Essays

When I Became Black

Photo by Laura Lewis. CC-BY.

It was 1976 when I first had my head split open.

I was minding my own business. Kiddie-corner to my house on Main Street, some kids were having a rock fight, and they apparently decided I needed to be part of it. They couldn’t find any small rocks, though, for warning shots, so one picked up a broken corner from the cement foundation of the house they were using as a fortress and threw it at me.

My back was turned, but my head perfectly exposed. In went the triangular-shaped rock, like an arrowhead raining down from the sky into my skull.

At first I felt the shock. Then it was the pain. Then it was the trickle of blood running down my ear. I pulled the rock out of my head, which brought the trickle of blood to a small gusher, stuck my hand over the gash and scrambled home across the street. I went into my house, put down my coat and bag and sat down at the kitchen table.

It had hurt like hell at first, but then the pain had subsided. I became clinical. What could I do to stop the bleeding? Did I need to disinfect it? Did I need to go to the hospital to get shots, like I had for tetanus when I stepped on those three rusty nails in spring? I went to the bathroom and looked for the hydrogen peroxide. I washed my wound with about half the bottle, then felt my head and noticed the growing bump.

About ten minutes later Mom came home after riding the always-late #10 bus. She noticed the trail of blood and screamed at me, as I sat calmly on the couch holding my head. When I told her I got into a fight and explained the details, she looked at my head and noticed the gash. It was not trivial. The blood had started to congeal from the peroxide, but she could still see white bone beneath it.

So off I went to the hospital. Eight stitches later, they released me so I could be back home in time for The Outer Limits on KSTW.

The important thing was that I did not cry. That I was tough.

That’s when I became black.

***

For the entire school week after I got my eight stitches, kids both black and white were fascinated by my head. Not what was in it — I’d been told Black folks didn’t care about that stuff — but what was on it: a sizable welt and some interlaced red nylon thread.

“Does it hurt?”

“Man, how’d you handle that?”

“Wow, that’s a huge bump!”

Most of that week I felt like a geek at a freak show. But I also noticed something very odd to me. Black kids that never said hi to me even though we lived three or four houses away, started to talk to me. They asked me all kinds of things about how I got my injury and how I reacted. It was just kids being curious, I thought. At least I thought so, until finally someone said it.

Even though I was in second grade, half the day at Leschi I went to class with the fifth and sixth graders for science and reading. During reading period, an older classmate, tall and dark-skinned, came over to me and said:

“I heard you didn’t even cry when they stuck the needle in you. You all right with me, little man.”

It was all innocent enough. But after a couple days of fielding questions based on genuine curiosity, it struck me that this time wasn’t a question at all. It was a statement about my identity. Suddenly I was “tough” and “cool” and “all right.”

And therefore, I was finally good enough to be Black.

***

With that seemingly innocuous statement, I was thrust into a world where being Black is to perform Blackness for the benefit of White folks.

One of the superobjectives of that performance is always, always, always convey the appearance of implacable strength. Especially whenever White folks are within earshot, this is goal number one. If you can’t prove that you are “tougher” than White folks, your community has no use for you. Everything the community uses to hold itself together — folkways, situational morals, sport, art, music — reinforces this superobjective. We are strong, fierce, powerful, resistant…and, oh yeah, we’re great lovers, too, so lock up your White daughters.

But what happens when White folks believe this performance as reality? One bitter consequence is that they make policy based on the performance rather than the reality. In the medical field, for instance, doctors and researchers regularly minimize the reality that blacks do, in fact, feel pain. According to one study from the University of Virginia, over 40% of medical students sampled believed that blacks have thicker skin and fewer nerve endings and are thus less in need of medication for pain, even in the case of broken bones. Even black children with appendicitis receive far less treatment than white children because of this mythology.

Worse still is that many blacks will begin to believe the performance, too, and in turn will reduce other blacks to physical tools. John Milton Hoberman’s book Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race makes for a troubling read about how the racist theories of black physiology have become talking points for blacks themselves about why they are such superior athletes. One point in particular is that the supposed “racial aptitude” of blacks for athletics leads both whites and blacks to denigrate education in anything else. It’s extremely bothersome to hear someone like Olympic gold medalist Lee Evans — himself a Fulbright scholar — to give the bogus Middle Passage explanation for black athletic aptitude when surely he knows better. It’s a sign how deep that mythos of our Black Toughness runs.

What of all those tasks in life where it isn’t physical strength that’s required, but intellectual flexibility or emotional sensitivity? The insistence on Black Toughness disparages them by saying that they aren’t Black concerns, or simply elides them entirely by reframing the discussion in terms of strength — “emotional” strength or “mental” toughness.

***

This was the world to which the seven-year-old me had been introduced by that Leschi sixth-grader. And I had been fortunate to pass this particular exam of Blackness. But it wasn’t through endeavor, or through performance.

Undoubtedly many readers were impressed at the beginning of this piece with how seven-year-old me staunched his own wounds, cleaned himself up, and sat down for some television, all the while without crying. It might well have struck them as Black Toughness personified. But the truth is that my physical frailty simply gave me a different relationship to pain. I survived spinal meningitis when I was only two years old, a bizarre strain of yellow fever after that, tetanus, and other things. I’d scarred my forehead when I fell off the roof of a car where my sister had left me. I didn’t cry when needles were stuck in me not because I was brave or tough. I didn’t cry because it was all so routine for me. I’d already had needles stuck in me all my life. My so-called toughness was personal history. It wasn’t Blackness.

And yet, in the emergency room, my mom, too, in one of her few moments of weakness told me something that showed just how deep and broad the rhizomes of that culture run. As I sat there having my head sewn back together, wincing without tears, Mom held my hand. After it was all over, she walked out with me and smiled.

“I’m proud of you for not crying.”

That is one thing in my life of which I will never, ever be proud.


Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net