Kindergarten classroom was covered with pictures and decorations that were much brighter than those of my nursery school. Big windows let in the sunlight. I remember pictures of owls, bunnies, and butterflies everywhere. There was a rainbow painted across one of the walls along with a sun that had a smiling face. It was a private school named Beauvoir that was affiliated with the Washington National Cathedral. It stood on the grounds of the enormous gothic building on a hill in an affluent part of the city.
I did not realize how far I had come to attend this wondrous school. It was a short drive from my home to the school, but the journey carried me across deep divisions of history, class, and race. I was part of the first generation to gain access to schools and institutions that had once excluded blacks. In the early 1960s, many children like me crossed the color line into places unimaginably different from the worlds we knew. My parents had gone to great lengths to make my journey possible. It would be a long time before I was old enough to appreciate how much they had done for me. I was just happy to be there, and I had no idea how much separated me from the other children.
The cathedral was always a part of the background, a silent and mysterious presence. It filled the sky, and its immense shadow enveloped the school. My parents were never churchgoers, and I had no religious context for it, but I had a deep appreciation of the awe and beauty of the building. It was in its sixth decade of construction with another twenty-five years to go, but enough of the structure was complete to appreciate its majestic contours. The spires and flying buttresses soared up from the earth like fireworks, never stopping in their upward trajectory. Its interior seemed more vast than the exterior. The vaulted ceiling was as far away as the sky. Everywhere you looked, there were people and events frozen in stone carvings or stained-glass images. I didn’t know many of the biblical stories, but I knew that I was surrounded by profound symbols, myths, and meanings.
Our class often visited the stone carvers who created the gargoyles and other figures that adorned the cathedral. We watched in awe as huge stone blocks were hoisted by gigantic cranes and fitted into place in the slowly rising structure. The sounds of pneumatic drills and the smell of limestone dust were always in the air.
On the grounds, there was a beautiful garden where we often played. The garden had even greater magic that the cathedral. Spirits lived here in plain sight, their faces visible in the trees. The garden was a forest of mythology and fairy tale. It held meanings that were as old and as deep as those of the cathedral. For a small child who was not yet tall enough to see over the boxwood hedges, it extended without limit. I could never exhaust its paths and recesses. It was a labyrinth where there were wonders and adventures around every corner. We could be knights, cowboys, and pirates. The gazebo at the edge of the garden was a fortress we defended from attacking enemies.
I loved the school and its teachers. As an adult, when I read the report cards I got in my first few years of school, they describe a strangely outgoing and extroverted child. He was a fearless and confident leader, a trickster, and a troublemaker. He loved making people laugh. He had an only child’s sense of being at the center of the workings of the universe. In a few years, a brooding, introverted adolescence would separate me from this happy child, but I can still conjure up those joyful and unrestrained times and recognize them as mine.
The school was very exclusive, and the tuition was high. My parents, who were public school teachers, made great sacrifices to enable me to go to Beauvoir. Most of my classmates came from the most privileged and affluent in Washington. I had playdates and sleepovers at palatial homes that I would not have thought existed outside movies. One such house had the astounding feature of an elevator that traversed its four floors. The family that lived here had two sons, and I was a frequent visitor. We held relay races between stairs and elevator. Exhausted after a few laps, we slumped on a couch to watch cartoons until we regained the energy to run again. I remember private events at the Zoo, movie theaters, and museums. There was a wild birthday party on a boat that was large enough to accommodate a group of sugar-charged seven-year-olds and a few intoxicated parents.
In second grade, I had a friend named Tim, whose parents owned a horse farm in Maryland. There were stables, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. I had never seen a real horse before. It was so much larger than television horses. It was terrifying. I could not imagine anyone riding or even mounting it. Their house was huge. It appeared to be the size of the entire block where we lived. It had a two-story white colonnaded porch like an old Maryland plantation. The foyer had a marble floor that we could slide across in our socks like a skating rink. Tim and his younger sister were cared for by an English au pair who was like a modern Mary Poppins. When she spoke with her crisp English accent, I could close my eyes and imagine Julie Andrews.
These unreal experiences began to feel like normal weekend activities, but I knew that everyone did not live this way. I grew more conscious of the modest circumstances of my family. I noticed that my friends from school never came to my house for playdates. I had a separate set of friends in our neighborhood, and these worlds grew more distinct. I cannot say when I realized that I was the only black child in my class. It was an awareness that grew unconsciously, and it was something that I resisted. Everyone in my family had light skin and mixed features that came down to us from our slave and slave-owning ancestors. My very light skin has always made it difficult for others to classify me. In the black preschool I attended, I had the lightest complexion in the class. Other children sometimes thought I was white. I hated the attention this brought, and it made me feel like an outsider. In this white elementary school, I appeared to blend in. I felt like I belonged in this magical place, and I did not want anything to change this. I knew that I was not the same as the other children, but I pushed this awareness to a distant corner of my mind. For a time, my friends and I seemed innocent of this line that divided us.
During that time, my neighborhood entered a steep decline as middle-class black families moved away from the city to the suburbs. My parents grew increasingly worried about crime, and I was about seven when locking our front door became a compulsory ritual. Friendly neighbors moved away to be replaced by strangers who kept to themselves. Familiar faces gradually disappeared from the neighborhood. My parents were very cautious about the children I could play with, insisting on knowing their parents. There were a few children I was instructed not to play with. Venturing too far from home was strictly forbidden.
One Saturday afternoon, I walked to the store around the corner from our house with the two boys who lived across the street. They were siblings who were my best friends in the neighborhood. Robbie was a year older than me, and Frederick was a year younger. For a dime, we could get Coke in the returnable bottle, and most candy cost a penny. Visiting the store was usually the highlight of our weekends, and we went there whenever any of us had extra allowance money. As we strolled out and started to walk home, an older boy rode up to us on his bicycle. He was tall and much too big for the bike he was riding. He had heavy-lidded eyes that made him look sleepy. He surveyed the three of us, and then he focused in on me.
“Give me your money,” he said.
“Huh,” I said, not believing what I had heard.
“Give me your money right now!” he said, raising his voice with frightening seriousness.
The boy was much older and bigger than us. He looked like a teenager, towering over us by more than a foot. He stood very close to me, his face inches from mine. He grabbed my shirt, pulling me further toward him.
Some combination of fear and wisdom compelled me to hand over all the change in my pocket. He seemed satisfied, stuffing it into his pocket. He let go of me and looked like he was about to ride off.
Out of nowhere, he blandly asked, “Are you white or black?”
The question barely registered in my mind as I shook with fear and anger. The answer seemed to come by reflex.
“Black” was the word I think I heard myself say.
His face made no response. Without a word, he turned his bicycle around and started peddling away. The giant boy on the tiny bicycle might have seemed comical under different circumstances. His legs and feet splayed out to the sides, and the bike bobbed from side to side. It had a banana seat and chopper handlebars just like mine, and I guessed that he must have stolen it from some smaller child.
We sprinted home. I was in the lead with Robbie a near second and the stocky Frederick a couple of steps behind. I parted with the two brothers at the corner of our block as we raced toward our houses. When I got home, I could not stop sobbing as I blurted out the story. My parents eventually managed to calm me, but they could do little else. I expected the police to be called, the culprit apprehended, and justice to be done. None of these things happened. Instead, new rules were imposed on my friends and I. We could no longer go to the store without an adult; we were to be more suspicious of strangers; we were to notify a parent if anything unusual happened. Our world grew much smaller and more fearful. I was instilled with the belief that unnamed dangers lurked beyond the bounds of our shrinking community.
Why did the boy single me out? Why did he ask if I was white or black? I could tell that my parents did not want to answer these questions. They said they didn’t know. They speculated that the boy picked me because he had seen me getting change in the store. They tried to avoid the issue of race altogether. I now appreciate that they did not want to add racial anxieties to my overflowing surplus of fears. But in trying to deflect the issue, my parents only highlighted it in my mind. It festered below the surface. Race, skin color, and the diverging realities I experienced at home and at school seemed connected in some way that I could not understand. I knew that my friends had much darker complexions than I did, and I had no doubt that the boy had singled me out because of my light skin.
After this incident, the two communities I inhabited seemed to grow ever further apart. On my daily ride to school, I looked through the car window at the houses and the changing scenery as I went back and forth across the city. It was only a thirty-minute drive, but it seemed to begin and end in two different cities. I unconsciously registered the changes I saw, and I could pinpoint a specific block along the route where we seemed to cross a boundary and pass from one world to another. The houses, cars, and people were different. The line was unquestionably there, splitting my experience into two distinct parts. On one side was a place of limitless affluence, my school, and the cathedral. On the other was growing poverty and decay. The difference was so stark that I might have thought that God lived on the other side of town.
At first, I thought that the line divided rich from poor, but I could not fail to notice that it separated black people from white people. With each day, the contrast intensified. As my neighborhood continued its downward spiral, I felt a growing sense of shame about the place where I lived. I did not want my classmates to know where I came from. I did not want them to know how I had been robbed and how fearful I had become. I desperately wanted to be accepted and to belong. This meant that I had to submerge and conceal a part of myself. My identity became divided, just like the world around me. I was the same person, but I learned to move effortlessly between home and school. I kept each place tightly compartmentalized. Entering and leaving the white world was as easy as changing clothes.
It was not clothing that made this transition possible, it was skin color. The thing that made me stand out in my neighborhood also enabled me to fit in and almost vanish among my classmates. I was too young to understand this. I was mostly unaware of the racial conflict that was going on in the mid-1960s. That was a part of the grown-up world. It would be a long time before I understood racism, black pride, or passing. I was a small child trying to fit in, and nothing was more important than the invisibility that my skin color gave me. For a time, it seemed that no one could guess who I really was.
Toward the end of third grade, my classmate Robert and I became best friends. There was a time when we were inseparable. We liked the same TV shows, games, and movies. His parents were divorced, and I thought it must be sad not to have a father. I felt a little sorry for him, but I could see that his mother spoiled him. He had far more toys than I did. I visited his house a couple of times, and I remember it as modest compared to the homes of many of our classmates. This made me feel comfortable with him. I thought that he might visit my house sometime.
We had a falling out. I cannot recall why, but it must have begun with something very trivial. A disagreement became an argument, which turned into a grudge that grew over the next few days. It then escalated until we were trading insults that quickly grew more personal and more hateful. We were on the school playground, and it became a shouting match. We threw almost everything we had at each other, but Robert had one word left.
“Nigger,” Robert muttered, just loud enough for me to hear.
I don’t know how I knew this word, but its meaning was unmistakable to me. It was the worst word there was.
My fist landed on a pudgy arm with an unsatisfying thud. I swung again with much better results. Then came an explosion of punching and kicking. Cloth ripped, and buttons popped. There was blood on both of us. Somebody had a bloody nose or a split lip. Too blind with rage to seriously hurt ourselves, we just flailed at each other. Teachers appeared out of nowhere, and strong hands pulled us apart. The Principal came out of her office to manage the crowd that had formed.
I don’t know what came next. I can picture myself sitting in the Principal’s office, my body trembling, and my voice weak. I had to tell my side of the story, but I could barely repeat the word Robert had used.
“What?” The Principal said, either not hearing or not understanding.
I had to say the word again.
How did Robert know? Did everybody know? It was like a secret that had gotten out. I felt shame and humiliation. It was a secret that I had been keeping even from myself. I could have light skin, and people could treat me as white, but I was not white. Robert knew it.
My parents came to school early. They talked to the Principal and took me home. I don’t remember anything they said. I was angry and hurt far beyond the reach of words. Robert and I were supposed to stay away from each other and not fight. It was like we were both guilty. I could not understand why wasn’t he going to be punished?
There were only a few weeks left in the school year. Robert and I became fierce enemies in the awkward way of eight-year-olds. We avoided each other and never spoke. We formed separate circles of friends, dividing the class between us and tolerating no disloyalty. Beauvoir extended through third grade, and at the end of the year, Robert and I went to different schools, never to see each other again.
With one word, everything changed. I had been able to maintain a fluid identity that moved between black and white. It suddenly crystallized into hard edges and sharp lines. The word opened a gaping fracture at its center. Pieces of myself stood on either side, but no single person could span the gap between these two different worlds. I did not know where I belonged, but I realized that I had only been a visitor in that place where children lived in fabulous dream-houses and played in an enchanted garden beside a gothic cathedral. I have remained a visitor ever since.
As an adult, I have returned to the cathedral many times to sit in the garden. I have come in hot Washington summers and in deep winter snowfalls. Sometimes I come to reconnect with the feeling of belonging I had when I first played here as a fearless child. The garden is a much smaller place now. It has boundaries and limits I never noticed in childhood. It is hardly the labyrinth where I could lose myself in my imagination. I can see over the hedges and walk its length and breadth in a few grown-up paces. The magical spirits are gone. Their faces were just knots and hollows in the old trees. Perhaps we have all been expelled from some garden. Robert too. I often think of him and wonder who taught him that word. Could he really have known its meaning? Maybe he forgot the word, or perhaps he uses it still.
I think the main reason I return is to gather up lost parts of myself. I come to pick them up, hold them, and make them real. I keep trying to fit them together into a coherent unity, but I have learned that a whole, complete self is a kind of mirage that recedes as we chase it. We can only experience ourselves a few fragments at a time. We all suffer from the delusion that if we can relive our traumas just one last time, they will have a different outcome. I want Robert to receive some terrible punishment from the Principal. I want my parents to give me healing wisdom and tell me who I am. I want to be hugged and told that I belong. I want to be able to write about catharsis, or redemption, or share some great epiphany, but the most honest endings are unfinished ones.
A Venezuelan exchange student once told me that in her early days at a high school near where you lived, Herb, she was confronted by a small group of students: “Are you white or black?” She was confused. “I don’t know… I’m Ana!” “No. Here you have to choose. Which are you?” The group that was asking was black, so Ana said, “Black, I guess.” And that was it. She spent the whole year socializing with one part of the school, shunned by the other. Alas.