Scoundrel Time

How the World Really Feels About You

From the AMNH archives

Extremely talented, good-looking, intelligent. You were light on your feet, unafraid to kiss a lady’s hand if she looked like she needed it, the picture of judiciousness and reserve. You would never choose our brothers over us, nor would you ever light a cross on someone’s lawn, send snail mail chain letters, or breathe heavily into the phone of one of your old teachers. You had no capacity for revenge; you had no idea how the world really felt about you.

You are you and we are your audience, your followers, your secret admirers. You vowed never to break any hearts, ever. You instilled hope where there shouldn’t be any.

You didn’t know what an Instagram was, or a Twitter account. You did log on to Facebook from time to time, only to paste jokes, the kinds old people get. You told us you once met the founder of Reddit, but couldn’t remember what exactly that website did—you liked the symbolic baby Martian trademark, which made us fall out. You call Snapchat Snapchap. You pretended not to notice how people laughed both at and with.

You were secretive to a fault. You thought, for instance, no one knew about your mother. You carefully hid the facts as to spare us any shame of our own prejudice of countrified folk. It didn’t matter to us that she spoke with the heaviest Carolina drawl we’d ever heard on Long Island, or that her fried chicken was as natural as lions on the Serengeti. One of us called her a white lady and you about flipped out. You never demanded an apology.

You were unduly optimistic. In high school you took us to a party where we weren’t invited; you assured us our quirky personality would win the day. You were nobody’s cliché—not even as you held our hair back as we pretend-puked in the hedges. You did not point out that our Afros were no longer than Astroturf. You did not state the obvious: that we were not drunk at all. Nicole Hammon came out and ordered us to get the hell off her parents’ property. She called us bitches, fag hags, tramps, and pariahs. You didn’t have the baseness to inquire: And what category do you find yourself in, sucking on that boys ear all night while your Daddy preaches at the African Methodist? You remained stung with forgiveness. When we went back in, you saw to it that our Solo cups were filled with booze. This boy doesn’t cry, you whispered, in a completely made-up white dude’s voice. You were nobody’s cliché.

Ethical, decent, morally right-on. You found coins in the pockets of one of your fathers and put them in those March of Dimes change holders at the candy store. You sang Christmas carols off-key when those Salvation Army bums rang their bells over their cauldrons. You donated your last dollar with your eyes closed.

Long ago, you walked into first grade with the headlines page glued to your bookbag: “Mission Accomplished!” Was that the Daily News? Newsday? The Babylon Star? You told the class that when you grew up you wanted to be president, just like your cousin W. We laughed. You had no idea. You went your whole life until now having no fucking idea, and we loved you for that. You told the teacher that one of your more drunker fathers had accused your mother of being George W.’s distant cousin. You started crying right there in the class, saying Yeah, your mother and George Bush looked alike, but why is that a bad thing? The teacher sighed and wrote a long note to the principal; Lord, Black people is crazy; she told you to go back to math.

You were brave and merciful. Shortly after middle school graduation you told the person vandalizing your front lawn that if he ever did that again, you would call the police. When he called you a *** *** ***, you launched down the front steps and punched his lights out. You were bold. Even then, when we pulled you off him, afraid that he would breathe again, we felt your guts.

You happened to mention (at a much later party at Nicole Hammon’s house where we all were indeed high as kites) that you liked boys and girls. You said to us, Yes, I am a *** *** ***. Thank you for being ok with that. Thank you for not making me choose. We knew what you were talking about but we didn’t divulge. We knew you’d never choose a brother over a sister, and so we were content not to choose in our own minds.

2006: You came into the fourth grade classroom with some drawings you’d made at home, ogres under bridges, superheroes draped in the American flag. Billy goat tuffs, the caption bubble read. We laughed at the pun but didn’t really understand. You told us your mother was marrying yet again, and that the house was in sort-of foreclosure. One of your pictures was of a monster named Assistant Dick who was driving a tank off a cliff (you first said in Iraq and then changed it to Afghanistan). The caption bubble coming out of his mouth screamed, Is this Heaven or Hell? We kept on laughing, anyway. Our teacher Mr. Cornell said you had violent tendencies and needed an evaluation, so you agreed to go to the school psychologist, Dr. Boxwell, who gave you a plate of cookies. Five years later you attended Mr. Cornell’s funeral, saying kind words to his widow, our former art teacher, who went around telling everyone how easy it is to be blindsided by brain cancer. You held her hand.

You graduated from high school at 20. You didn’t see the problem with being so much older—hell, Nicole Hammon was secretly 19, Isaiah Robinson 21. You came by one day and asked if our brothers were at home. You said reassuringly that you would never choose our brothers over us. You bowed down in front and said, I am your servant, milady. Your hair was done up in a wide Afro and feathers, sort of like an Indian, sort of like Chaka Khan. I vow I will never hurt you.

You were not quid pro quo, you were not sour. One day you saw a unicorn sliding down a sugary rainbow in the sky and then you saw a bunch of boys clamoring after that unicorn, or after a piece of that sugar, and you said to yourself, There but for the grace of God go I.

You had no idea how the World really felt about you. In 2008, when we all threw up our hats in joy, you sat outside your house on the stone steps, arms crossed over your chest. What about Prop 8, you asked. How can we celebrate? How can we be happy for some and not the entire body? One should be able to love without fear, you shouted, pretending to be drunk. We stood aghast. One of your last fathers called you a Tom and said if you were his real blood he would’ve killed you for uttering any disappointment on the greatest day known to America. Who in their right mind would be angry on this day of days, he screamed. Who, he asked (all the while slapping you down the steps and onto the street, where we stood, waiting to catch you)—who would call this day a half celebration and not a fucking whole?

Patient, virtuous, demanding. You watched us all pack cars for college. You bought yourself a new laptop and enrolled in correspondence Biology (your mother had confiscated the old one due to all those pictures). We drove away seeing you out the corner of our eyes, fake whispers of envy on our lips. You’d move from your mother’s attic to her basement and not complain—who turns up their nose at three home-cooked meals a day, you asked. Have fun with that awful cafeteria food, yall!

How surprising it was, many years later, to see your picture in Newsday, tuxedo smart, Doctors Without Borders savvy? You were quoted as saying that you grew up on Long Island in a loving orphanage. You said you couldn’t wait to return to your loved ones there but who knew when that would be? You were quoted as saying: I was never there to begin with.

Our hope hid itself. And thirty years later, you did come back to town, in a leased Cadillac; your hair was braided up your head like a crown. Ray Bans, LL Bean Mocs. How did the world become such a mess, you asked us, expecting an answer. We had none; you took one look at us, though, and melted. How grateful we felt, but also how stirred up. How ashamed, how ignoble. Us finally realizing that you’d always chosen our brothers over us. That you loved talking like a white boy because its language thats not innocent, friends, not the sound! That you knew exactly what the World wanted all along. That you would forever be enlightenment to our middle ages, and that we couldn’t have survived it any other way.