I like my front porch. My husband and I overextended ourselves by buying this old Victorian house, so we haven’t been able to replace the ratty pillows on the porch swing. The previous owners hung it from sturdy chains just to the side of the blue front door. The swing is comfortable enough, though, and it’s my favorite place to read on a sunny afternoon. This house is like the one my parents restored when I was a kid. That was an old Victorian, too, but it was on the chopping block—the Piggly Wiggly in Livingston, Texas, was ready to bulldoze it when my dad made an offer of $5,000 and a promise to move it fifty-eight miles south and west to Conroe.
On a recent Monday afternoon, I came out to my front porch with a book, a cup of tea, and my laptop. A white van was parked on the far side of the street. I was ready to settle in to the comfy cushions. But then, I heard crying. Skin slapping on skin. And yelling. The crying was a child. The yelling was an adult, a woman. It was coming from the white van parked on the street. The side door of the van opened and a heavy, older black woman climbed out. She was so heavy she had trouble navigating the step down from her van onto the street. She got into the driver’s seat, closed the door and nodded her head, confirming something to the woman in the passenger seat.
I shoved my book and laptop beside me onto the cushion. I stared at the flowery design a moment. I looked at my hands. I’ve got to do this, I thought. I’m doing this. I stood, stepped off the porch, and, quite suddenly, was standing at the window of this woman’s van.
She fixed her eyes on me.
I said, “Were you just beating a child in the back of your van?”
I couldn’t see the child through the tinted side window, but earlier, when she’d slid aside the door and stepped out, I’d seen him curled in his car seat. He was the young boy I’d seen playing on the sidewalk this summer, the skin beneath his eyes always puffy and dark. Since the first time I saw him, I’d thought something was wrong with him. This woman in the driver’s seat wasn’t his mother. His mother was young, maybe twenty, maybe still a teenager. This woman in front of me was the boy’s grandmother.
“Maybe you ought to be minding your own business,” she said. She smiled, her eyes both hot and cold. “You go on and call the police if you want to. I ain’t going nowhere.”
I hadn’t even thought of that—calling the police. I hadn’t thought at all, nothing other than I can’t just sit here. I backed away and decided yeah, I should call the police.
She said to me, “White folks ought to mind their own business. That’s how white folks get killed around here.”
Fuck, I thought. What have I done now?
My voice trembled as I told the dispatcher I wasn’t sure this was an emergency, but I’d heard a child crying, slaps, yelling, and seen this woman get out of a van. That she’d threatened me.
The woman waited, yelling up to me on the porch—when were the police going to show up? She had things to do.
She was tough and loud. She knew where I lived. I’d given the police her license number, so I was hoping they knew where she lived, too.
As I waited for the cops, I kept asking myself why. Why did I say something? So stupid. Now I might die. My family might die. My house might get burned down. Vandalized. The brake lines in my car might get cut. She sounded mean—mean enough to follow through on her “That’s how white folks get killed around here” talk.
But I know why I did it.
I was beaten as a child. I grew up poor in the South. Actually, my dad got a government job when I was two, so I lived in relative luxury compared to what he and my mom lived through as kids. But their parenting didn’t change just because their income did. They raised me how they were raised, with lots of yelling and raised hands and swinging belts. I left home when I was sixteen, and I got a chance to see how people lived in other parts of the country. I got to figure some things out before I had my own kids. New Hampshire, where I finished high school and went to college, is about as different from Texas as a smile is from a fist.
It wasn’t so hard to see why I called the cops, why I walked up to that van and stood up for that little kid. I was standing up for myself, for the child I once was, raised by parents who didn’t know any better than to discipline their kids by beating them.
What I didn’t understand was why did she do it? Why did she beat that child, not her child, but her grandchild? Was she tired? Was she sick of taking care of her daughter’s children? She was dressed nice and her van looked new—did she grow up poor like my parents did? Was she the first generation to break free from poverty? This is Champaign, Illinois. Was I wrong to think corporal punishment is alive and well only in the South?
Officer Attaberry was a big white man. I’d gone inside my house to make the phone call, but now I was waiting on the porch, wanting to be strong despite how scared I felt. The officer nodded my direction and then approached the van. He asked the grandmother questions. He looked at the child in the back seat. He chatted with the grandmother, and then he wrote out some notes for his report. He didn’t talk to me—maybe he’d gotten everything he needed from me on the phone. I didn’t know what else to do, so I stayed on my porch swing. After Officer Attabery left, the grandmother stood outside the van on the grass and spoke loudly, facing my direction. “That’s how white folks die around here,” she told her daughter, who had shown up some time after the cop car had parked on the corner. “That’s what get white folks killed,” she said to a black guy walking a pit bull on a leash. “They ought to mind their own business,” she said.
She was calling me out for being white. But really, she would have called me the n- word if I’d been black, a fat bitch if I’d been heavy. She latched onto an easy way to cut me down, and I bought it. At first.
That Victorian house my family restored back in Texas—it was in the heart of a racist community. I didn’t realize how racist the town was, or how racist I was, until I moved away. The year after I left home, I watched an episode of 60 Minutes on TV in my boyfriend’s apartment in New Hampshire. The program was about a janitor who had worked at Conroe High School and been convicted of raping a female student. He was black. She was white. Based on new evidence presented by an eyewitness to the murder – and 60 Minutes’ coverage – the case was reopened. However, it took years for the charges to be dropped against Clarence Brandley, and he was never compensated for the eight years and eleven months he spent on Texas’ death row. On the TV screen, I watched the images of the town where I’d grown up, seeing Conroe filtered through the reporter’s eyes for the racist, segregated shithole of a town it really was.
Until I saw that program, I never thought it was strange that the black part of town had a name—Doogan. I never questioned why white kids from River Plantation, south of town, were bused to Travis Jr. High in the north part of town, a school that, unlike Washington Jr. High, didn’t flood every year. I started to ask myself why I always remembered the bad things about black kids, especially the girls. I relived over and over Brenda Easley nearly kicking my ass in fourth grade at Runyan Elementary, and the black girls peeking over the sides of my bathroom stall, laughing at me perched on my toilet. What I’d forgotten, or chosen not to remember, was the black high school track runner who carried me on her back the last three miles of a twenty-mile walkathon. I was in fourth grade, and I’d lost sight of the friend who had talked me into signing up for the March of Dimes fundraiser. I was exhausted. I was constipated, too, and I was scared to go into the Exxon gas station at mile eighteen by myself. This young black athlete who didn’t even know me sat on the cold concrete and waited while I strained and strained on the toilet. It was a one-seater. It was dark—the fluorescent light was nearly flickered out. Why didn’t I remember her act of kindness, carrying me, sitting with me, instead of always remembering the girls who were mean? I was humiliated by the circumstances—all of them. I was only able to hold onto my anger and resentment. I’d lost the gratitude, the memory of any kindness.
Years later, when I lived in Columbia, Missouri, an Australian friend told me a story. He lived in a house on McBaine Avenue, a street in a traditionally black neighborhood. The block he lived on was two blocks south of Worley Street, so he was just on the edge. Worley was the dividing line. One day, he wanted to take a walk through the black neighborhood, but he felt the heat of stares as soon as he crossed over. Stony, dark faces watched him from front porches and back stoops. Until he said, “G’day, Mate,” to someone. Then, everything changed. He was Australian, and therefore, not the enemy. When he told me this, I realized that I’d had a similar experience, but it was in reverse. When I was in college, I’d had dinner once with a black man from Africa. I’d become entranced by his French accent, his exotic stories of Burkina Faso, and his work in a local museum preserving artifacts of his country, his people. I often repeated this experience—as soon as I found out someone was actually African, I liked them. It’s not about skin color. It’s about culture and history. It’s not actually racism—that’s a misnomer. It’s not about race, if race is even real. It’s just a bigoted hatred of the Other, whichever Other happened to be in close proximity during your childhood, and was reinforced day after day as being bad, less than, or dirty.
When that woman in her van kept saying white folks should mind their own business, I took the bait. At first. I haven’t yet excised all of my hatred and fear. I still project those old bigoted ideas onto some people in some situations. She represented a potent combination for me—a big, black, angry woman beating a child. It was like she was the embodiment all of those girls who intimidated me in school together with the worst whippings my parents had ever given me. Where was my track runner? She was lost in my fear and my anger.
The hook for me was that, on the outside, this woman looked – a little – like some of the girls who used to beat me up. She also looked – a little – like the young woman who once carried me on her back. She looked like them because she is black. She sounded like them because she is from the U.S., not somewhere exotic like Africa.
But she is not either of those girls. She’s just a woman, who, for some reason, felt the need to beat her grandson on a Monday afternoon on my street in the back of her van.
This isn’t a white thing or a black thing. I’m not taking that bait anymore. It’s an I-saw-something-and-I-have-to say-something thing. I bought this house with its big front porch because I wanted a place to sit and read and feel connected to a neighborhood. When I told friends about the woman in the van, they said go get a gun. Call a realtor. Get out of there. I thought about leaving. This woman knew where I lived; she could have made trouble for me if she wanted. For days, I looked for her white van across from my house every evening when I got home from work.
A few weeks after the incident, the building superintendant, an older black man, entered the daughter’s apartment after other tenants complained about a smell. He found the place so dirty and the kids in such a state of neglect that he called Child Protective Services. I heard this through the grapevine from another neighbor, a third grade teacher where the daughter’s older child attended school. The daughter moved out weeks later, and the white van stopped coming around. Officer Attaberry had never returned my calls about the grandmother’s “this is how white people die around here” threats. Maybe he figured I wasn’t really in any danger.
When the apartment was empty, I stopped worrying so much, but I couldn’t stop thinking. I took a risk by confronting this grandmother, maybe a stupid risk, but I said something. I woke up to my own fears, my own racism. If I am afraid of someone because they are black, then I don’t give myself the chance to ask What’s going on here?
It’s true—my house in Illinois looks like that house in Texas, but I’m making a choice every day not to be that girl from Texas anymore.
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