I remember it was a warm day and I was sitting in the dog park near my apartment on Camp Street. My dog Molly was running about and I was just sitting there on the fountain, thinking and watching Molly play with some other dogs. There weren’t many people in the park and it was kind of quiet, and I was just sitting there alone with my thoughts when a young girl came and sat near me.
We didn’t speak for a while. I was lost in my own thoughts as I usually am and she was squirming and kept getting up and down and I remember being mildly irritated as she was disturbing my near meditative state with her fidgeting.
I really hate it when people can’t just sit down and be still. You know, just sit there, be quiet and be still. It makes me feel so much better when I do it that I figure it has to work for other people too but unfortunately, there are those who just can’t sit still.
Anyway, I had my notebook with me as I often do and I was taking notes here and there about the weather, how I felt and what I saw. The girl was young and kind of cute in a frivolous way. She had curly hair, though I didn’t write down what color it was. And she had this kind of irritating nasally loud voice. She had come to the park with a couple who had a dog, but they were far more interested in each other than they were in her and it was obviously pissing her off.
Every once in a while, she would yell something to them or get up and go say something to them and it was plain to see they were trying to ignore her.
But there she was, not too far from me, fidgeting and popping up and down and being loud. I didn’t want to go home yet and there weren’t too many other places to sit so I hoped she would either leave quickly or be quiet. I recall she was looking at me, and that I was wondering what her problem was when she finally said, “Your skin is very pretty.”
I am sure I said thank you. She asked me what I used on it and I told her that I didn’t really use anything, I just kept it clean and wore simple makeup. I was wearing MAC at the time and I told her about the regiment I had been on for a while.
She gave me a strange look and said she had wanted to try MAC, but she couldn’t afford it. I didn’t know what to say to that and, so, I didn’t respond. She asked me what I did for a living and I told her I was the public information officer for the housing authority. She didn’t know what that meant and I told her I did public relations. She asked if I had gone to college for that job and I remember being irritated but answered her calmly.
“I went to college but not for that job.”
“Did you graduate?”
“Yes, I did. I have a degree from the University of Miami and I got my Masters from Southern Illinois University Carbondale,” I replied.
“Humph. Well, I didn’t finish college so I suppose I can’t get a job like you did.”
“You can always go back,” I said.
“I haven’t met too many colored people like you,” she said, peevishly.
I turned to look at her. “What does that mean? And I prefer if you address me as black, if you feel you need to address me by my skin color,” I told her.
“I don’t know too many who went to college or ones that speak like you do or have a high paying job like you do.”
I thought about the bills I pay and chuckled at her assumption I had a high paying job. I also thought if I didn’t answer, she would leave.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to call you people,” she went on.
My hackles began to rise. “You people….” always does it.
“Are you colored or black or Afro whatevers? At least I didn’t call you a nigger like my father always says. I don’t know what I should say.”
“Why does that matter? We all have names. Use them.”
“I suppose now you are all pissed off with me,” she said, “cause I didn’t call you what you wanted me to. This race thing is all so vexifyin’. Ya’ll make it all so hard nowadays. I never know what to say. I was just trying to talk to you.”
And then she got up and left.
I breathed a sigh of relief and tried to go back to my thoughts but she had clearly put a stop to that. I was just a bit angry and wished that she’d been brave enough to continue the conversation but I knew that she had seen that I was mad and she left to escape the cursing out she was probably going to get.
I like to think I’m peaceful and want to teach folks but the truth is, sometimes my temper gets the best of me when I’m around stupid people and I end up just cussing them out. And I was headed for that with her.
I would have liked to explain to her that we were offended and tired of people who saw our skin color and came to all kinds of conclusions about us. Why couldn’t she have sat there and started a decent conversation with me? It was obvious she had some notions that were wrong and hurtful. I would have liked to have straightened that out.
She was angry and resentful and she had brought that out in me as well. I felt bad about that.
I wanted to tell her that college was important no matter who you were or what you did. She needed to know that there are a lot of very intelligent black people who did indeed go to college, who do speak quite well, and who have better jobs than what you usually see in Louisiana.
I remember getting on the streetcar in the morning and seeing the armies of young girls in uniforms going to their jobs as maids in the hotels downtown and in the French Quarter. I thought about all the young black men I saw sweeping streets, bussing tables, shucking oysters and doing otherwise menial jobs.
But I also thought about the past few mayors of New Orleans who were also black men. The lawyers and reporters and instructors that I knew that were black people. The world was changing albeit not as fast as I would have liked.
And yet we still had people who thought like that young girl. There was so much she didn’t know and so much she could have learned if we had talked a little more.
Talking about race really is “vexifyin.”
Brenda Joyce Thompson is a Chicago-based writer and educator who lives a full life penning fiction and promoting the written and musical work of various artists. A walking library of rock music, Brenda is a peace-loving not-so-reformed hippie who misbehaves every chance she gets.