Land of Peaches
The smell of peaches always takes me back to those early days in 1987 and my first memory of coming to America. I never liked peaches as a five year old but it was always a pleasant smell that makes me, even now, think of that first real experience of the foreignness of Michigan compared to my home in Jamaica. We would only be there for a semester, my mother’s last semester in graduate school. My father had become overwhelmed, it must have been, for him to suddenly bundle us all up and fly us to be with my mother those last few months. Five children, the smallest two, the eldest, twelve. Or perhaps, he just missed his wife, plain and simple, or it had always been the plan, but I do distinctly remember my puffy little jacket, my lips slick with lip balm and inhaling the strange sweet peach smell at Apple Valley market. I don’t know why, of all the new food I encountered, that has stuck with me. It was much like my experience in America, inhaling a sweet exterior, but when I sunk my little teeth in, I found it quite unpleasant.
This unpleasantness happened when I enrolled at the local elementary school while we waited for mom to graduate. I quickly learned the custom that one child had the privilege of leading the kindergarten class, single file, out into the playground for recess. The teacher had done this alphabetically, I would later learn, but for me it seemed ages before, one day, it was my turn and I felt the thrill of this silly little rite of passage from my crown down through my whole body to the soles of my sneakers. They would all cue behind me. I was to be leader. But just as we were to break through the doors to the wild abandon that was recess, a boy jumped in front of me and I felt the viscosity of his saliva on the side of my face before I knew what had happened.
He spat the words too.
I remember how he looked, his face far paler than mine, his black hair straighter too, but it was the way he said it, his voice dripping with malice, that told me he had used “black” in a way I had never heard it—as an insult.
Of course, I had noticed I had looked different. There were only three or so others with the same complexion as mine but I had noticed the blond hair of one child only as a dispassionate observation of difference. I only cared who would be my new friends.
This was something else altogether.
I remember that I did not cry. I didn’t say a word as I wiped the spittle from my face, worry bubbling in me. What did it mean? Why was this a bad thing? Perhaps the teacher intervened. Perhaps she put him in the corner. Perhaps she did nothing. It was 1987, after all.
But right then, inside my little body a bell had been struck and could not be unrung. Now, tethered to the acknowledgement that I did not sound the same nor look the same was that my black skin meant something dangerous. It became a taint and a yoke.
Looking back, I am aware I would have eventually learned the stigma of blackness in America once I returned in 2009 myself to attend graduate school, but at five-years-old, it was jarring and confusing. I am reminded of the sentiment expressed in Countee Cullen’s 1925 poem, “Incident” in which as an eight year old he went to Baltimore “heart filled, heart-filled with glee” and to his chagrin the Baltimorean child he waves at calls him “nigger.” Like Cullen it has imprinted itself into my young mind, knotting feeling of self not yet fully formed with something dark and always questioning.
Of all the things that happened there. That’s all that I remember.
I carry it now as I enter the classroom as a black educator from the Caribbean. I am many things beyond that—writer, musician, artist, daughter, sister, friend, lover—but when I stand before a sea of white faces, I am often reminded of my black face first.
Once, after a semester teaching my first college English class in America, I sat up, glaring at the computer screen as I read the all caps evaluation a student had written on the university form:
“MAKES EVERYTHING ABOUT RACE!”
I had looked at it and despite myself felt the tears hot behind my eyes. They were angry tears of exasperation and self-questioning. What had I done wrong? I had used the university mandated reader on multiculturalism and we had discussed stories of every group in America. I had traversed discussions of race as if they had been a minefield and moderated questions carefully, aware that my previous Jamaican students had different expectations and sensibilities than these Americans and I could not be lax and say my opinions freely. I could offer Jamaican aphorisms to humanize myself to them, to make them laugh, and to make them understand that we were more alike than different, but also showed them articles about a Maria and her concerns with being perceived only as a “saucy Latina,” commiserated with Korean-American Chang-Rae who comes to appreciate how traditional Korean food connects him to his aging mother, and yes, discussed the genesis of the term “African American” and whether it ought to be lain to rest.
To me the words on the evaluation meant a student had sat and seethed at these discussions and I, being first a teacher of color, could not simply brush it aside, unflustered.
“I don’t understand how I could have had a class discussing multicultural readings and not bring up race,” I said to a colleague, a white male of Italian descent, over drinks at the end-of-semester fete.
“It’s like writing a Yelp review for some students,” he had said. “They don’t see us as people with feelings sometimes.”
I had smiled unconvinced, wanting to tell him about the twisted feeling it gave me, but knowing, despite his earnestness, he could not understand. It had to be lived to be understood. It was not just a student who did not like me and wanted to eviscerate me in ink under a shield of anonymity. It felt like an indictment on my professionalism, on my diplomacy and my sensitivity as a teacher of color. Who would read this and find me flagrant despite my every effort at balance?
When I first sat at a graduate seminar, myself a student, and I, the only black face in the room, I thought how to be my best self and reminded myself not to make any mistakes, not to show weakness or confusion. I could not relax into a careless ease. Everything became, at once, performance, at once tethered to an impossible, imposed identity.
It was exhausting.
I remember in one of those classes, a pedagogy class in which I had to propose a topic of discussion about creative writing in which I offered theory, samples and exercises and I felt since it had not yet come up in discussion, I would offer the quandary of “Writing the Other.” Should whites be allowed to write about us or as us? Should they embody our identity in fiction or poetry or drama?
In my rationale, I told the story of the exchange with the little boy, of the feeling of spittle on my face, of how from that moment on, even years after I had returned to Jamaica I thought of it, and then wondered if someone who could not slip inside my skin to experience what it meant to traverse America as a black person should be allowed to imagine someone like me in fiction.
I could feel their anxiety as we discussed it. Some said that like many pieces of writing, some white writers had done it poorly and some had done it well. Some said they had no interest in it because they did not write about race usually. I mentioned Toni Morrison’s assertion that we all write about race once we write about people.
The exercise—Write the Other—was met with some trepidation. One male wrote as a woman and skirted the issue of race all together. Others said they found the exercise telling and challenging about their own limitations and apprehensions. In the end, the consensus was as long as you are willing to spend the time to learn about people unlike yourself, tell the real, complex and endearing stories of people, you may be able to get it right.
It made me wonder if we can ever really know each other across the aisle. Is there too much mistrust, and fear and ignorance? I don’t know but for now we can like Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche says, tell more than the single story that breeds only stereotype. I don’t know what story that little boy was told about black people that he would seek to use his spit to make me feel inferior that day. I think about where he is now and if he had rehabilitated his hatred, if he even remembers the incident that opened my eyes so young to the racialized self or if his hate has crystallized into an unwavering belief that somehow people like me should not be leaders at all, not on a playground and certainly not in a classroom. I can only hope for the former. Yet, in the seven years since I’ve lived here, I no longer allow myself to rise and fall with the emotions of those who cannot really see me. I still strive, but I do not chastise myself for failure at perfection. I allow myself to be, to search, to grow on my terms. I want only that when I enter the classroom, I hear my own voice and not the clamor of those who would make me question my worth.
Wandeka Gayle is a doctoral candidate at UL Lafayette, studying Creative Writing Fiction. The former journalist from Jamaica received her MA in English from Andrews University in 2011. Her writing has been published in the Jamaica Gleaner, Life-Info Magazine, Susumba, Southwestern Review and Spectrum.