He Called Us N——s | Torri R. Oats

Memory is a strange thing. It revises, omits, reorganizes timelines, and wipes itself clean to protect us from experiences that are too painful to revisit. As I recalled a pivotal incident in my life, I was forced to confront the fallibility of my own memory and consult with my mother, hoping she could fill in the gaps. What emerged is a carefully assembled puzzle with missing pieces; a somewhat scattered true story about the day I realized what it meant to be a black girl in America.

It was a Saturday evening during the holiday season when my mom, two aunts and I met at the bowling alley for a girls’ day out. We were always the group who laughed loud and hard, enjoying our carefree time together. Our expectation of a fun, loose evening was quickly met with a harsh reality.

Our memory of that day had two different perspectives. Through the eyes of a child, everything was smaller, focused completely on the action in front of me. Like the lens of a camera, the incident was captured from a narrow frame with fear as the emotion. As an adult, she was able to take in the broader details that went unnoticed by me, like the people surrounding us, their reactions and the small details of how the entire situation would turn out.

I remember walking inside a large, nearly empty space. My mother remembers a bustling bowling alley, filled with mostly white people and another group of black people at another end. I remember a few balls dropping and rolling down the lanes with that familiar hollow sound. The echo of the roll and the crash of balls hitting pins that scattered upon impact, followed by an occasional whoop or disappointed “Aw”. She, on the other hand, remembers the activity of many and an erupting chorus of voices and yelps. What we can agree on is the infectious joy that permeated the space.

I remembered our assigned lanes being near a wall, away from the front desk. But my mother insists we were surrounded by groups of white people. She took a seat at an empty table behind our lanes to change her shoes and I sat in a chair across from her. Was I changing my shoes too? Was I merely an observer?

There are details lost to me forever, but the feelings associated with this day will never be forgotten. There was a negative shift in the atmosphere which began with an abandoned pack of cigarettes on the table we occupied. Was the pack red or white with green and gold writing? I don’t fully recall. But I can still see the stranger in the dingy white t-shirt, jeans, thin hair and pot belly who suddenly appeared, disrupting our time together. He said nothing at first, as he reached around my mother, snatching the pack of cigarettes from the table. Pleasantly she asked, “Oh, I’m sorry are you sitting here?”

Under his breath he muttered, “No, bitch,” as he walked a few feet away from us. He stayed in the area as he stalked back and forth. I felt something coming from him, something more than anger. Something closer to unpredictable fury.

My mother rose to her feet and stood toe to toe with the man. How did he get there so quickly? When I think back to that time, the scene unfolded like a movie with no sound, only expressions and body language. One of my aunts appeared with a bowling ball in her hand. She hoped the man would hit my mother so she could throw it at him. My other aunt, however, went to ask management for help, which they refused. Left with few options, she called my uncle who was on his way with his gun.

I was a helpless little girl, yet I felt the need to try to defend us with the only weapon at my disposal: my words. I’m not sure my thoughts made it from my brain, to my tongue, past my lips, or if it was stopped before everything could connect. My words could only morph into a gasp at the sound of the word, “Niggers.” In front of me was the stereotypical representation of a racist who I imagined drove around with a Confederate flag on his license plate and a rifle in the back of his truck he was itching to use.

Images and lessons my mother taught me flooded my mind. I learned early on that as a black girl, I would face harder, steeper obstacles. There would be artificial barriers erected to keep me from achieving my goals. My mother was fighting racist battles on my behalf so I could remain a kid for just a little while longer. This incident, however, was something my mother could not protect me from. At nine, I was forced to learn what no child or adult should ever learn; to some people, no matter what, you will never be a human being.

The old, ignorant, dirty white man continued ranting and raving at my mom, which attracted the attention of a few white people who also went to management. Again, management did nothing. To them, we weren’t worthy of simple protection in their facility.

I watched these women stand up for us. As a creative child, I dipped in and out of reality, conjuring powerful images I’d seen over the years that became real. The pictures that filled my head were of hoses being turned on my people, police dogs on the attack, lunch counters where activists stood their ground in the face of racist tyrants, burning crosses on front lawns and white hoods.

Knowing how this story could possibly end snapped me back to reality. I made the decision that this would not become a tragic tale told by those who were there that day, mis-matching memories that never quite came together to paint a complete picture. Our ending would not end in tragedy. I wouldn’t let it.

*

I wasn’t the kid who enjoyed confrontation. I wasn’t even the kid who talked back or disrespected adults. I was, however, the kid who would retreat into her imagination at the slightest hint of unrest, pretending nothing was happening. But on this occasion as voices continued to rise and danger persisted, I didn’t have the luxury of retreating; I had to step outside of my comfort zone so I went to the front desk to speak with management. The same management who ignored my aunt’s plea earlier in the evening. The same management who didn’t want to get involved when other bowlers told them about the man.

There were two men standing behind the counter chatting with each other when I approached. I tried to find my voice but when the words tumbled out, I stuttered, “H-he-he.” Fear had stolen my ability to articulate clearly. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, finally finding the words I wanted to string together, “That man down there, he called us the n-word and we didn’t do anything. We need your help.” Still, they would not come. Was I accused and convicted of being the n-word in their eyes too? Was he speaking for them as well?

Thinking back now, it’s very telling that at nine years old I started by saying, “We didn’t do anything.” Even then I subconsciously knew I would have to proclaim our innocence before being taken seriously. There could never be any justification for using that word, but when a nine year old first proclaims her innocence before asking for help without even thinking about it, it speaks to the impact racism has without us even knowing.

My uncle finally arrived and upon seeing a tall, well-built black man, former military, walking in our direction, the nuisance miraculously settled down. Perhaps he withered under my uncle’s intimidating gait and hardened gaze, but more likely he saw someone whom he could not bully or intimidate. An easy target, he thought, was a group of black women, but a superior man was a challenge he was unwilling to meet.

While my uncle kept a watchful eye over us, we continued to bowl. His presence did more than diffuse the situation, it forced action. Management became visible and brave. They weren’t “doing nothing,” they insisted. They took it upon themselves to “call local mental institutions” to ask if any “patients had escaped”. Not the police for this man who was harassing us, mental institutions. The power of an alpha male forced them to act.

The man, though he left us alone, did not leave the alley. Instead, he continued to pace nearby and mumble under his breath. I suppose the tension became too much for management because the next thing I knew my uncle and bowling alley employees were escorting the man to the parking lot. When my uncle returned, there was a collective sigh of relief, and we were able to continue with our evening. The tension, however, never completely left.

I didn’t know it at the time, but what happened that day played an integral part in me becoming who I am today. Without that experience, would I have continued living in the cocoon of an alternate reality believing every man and woman was truly treated fairly and equally, regardless of skin color? Would the words “twice as good” or “twice as hard” have remained meaningless? Would this crazy fire I have in me, this drive to prove people wrong and destroy expectations foisted upon me because I am a black woman, have ever ignited in the first place?

That man made me feel less than human, reduced us to a word used over decades to “keep us in our place”. It was meant to show his domination over us, but what he didn’t realize is his words would have the exact opposite impact.

I watched three incredible woman stand in the face of racism without flinching. If they were afraid, they did not show it. I saw superheroes in action and they didn’t have white faces or wear a cape or any other protective gear, they just stood tall and with their words, confronted hatred. I saw courage in the face of danger, the epitome of black womanhood and everything I aspired to become.

That angry white man who sought to tear us down succeeded in showing me the ugly side of America that was abstract to me until that point, and my family showed me how to react in the face of it. This young black girl did not have her spirit broken that day. My spirit soared with pride and I was inspired to achieve, achieve and achieve some more because there is nothing I enjoy more than destroying expectations and proving people wrong.

————
Torri R. Oats, a Harlem based writer, has written, directed and produced two off-off Broadway plays.  She has contributed to Madame Noire, The Atlanta Post and HelloGiggles.  Currently, she is working on her first feature film, No Lies Told Then.  Follow Torri on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/TorriOats.

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