As a child, I was confused about race. Words like “black” and “white” hovered about adult conversations like ominous clouds. What made someone black or white? My maternal grandfather, the shade of dark-roast coffee beans, must surely be black, but what about cousin Nikki: fair-skinned with curly, not kinky hair and asian eyes? Was black or white determined purely by color or did it include other things? What was I?
My maternal uncle married a woman from Australia. I thought she might be “white,” but I couldn’t be sure because she wore a wig and hair seemed to be something of a determining factor. At any rate, assuming she was white, their relationship told me it was ok for black and white people to love each other. But why did I detect such anger in the adult’s voices whenever the subject of race arose?
I was scared to ask my mother about it. As a child I expected to be misunderstood by adults, but she could be really tough: a highly educated politico, daughter-of-the-revolution, yeah-I-dated-a-black-panther woman, complete with afro and black-power pick in the colors of Africa. I am lighter than my mother, and suspected that my absent father had something to do with that, but we didn’t speak about him. At about age five or six, I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to open a can of worms.
It was tricky, but I’d finally stumbled upon an idea. One day I summoned the courage to ask my mother if Carol Burnett, my favorite comedienne, was white. She laughed derisively, but answered yes. Ding! Light-bulb moment! THAT was white. I got it, or so I thought. If Carol Burnett was what white was, what could be the problem?
Several years later, about age nine, I auditioned and was accepted to the School of American Ballet, a prestigious school that was the training ground for the New York City Ballet. My mother was apprehensive about this. I vaguely wondered why but dare not bring it up, fearing she’d change her mind about letting me attend.
We lived in a black neighborhood in Queens, NY, South Jamaica, around where 50 cent got shot. I had seen white people before, my uncle’s wife, for example, plus Carol Burnett and Jaques Costeau and etc. But that was really different from being in a room, or a whole school where you were one of a handful of black people. I felt different. The other girls rarely spoke to me. My mother waited outside the studio alone and seperate from the other mothers, many of whom were dressed quite expensively.
Thankfully at this point, I was not treated any differently by my teachers. I especially liked the late Elise Reimann. She was an elegant lady with severe bunions and a sparkle in her eyes. She had a dry humor and sharp comic timing and would make quick use of it if you were slow to learn. Her opinion seemed to be the one that mattered most, so I didn’t worry too much about the other girls. She acknowledged me and I knew I was one of the best in my class. Plus, I was naturally quiet, shy and a bit intense. I was used to being…odd…in any group. Even amongst my friends at home, the Sunshine Girls, I was the moody one: Sunset.
Anyway, one day in the fall, auditions were held for the children’s roles in the Nutcracker. All of the kids were very excited. The buzz was that the choice role for someone of my age, level, and height (because you had to fit into the costumes) was to be in the party scene. I learned, with dismay, that the girls had to wear their hair down in the party scene. I desperately wanted to be in the party scene, but I had the kind of hair that went out, not down. And this was before fancy hair products. We didn’t even have conditioner. Oh, the horror!
I begged my mother to straighten my hair. After days of relentless badgering, she acquiesced, performing the job with a hot-comb, a metal comb that is heated with flames from the stove. My hair was long, thick and rebellious, but at last softened under the intense heat. By the time she was done, my hair smelled like a mess of fried pork rinds. I bathed, careful not to get it wet as any amount of moisture would cause it to kink back up on me with a vengence.
The next morning, my mother arranged my hair in a loose bun for class, hoping the straightness would hold for the audition afterwards, but lo and behold, I sweated so hard in class that by the time we got to the audition, I had turned back into a pumpkin. My hair swelled back to its original poofiness. I felt woefully inadequate. I felt like a fake and I felt deeply ashamed of my blackness.
Nevertheless, I walked into that audition with my kinky head held high and danced my best. After all the buildup about the audition from the previous weeks, I was shocked by how fast it was over. I think my group did one combination of jumping echappes. I remember that in the audition, unlike how we’d done them in class, we didn’t change feet on the echappes, and I thought myself very clever for recognizing and quickly adapting to this new version, even under such intense pressure. La di dah.
I sat very straight as I waited for the other groups to go. Finally, the man running the audition selected the boy and girl who would play the lead children’s roles: Marie and Fritz. After that he chose the party scene. Then he chose each role in diminishing importance. Still, I sat with my back held and my chin set. Finally, before dismissing us, as an aside, an after thought it seemed, he waved his hand over my group and said we were the soldiers. He did not grace us with his attention as he had the others. His attitude told me that, like a soldier, I was expendable.
My head hung low as I walked back to the dressing room. My mother intercepted me and I told her what happened. She said that I should be happy that I was chosen at all. I was not, though it was true that not everyone in my class got to participate. I felt deflated. I was placed in the last row of soldiers. I was the last of the last.
Entering the dressing room ahead of me was the perky, strawberry blonde who was chosen to play Marie. I hadn’t paid attention to her at the audition, too caught up, as I was, in my own predicament. But up close, she did not seem to possess special powers. Did not radiate sunshine. No halos or divine benedictions. I expected to feel jealous, but was not. She was just a little girl, like me, and a bit pudgy at that.
And suddenly I got it, like a million balloons bursting, blam! blam! blam! Fireworks in my joints, nearly causing my knees to buckle with the force of the realization. I understood why my mother was tense every time we came here. I saw the thing that she was trying to protect me from. And what I saw with piercing clarity was that the person casting the Nutcracker would never see me as Marie or as a party-scene girl. He could not see past my blackness, could not see me as just a little girl, no special powers, no benedictions, no halos, that wanted to dance on stage in a pretty dress like every other little white girl. He could not see me as he saw her. He could not see me.
And believe it or not, I didn’t hate him for that. He didn’t know what he was doing. He was just a product of his time and even as a child, though I could not have articulated this, I understood. If I had not been chosen to play Marie because he thought I was a bad dancer, well, that would have pissed me the fuck off because I knew I wasn’t no back-line troll. But because I wasn’t Strawberry Shortcake? How could I be hurt by that?
Though I did not get what I wanted that day, I got something infinitely greater. I got to see through someone else’s eyes. I got to see the enemy’s weapon: unconsciousness. And the enemy was not white, not black. The enemy was the insidiousness of racism that holds all of our minds hostage in sneaky, if not overt ways.
And what did I do with that knowledge?
I wish I could say that I rocked an afro and waved my fist in the air, but I did not.
I endured. I endured feeling different, talked about, ignored, unwelcomed. I endured my confusion and shame about my identity. I later endured the indifference of certain less-than enlightened teachers, always wondering if I was in the back line because I couldn’t dance or because I was black.
But there was something else I did with the knowledge I gained that day. I did the thing I knew. The thing I was trained to do. The thing that I had to do to breathe. Wanted with all my heart and soul.