Don’t be Afraid to Read

stacked books
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

I stand for the black poets and writers who won’t make it beyond their black identity. I stand for finding lost grandmothers. When I read Zora Neal Hurston for the first time I was filled with light. I saw the planet through old eyes. I found a black voice that made me want to claim the earth. Hurston gave me a path to follow. A galaxy of black excellence. Like many African American ‘s I read white from an early age. Connecting to a culture that wasn’t mine. Adapting to unfamiliar voices. Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall have all become mothers who have given me books and pride. Through words they have taken away the black shame. Freed me from wanting to be other.

I remember wearing towels for hair. Wanting to resemble the models in Pantene commercials. I was tired of my afro getting stuck in the combs, being referred to as the dark one and needing light eyes to be special.

I am a black woman with large hips and thighs. My hair grows in limbs and leaves. My nose is wide and my lips are full. I can give birth to blackness and teach them to read. Teach them the art of black magic.

I stand for black politics. I stand for the simplicity of breathing. I stand for community and equality but was once afraid of white people and their language. They always spoke in home repairs, recitals and business. I was envious of the perceived calmness. I too wanted to bring sunflowers home, jog before work and get off the train before Broadway Junction. I was taught there would be no chance for me due to the color of my skin color. I was told when you are black you have to work twice as hard.

Mr. Walker told me black people should never buy books. That I should steal them from now on because knowledge should be free. He told me he’d pay me to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I have encountered many black people and their ghost stories of the white man. I have been told that the Caucasian is the enemy by many elders; and this man on the three train wasn’t unlike them. In his ignorance, there was a story. Black fury. He had a truth of his own.

The first thing he said to me was that he hates Caucasian’s and Jews. His animosity landed him seven weeks in Bellevue. I sat there guilty by association. Watching him unravel in anger. Feeling responsible for his words as if it were a reflection of me just because we are black. Hatred is a leech that feeds on you until you die. It’s the old that are hardest to sway.

I’ve never hated white people even when I was told they had stolen from me and would continue to do so. It always felt odd to reflect that anger. Who was I going to blame for being black in America? But nonetheless I was confused by Caucasians for a while. I didn’t understand how two worlds could exist at the same time. The stereotypical night and day. I didn’t want to go to their parties. I didn’t know how to make jokes about drugs and I thought they didn’t salt their food. How could I deny a plate in their face? I was full of anxious curiosity. Who are white people? What is a white person?

When Mr. Walker began talking about pussy I quietly watched the trains go by. Until he settled on talking about his wife. She was a Jamaican beauty queen until he got her pregnant. I told him where I went to school and he said to look out for a professor in the social history department. He said that brother sells books in Harlem as a pastime. Hunter, he said has a massive white student population. That I should never be the black girl to get lost in a white crowd. I felt “black guilt” in that moment. I’m tired of competing with imaginary white people and would like to focus on being human. I am only flesh and blood. If I don’t hate whites will I not make it life?

He never buys the New York Post and says the Jews own it. He gets it from the trash because he enjoys the articles. He gave me the wet paper and told me to read. He said the Jews are buying property because they need to hide from the Arabs. He begins to recall a time he boxed up some books from the library and ran out with them.  Someone ran after him and he ended up abandoning the books to get away.

Here was this seventy-three-year-old man who said he’d get off the train with me just so he could continue to tell me about his two-million-dollar company. Or how the government owes him fifty-five thousand dollars in food stamps.  He was stuck between two realities. I could hear him in my world and then he’d leave and be somewhere unknown to me. He told me not to be afraid to read.

When Kingston Avenue came he didn’t get up with me. Which lead me to believe he was going nowhere in particular. I questioned myself after meeting Mr. Walker. Why wasn’t I angry with him? How could I have connected with a racist? I had silently been in the company of racism. Could black racism be a defense mechanism?

I remember asking my boyfriend to tell his aunt and uncle that I was black so they wouldn’t be shocked when they met me. Thinking that my co-worker was at a higher position than me because he was white. Seeing the older white people give my boyfriend and I harsh looks when we hold hands. I remember this white guy who had to be on the spectrum come us to us in the book store. He said that back in the day we would have been punished and killed for being together. We stood by the banned books section at Strand speechless.  I was afraid to respond. Afraid of the past haunting me.

It’s time to talk about society and its bridges.  The world is full of sympathetic people on high horses. It’s time to talk about the way this planet has created monsters. How they jump for commodities and labels. I am going to die and be reborn black. I have embraced myself as such but there are times where I feel the weight of my skin. Sometimes I sit next to whites on the train and wonder if they secretly dislike the way our shoulders touch.

College is the only place that I share a community table with people who don’t look like me. The longer I am here the more the colors blend. I don’t feel like I have to wear my race on my forehead when I come to learn. I can exist in and out of the social construction of identity. Empathy solves all racial conflict. I was able to connect with Mr. Walker a man consumed by his own grief. A black man in a white world, hospitalized for the flaws hate gave him. When do we give up on racism? Will I ever be able to tilt the tide?

The truth is that no one is allowed to forget their race. Power and division are always served together. What hurts the most is that love is selective. No matter how much we write, read and reach out some will still deny that they heard us. I stand for books and knowledge, I stand for humanity at all cost. I stand for my sanity in navigating life. I stand to end the race wars.

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