Up Toward Nigger

by

11/15/2001

1360 fulton st, brooklyn, NY 11216

Neighborhood: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

You will be hard pressed to find any American flags flying from the homes in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They do not appear on the lapels of the residents, nor on their shirts, nor in the windows of their cars. It is a neighborhood so barren of red, white and blue that one can’t help but wonder why, in the midst of western civilization’s darkest hour, the exhortations of our leaders have failed to rally the residents of this neighborhood. To what do we owe such apathy?

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in second grade, my class was taught that “ain’t” was not a word. Since it did not exist, it was no longer to be used by any of us at any time for any reason. “Employers do not hire people who say ‘ain’t'” our teacher explained. And poor students promptly had a sobering vision of themselves grown and jobless. I was also poor, but by some stroke of good fortune, was lucky enough not to have been born into possession of the word “ain’t.” My Iranian father, who spoke — besides English — Turkish and Persian, did not have the word in his lexicon; nor did my Jewish mother — she had already lost her language.

In the eyes of my teacher I was “correct.” And being correct, I was not forced to begin the long and arduous task of having to unlearn something unpleasant about myself. The lesson of my second-grade teacher, therefore, was of no concern to me.

It was, however, of much concern to my black classmates, and they made their disapproval known. And since it was a mainly black school, in a mainly black neighborhood, the white teacher suddenly found she had unwittingly put herself up against tremendous odds. Her good intentions were seen as a hostile incursion. She cajoled, she argued, she reasoned, but ultimately she would have to resort to the only real weapon she possessed: the grade book.

The process of “unlearning,” which my black classmates undertook with — as we shall see — varying degrees of success, engaged them on a very personal level. Because what the white teacher was calling into question was not just their language, but also the language of their parents, their grandparents, their neighbors, their grocers and a multitude of others not present in the class. In other words, their entire culture was at risk. Which is a very private matter. Their existence, literally, depended on it. What the teacher, in effect, was offering was an invitation to my eight-year-old classmates out of that existence and into another — out of the black world and into the white one. It was theirs for the taking. “Imitate me and succeed. Or stay as you are and fail.”

As I said, it was a black school. It was a black school located in the middle of a black ghetto on the edge of Pittsburgh. The only whites in the neighborhood were bussed in from the surrounding areas. This is how integration worked. Since I had been born in the United States to a Jewish mother and an Iranian father, I qualified — in 1975 — as white, and so in the morning I arrived in the neighborhood, and in the afternoon I left. But for several hours of the day, us children, both black and white, played together, ate together and sat in class together. The lessons we were learning together, however, were sending us on collision courses toward one another. But I was exempted from the same level of scrutiny as my black classmates.

Two major events in 1979 changed this. The first was that I began middle school. Within the first two weeks of sixth grade we were all thoroughly tested, graded and promptly separated. The division worked like this: into the one “scholars” class went the white, mainly middle-class students; and into the “regular” class, of which there were four, went the black, predominately poor students. I found myself in the scholar’s class. The black classmates from my years of elementary school were no longer a part of my day-to-day experience.

Our paths intersected at six specific times during the day: before and after school, at lunch, in the hallways, at occupational-vocational training, in gym, and nowhere else. They made up for this absence by making their presence unduly pronounced. They threw stones at the windows, they swaggered in the hallways, they yelled back at the teachers, they spilled milk in the lunchroom, and ran fast and hard at gym. And then they disappeared behind the doors of their classrooms and we disappeared behind ours.

What was the effect of this separation on the white children? One month into the school year a white classmate of mine openly described his revulsion at having to swim in the pool with water that had been made filthy by “the grease from ‘their’ hair.” I had never heard of this before. Another classmate told a joke that ended in “black babies being killed.” People laughed. Another one mimicked the speech of a black kid he had overheard. Someone else made a reference to “niggers” in the lunchroom. And someone else made a welfare joke. One day it began to rain on us during gym class and as the black students scurried indoors, the teacher said to those of us within earshot, “they’re afraid they’re going to get clean.”

None of this, of course, was ever conveyed to the black students. The white students deferred to them in all interactions. Indeed, they trembled before them. In gym they were sure to pass the ball, in the hall they stepped out of the way, and at lunch they shared their cake. The white students were haunted by fantasies of being lost in deserted parts of the school, surrounded suddenly by dark faces with ill intentions. Rumors abounded about sinister events that had happened in the recent past, about events that had happened in other black schools, in other black neighborhoods, in other black cities. My classmates‚ imaginations grew boundlessly, fed by ever increasing unfamiliarity, by a daily ritual of viewing from afar, until their stories had ceased being tall-tales, and had become deeply held truths, passed down from generation to generation.

The second event of import for me in 1979 was the Iranian “hostage-crisis.” This occurred on November 4, 1979, two months into my sixth-grade year. The once great ally of the United States had become its mortal enemy. My white classmates began talking about this event almost immediately, in a casual way at first, in passing, a word here or there. “Did you hear . . .?” “Can you believe . . .?” I was invited to participate but rescinded the invitations.

One week later they began making belligerent statements about Khomeini in particular, and Iranians in general. “I think we should drop a nuclear bomb on them and get it over with. What do you think, Saïd?” Those who had not known I was part Iranian knew now. The class stopped and stared. I still did not respond.

Two weeks later they began talking about me directly. My father smelled bad, they said. My mother smelled bad. I smelled bad. (I showered longer in the morning.) They imitated how they assumed my parents spoke: the incomprehensible pattering of an Indian. (I enunciated when called on to read aloud.) They debated what my family ate. (I packed only ham and cheese for weeks on end.) They mocked the veil they thought my mother wore. They mocked “the towel” they assumed my father had on his head. (I saved up for the latest basketball shoes.) They mocked the dot they said my mother had on her forehead. They threatened me after school.

Outwardly I feigned disinterest, inwardly I prayed for a different father, a different country, a different name. I prayed for the release of the hostages. I prayed that Iran would not be mentioned in our history lesson. I prayed that no country in the Middle East would be mentioned in our history lesson. I prayed that there would be no history lesson. Current events were the death of me. If asked by a stranger I would say I was “Persian,” hoping that would throw him off the scent. After school I walked home and stayed there. “How is school?” my mother would ask. “Fine,” I’d say, and leave it at that. At night I sat on her lap and watched the news as straight-talking white men, one after the other, in crisp suits looked us directly in the eye and cogently assessed the situation. In the background, frantic Iranians could be seen setting fire to an American flag. The impassioned declarations of “Death to America” rounded out the balanced reporting.

I admit that my dilemma could have been easily diffused. I could have mocked the Iranian accent, too. My classmates would have deferred to me. I had authority in the same way the lone black girl in our class had authority when she imitated the “regular” black girls. I could have derided Iranians‚ clothes, their history, their government, their sand, their animals. I could have shouted loudest for the bombs to fall the hardest. I could have done all of it and done it better than my classmates. Embracing it tightly, so as to be exempted from it. Before me was my version of the invitation my second-grade classmates had been offered. I had only to accept it and I would begin again enjoying the privileges that had, because of the color of my skin, been my birthright. I would be putting it mildly to say that the invitation made me salivate.

I didn’t accept it, though. I couldn’t accept it. And I paid for it in endless days of humiliation and fear. I paid for it in a corrupted view of my family and myself. I assumed that I was as ugly as my classmates said I was. When finally I could take it no longer, I asked to be transferred into another class. My teacher obliged me, placing me into the only class that was available, the “regular” class. So one Monday morning in February, bright and early, I found myself sitting at a desk, with pencil sharpened and hands folded, as the room filled from front to back with black children. “We have a new student today,” the teacher said. I looked straight ahead and held my breath.

But a curious thing happened: no one said a word to me about Iran. Not that Monday, nor that Tuesday, nor the next day. I want to be clear here: my black classmates did not embrace me. I was not picked first to play, I was not invited to dinner, I was not slipped the answers. But I was not harassed either. I was, for the most part, ignored, and after what I had been through, this was a welcome relief.

The irony has never been lost on me. The “scholars” treated me the way you would treat an animal, and those who had not even been able to master the English language treated me with civility. And the reasons for this, which I have tried to understand, are several.

“It was an ugly, shocking image of innocence and impotence, of tyranny and terror, of madness and mob rule. Blindfolded and bound, employees of the U.S. embassy in Tehran were paraded last week before vengeful crowds while their youthful captors gloated and jeered.” — Time, November 19, 1979

“Iran’s fire-eating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had become so extreme, so demagogic, so streaked with irrationality . . .” — Time, December 3, 1979

Savage, demonic, uncivilized. My white classmates had already been so inculcated in the myths of dark savagery that they swallowed these adjectives as descriptions of me whole. But how could these descriptions succeed with my black classmates who, after all, were the ultimate savages? Any adjective used to describe me had already been used, ad nauseum, to describe them — and as recently as lunchtime. The photographs of unshaven Iranian men in dim light, with their eyes suspiciously averted, specifically designed to frighten the American spectator, were photographs that my black classmates were in the process of posing for themselves. If Iranians spoke strangely, they spoke strangely, too. If Iranians were dirty, they were dirtier. If Iranians murdered innocent people, they murdered more. If Iranians stole over the border at night to rape, well, they were the ones who had invented the custom. I was in a classroom filled with descendents of a legacy of savagery. They had been accused and condemned by textbooks, newspapers and movies for so long that they had, on a certain level, grown less susceptible to it.

As for those black classmates of mine who tried to convict me of savagery, they found the going tough. The jokes they told about me were only reshaped versions of jokes that had already been told about them. If they were to mock me, for instance, for having arrived to the United States on a banana boat, they had arrived on a boat that carried far more tragic cargo. If they were to paint me as inhuman, it was done in their own paint. We reflected each other, and any attempts to obscure this reflection were doomed to failure. In short, I was home and we all knew it.

On this topic, much is owed to Malcolm X, who helped articulate the connection between blacks in the United States and Muslims in the Middle East and Africa.

“Each place I have visited, they have insisted that I don’t leave. Thus I have been forced to stay longer than I originally intended in each country. In the Muslim world, and here in Africa, they love me as soon as they learn that I am Malcolm X of the militant American Muslims.” — Malcolm X, Lagos, Nigeria, May 10, 1964,

Fifteen years later the Iranian Revolution also acknowledged the connection.

“. . . since the blacks, who have spent ages under American pressure and tyranny, may have come to Iran under pressure, mitigate their cases if it is proved that they have not committed acts of espionage.” — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

On November 17, all eight of the blacks being held hostage were freed by the “fire-eater” and allowed to leave Iran. 52 hostages remained. That is, 52 white men. They would remain there for the duration, not released until January 20, 1981.

Through this act, Iran did not create a racial demarcation, it acknowledged one. Moreover, like Malcolm X, it acknowledged it in global terms. For eleven years I had assumed the privilege of whiteness was mine. Indeed, I had been considered by Hitler (at least one half of me) to be a member of the Aryan race, and virtually overnight this had been taken from me. I had been banished from the white classroom and forced to find my way in the black one. My assumption of whiteness had been erroneous. In 1979, the honorary certificate was redeemed and I became, quite simply, a nigger, and it was in the company of niggers that I found solace. And the evidence of these demarcations was not to be found in the nightly news, but in the behavior of my classmates, both black and white, toward me, and toward one another. We were revealing something in our behavior, something that America did not and could not articulate.

Whatever else this Afghan war is about, it is also about the conquest of a dark people by a white people. I presume that the lack of American flags in Bedford-Stuyvesant is a reflection of this understanding. How does one celebrate the vanquishing of a people that was once you? White Americans, apparently, are having no trouble. To this end, they are being well-schooled in the art of Afghan uncivilization: their treatment of women, their treatment of themselves, their dealings in drugs, their outmoded ways of governing themselves, their sandals, and so on. These days, many white Americans are all experts on a country that yesterday they didn’t know existed.

I hope I have shown that the depiction of a people running about in caves with long, unkempt beards, in tattered clothes,talking nonsensically about a God that we all know doesn’t exist, is anything but new. I recognize it for what it is: my biography. I suspect every single minority in this country, whether they want to admit it or not, recognizes it, too. Our uncivilized ways are being trumpeted for the whole world to see, our intransigence is justification for us having to be killed. How else to bring civilization and democracy to a people who resist civilization and democracy? And juxtaposed against this demonic image of myself is my classmate, a soft-spoken, well-scrubbed, clean-shaven youth from the Midwest, who has just arrived to set things in order again.

It has taken me twenty years to begin to undo the sense of inferiority that was sown in me my sixth-grade year. I challenge those white classmates of mine — who are now adults — to begin doing the same for themselves, to confront their sense of superiority: superior skin, superior hygiene, superior language, superior history. Contrary to popular opinion, lessons of superiority are as debilitating as lessons of inferiority. People on both sides are victims of a myth that works to obscure us from ourselves and from each other, reducing one in exchange for the glorification of the other.

My white classmates are privy to what I went through in 1979. I will not accept any claims of memory lapse. They helped create it, they were there, and it is as much their history as it is mine. If this past is painful for me, it is painful for them, too. And it is to avoid this pain, I suspect, that so much time and effort has been invested in the art of historical fable-telling, with each new chapter more outlandish than the one before.

The chapter we now write is the one where America saves Afghanistan from itself, the same way it has already saved the African from Africa, and the Native American from the New World. Our newspapers and history books will tell of this history, but the lives we lead will reveal a different one.

Comments
Rate Story
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading...

§ One Response to “Up Toward Nigger”

  • Pedro says:

    10 years after this was written, it still rings true. I’m not surprised, I fully expect such a phenomenon to propagate well into the future (the fuss around Pres. Obama’s birth certificate clearly exemplifies an ideology which finds that ‘a nigger can’t be this good at the presidency’ and aims to verify whether the pres. is truly who he says he is. The culture in this country (both professional and ‘civil’) has serious racist undertones, which is why I am rather pessimistic in saying that such a phenomenon will continue into the future.

    Great piece.

§ Leave a Reply

Other Stories You May Like

Nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Stories

Sliced Tomatoes

by

In the Jewish neighborhoods he was “Morris, the Maven of Tomatoes.” The orthodox women hardly talked to him, except to [...]

Bensonhurst Nicknames ca. 1966 – 1980, Annotated.

by

[This list contains all the nicknames of kids I can remember from my childhood (age 7 – 21, approx.) in [...]

Old Enough To Die In Brooklyn: The Mortician’s Lament

by

When the previous resident of my apartment, who was still living in it when my girlfriend and I viewed it [...]

I Would Have Wasted Those Thirty Dollars

by

There is a siren screaming past outside my apartment but it has nothing to do with me. My roommate is [...]

Scooter Boy

by

I was almost killed the other night. Really. That’s not so unusual because for the last number of [...]