Three months ago I attended a workshop on writing and performing our stories. Thank you to Paula Morell and April Gentry-Sutterfield for sharing their gifts to stir new levels of creativity in our writing. The Jorge Luis Borges quote below was the prompt for our writing exercise.
"Any life, no matter how long or complicated it may be, is made up of one moment - the moment a man finds out once and for all who he is."
There are many moments that try to form alliances and narrate the story of one's life. They push and jostle like children at the ice cream truck, screaming to be heard. Then there are other moments that stand quietly in the back of the room, watching with a gravity that reveals their movement beyond such childish reckonings. Their very presence shifts the taste in the air, laces it with a tang of permanence and regret.
These memories will not go back inside when the carnival music disappears over the hill. They stay seated on the front porch, watching, knowing. These moments see the story we cannot, reveal themselves because of their "oughtness", their truth. In the times when I can step back from the throng and look over my shoulder, they gaze back at me knowingly. They do not beckon or call to me. They simply know me. It is always a trial for me to acknowledge them.
The moment who sits in the seat of honor has been around for nearly 15 years. He is partially covered in shadow but his darkness illuminates my blackness. In the winter of my senior year of high school I ask a girl to a dance. I am not romantically interested, but we've been friends for a long time. All goes according to plan - I ask her, she agrees, we both look forward to it. But there is one small problem in her parents' eyes - she is white and I am black.
The moment is baffling in its truth. The girl is sitting in front of me, crying slow motion tears, and the words coming out of her mouth are all wrong. "Because you're black", "It's against God's will", "I can't believe my parents are so ignorant", "I'm so sorry, so embarrassed". None of it makes sense. Who thinks these things at the end of the 20th century? Sure, I attend a private school that is nearly alabaster in its whiteness, but I've adapted, right? I've shed the rough Jersey attitude and Yankee vowels and even joined the youth group next door. I am well liked, some might even say popular. Other than the odd redneck bigot, nobody is so blatantly racist as these things her parents said about a boy who goes to their church would suggest.
Even as I recognize what they were saying is false, I also realize the truth of the matter. The moment sits down next to me in the principal's sterile office, watching impassively while the girl sobs her disbelief. I can feel him turn toward me, waiting for my acknowledgment. He follows me around for three days before I can look at him, and when I do he just stares back. No words, no tears, no reassuring smile. Just truth, silent and cold and persistent.
I knew then what I'd been trying to hide from. I am an AfroNuyorican man, and I don't fit anywhere. Not with bilingual boricuas in New York, not with black folks in Little Rock whose speech cadences eluded me for years, and certainly not in a nearly all-white private school where I adapted so effectively that months would go by without anyone mentioning our difference. Our ethnicity. Our race. Our respective statuses in society.
My blackness, my boricua-ness is omnipresent. I'm not ashamed of it and never have been. I have tried to hide it at times, or at least forget, but that was mostly to survive. It is always with me, like the moment when the girl's weeping opened my eyes to my true self -- my otherness. Always. Everywhere. Sometimes it's too much to take in, so I keep pushing my way up to the ice cream truck, keep drowning my senses in the clamor of the raucous crowd. But still he waits on the porch, watching and knowing.