Big Wheel. One of our planets greatest inventions, and an ingenious way to make the tricycle relevant again. I was obsessed with them, and especially with the way you could hit the brake and do a sweet sliding stop.
It was Yearly Meeting and I was six or seven years old. Yearly Meeting was when all the pastors from all the churches in the region gathered for meetings and ice-cream socials. My dad was the General Superintendent. It was kind of a big deal.
All the kids were playing together in the gymnasium, some on those square plastic things with four wheels on the bottom. There’s probably a name for them, but it wasn’t a name as cool as Big Wheel. I went straight for a Big Wheel.
I was racing a pastor’s kid up and down the gym floor and winning every time. He began to get angry that a girl kept beating him. I just laughed and kept pedaling, reveling in my victory. After a while, he got so angry that he pulled up next to me, stood up and off his Big Wheel, looked down at me and said,
“You’re a nigger!”
I looked up at him, confused. I’d never heard the word before, but I knew it wasn’t pleasant. I felt a weird, prickly sensation all over my body. He stormed off and I went back to playing, riding the outline of the gym alone. I avoided looking at the boy, who was now sulking and complaining to his friends.
That night, when my dad tucked me in, I asked him what a nigger was. My parents are both white; I am adopted.
My dad replied that it was a horrible, hurtful word that no one should ever say to me or about me. He asked me where I’d heard it, I told him, and he handled the incident from there. I will never forget how upset my father was. I’ve only seen my dad really, truly angry twice in my life. This was the first time.
Now I am a nigger.
I was ten, and playing outside with a boy I’d just met on the playground. I lived right across the street from my elementary school, so in the summers and after school I had my own private, professionally built playground.
I had never seen this boy before. Maybe he was visiting family; I don’t remember. We began to race, and I beat him a few times. He didn’t seem to mind losing to a girl. He didn’t seem to mind that his blond hair, blowing so naturally in the wind, was the opposite of my unmovable afro.
Out of breath and laughing, I suggested we go to my house and get popsicles to rehydrate. We raced our bikes on the sidewalk, across the barren street, and directly into my gravel driveway. We both hopped off our bikes and let them drop to the ground, running the front door. I opened it and he followed me inside.
“Mom! Mom! Can we have popsicles?” I called out, punching the kid in the shoulder. He punched me back. We giggled. My mom came out and smiled at me and my new friend.
“I’ll be right back, I have to go to the bathroom.” I said.
While I was in the bathroom, my mom gave him popsicle and said, “Seems like you and my daughter are getting along well.”
“What? You mean he’s a girl?”
And he fled. Not because I was black, but because the entire time we had been playing he’d thought I was a boy.
I was mistaken for a boy until I graduated from high school.
Now I am a nigger boy.
Later that year, my fourth-grade class filed onto the dark, shiny lacquered floor of the school’s stage. The audience murmured as we lined up on the bleachers. I nervously played with a puff of my afro as I stood awkwardly in the front row. I placed my magic-markered paper American flag directly behind my feet, like the rest of my classmates. Only then did I allow my eyes to drift out among the sea of faces—the lights were so bright I squinted, and all I could see were outlines of people and the occasional blinking red dot from a video recorder.
I had gone to the bathroom at least five times before we went on stage. I was certain that I had gotten it all out, but now my nerves were making me think otherwise.
During the first song, I felt the urge to pee. I crossed my legs as casually as a person standing on stage in the front row of an auditorium filled with people could.
Two more songs to go.
The second song began. I continued crossing and uncrossing my legs, and discretely pulling up my underwear and then inconspicuously pulling it back down. I prayed this would alleviate the need to use the bathroom.
Finally, the last song. As we droned on, and I continued tugging at my underwear and crossing my legs, a classmate hit his finger cymbals with pride.
I had a flashback of my teacher asking me if I would take a speaking part in the performance. I had never spoken in front of a crowd. I raised my hand in class often, but this was different. Now, it felt as if I had blinked and there I was, on stage. It was too soon, and I wasn’t ready.
I squirmed, trying with every ounce of my being to keep it together. All we had left was my speaking part and then I’d be set free.
The warm liquid made a river trail down my legs, a puddle forming around my shoes. A dark wet spot ran across my jeans. The kids around me began giggling furiously. The boy next to me took a step away.
And just like that, the song ended and it was time for me to walk up to the microphone and recite the paragraph I’d memorized with ease.
I took a deep, shaky breath, hesitating only a moment. I could run off the stage, but the damage was already done. There was no going back. I walked up to the microphone, my sneakers leaving defined pee prints on the black floor, shining in the spotlight.
My voice was clear and confident, just like I’d practiced. I finished, turned, and headed back to the gauntlet. My classmates were all pointing at me, whispering and laughing. I returned to my spot and stood next to my puddle, holding in my tears.
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage.
In the fifth grade, my classmates began to date. Everyone seemed to have paired off with their lifelong partner. Of course, an average relationship lasted about a week and a half, but for us, a week and a half was a lifetime. I remained single, and expressed my concern to a red-headed friend named Jen. Jen decided to help me out.
“I’ll find you a boyfriend,” she declared.
I watched from my swing as she went to every boy in our grade who was out on the playground. I saw their looks of horror. I heard their laughter. I held my breath as she asked the last boy; their conversation went on longer than the others had. I gave him a timid smile when he looked in my direction. My heart fluttered as he turned back to her and then adamantly shook his head and walked away, laughing with his friends.
Jen returned with the bad news.
“They all said no.” She smiled sadly.
I walked over to the jungle gym, avoiding as many classmates as I could. One of the popular girls sauntered over to me.
“I heard you were looking for a boyfriend.”
“I can teach you how to be a girl if you want.” Her posse snickered behind her.
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage who is unattractive.
As I got older, I was told the same thing over and over.
“Boys are smarter in junior high.”
“Boys are smarter in high school. You’ll meet a boy in high school.”
I chose to go to a small, private Christian high school because during my last year in public school, a skinhead had offered me my choice of pill from a handful he’d pulled out of his pocket. All the black kids sat at one table. I wanted something different. The move to a smaller school was the right choice. I got to be a big fish in a little pond. There were just thirty students in my graduating class.
I started talking to a boy. He was white—all the boys at my high school were white. Eventually, I told him I liked him. He smiled and said he liked me, too. I was in shock. But then he paused, and said, “But I could never date you. My parents would freak out. You’re black so we’re unequally yolked.”
This is a phrase from the Bible, taken out of context. I learned this later, from my father, when I asked him what it meant. That was the second time I saw my father angry.
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage who is unattractive and unequal to the race she is surrounded by.
During high school, my dad and I would occasionally go out to eat together, just the two of us. It was a treat to escape the burden of being one of six siblings. Every time we would go out together, the waitress would always say, before bringing the check, “Are you two together? Or will you be paying separately?”
Yes, I’m a fifteen-year-old living independently and this is my fifty-five-year-old boyfriend…
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage who is unattractive and unequal to the race she is surrounded by, living independently at fifteen years of age.
While riding in a car with two high school friends, we stopped at a red light. There was a black man walking along the side of the street. He looked like an average guy; he had on nice clothes and wore headphones. My friend Josh noticed him and promptly locked the doors of his father’s Mercedes.
“What the hell?” I said.
“You do realize you have a black person sitting in your car, right?”
“You’re different. You’re like the whitest black girl I know.”
“Except, I’m black.”
“Sort of. I guess.”
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage who is unattractive and unequal to the race she is surrounded by, living independently at fifteen years of age, who is the whitest black person you know.
When I moved to Buffalo in my late twenties, I was looking forward to a bigger-city mentality. I was invited to a coworker’s birthday party at a bar downtown. I was inspired to say yes. When invited somewhere, I always forced myself to go in the hopes of meeting as many new people as possible.
I was flying solo, “a single gal on the go,” as my roommate put it. I walked in to the bar confidently, wearing my Converse hi tops, skinny jeans (on my not-so-skinny body), and a Star Wars t-shirt under a cardigan. After meeting some of my coworker’s friends, I hit it off with a married couple. As I sipped my Angry Orchard cider, I felt a gruff slap on my back.
“Women, eh?,” the husband stated matter of factly.
“You’re gay, right?” He shouted this loudly, just as the music ended.
“Oh, well I just assumed—”
“You certainly did.”
His assumption, I learned upon further investigation, was based on the following facts: I had glasses, short hair, wore a t-shirt and jeans, and had gauged piercings in my ears.
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage who is unattractive and unequal to the race she is surrounded by, living independently at fifteen years of age, who is the whitest black person you know and is a lesbian.
When I arrived in my office’s breakroom a hush fell over my coworkers sitting around the table. I glanced at them, smiled nervously, and proceeded to get my R2D2 lunch bag from the fridge. When I sat at the table, a coworker asked, “Hey, Christy. We were just talking about which is more appropriate. Do you prefer being called black or African American?”
“I prefer being called Christy.”
“Woah, that’s deep.” he replied, sitting back in his chair.
Now I am a nigger boy who peed her pants on stage who is unattractive and unequal to the race she is surrounded by, living independently at fifteen years of age, who is the whitest black person you know and is a lesbian that is black and/or African American.
But you can just call me Christy.
Rumpus original art by Adreinne Travis.