We often work to convince ourselves that the individual is the most important thing in our society; that is, until they get sick. And while the death of a single body is tragic, the true tragedy is that we don’t value the afflictions of the single body until multiple bodies become the casualty of our disgust and contempt. The cooties did do its number on adults, but the numbers were far worse amongst those who had not yet learned how to count.
If war gives us the language of attacking others, then disease gives us the language of defending ourselves. The U.S. military came into direct contact with cooties when they joined the British Allies to fight in the South Pacific during World War II. “Cooties” was a slang word developed by the British soldiers to describe kutu, the Austronesian word for “body lice.” Fighting closely in the same trenches not only led to the American soldier’s contraction of body lice, it also led to the contraction of the word’s maladies. While it can be said that World War II ended with the Allied Powers’ effective healing of bodies contaminated by the Axis of Evil, it can also be said that the healing of one body does not guarantee the immunity of others. These bodies, thought to be immune, returned to America after the war bringing what they were exposed to with them.
During the U.S. polio epidemic of the 1950s, parents’ fears about their inability to protect their children from foreign invasion provided the pretext for setting up lines of defense. In the previous war, bombs, guns, missiles and grenades were used to cure foreign bodies in foreign lands, but conventional weapons and strategy could not be used here. The bodies involved were no longer foreign, but familiar. Many parents became anxious that they could not control their child’s health once the child left the house to do God knows what with God knows who. Danger, supposedly clear and present for men going to war, became insidious and invisible in the case of children going to school. The fear of invisible dangers informed ideas about healthy bodies: What they were supposed to do and look like, and what they did not do and could not look like when unhealthy. Fear also informed ideas about how unhealthy bodies had to be quarantined to protect healthy ones. Long after the vaccine for polio was first developed and administered to American children in 1955, the fear of invisible dangers remained. There is no panacea for fear. And “cooties” became one of the weapons of choice for people living with the fear that other people’s bodies were a threat to their own.
I’m not sure how I caught the cooties but I do remember when. I was in my kindergarten classroom, playing by myself. Looking around for others to play with, I spotted a small group of kids playing with blocks. Their smiles were infectious, their laughter was contagious, and I wanted them to give me what they had, so I walked over.
“Hi, my name is Yahdon.”
And when I went to extend my hand for a shake, this one girl’s whole body recoiled in repugnance.
“Eww, don’t try to touch me, you have the cooties.”
Cooties? What the hell? I thought to myself. I tried to laugh it off and went over to another kid. And before I could extend my hand, the same girl interjected—
“Don’t touch him! He has the cooties!”
He looked at my hand for a second, “Touch me and I’ll punch you.” I was confused. I went back over to where I was and examined the hot wheels car and track I played with. I don’t see anything on here. I smelled the car, the track, and the area of the play-mat. It doesn’t smell bad. I looked back over at the group of kids. Maybe I should try sharing with them … that usually works. I went back over to the group and offered the hot wheels car. “Do you want to play with it?” One of other kids seemed eager to take the car. But before he could take it—
“Don’t touch that! It has cooties on it! If you touch it, you’ll have it too!”
The boy didn’t seem to care, and reached for it anyway. When the girl saw this, she smacked the car out of my hand and, before it could hit the floor, she roundhoused it. This little bitch just Chun-Li kicked my car. I started crying. Tears first ran because I was caught off guard by how impressive the kick was; they continued to flow, however, because I couldn’t understand what I did to deserve this.
When I got home, I rushed to the mirror to look at my face to see what had changed between now and this morning. With my thumb and index fingers, I drew back my eyelids to see if the cooties were there. They don’t look different. I opened my mouth and stuck my tongue out so that I would be able to see the back of my throat. What do doctors look for back here anyway? I don’t see anything. I then began examining every gap where teeth had been, or were returning: nothing. I looked at my hands and smelled them. Whether or not my hands smelled didn’t matter. I washed them over and over again.
I turned the water off, dried my hands, which, by this time, felt like I would qualify for Social Security, and went to the kitchen table. Fried chicken, mac and cheese, and cauliflower greeted me when I sat down but I couldn’t eat; I could only look at my hands.
“What are you doing now?”
“Looking at my hands, Ms. Palmer.”
“Why? You were in that bathroom washing your hands for almost an hour … unless you were doing something else.”
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about—at least not then. Ms. Palmer was my foster mother at this time. She was a sweet woman but always thought I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to—mainly because I was, but not this time. I was too busy staring at my hands. I didn’t want to ask Ms. Palmer what the cooties were because I didn’t want her to think I had them. If she found out I did, she would have probably roundhoused my fork like that girl roundhoused my car so I didn’t say anything. Instead I decided that whatever happened today would be over if I just went to sleep.
I woke up the next morning feeling great. My hands had sprung back to their youthful vigor. But I still wasn’t convinced. I went downstairs to find Ms. Palmer in the kitchen making breakfast. I asked her for a cup of orange juice, drank it, and gave her the cup to see if she’d take it. And she did! Welp, guess I don’t have the cooties anymore! Feeling confident, I got ready for school.
I came to class with a reinvigorated attitude. I had broken the spell of the cooties and everything was back to normal. But sitting down, I noticed that all of the kids were whispering to each other. While mouths moved toward ears, all eyes were on me. I already knew what it was: I still have these damned cooties. I had seen enough of what these kids were capable of and decided that it made no sense to act as if what I had didn’t exist. I decided that, if I had the cooties, the whole class was going to have them too.
Whenever I was bored, I would get up, walk around the classroom and sit back down. This time when I got up, I started touching everything: the books, the crayons, the doll house, the cubby-closet, the chalk, everything. I even went as far as licking one kid’s pencil. I took pleasure in watching these kids cringe as I touched their favorite things. I’d like to see who’ll have the cooties now.
Lunchtime came and instead of rushing to the play-mat like I usually would, I sat back and watched to see what these kids were going to do. I figured since they ruined my fun, I’d ruin theirs. I figured wrong. “Circle, circle, dot, dot, I got my cootie shot.” All of these kids began saying this while injecting their crossed index and middle fingers into their arms. Oh, come on! There was a cure for this the whole time?! I was initially disheartened that this ritual undid what I had done but then I thought well if that worked for them, maybe it’ll work for me.
“Circle, circle, dot, dot, I got my—”
“What are you doing?”
“Giving myself the cootie shot.”
“You can’t get rid of the cooties, only I can.”
“Because that’s the rule.”
“Well everyone else didn’t have to do that.”
“That’s because they didn’t have the cooties. You do.”
“How did I get them in the first place?”
“Because I gave them to you.”
“So give me the shot.”
Because she was a bitch, that’s why. But she was so pretty. She had long soft black hair, and really nice skin. She had the eyes of a Disney princess and although she was five, she had all of her permanent teeth—and they were straight without braces. We all wanted something from her: Boys in the class wanted her to be their “for real for real” girlfriend; girls wanted to her to be their “BFF”; I just wanted her to get rid of my cooties. What strikes me now, which never did then, was how I got something from someone I never touched, talked to and until then, never even knew existed. But just like my hands being clean had done nothing to prevent me from washing them for an hour, me not touching, talking, or knowing this girl did not stop me from trying to get her to get rid of my cooties. For a while, there was nothing I wouldn’t do for that girl. I did her homework, I let her use my 64 box of crayons, I gave her my snacks for lunch and yet, I still had the cooties.
During snack time, the girl came over and asked for my brownie. I told her no. When she threatened that she wouldn’t give me the cootie shot, I thought about it. I thought about how long I’d been living in denial, never accepting that regardless of what I did, she was never going to rid me of these cooties. But then I began thinking about how I got them in the first place. If she gave them to me, how was it that only I had them? I looked at her skin then looked at mine; looked back at her skin then looked back at mine. I noticed how light her skin was and how much darker mine was in comparison. I started looking at her hair: permed and pressed—silky straight. I touched mine: knotted and nappy, dreaded and locked. I stared into her eyes thinking about mine. Hers were a light brown or hazel, mine were black. I started to really think about why so many boys wanted her to be their “for real, for real” girlfriend, and why the girls all wanted her for a friend in particular. There were other girls in the class who were pretty; instead of fighting over who got to be this girl’s friend, they could have been each other’s. Then it hit me: She doesn’t have the cooties because she’s light-skinned. How that girl passed something onto me without having it herself was beyond me. But I’ve come to find out that “passing” has been in our blood for generations.
Whenever a black person is sure that another person is black, but isn’t sure what else, they always ask, “What are you mixed with?” They never ask if you’re mixed with black; the black is already acknowledged in the way the question is asked. If they were unsure altogether, they’d ask, “What are you?” Only uncertainties are questioned. But when you’re sure of something, there is no need to inquire. There was a time, however, when even the most certain of rules still allowed for the most uncertain of circumstances.
“Passing” was a term used by black Americans to describe black people who looked “white enough” to pass for white, and decided to. People who “passed” didn’t look like Barack Obama, Jasmin Guy, Blake Griffin, or even Mariah Carey; they looked exactly like the sheriffs who arrested you, the waitress who refused to serve you, the teacher who told you that you couldn’t be a lawyer, or the boss who wouldn’t pay you what you were worth. The people “passing” looked exactly like the people who didn’t have to. But imagine looking exactly like the sheriff, and yet only one of you has the power to arrest the other. Or having the same features as the waitress at a restaurant where you can’t eat.
Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class includes the story of a woman who’d been trying on hats at a high-end department store in Memphis. When her friend Erma spots her, Erma walks over to hug her. “No,” the woman whispers, “Erma, please don’t hug me. Don’t touch me.” When the woman sees the hurt in her friend’s face, she apologizes. “I’m sorry, Erma. I’ll grab your hands and shake them. It’s very nice to see you, but not here.” At first Erma couldn’t understand what was happening. Then, in looking at the price tag that hung from the hat of her friend, Erma realized why she couldn’t hug her. At the time of this incident, black people were not allowed to try on hats in the store. They had to either buy it or look at it without touching it. “I realized she was passing,” Erma concludes, “and if she’d hugged me, I would have blown her cover.”
In thinking about how contact between black and white bodies only exposed bodies discovered to be black rather than bodies incapable of becoming white, I wonder what this meant for the people fighting behind enemy lines. “Passing” must have entailed a perpetual fear and paranoia that any and every black body was a threat to your white-appearing one; but it must have also meant living in fear of white bodies too. After all, what is a white body if a black body was capable of passing as one?
This must explain why so many white people I know act weird about me touching them. It also explains why the light-skinned girl in my kindergarten class was more worried about me touching her than I was worried about her touching me. And it explains why, throughout the time that I had the cooties, it never occurred to me to touch her. While it could be said that, in my refusal to touch that light-skinned girl, I showed how mortified I was by her body’s power over mine, it could also be said that my body’s mortification had more to do with the fact that it wasn’t me who had the cooties in the first place. And if I still do have them, I’m not the only one.