This summer, my boyfriend left our apartment to find a flyer on his car. Safe from the weather in a plastic baggie weighed down with white rice was a rectangle of paper warning “Anyone (sic) of you black apes caught making eyes at a white girl will be beaten with bats…” It goes on. There’s a photo of a black man’s face, then a gorilla’s face, then a reference to bananas. There’s a Ku Klux Klan hotline number. I posted a photo on Facebook and friends were incensed. It was shared over 7 thousand times. We live in Jacksonville, Florida, or rather, metropolitan South Georgia.
That morning, he drove straight to the gym and anger-lifted more than he should have. I called the police to report the flyer. Later, walking to lunch, I described making an ill-timed joke to the 911 operator. “I was trying to defuse the situation!” I said. He was irritated. “It didn’t need to be defused.” I blustered after him down the sidewalk, defending myself. This wasn’t the first time.
I didn’t tell my parents about him for six months. They’re conservative, Southern, and in no way agreeable to interracial relationships. I was scared of their reaction and was happy to focus instead on the ecstatic glee of falling in love. I told myself I was protecting him, but I was only protecting myself from the discomfort of impending disapproval. When I came clean, I described him as “half-Nigerian” rather than black, and let my mother believe for a moment that he was biracial. I’m sick, remembering the affront. I’d momentarily erased who he is in favor of something more palatable to her solely to ease my discomfort.
I’ve kept my mouth shut when a friend asked: “Would you like him if he weren’t black?” I’ve self-consciously let older neighbors know that “my boyfriend will be coming around a lot. He’s black.” in fear they might be afraid, or call the cops. Once, at a nightclub, young white co-eds surrounded him on the dance floor and later, I said “Don’t let them use you like a prop!” as if he hadn’t enjoyed himself, hadn’t just wanted to dance with whoever was nearby.
But he never chastised me, and still, doesn’t. He is graceful and allows me these missteps. He’s compassionate and generous to anyone who wants to understand his experience. I’ve watched him comfort a woman who said the N-word in his presence. Rather than storm out, he used it as a teachable moment. As she cried, he explained his stance. He’s done this over and over, and people learn. My friends have slowly adopted a vocabulary with which to talk about race and have become more aware of casual racism that before went unnoticed. My parents have hopefully discovered that what they’d taught as baby boomers in the South isn’t the gospel.
My boyfriend and I met unexpectedly two and a half years ago and bonded over the fact that we’d both grown up feeling nerdy and unattractive. He was a lanky son of a West African immigrant with a large gap in his teeth and loved anime. I had greasy hair, thick glasses, and a penchant for mid-nineties West Coast hip-hop.I read Voltaire for fun, was chubby, and desperately wanted to be as tortured (and waifish) as Fiona Apple. He felt “too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids.” I wore combat boots and spiked my hair with glue but took tennis lessons at the country club.
It took college and the years after for each of us to determine that living in these liminal spaces made our personalities and lives richer and that we could freely move across imagined borders of aesthetics and interests. We allowed ourselves the dignity to evolve. And as a couple, we do the same. These days, we call ourselves “The Late Bloomers Club” and revel in the victory that we didn’t peak in high school or college.We didn’t peak in our honeymoon period either. What was once a giddy infatuation has evolved into a deep mutual respect, ever-growing attraction, and manifold inside jokes.
Finding that flyer was a jarring reminder of the work to be done, work that involves discomfort. I’m clumsy. I’ve had to reevaluate my actions over and over, and so has he. There’s a learning curve. Every day, I’m learning how to better love a black man in America.
Anna Claire Hodge holds both a MFA and PhD in creative writing. A former journalist, her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, newspapers, and magazines. Follow her on instagram at @to.thine.own.self.be.trill for fashion and peeks into her life, and check out www.annaclairehodge.com for more of her published work.
Written by Anna Claire Hodge. Edited by Mara Strobel-Lanka.