Rumpus Original Fiction: Black Talk
It was a rare night: David and Keisha had gotten Ava, their always in motion two-and-a-half-year-old, asleep (in her own bed!) at a decent hour. What to do with the extra time? Their choices were sleep, sex, or TV. David opened a bottle of Malbec for Keisha, and Jameson—neat—for himself. Keisha scrolled through the DVR. They settled on How to Get Away with Murder. Maybe they could watch two episodes, which would mean they’d be done with Season 2, even though the show was now in its final season.
Keisha figured she had forty-five minutes, an hour tops, before one of them nodded off. She eyed David, his eyes fixed on the color-coded household budget spreadsheet he’d created, which he insisted on updating daily so they knew, at all times, how much money they had, or didn’t have.
Even with two six-figure salaries, they found themselves robbing Peter to pay Paul. They had put most of their money into the wedding of Keisha’s dreams—because she had to prove everyone wrong (his mama included) who said she’d never get David to settle down, not just into one woman but into one place. The next stack of money went into the in-vitro, which after too many pokes and two miscarriages, finally gave them Ava. And the rest of what they had went into this overpriced house on the quiet, safer side of DC, a side that felt more like the suburbs than the city.
Their bungalow, beautiful from the outside, was stuck in the 1980s on the inside. It needed more renovations than they could afford; the owner had paid $30,000 for it in the 1960s and sold it to them for almost a quarter of a million dollars. It was a bargain in DC; that much was obvious. But it didn’t feel like a great deal every time the mortgage was due on the first, or the roof leaked during an August thunderstorm, or the radiator growled like it needed to be fed live animals to survive.
The spreadsheet was precise, yet malleable like the Constitution. There were tabs with the known household bills, numbers that were fixed: mortgage, car notes, insurance, daycare. There were numbers that fluctuated with the seasons: utilities, groceries, entertainment. And still, they had a maximum amount David was willing to spend.
And then there was the miscellaneous category: anything and any amount, but something every month. An auntie needing some money for her ‘lectric bill! Could they wire it quick? David’s cousin, more like a brother, was locked up (again!). Did they have something for his bail? Could they help cousin Tanya get to dance camp—after all they were doing well, and Tanya was talented, the great hope of the family. They could afford it, right?
“We ain’t got it,” David said whenever Keisha suggested an upgrade to their collective lives.
“What are you willing to give up in exchange, then?” he would ask. And Keisha would do a thorough self-examination of the lifestyle she was accustomed to: regular hair, nail and spa appointments, the Benz in the garage, the Louboutins in the closet, the three carats on her left hand.
She wanted more, but couldn’t fathom releasing what she already had.
But tonight, she’d come prepared to battle. She’d worn Ava out at the playground earlier that evening, fed her a healthy dinner, then wrestled her from the bathtub to her own bed in record time. Keisha gulped down a glass of wine. Then, she poured another.
“Honey,” she said, in her chirped at-work and moving-through-the-world voice. The one she used when white people mistook her for the help or when she had to ask to speak to the manager. This high-pitched, sometimes shrill, artificially sweetened tone had crept into every part of her life and she didn’t know how to stop it. It had become too much a part of her, eclipsing her real voice to the point that she had mostly forgotten what that voice even sounded like—its timbre, depth, and how it conveyed sincere emotion.
But sometimes that voice tapped her on the shoulder in her quiet moments and made her remember the little girl who sang in full-voice, “Jig-a-looow, jig, jig-a-loooow…” on the back of the school bus. The call-and-response chant with clapping and feet stomping to the beat was part of their “ride home” repertoire. Each girl’s name would get called and they could show off their dance abilities. And then finally it would be her turn and the girls would say:
“Can you jig?”
And she’d stand up, a ball of attitude and shout:
“My hands up high, my feet down low, and this is how I jig-a-low” while doing a dance that was a combination of the snake and a body roll.
But that voice had been gone for a long time.
David didn’t look up.
“Honey.” She tried again. She put a little vinegar in her voice to get his attention. It wasn’t new to him, but it never failed to stop him in his tracks.
“Yeah, babe,” David said, his eyes never leaving the MacBook.
“How was your day?”
David took off his glasses, sighed, and turned from the computer. His eyes always seemed so much smaller when he wasn’t wearing his glasses and recently Keisha had noticed the light behind them dimming with each bill, each complaint, and each request.
“What you want?”
“What? A wife can’t ask her husband about his day?”
“Keisha, whatever it is, whatever you wanna buy—we ain’t got it. I’m looking at everything now, and between our last vacation and Ava’s school payments, this month is gonna be tough.”
“I don’t even want anything, but, you know, now that you bring up Ava’s schooling, I did want to mention something. I think Ava’s been sounding… ummm… I don’t know how best to say it…” Keisha scanned the room, trying to focus her thoughts. She settled on the marker stains Ava had made on the opposite wall, the ones they hadn’t found the time to paint over.
“How she’s sounding.”
David sat back, clasped his hands and raised his right eyebrow. It was his “tell me more” face with a sarcastic undertone. Keisha rolled her eyes, but continued anyway.
“From us.” Keisha gestured her hands wildly between them, hoping that was enough of an explanation.
“I think Ava is starting to sound Black. Capital B, Black.” Keisha pushed the words out fast, hoping David wouldn’t make her repeat them.
“There’s no such thing.”
“As what? An accent or sounding Black?”
“Sounding Black, Keisha. Come on.”
“David, You know good and well you can tell when someone is Black over the phone. You can hear it in their voice. “
“Not all the time. Sometimes you get surprised.”
“Sure it’s true! It’s true when they sound white!”
David reached for the Jameson bottle and poured about two fingers worth into his glass. “I’m not about to have this conversation, ‘cause you’re not making sense.”
“No, I’m making perfect sense.” Keisha said, her voice steady between sips of wine.
David, an attorney, but excitable, paused. He stared Keisha down like she was a witness on the stand and said, “So, then, tell me how you came to this conclusion.”
Now she focused on the bald spot starting to form at the top of his head.
“Because of the way she pronounces words.”
“David, she says liebury instead of library.”
“She’s two! She probably just can’t pronounce the ‘r’s. well. I’m sure it’s common.”
“David, I’m being serious.”
“So am I.”
“The other day she said ‘kang’ instead of ‘king’ and it just reminded me of something.”
“Of this older man from my church. He was from Georgia and his last name was King, but he’d pronounced it ‘Kang’ all his life. He said, he didn’t know how his name should have sounded until he moved North. Sometimes you don’t know how wrong you sound until it’s too late,” her voice trailed off until it got lost in her thoughts. She shook the memory out of her head and said instead:
“I just feel like she’s one step away from saying he-ron instead of heroin.”
Their joint laughter cut into the tension.
“Listen. I read that a child’s speech pattern is fixed by the time they turn three. What if we don’t fix it now and she sounds like this forever? You want your child walking around at twenty-five calling it a liebury? We can pay to get this fixed now or she will have to pay for it later.”
Keisha swatted away his comment and poured more wine into the glass. “Am I? You know what else I learned: when Robin Williams died, he had grown up really rich and was raised mostly by Black nannies. That’s probably why he was so great at doing Black voices.”
“He wasn’t that great.”
“He was pretty good.”
“Fine. He was decent. But what do you suggest we do about Ava? Because I know you have a solution.”
“Change her daycare. Let’s put her in a Montessori school.”
David pulled up a different spreadsheet on the MacBook, one that held their goals and a timeline.
“That’s not supposed to happen for at least another year,” David said as he showed her the data.
“Accelerate it. Let’s take some money from our savings or something.”
Their savings or something was already low, nowhere near the three months of salary (and really it should be six months) they were supposed to have, should something happen, and now Keisha wanted them to use what little they had?
“Keisha, we’re not doing that. Ava’s in a good daycare. She colors and learns numbers and ABCs. And whatever else toddlers do. The teachers are great.”
“Yeah, but those teacher’s aides are too ghetto. That’s probably where she’s getting it from. Plus, I don’t think they like me very much.”
To David, the women reminded him of his mama and aunties—in speech and deed. Not perfect by any means, but you could always feel the love in their “hey, how y’all doin?” or in the way they’d bring Ava into their bosom for a hug at the end of each day, how they gave away pieces of sweet potato pie to take home during the holidays.
“Well you just called them ‘ghetto’. So probably not.”
“I don’t say it to their face.”
“But you go up in there acting all bougie like you’re being right now.”
He knew she hated when he called her bougie. He’d called her that on their first date, all because she didn’t want to eat at Applebee’s. Or Outback. Or Olive Garden.
“I knew yo’ ass was bougie,” he’d said in between bites of the best tacos he’d ever had as they sat squeezed together at the bar of a taqueria she’d suggested they go to instead. She’d rolled her eyes and said, “And?”
That should have been his first clue. Or maybe a first red flag for them both. Either way, they soon learned that middle class meant different things depending on your world. At first glance they seemed to match: both their parents had attended college, were still married after decades together, had been professionals. They themselves had grown up in all-Black neighborhoods, had attended college and professional school—her an HBCU for undergrad then PWI for grad, him PWIs all the way through law school, had pledged AKA and Alpha Phi Alpha.
But Keisha’s parents had been some of the first Black students at University of Virginia while David’s had attended North Carolina A&T, a public HBCU. David’s father had been a teacher, his mother a state government employee, making enough money to get them a house that was not quite big enough for themselves and their three kids. Keisha’s mother was a judge, her father a professor. While Keisha had grown up an only child in a five-bedroom house in Prince George’s, the Blackest and wealthiest county in the nation, her parents were Washingtonians, going back at least four generations, who’d left the violence in the city for a suburban promise. Her mother loved telling white people at parties about how her family were free Blacks who lived in Georgetown, yes that Georgetown. And then she’d grin and watch them try to figure her out like a math problem.
What they had most in common was their shared values. They’d both been taught that “you have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” And that meant: Be early. Stay late. Code switch. Do everything you can to have a good life, so that your kids can have the best.
Keisha had been attracted to David’s drive, but she’d mistaken it for him wanting to outrun his country ways. It was in these moments she realized they had different definitions of “the best.” For her the best meant exclusive and expensive. But sometimes David made her wonder: was it wrong to like nice things?
“You knew when you met me that I wanted the best.”
“And the best means what?” David leaned in, making her feel like a trapped witness.
I just want Ava in a better school with better-sounding people.”
“You mean white people?”
Keisha rubbed her palms together and rocked back and forth before replying, “And maybe Black people who went to college.”
David gave her his back and she could not she could not see his facial expression, just his hand rubbing across his temples like he was negotiating with God about what to say next.
“Keisha, you know with our work schedules, this daycare was the best option—mainly because it’s close to your job. We don’t have to deal with late pickup fees and all that BS. Plus the price is great and the curriculum is good. So unless you want to work less and be with her so she can sound white…”
“Not white. Right.”
Keisha knew David would never understand and there was no way to make him understand unless she told him what had happened in grad school. But she’d never told anyone—not her mama, not her best friend, not her therapist. It was her first week of classes and they’d gone around the room and introduced themselves, where they were from, the usual. She’d said:
“Keisha Livingston from Bowie, Murland.”
And then she’d heard it. A snicker from the other side of the room. Suddenly she became very aware of how she sounded to these white people, not just her words but the rhythm behind them.
They continued to go around until they arrived at the woman behind the snicker, a slender white girl with blonde highlights and a Chanel tote bag.
“Molly Kelly from Potomac, Maryland,” she said with a smile.
Keisha heard the difference and sunk into her seat.
Having never spent considerable time around white folk, that day made her very aware of not just how they viewed her, but what they assumed about her because of her name, how she sounded, and where she was from.
It was in her professors’ “good job, Keisha!” with a slight surprise behind it, as they handed her back an A paper.
It was when she was corporate-world job hunting and would submit resumes as Keisha L. Livingston some places or as K. Lauren Livingston at others to see who called her back.
It was in the three seconds of shock on the interviewers’ faces when she walked in and they saw that K. stood for Keisha.
They never would have believed that she got her first pair of diamond earrings from her daddy at age six and that she was a debutante at age sixteen. That she’d driven a Benz to high school and studied abroad in London.
But they made it clear who she was wasn’t enough, so she shapeshifted. She started with how she pronounced words. Then it was taking the bass out of those words. And then with every promotion and accomplishment, Keisha compressed herself to fit into a world where she knew she was only tolerated. It seemed like a fair trade-off, though, because that world had given her access to five-star experiences on four different continents. And most days it felt worth it.
But then David would say things like her equating white and right and she wasn’t sure if he was completely wrong. Was white right or was it just the hard reality that whiteness ruled and decided everything so play the game or don’t, but white people were still going to stand at the gates with folded arms and furrowed brows.
Keisha just wanted Ava to be five steps ahead because then she’d only be ten steps behind. She had started with the name, Ava Camille. Perfectly unambiguous. They couldn’t waste that very good name.
Even if Keisha told David all of this, she knew he’d never understand. Not only could he charm everyone in general, but he’d been a star running back in high school and college which meant he was used to white people loving him just because. Unless the team lost. But then, there was always next week for him to make it up to them.
Now it was David who was snickering like he was trying to find the difference between sounding right and white.
“Well, since this is your hang-up, then do you want to cut back your hours or quit to make it work?”
“Oh I can quit my job now? We would be able to afford everything off your salary? Or would that mean you would have to work even more nights and weekends?”
The unsaid was in what remained unsaid. Afterward, there had been couples’ counseling, promises that David was a “changed man,” empty guarantees that she could keep him on the straight and narrow, that she was enough.
The wine and the memory of the affair had her boosted. She took another sip while the sharpness of her words cut into her husband’s ego.
“Keisha.” David’s voice lowered an octave which meant he was almost done with her shit.
But she had one final argument.
“I’m just saying: we didn’t name the baby Ava for people to figure out she’s Black because of how she sounds, and then not give her a fair shot.”
David poured more Jameson in the glass and swirled it. He took a sip and then exhaled his frustration.
“You acting real funny right now, Keisha, with this shit. Ms. FAMU, Ms. we gotta buy Black art and support Black businesses which is why we have like eight brands of shea butter, but whole time you don’t want our daughter to sound Black. You sound real elitist and crazy. And on top of that you insulting me, my family, and even your family cause you got country, Black-ass-sounding cousins, too.”
“Niggaaa.” Keisha’s voice went low; the sugar was gone. She said the word like her grandmother used to, whenever a Black person did something she deemed low-class. “Niggas and flies,” her grandmother would say with sucked teeth, followed by a scowl.
“Oh, so now I’m a nigga?” David’s voice tightened.
Before Keisha could respond, he repeated, “I’m a nigga ‘cause I’m telling truth? ‘Cause I’m calling you out?”
Keisha twisted her shoulder-length weave that had been cut into a bob shape with bangs around her index finger and stared at their family portrait, the one she’d commissioned, on the wall. She hardly even saw those cousins, so did they even count?
“Are you done?”
Keisha gave David a “Black girl” mouth pop and was close to a full neck roll, when they were both startled by the sounds from upstairs. They clearly had forgotten to turn the baby video monitor on, because they’d missed that Ava had made her way out of bed, out the door, and was at the top of the stairs, hands on her hips, staring them down.
“Daddy! Need you!”
“Daddy! You a bamma! Bring yo Black ass here!” It was the voice of a fifty-year-old big mama in the body of a toddler. Their toddler. And if you squinted you could almost see her in a housecoat and rollers with a Newport dangling from her lips.
“Ava! Language!” David remained in the chair, his face wrinkled with a mix of confusion and amusement, unwilling to look his wife in the eye and see her “I told you so” stare. He would hear it later.
“Well I guess you better take yo Black ass upstairs, then,” Keisha said with a laugh, snatching the MacBook and navigating to the Westview Montessori website while swallowing the last of her wine.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick