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From Lowest White Boy, published in May by West Virginia University Press.

He lumbered around a friend’s neighborhood on the other side of the city, slow and friendly, a 250-pound innocent searching yard to yard for a companion. His name was Calvin. He was black, his dad was some kind of middle manager for a trucking company, he lived in one of the better blocks of a nearby black neighborhood, and he was almost always out playing with young white boys. My friends from this strange neighborhood—a more solidly middle-class place, with higher levels of education, professional-class folks, slightly less anxious about school—said he “talked white” and that’s why he didn’t have any black friends (the black kids called him an Oreo, an Uncle Tom). My friends said he was “different,” not “like them,” and “okay.” And no one had any problem that summer with the fact that he was ten years older than the kids with whom he played, and I think it goes without saying that we would not have known, especially in the context of rising racial tensions, how to have a relationship with a black person we saw as fully our equal or somehow superior to us by kid standards—video games, sports, your-mama jokes.

(Is my memory this wrong, or were the mid to late 1970s in urban/suburban Virginia so different in their awareness of and vigilance about situations we’d now immediately view as potentially predatory? No, I think it was that parents were not involved in the daily activities of their children, that alarmist media hadn’t infiltrated every curve of the human brain, that I roamed sidewalks and fields and backyards and parks like a cautious animal sniffing new territory. Neighborhoods were everything, enclaves of kid interest, boredom, and ideas. Adults were busy. Kids were free.)

“Hey, y’all,” Calvin would say. “Hey, y’all.” Then he’d walk over to wherever my friends and I were playing. He was usually wearing the same gray sweatpants and black and gray horizontally striped shirt. He had little bits of leaves in his hair—from where was a mystery, but probably from wooded shortcuts. Around his mouth was always a faint ghost of morning toothpaste. Some kids called him a “total freakin’ retard” behind his back (though his sister was evidently famous as some kind of super-straight-A-spelling-bee-winning brainiac), but when he showed up he was welcomed. He’d be “it” the whole game of tag in the woods, no complaints. He was the best blocker in football, crashing through bony, white ten-year-olds as if they were so much brittle brush, flinging kids to the ground where they left matted grass dents in the soft earth, before they jumped up for the next snap.

That year—what year? 1979? 1980?—anyway, that year, some year, we all went to the 7-Eleven to play the new pinball game. Little kid heroin: every quarter we could scrounge went into that machine. But there was a system, a protocol, a culture around the game. Kids had to know it. You put a quarter on the console, leaning against a little ledge in the corner above the bumper buttons. That meant you had next game. Quarter next to yours, on the left, had game after that, etc. “Got next,” we’d say, and everyone knew what that meant. “Next.” “Next.” “Got next.”

One day, not paying attention, one of my friends, a kid named Steve, puts a quarter into the machine and starts playing, even though there is a quarter on the ledge already, holding next game. A kid named Mikey comes over, says, “What the hell, man? What the . . . ?” He’s big. He’s tough. Older brothers. Drunk, abusive dad. He’s like the neighborhood ass kicker. He yanks Steve’s shirt, throws him to the ground, and finishes his game. Then he tells me and Steve and a couple of other kids that we can’t play any more pinball today. He’ll be keeping any quarters left on the machine. Thanks.

Next time Calvin comes around, Steve says, “Hey, Calvin, man, you won’t believe this, but, man, Mikey was at the 7-Eleven calling you a, you know, the N-word. Said it like five times. Calvin’s a blank. Calvin’s a you-know-what. Said it over and over.”

Now my friend’s neighborhood buddies and Calvin and I don’t know that blackness, as I am now discussing it, as it is defined by white people at this moment in time, is an American thing, an ideological, sociopolitical construct, a set of assumptions and value judgments based on economic and cultural history and dominant white power structures stretching back hundreds of years, and kept in place with violence and death and treaties and laws. Hell no, we don’t know that. Don’t know much, really—I’m like, what, nine and three-quarters and a week? I just exist. We spend more time pondering the varying consistencies of our boogers than we do thinking about why Calvin’s skin seems to mean one thing and ours another. And Calvin isn’t going to help us here. What he does know, even though he has learning issues, is that the N-word is like a rope, a pack of dogs, a water cannon. He doesn’t need to know history to feel its weight. No one does. One day when he was a little kid, his biggest problem was that his bookish sister ate all the good cereal; next day, bam, some crazy information, a crippling self-consciousness, got all up inside his head, and he was black. He was a big black guy that some people were afraid of. He played football and tag with a bunch of much younger white boys because he believed we were his friends (we were, in a way) and would never think a word like that about him.

For weeks after Steve lied to Calvin, my friends and I owned the pinball machine because word got around that Calvin was looking for Mikey and his friends, that he’d be waiting outside the 7-Eleven every day until they were man enough to show up and call him the N-word to his face.

Every so often Steve would walk outside and talk to Calvin. “Seen ’em, Calvin? Any sign yet, Calvin? Gotta show up sometime, Calvin.”

Then Steve would come back in to play pinball with my friends and me.

I remember this because one day Steve, who was getting ready to turn eleven, who I imagine grew up to be a successful professional and maybe a baseball coach and an active member of the community (school-board member? city council?), walked back into the store, pointed at Calvin waiting outside in the blistering heat, and joked, “Hey, guys, hey, guys—maybe this is what it felt like to have a slave.”

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July 2019

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