On a day in ninth grade, I came across a short biography that made being picked up late a precarious affair — one where the greatest theft of my young life would take place.
My brother and sister were still young enough (my brother six years younger and my sister 10 years younger) to qualify for after-school care where they’d bother and get bothered by other young kids their age.
I would take pride in doing a little bit of everything; just enough to make sure no one would say I was doing nothing. Black boys weren’t allowed to have time to do nothing then. And with the deaths of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and so many other unarmed Black boys who were also doing nothing, not too much has changed.
Some days I thought about kicking it with the secretary, but she called me “stupid,” drawing the ire of my overworked, Jamaican American mother whose patois was reserved for special moments of wrath. I thought about hanging out with the son of my little brother’s teacher, but he watched one too many times that scene in Rush Hour when Jackie Chan learns the dangers of saying “nigga” around black people — because her son couldn’t stop repeating the comical lines of Jackie Chan asking the bartender, “What’s up my nigga.” And almost seamlessly, “nigga” became nigger, with a noted emphasis on the “er.”
So I roamed, because that was close enough to everything without being too much of anything.
The school was small enough to roam, but not gently and daintily. Instead, I felt like Kong, not just because I’ve always been large, but because the hue of my skin and my size were enough to warrant “Kong” as my nickname around the school. Except the kids weren’t the only ones to call me Kong. So did some of my teachers.
Usually, I’d end up in our small library. It felt decent-sized enough to fit the 131 students who attended the school, which serviced students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The books contained therein weren’t all that interesting. Most of them aligned with the school’s mission, “Reclaiming our culture for Christ.”
And to be clear, I had read almost all of them because parents, at least mine, never pick up their kids on time.
By this point, I was convinced that Jesus, Middle Eastern as he was, was actually a white man with angelically blonde hair, a perfectly shaped goatee, and pale skin. His hair wasn’t nappy, curly, or kinky. His nose was acutely Anglo, not wide or long. He looked like my classmates, my teachers, the secretary who called me stupid, the kids who called me Kong, and the teacher’s son who couldn’t stop saying “what’s up my nigga” which eventually just became nigg-er. The skin color of my family was unholy, my hair ungodly, and my nose devilishly misshapen.
I read all of the books in the collection of that small library that sat right above the linoleum-tiled cafeteria and just barely out of sight. I could quote most of the Westminster Catechism — to be sure not Catholic, but distinctly reformed and Presbyterian, as was the tone of religiosity at my school. I quoted Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin while holding the competing notions of the faith by these stalwarts of the Protestant Reformation in my brain at once. I had read books by people who looked down on the loud and boisterous ways of my Black churches worship and in turn, judged the loudness at my church.
On the matter of church, let me explain what “loudness at my church” means. My church was every bit as religiously conservative as my school. Sexuality knew no fluidity there. In fact, being gay wasn’t only a lifestyle that someone chose, it was a lifestyle that, as Paul the Apostle said in the Bible, represented the epitome of “reprobation.” Or in other words, being gay is so bad that you need to convince yourself that it is okay. People who enjoyed a spot of liquor were chastised. Church members who went to nightclubs danced not only with their potential lover for the night. They would also be “dancing with the devil.”
But to be sure, my church was every bit as Black as it was conservative, if not more. And with its Blackness came the sort of rhythmically attuned and boisterous responses to music. The bombastic and scalding hot sermonic notes lifted heavy hearts, causing congregants to shout “Hallelujah” at the tops of their lungs. Men and women alike would, as I understood it at the time, became “filled with the Holy Ghost” as preachers would lead the church in a familiar chorus: “When I think about Jesus and all he’s done for me — when I think about Jesus and how set me free, I can dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, dance all night!” And dance they did.
But at my school, at our weekly chapel services, the chaplain instructed us in becoming “somber saints” — the quiet one who reflected, not expressed their joy of the Lord. I learned how the white, saved, and redeemed folks showed God they loved him. The chaplain loathed music above too high a decibel. In my church, we’d shout, we’d dance, and if we were feeling the “move of God” or the “filling of the Holy Ghost,” someone was bound to pass out. But in my school, you were taught to do what the white folks do when the sermon or the music touched them: slight lean back, slightly lean forward, and then say, “Hmmm.” Anything else just wasn’t Godly and a far departure from anything intellectual.
Black people and their worship, Black people and their music, Black people and their sermons had become just slightly less than appropriate.
Odd as it may be, I knew who William “Bill” Bennett, conservative talk show radio host, was. I had noticed him, along with a host of other characters, on rides to school when my dad would try to listen to talk radio back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Bill Bennett demonstrated the sort of dry wit I aspired to have. I’d pick up on the common turns of phrases about how the liberals didn’t love their country as much; how the gays were bent on turning society upside down.
He and many others shaped my views on prayer in schools, abortion, and gay rights. Between talk radio shows and my school teachers and administrators, I heard of a book called Compassionate Conservatism and I found that book in our school’s library and read it. I asked myself, “Who wouldn’t want to both be conservative and compassionate?” Though of course I didn’t realize that their compassion ran short for those of whose skin was a touch too dark.
These long car rides in the morning refined my palate for what I then deemed as “smart conservative political commentary.” I had opinions on Sean Hannity — chiefly that he wasn’t an intellectual like Charles Krauthammer, conservative, Oxford-educated columnist. And of course, no one could ever top the rhetorical skill and conservative fervor of William F. Buckley Jr. And in my opinion at the time, Black conservatives like Michael Steele and J. C. Watts spent far too much time considering how to appeal to Black Democrats.
These books, whiteness at every turn, and this private school education, and the other key features of the buckle of the Bible Belt (that is Tulsa, Oklahoma) had fastened their collective grip around my mind. But there was a chink in the seemingly steel-reinforced Bible Belt. And through it, slipped the purest form of happenstance: a book, a small one, with tattered covers, and loosened binding. It wasn’t cared for like the other books. Conservative author Marvin Olasky’s book Compassionate Conservatism, blessed with a glowing foreword by President George W. Bush, was in pristine and distinctly featured condition, along with The City of God by Augustine and Bill Bennett’s The Book of Virtues.
But unlike every other book, this book’s tattered cover had a face far darker than the others. Though tattered so much that I could barely make out the cover, I pieced together the title, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Immediately I sat down in my school-sanctioned khaki pants and awfully stained white Oxford shirt. As author Alex Haley transported me into the life and legacy of Malcolm X, I slipped off my tie and took off the blazer I hadn’t been able to fit for years and couldn’t afford to replace. The name wasn’t new, but the story was novel. It was about 4:30 p.m. on a school day when we got out by 3:10 p.m. But I didn’t quite care.
My history books were written at Bob Jones University Press, which disallowed blacks from attending its universities until 1971. So, the only discussions in which Malcolm’s name was mentioned pilloried him with attacks on his “radicalism” in contrast to the saintly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And none of Dr. King’s more controversial excoriations of white folk found their way to the pages of my history books or the lips of my teacher. The school’s chaplain, who found time to teach four or five classes per day, never found time to provide facts, but instead found time to call Malcolm an ungrateful, angry man and a terrorist — and I too, before thumbing through that book, thought Black folks should be grateful to America and its white people for coming to the realization that Black folks were entitled to the same rights they were.
But this so-called terrorist’s life story sounded more like the lives of people I knew — people who I called family. He spent time in prison, like most men on Mom’s side of the family. Federal law enforcement became enamored with Malcolm, like they had my family members.
I made my way through that book in one sitting, but I couldn’t get up. I sat for another 20 or so minutes, though time felt suspended and my head kept spinning. Who held this person back from me? Why was he evil to my chaplain? When did Jesus get so white? Who else had these white folks I had been tacitly instructed to emulate vilified?
“Caleb, your mom is here,” said the secretary who called me “stupid.” I picked myself up from the floor only to notice that four hours had passed since I sat down at 4:30 p.m. I knew I had to put on the blazer that didn’t fit. I knew that my mom wouldn’t appreciate the stains. So I cleaned myself up and stole the book.
As I exited the building and approached the car, I saw my mother. She was in her nurse scrubs and looked at me as only mothers can. The purest of onyx skin wrinkled slightly at the corners of her eyes and lips. She had just finished working the 12-hour shift she needed to work for us to help us make rent and pay bills along with my dad pulling hours and hours at his job. By the time I had reached within 50 yards of her, I could finally start to make out the small smile that could barely hold up under the weight of tired eyes and weary cheeks. Her five-feet-two-inch-tall frame had her arms wide open as if she could handle her 5’9” then–significantly obese son.
As I hugged her, I didn’t ask why she didn’t pick me up on time. Instead, I just asked her what was wrong and she, noticing red, swollen eyes, asked me the same. And as if one of us would yell “jinx!” we both just said, “I’m tired.”
By now, it was almost 9:00 in the evening and the street lights started to flicker. But all my mom and I could do in that moment was hug. I was at that age where my mom didn’t quite see me as a peer, but I was just old enough to hear about how life frustrated her. As tears and snot were wiped away, my mom told me about how her “boss kept insulting my intelligence” and how “her charge nurse told, dumb as she is, was still counting on her staff to get the job done.”
Mom asked me, “Why are you tired, baby?” I wanted to tell her that I’m tired of being different in a place that seems bent on being the same. I wanted to tattle on the secretary, the son of my brother’s teacher who wouldn’t stop calling me a nigger for fun. I wanted to complain about the textbooks that made me hate someone I started to admire for the first time through a book that shouldn’t have been there. But telling this short woman who worked those long hours to put me in that school, to feed me, to clothe me fast enough to keep up with my ever-ballooning girth that I hated school seemed a punishment too great to levy on her that day — or any day thereafter. So, instead I grimaced and told her, “It’s just been a long day, Mom.” It’s the same tune and lyrics we Black folks have grown accustomed to saying to one another and to the world around us. We bury the bubbling tide of rage that we know we’re entitled to feel, because we, unlike so many others, put life as we know it at risk whenever we express that rage.
I wrestled with that guilt of telling her how the world she brought me into made me feel. And the wrestle doesn’t seem to stop. Nearly 15 years later, this world seems skilled at making me and others like me seem like large threats while making us feel powerlessly small.
My parents will never pick me up on time to rescue me from this world. But what they and that school never expected was that in between the slurs, insults, and maligning, I’d find something worth stealing and making my own: an identity once subsumed in the whiteness and a history ignored was now mine again — found by chance, but stolen on purpose.
Caleb Gayle is a writer based in New York and author of forthcoming book, Cow Tom’s Cabin, which examines the true story of Cow Tom, a former Black chief of the Creek Nation, and a narrative account of how many Black Native Americans, including Cow Tom’s descendants, were divided and marginalized by white supremacy in America. Book is under contract with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.