wanted to run for the hills, but I knew that I had to do this and that it would pay off in the end. My stomach was flipping up and down so much, that when I got off the bus, I threw up on the side of the street. Through the retching and heaving, I could hear the poems vibrating through my body. A voice inside my head told me that everything was going to be fine. So I took a swig of water, pulled my hair back, and confidently marched into the school. As I walked in, everyone went quiet and let me pass. I calmly walked into the theater and waited to be introduced.
Mr. Kravis introduced Fierce and we walked up onto the stage, slowly but surely. The tech crew had positioned three microphones in the middle of the stage, and we hesitantly walked towards them. We held each other’s hands and gave each other encouraging looks. As we stepped forward, blinding rays of light hit us, and we became the complete center of attention in the theater. When I got up to the microphone, all of my nerves seemed to melt away, and I started reciting.
“They call me white. They call me black. They call me mixed. But what am I? Am I not just a person that deserves recognition for being great? Am I not just a normal girl that deserves to be treated with respect? Am I not just a person that wants to be free from stereotypes and biases? So who am I?”
I finished so strong, that the entire crowd stood up and clapped. They whooped and hollered at me. I was so happy and proud of myself. As I scanned the room, I saw my father in the back. He was smiling and clapping for me. I couldn’t believe it. In that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. I knew that I was going to be able to work everything out with my family because we’re family, and family always comes around.