Dorian had just discovered the first change. With one hand I held the book to the table, pressuring the page enough to keep it flat but not enough to dent the binding, and with the other I pushed a fork through the mashed potatoes on my plate. Potatoes weren't nearly as intriguing as Mr. Gray's visual feast.
He rubbed his eyes, and came close to the picture, and examined it again. There were no signs of any change when he looked into the actual painting, and yet there was no doubt that the whole expression had altered. It was not a mere fancy of his own. The thing was horribly apparent . . .
CRASH! The sound of humiliation reverberated in my ears as someone dropped a tray and glass tinkered across the floor. People began to clap, and I sighed. Reading in the Ratty was a wasted effort. You could never hope to accomplish anything in a dining hall.
I closed the book and set my mind to the task of finishing my potatoes so I could get to class on time. The scraping of several chairs accompanied by several voices right behind me replaced Dorian in my thoughts.
"I feel you, girl, I feel you."
"We on the same page, here -- I don't want nothin' they sellin'."
A group had just sat down at the table behind me. I peeked over my shoulder to see a table surrounded by four dark-skinned faces. One girl had dark, flashing eyes, a cropped Afro, and hoop earrings that brushed her shoulders. Another wore bright red lipstick and had a lime green hat pulled slightly over one eye. A third, with long wavy curls, sported a DKNY logo on her black shirt. The one guy who accompanied them wore a bright yellow shirt and kept cutting his eyes left and right. A platinum cross hanging from his neck winked at its own luster.
The group members were too immersed in their conversation to notice my quick glance. I turned back to my potatoes and tried to drown out their talking -- I wasn't one for eavesdropping. Unfortunately, the back of the neck is the nosiest part of the body, and it could not help but absorb every word.
"I went to high school with mostly white people. Surprised I didn't lose my damn mind after four years of that shit." The voice was female.
"I hear ya, sis. I knew when I came to Brown that there'd be a lot of white people here but it hasn't been so bad; I just ignore 'em, mostly." Another female.
"It's hard in classes and stuff, though -- I was taking a class on the Civil Rights Movement and this one girl got on her big ass white horse and wouldn't let up on how much it meant to her, how her white doctor daddy had marched with MLK, how moved she was by the class, yadda yadda, every damn week! I felt like slappin' her."
The guy: "Well, they'll never really get it. That's why I don't go outta my way to make friends with white people."
"Same. Most of 'em just wanna have an 'ethnic' friend." Third girl.
First girl: "Yeah, that's it! You can never tell with white people whether they're bein' friendly just because they don't wanna be called a racist, and that makes even the ones who aren't act like fools. You can't get around it." She sighed, then cracked a smile. "I feel like tellin' 'em to go play hockey and give it a rest."
Guy: "You mean 'go play honky'!" Raucous laughter.
The menu that day did not sit well with me. I wonder, I thought as I left the table amidst the clang and scrape of plates being filled and trays being emptied, what that group would say if there were mirrors around. Would the thing be horribly apparent?
* * * * * *
I could not wait to move into my very first single room junior year. 325 marked my freedom from having to share my Brita water filter and wake up when an oblivious roommate walked in at 3:17 AM and turned on all the lights.
I was determined to meet and make friendly with my neighbors due to the fact that I would not have a roommate to draw me out into public more often than my natural shyness prompted me. Within a week, I had found out that Haley from 328 was a dancer and loved big earrings; her roommate, Lenora, was a talented writer and had a lot of curly hair. Matt in 322 played the guitar and liked Roman history; Ally from 303 had gone to school with a good friend of mine; Danielle in 318 was athletic and often had to wake up early for crew practice. Kelley next door in 327 was big into politics and was immersed in ex-boyfriend issues. I opened all these doors -- coincidentally, all belonging to white students -- and was welcomed.
But I was never admitted into 324, the room directly across the hall from my own. In the first week I never even laid eyes on the two boys, Kyle and Tom, who lived there. A friend told me that they were both tall and athletic, so I kept an eye out for them.
The first time I saw Kyle he had a cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. I was coming out of the bathroom and he was fussing with his keys and standing outside of his door. I scampered up, smiling and ready to introduce myself. He was tall; I had to crane my neck to look at his face — an action to which I am not accustomed standing nearly six feet tall myself. I opened my mouth and said hello, ready to follow the greeting with my name.
He looked back over his shoulder. His steely blue eyes moved slowly from my head to my feet. Without saying a word, he opened his door, stepped inside, and slammed the door shut. In the brief moment that the door was open, I noticed a Confederate Flag hanging over the bed on which Tom was stretched. The TV was on; I recognized the movie as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Before the door to 324 closed so resolutely, a scene featuring a young Negro singer about to be lynched in a celebratory Klan ritual flashed across the screen.
After the door closed, I heard laughter. Perhaps it was a coincidence. But I didn't bother saying hello for the rest of the year.
* * * * * *
Words are the original conjure women. They stand over their cauldrons and cast ensorcelled images over all whose ears are within their reach (why else would everyone demand freedom of speech?). The words' power only becomes righteous or maleficent depending on who happens to hear the words and know their images.
"Confederate Flag" cast a particularly nasty spell -- one word and the hallway cavalry was polishing its armor and mounting its horses. Haley and Lenora were ready to break into 324 and rip the flag from the ceiling; Matt offered an iron fist; Ally and Danielle held their phones like pistols, ready to send an emergency shot out to warn the authorities. I said Tom and Kyle had done nothing wrong. I felt as though I were trapped on some not-so-merry-but-in-fact-troublesome-go-round, oscillating on a runaway horse whose mane had been lit by one breath -- one breath -- in which "Confederate Flag" formed an image considered unfortunate at least, violently hortatory at worst, but that was responded to indecorously in general.
Allison, a friend who lived across campus, made claims indistinguishable from those of my hall mates. Allison's stick-straight, hay-colored hair and big brown eyes (set against cream-white skin) always gave her an expression of surprise. When she asked if I had met my neighbors, and I told her about my incident.
Allison: Are you okay?!
Me: [softly] I'm fine. It's not like they beat down my door and hurt me.
Allison: [Eyes ablaze, on the verge of shouting] Well they might as well have. That is totally unacceptable.
Me: It could be worse.
Allison: Not much!
Me: [sighs] As long as they don't try anything, I'll be fine.
Allison: No! I want to go and yell at them. That is completely unacceptable — that symbol is a complete affront to every black person on this campus.
Me: [forced smile] I'm only half-black, remember? [silence for a moment] Oh, stop looking at me like that — I'm just kidding. Anyway, there's no point in telling them off. This is a free country, remember?
Allison: But they have no right to have that flag flying from their window. That is so totally inappropriate . . . my god, honestly, I want to go over there and give them a piece of my mind.
Me: First Amendment. Look it up.
Allison: [voice rising again] But that's not the point —
— Exactly my point.
* * * * * *
Thayer Street: the most convenient haunt for wandering freshmen without valid IDs or personal automobiles. Tiny shops stand shoulder to shoulder with one another while colorful cat masks, pink porcelain teacups, miniature sandwiches, drinks with umbrellas, hooded sweatshirts, curried chicken, New Balance sneakers, and all other manners of merchandise and meals beckon and vie for people's attention. Street where the riches of ages are sold. Freshman year I spent countless nights meandering between darkened restaurants and heavily peopled clubs, usually accompanied by other roving, unsure, overzealous teenagers looking for fun, for people, for diversion.
But sometimes you find other things. Freshman year I was wandering with my boyfriend at the time. It was a Saturday night. A car pulled up alongside us (not an unusual event for Thayer Street, though the occurrence was far more likely when the wandering group consisted entirely of females). The car — a sporty blue Mustang -- was full of young men in their early twenties. A Brown University decal boasted from the back window of the car.
One guy pulled himself up on the seat. I could see his olive skin and jet-black hair under the streetlight. He looked Hispanic. When he spoke, my suspicions were confirmed by the shape his consonants took in the air:
"Hey, come on over here honey — you don't need a white man."
The car pulled away, but the laughter emanating from it hung in the air like a thick fog. Laughter. Why did the thing always leave laughter in its wake?
I continued to walk on with my boyfriend, who seemed to think that the familiarity of his Bostonian vowels would drown out the heavily accented words that had just been thrown toward me. This guy considered himself a politician and took pride in what he deemed his ability to assuage even the most irritating situations with well-woven words rooted in New England snobbery. He began talking about how such people did not belong on an Ivy League campus, how the truly liberal-minded people at Brown were above what had just happened, how color did not matter to him. "You know, my dad has three black friends with whom he is really close. He makes ethnic jokes around them and they just laugh when he uses the word 'nigger'." Laughter again.
A line from a Spike Lee movie shot into my head: "Son, I say 'nigger' a hundred times every morning. It keeps my teeth white."
We had walked into a dark spot between streetlights when he said the word. I was glad I could not see his face, nor he mine — at least I am fairly sure he didn't, because he put his arm around me and said, "It just goes to show you that color really isn't important."
I would love to have believed him.
* * * * * *
February of 2004 found me sidling into the Black History Month convocation ceremony, images of my grandfather's church in Little Rock, Daisy Bakes, Ella Baker, Emmett Till, and other often-unsung figures dancing through my mind. The auditorium was about half full, mostly with black students and faculty members. I grabbed a seat toward the back of the auditorium, sinking into the bight red cushion and relishing the ambience of the half-dimmed light. As I sat down, slinging my purple bag to the floor, I noticed almost imperceptibly soft music drifting up from behind me — I recognized the tune as Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." Smiling, I glanced back and saw a girl playing with her Discman, pulling off the headphones. Her skin was a rich caramel color. She smiled at me.
I turned forward again and settled in for the convocation. During the 45-minute presentation, several speakers gave spirited accounts of how Black History Month, though honored during the shortest month on the calendar, was indispensably important; how, as Louis Armstrong once said, "We all do 'do, re, mi,' but you have got to find the other notes yourself"; and how the matter of African-American identity should not hinge on the matter of black is this, black ain't that, but can be embodied best by just knowing that black is. The crowd were joined in adulation of such words by the end of the ceremony, standing up and singing an a cappella round of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." I closed my eyes as I sang.
When the song ended and I opened my eyes, I noticed that mostly everyone else around me had begun to gather their things to leave. I bent to the floor, collected my purple bag, and made my way to the aisle. A snort of laughter rose behind me.
I glanced back and saw two girls, both with dreadlocked hair and skin so dark it seemed to shine blue-black. The taller of the two saw my glance and rolled her eyes. She lowered her voice and said to her friend, "I don't undastand why some 'a them even turn up; this is Black History Month, not High Yaller History Month."
I kept walking.
* * * * * *
Still I walk through the halls of Brown University. This place has bent over backwards, slalomed through time, and grappled with history to become known as the most liberal of Ivy League schools — a league renowned for collecting and assembling the most trenchant and talented minds the world has to offer. The minds walk the campus paths encased in pasty white, creamy ivory, skillet blonde, high yellow, caramel, dark olive, cinnamon brown, charred black: a colorful feast. Everyone flavors the scholastic and social smorgasbords on which the school sustains itself.
The problem with any lengthy repast is that, after a time, certain flavors over-blend. The meat toughens. Other flavors separate, even though they might create something delicious. But the image of the feast must go unmarred at all costs, even when the canvas cracks and shrivels, laden with the pressure.
In these days of disinheritance, the plague of time spent in Brunonia lies not in being bound and determined, but determined, yet bound. Cracks must be filled and abrasions made smooth so that the image of the feast will remain unblemished. As for the actual feast . . . why do they learn to live with the monotony of the menu? Why are certain dishes always served in separate courses, even though they would taste so well with one another? Why do ill-named meals always come out overdone?
We feast on human heads, brought in on leaves,
. . . On these we live,
No longer on the ancient cake of seed,
The almond and deep fruit. This bitter meat
Sustains us . . . Who, then, are they, seated here?
Is the table a mirror in which they sit and look?
Are they men eating reflections of themselves?
I kill my brother with malice in my heart . . . and this is your liberal haven. But if laughter always echoes in the wake of animosity within these halls, then what remains for the portrait unfolding outside of College Hill, where the thing is more horribly apparent than ever?
Last modified 17 May 2005