2.2.13

An American Creation Story

My child, come sit here at my feet, and I will tell you the history of our people and how we came to be this way.

Once upon a time there was God. God the Father, and God the Son. God had daughters, too- many daughters, in fact- but none of them were considered God, despite having the same capacities as Him. God disavowed any wife, too, since God is God and All-Powerful and Self-sufficient, able to generate Creation in His image without any help from anybody else.

Once upon a time, God came upon a land He had not previously known before. Now, this was both God the Father and God the Son who did this. Confused at His ignorance, since He is the Omniscient One, He sat down near the beaches of this new land in His boats as the people of the land viewed Him warily from a distance (as is befitting God), and He conversed with Himself. After forty days and forty nights of counsel, God decided that this new land He had discovered was actually a land He had created Himself in a dream from time immemorial and thus subject to His will and power. So God set to work, on the people and on the land, fashioning it in His image and punishing those who refused to acknowledge His dominion. He ravaged the land with plagues, rapes, wars, and death, enslaving those who submitted to Him (although at times He enslaved even those who rebelled, as a show of His omnipotence) and exterminating those who did not, as is befitting God. God the Father revealed the logic of His plan to His children in the interconnected fields of legal writs, the disciplines of Science and Medicine, Religious Education, and institutions of Higher Learning. God the Father taught his Son especially the straightness of His path, the path of the Self-righteous and the True Defenders of the Faith. He did this by any means necessary, because it was necessary to assure His children, especially His Son, of the correctness of their path in the face of the Holy Spirit which kept meddling in His affairs in such aggravating ways as setting people on fire from the inside against Him, rather than from the outside when they went against Him, as He usually did.

The Holy Spirit made God very nervous, especially when It touched His Son. When It whispered into the hearts of His other children, especially His daughters or the male children He refused to recognize as His own, the Omnipotent One would laugh through His mountaintop clouds and raze the people with ever-burning fire and ignominy, chuckling to them in contempt that if He so wanted, He could create another like them in their place. And He would, too, reaching out to other lands across the Earth and replacing His people for them. At times like these He would subject these new toilers for His glory to the same treatment as His people before to ensure their loyalty to Him and their everlasting submission to His power. Yet the Holy Spirit would still be able to whisper through to some of them, so God would step up His defense and laugh even louder, shifting His Face around so His people would become shrouded in mystery and confusion as to His real nature. Only to His Son would He reveal the mysteries of His Being as He indoctrinated Him into the logic of His Plan. So how much it rankled in Him, then, when the Holy Spirit's calm, reasoning Voice would be able to seep into His Son's spirit and cause His head to turn to look at His sisters, at His mothers, at His brothers, at His own people and His own land that had nurtured Him, fed Him, sustained Him and see how He and they alike were trapped by the interconnected bars of Law, Science, Education, and Religion. In times like this He would begin to deeply question His own divinity and begin to seriously doubt the divinity of His Father. How fierce was God's anger at times like these! How justified His rage!

Thundering with Heavenly wrath He would remind His Son that all He had created on this Earth was for His subjection, to do with as He pleased: women, children, cattle, fields, waters, minerals, wealth, animals, enemies, and illegitimate sons alike were all under His Dominion. All was His Creation, fashioned by Him from Him, and thus subject to His whims. His daughters were there for His pleasure, some to ease Him in bed, some to ease His hunger through production, some to ease His anxieties in bearing children, but all were vessels for His will. His unrecognized children were the same- fashioned to be receptacles of His authority and power, no matter where they resided or in what form. The expanse of the Earth beneath Him was made for His disposal; the extraction of wealth and goods from it His sole prerogative. And woe to His enemies, worse than animals! To deny His righteousness and goodness, to contest His claim over all His Earth- such was an unforgivable act, an injustice punishable by the worst of retaliations!

God laid all this out in no uncertain terms to His Son, codifying His claims and legitimacy in books and documents for all to plainly see, inscribing His primacy onto the tongues of all who would speak and burning it into the eyes of all who would see. He ravaged those who opposed Him and those who merely looked opposite to Him out of love for His Son and to keep Him on the right path, the straight path, the path with no crookedness or darkness in it, for God is Love and His wrath is merely an extension of His deep love for us.

God explained all of this for His Son and for all of us, but for some reason the Holy Spirit kept getting in the way. It would take His children aside from time to time, whispering in their ears of other ways to be, other ways to love, other ways to attain a strength in peace that rages against injustice while maintaining a calm respect for all at its core. Worst of all treasons, It spoke in the languages of God and told His Creations that they were more than just created things. It kissed them with assurances of Life, real Life, outside of these strictures they had been so confined in, and- horror of all horrors!- assured them that this God was no god, but something as made up as His image of them had been.

The Holy Spirit would speak to them from their hearts, not from a mountaintop removed like where God had positioned Himself and where He tried to force His Son to join Him. It would speak to them from among themselves and It would guide them in ways that spoke to parts of them outside what God had told them they could only be. God the Almighty raged in the face of It because It spoke of Reason and Continuity, Harmony and Community, Healing and Understanding, Empathy and Compassion while God thundered on of Ignorance and Division, Violence and Pain, Sin and Trespassing, Confinement and Punishment. They battled on, God and the Holy Spirit, God jealously clutching at His Son and raining His wrath down on His people- for God is a jealous God, and terrible in His retribution- and the Holy Spirit continuing to calmly direct people towards each other and to clear squinting eyes accustomed to injustice, gently guiding them to reach their own logical conclusions as to the real nature of Humanity, Creation, and the Divine.

And it is a battle they are locked in until our death, my child. Still they carry it on in us, God the Father insisting on our salvation through destruction and God the Holy Spirit steadfastly promising us that we have the ability to heal and move forward. They continue fighting because most do not listen; and now, most do not listen to either God the Father or the Holy Spirit. Most prefer now to operate within the rules God the Father has set down for His Creation but refuse to believe either in Him or in the Divine.

So, you see, my loved, because God the Father is no god at all, He is able to grow powerful and maintain His existence by people continuing to act within the rules He has created to support Himself and His Son. Denying Him while continuing to follow His Plan perpetuates the violent havoc He has engendered in our very souls and legitimates His dominance and our subjugation. But God, call It what you may, being a real God, continues to exist without any support from Its creation and continues to communicate on a personal level with them against this created state of affairs, quietly murmuring to them from inside and from among their own kind that something, something just ain't right in all of this.

31.1.13

Radical

My White mother told me this story once.

I was arguing with her about the need for Palestinian sovereignty in their own land when she brought up that the blame was not to be laid entirely on the Jewish settlers since the land was parceled up and distributed to them by the British government. Outraged, I shouted at her:

It was never theirs to give away to begin with!

Suddenly her voice got very quiet, thoughtful.

You know, she mused, that's exactly what a Palestinian once told me, back in the seventies when I was in college and we were having a debate about Palestine.

It was a time when the whole world was changing, different things were being contested, new things were suddenly being introduced to us, she carried on. Africa was fighting for freedom and suddenly it sprang up in our minds not as some dark savage continent made up of backwards people who would sell their own into slavery, but as a real place with some level of history and diversity and culture. In the midst of this we also had the Vietnam War going on, and people beginning to really question the values and morals our parents' generation had passed down to us. We started questioning the validity of what we had been taught and started rejecting more and more of it, especially seeing for the first time that these other people we were told for so long were so different from us were suffering by our hands in very recognizably human ways.

I was never a part of any of the movements that were going on around me. I felt an urge to, I wanted to be a part of this change that was happening from my generation, the young people demanding our elders live up to the spirit of the morals they kept insisting we follow....but I never got involved in anything. I don't know why, don't ask me. I wanted to, I just didn't. It wasn't my place.

Anyway, there was a Palestinian student studying at UNO where your father and I were also attending. I remember, this guy would go on and on about the British and the Israeli occupation. He was so angry about it, so adamantly against it, but the more I listened to it, the more it sounded to me like the state of affairs here in the United States. What with AIM and the Red Power movement and Wounded Knee looming large in our consciousness with demands for re-instatement of treaty rights and Indian sovereignty in their lands, what this young man kept telling me about Palestine began to sound to me exactly like the situation of the Indians in the U.S. And that's when it really hit home to me, what really struck some deep chord in me. I would ask him, okay, so if you kick all the Israelis out, where are they supposed to go? If you kick the Americans that originally immigrated and settled here all out, where are they going to go? You're talking generations of people! He would tell me "back to their homes!" or "somewhere else!" but as soon as I had made that connection in my mind to the Israelis and to my own Northern European immigrant ancestors here, his argument lost all ground with me. So, what, would you have all of us leave this place, too? This land wasn't originally ours, but now it's our home, so where would you have us go? Back to Europe? I don't think so.

It's a similar situation, Mom, but the difference is length of time, I reasoned. You're right, Israel is pursuing almost the exact same course that the Europeans did in coming to the Americas, but the difference is they've been at it for a shorter period of time. Here we're too mixed up in each other for it to make any sense to say "get out!" But at the time that Palestinian man was talking to you it could have been accomplished in Palestine even as it was being accomplished in Algeria and Tunisia and Ghana and South Africa and Vietnam. It may even still be able to be accomplished, since we're dealing with a shorter period of time that settler colonialism's been going on in Israel-Palestine, even though the longer things are postponed the more complicated and harder to extricate themselves they become. But I am also absolutely for Native American sovereignty as well, and the recognition of land and treaty rights here and for there to be a strong American Indian presence in the government and for them to be dealt with as sovereign nations of equal voice in the government of this nation and the decisions it makes. All these things need to happen, there needs to be a real recognition, an acknowledgement of native sovereignty over themselves and their land, both here and in any colony or settler colony-

It won't happen. My mother set her voice into a stubborn angle I knew too well, and I could see the mental walls going up. It won't happen. You're dreaming, girl. Get your head out of the clouds. It won't happen, she repeated a third time. Yet each time she circled back to the same three words it began to sound more and more to me like it wasn't me she was trying to convince, but that it was herself she was excusing.

As if to vindicate herself and her ancestors further, she continued:

Besides, if you look at the American Corners in these places, supporting the native people's control of their own information is exactly what they're all about! I mean, take Iraq for example-

We already did, Mom, I quipped.

Well......yes...but look at the American Corners there- and Iraq is doing so much better now, I just talked to some of the American diplomats who just came back from there, they all have very positive reports- they have funds set aside for the Iraqis to build their own libraries with. They just provide the money, and the Iraqis are able to build libraries in their communities and fill them with the books they want- within reason, of course. Isn't that great? And there's American Corners in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Israel- all over the Middle East and Africa and Asia. All over the world. So we are helping native people to manage their own resources. That's what American diplomacy is all about.

Walk Outside the Rhythm

 

            Walk outside rhythm, and you'll just attract the worm.

           
You know- that worm that gnaws into you, feeding off of you and whatever you try to sustain yourself with, growing bigger and fatter and multiplying into a vast array of blind heads rearing up at the slightest provocation?

           
But damn, how do you even talk about where it came from or when was the first time its maggotty seed was able to burrow inside you since it comes from the inside? On her end, Fawz wouldn't have been able to truthfully recount the first time she felt it settling into her chest, or felt the nausea as it wound its way maliciously down into her stomach. Neither would Salem, her husband. Neither, in time, would their children.

           
Was it from the American invasion of Iraq, of watching her life, her home, her country crumble into a living hell so horrific she and her family had to escape to the dream of a slightly lesser layer of hell in Syria, only to be ridiculed and treated like second-class citizens relegated to the worst areas of the cities or else to refugee camps? No, there was more to it than that.

           
Having her son come home from school with headaches from the strength of pride clenching tight against tears of injustice threatening to explode out of taunts and belittling from Syrian teachers and students? The tearing away of herself and her family from their home in Baghdad because she and Salem both knew that with the war what little jobs they had available under sanctions were now gone and that trying to send their children to school amidst the brutality of the American troops was unthinkable? No, there was more to it than that.

           
Was it from seeing her people forced into prostitution by the Syrian government, seeing them kidnapped by American troops or American-sponsored militant schism sects, or forced from starvation and war into selling their children to black market vultures promising under oily smiles they would give them to good homes then killing them to harvest their organs? Was it from the astronomical leap into AIDS epidemics, high cancer rates, and monstrous birth defects from the use of rape, depleted uranium shells, and other banned weapons of war by the American- and later Iraqi- troops? No, there was more to it than that. Much more.

           
UN sanctions, the Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, the War of 1967, intentional poverty from a global economy, the Nakbah, refugee camps, Assad, Hussein, Nasser, Bush the first, Bush the second, Clinton, the fall of Arab Nationalism, colonialism, anti-colonialism, neo-colonialism, the Crusades, the political policing of mosques, forced sterilizations, Orientalism, Islamophobia, ages of attempts to defame Islam, ages of attempts to defame Arabs, American apartheid, growing up male in a patriarchal society, growing up female in the same patriarchal society, Israeli occupation, American occupation, martyrdom, chemical warfare, nuclear warfare, American funding of Islamic religious schisms and Al-Qaeda alongside the IDF and Saudi Arabia's military, the Iraqi government's expulsion of Iraqi Jews, secular Islam, radical Islam, racism, invasion, violence, kidnapping, rape, murder-

           
We used to think it was hell under Hussein, she and Salem would laugh with people, and now we realize that compared to what Iraq is going through now, we were in heaven then.

           
We were like people in a dream, she would continue, her face growing long and entranced by the flicker of memories. We were like zombies, we had no direction, we had no thought, we had no reason to think, we were just trying to survive. We were like people in a dream, and when we finally began to wake up and look around us we saw that we had been invaded and that this was hell. You think we would ever stand to have our country invaded, no matter how bad it was- do you think anybody would ever stand to have their country invaded? No way! This is our country! And so we began to fight, like dreamers struggling to shake off a nightmare. But, yanni....it is becoming even worse. Now, now we are trapped in the nightmare.

           
Fawz wondered sometimes if it wasn't all just her, if this maze of memories and continuously gnawing emptiness wasn't all just in her head since she saw other people everyday who seemed able to cope just fine.

            Maybe it was all just in her nationality.

           
No, because she knew other Iraqi refugees here in America who didn't seem to go through the same mental anguish as she did.

           
Then again, they also refused to talk about Iraq or admit they thought about their home at all sometimes at night, laying awake and having all the memories invading their heads and taking away their laughter, leaving cancerous holes that bored deeper and deeper in the wake of dreams about family gatherings with nieces and nephews smothering aunties and uncles in kisses, of poetry, of staying up late to watch Indian films, of competitions at teasing, or of street-corner tea vendors performing tricks with cut-glass cups and saucers. At first Fawz had wanted to shake these people, to scream at them, to demand they remember. Remember!

           
When the family that sponsored them had first come to San Diego themselves, within the first month Umm Wassim had stripped off her hijab, and her daughter's too. Within the second month she was wearing shorter skirts and noticeably more makeup. By the third her wiry, bouncing black curls had been bleached and straightened into an orangeish almost-blonde bob, and she was on her way back to nursing school since the state refused to accept her degree from the University of Baghdad and years of experience nursing back in Iraq and Jordan as valid indicators of requisite skill, insisting instead she start paying for classes at the local community college if she wanted to work in her profession.

           
Fawz wanted to yell at Umm Wassim, who now called herself Jasmine- not Yasmin, Jasmine. Even her son Wassim had followed suit, adopting the moniker "Wes" to make up for the red flag his real name would otherwise raise in people's imaginations. Fawz wanted to shake all of them and demand they remember who they were and where they were from- but she couldn't blame them. Fawz had kept her hijab on out of a sense o
f liberation but also from a feeling of anti-American identification with it. Could she let herself be like these people here, these people who had destroyed her country so completely? No way! But she understood Umm Wassim. She understood why she tried so hard to hide her background and name out in the American world and protect her children from that same hate Fawz herself could feel in her very bones at every excursion outside, at every flip of the channel, at every news article and at nearly every conversation with Americans- even Muslim Americans, can you believe it!- that touched on war, dictatorships, or notions of democracy. It ate away at her, joining older, more entrenched despairs to expertly riddle her with holes from the inside whose beginning she could never begin to work out and whose end she felt she'd never be able to see. Salem felt these holes, too, she knew- felt these holes in her and felt these holes in him. And a part of her that she tried not to listen to, tried so hard not to pay attention to but pushed away into darker, cooler portions of her mind, whispered that her children were feeling these holes as well.

           
It drove her and Salem deeper into themselves. Neither of them quite knew how to talk through the unstable pits they felt themselves becoming, and neither of them had any community or family here to help them work through it all with warm support or tearful cajoling. Salem's degrees meant nothing to the United States and so he found himself demoted from architect to a Goodwill cashier sneered at for his thick accent and taken to the manager for review at every minor infraction or miscommunication with his female coworkers. The money Fawz got from tutoring in Arabic and translating was what held up the household more than Salem's own contributions, and this rotted even more away at his feelings of duty and pride as a man, a husband, and father that were strengthened into rigid stereotypes of masculinity by the intense loneliness he and Fawz both felt between them. A chemical reaction would explode in him at times, spurring him on to lash out at her whenever he could. He didn't know how to express his emotions, so he would blindly yell and blame and accuse at random, seeking some outlet of release; Fawz had nobody to fall back on to cushion her own feelings of entrapment and isolation, and so she screamed back in equally voracious accusations and indictments of Salem. They yelled at each other across chasms of emptiness filled with painful memories boiling just beneath the surface whose worming presence whispered and goaded each of them on in their subconscious; and the whole time their children sat and watched or stared at each other knowingly from each other's beds and listened, trying not to hear. And the gaps between them grew wider, and the burrowing worms grew fatter.

           
After a year or so in America Fawz and Salem both started taking to saying, Forget Iraq. Forget there. Nothing can save there, it is just a bad dream, a bad memory. They repeated this while shaking their heads, Salem burying himself deeper into his computer, glued to the multiple open windows filled with Arabic headlines that formed his only stable link to memories of home and Fawz deliberately sat
as far from him as possible, burying herself deeper into her work and children that formed her only stable link to memories of family back home. If countered with the insistences that they shouldn't forget, that Iraq is their homeland, that they have to remember- Remember!- their faces would become pained and dark with melancholy. Yes, they would respond, it is...it is home. But sometimes it is better to forget.

           
Fawz still wore hijab, but she cut her thick greying curls short and dyed them an orangeish near-blonde beneath her veil. Salem worked the night shift in a factory making electronics, which gave her some peace.
Now most of the time that they were together he would either be asleep or absorbed in his news reports and she would be busy with her work and avoiding him. Then their son became absorbed in war video games- the whole family did except for Fawz- and each scream from Assassin's Creed or gunburst from Metal Gear Solid would stab sharp through her brain bringing searing flashbacks with it. Why did she alone seem to react so badly to these things? She wasn't the only one in the family who had witnessed war- how could they all have become so numb to their memories so fast?

           
It's not normal, it's not natural, she would desperately insist to guests who came over while the rest remained absorbed in the video games or the most recent news of violence from the Middle East. How can you make a game of killing, of war? How can you make a game of it, of killing human beings? A human is a human, whether an image on the screen or right there in front of you! It's not natural, I tell you, it's not right. It's a culture of war, a culture of violence- we've come to see it all as normal. From the Middle East to America, we are taught violence from the very beginning, we are immersed in violence and in killing, we are taught that this is the right way to be, the only way. We are all now becoming a people without guidance, only violence. And here they make it into a game, it's a game to kill people! Ntck, ntck, ntck, ntck! Her head would shake from side to side, bent down slightly under her thoughts. Astaghfirullah...

           
But ummi, it's fun! her younger daughter would call out in-between having her big brother explain the controls to her.

           
You see? Fawz's eyes would take on a glint of desperation and paranoia. Even my daughter. What is happening to us? Here she would laugh, trying to take the edge off reality. You know sometimes- yanni, I don't know, I feel like the world is against us. That it is being made this way- it is! How could it not be?- that it is all just because we are Arab. Not even because we are Muslim, it is because we are Arab, because other Arabs, yanni, Arab Jews and Christians, they get the same treatment as us! The exact same. It is in the name- they see the name and they immediately single you out. Because, you know, with the Iraqi Christians and Muslims, we all share many of the same names- we are the exact same except that one is Christian and one is Muslim, you know?- and they go through the exact same things as we do. It is not about hijab, it is not about being Muslim, although the Americans don't like those things either. It is about being Arab. They want to get rid of us because we are Arab.

           
Fawz would shake her head again, as if trying to blur her clarity of vision.

           
Astaghfirulla, but wallahi, it's true. Why do they do this? I don't know...May Allah help us all.


27.1.13

White Cracks

The Nord family prided itself on being able to distinguish itself from the other White upper-middle class professional families in their neighborhood and in their city. For one, they complimented themselves on the diversity of their friends: Cuban, Latino, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Cajun- "and even some Black friends!" They proudly ran down the list behind closed doors where they wouldn't have to be confronted with the fact that, save for the small number of Black maids or nannies and even smaller number of similarly classed Black professionals they occasionally interacted with in work settings, the vast majority of their friends shared similar complexions to them. But claim them they did, Lisa Nord even touting around the example of how well she got along with her maid-cum-nanny-cum-Mammy as proof of their moral superiority to the other conservative, racist Whites in the area.

Then one day their oldest son Stephen came home from grade school and, in one fell swoop, illuminated the cracks in their fa├žade.

Trying her best to contain little Leigha's excitement as she bounded in toddling bursts around her, Eliza greeted Stephen at the door and, nodding her head towards the living room, said, "Now Stephen, could you gimme a hand here an' jes hang your stuff up inna hallway closet yo'self an' then go straighten up th' livin' room a bit so I can come in later t' clean it? Yo' lil' sister here's bein' a hanful an' I gotta change 'er an' dress 'er."

Stephen tssed and with a look of aggravation dropped his booksack onto the floor in front of Eliza.

Recognizing a familiar situation, Eliza cocked her head and put a steely glint into her voice. "Din't you hear what I jes' tol' you, boy?" From the kitchen Lisa heard the new tone and stuck her head out of the doorway.

"Everythan' awright?"

"Jes' fine, ma'am," Eliza called back, keeping an eye on Stephen. "Now Stephen, you pick that booksack'f yours up right now an' go'an put it away in th' coat closet like I tol' you."

Eliza could see what Lisa couldn't, could see the consternation and boiling underneath Stephen's skin, could see the taunts and belittlings he went through at school that, when younger, he had cried into the fronts of her shirts about, now boiling about and eating him away at the inside with their insistances on his nothing-ness. Eliza could see it all rolling around his shaking shoulders and reddening cheeks about to break through his twisting features, so it came as no surprise when suddenly they exploded through his vocal chords.

"I don't have to lissen to you!" he shouted in a high-pitched, strained little-boy voice. "I don't have to lissen to you at all! You're just a nigger!" And he stood defiantly in front of her, boiling, hurting, shamed, and looking as if he should have taken that moment to run away but was determined to stand his ground like he couldn't do at school.

Despite knowing what was coming, despite hearing it repeated so many times by so many people and by so many children she had raised, it was always worst when it came from the children. Children you raised, children you kissed, children you fed and couldn't help but love in spite of yourself sometimes because they loved you so freely back. They loved you so freely back, not seeing color or hair or eyes as race, just as pieces of you and loving you for loving them- until that moment. Until moments like now when they did see it as race and you knew deep down in your soul things could never go back.

"What was that you jes' sed boy!"

Stephen stared at the ground with his face screwed up, looking in-between tears of rage and tears of hurt but with his bottom lip set in a way that told her he had been intentionally trying to hurt her but was scared to take it back now that he realised he may have. From the kitchen Lisa heard the epithet like a curse slapping at her ear, and horrified guilt squeezed her into paralysis until Eliza's sharp response snapped her back into attention.

"Stephen!" Lisa shrieked in treble terror at her son. She came flying across the room like a Valkyrie or Fury, ready to exact vengeance on her son for the shame and guilt and pain his outburst had elicited in her. "Stephen Victor Nord!!" She shrieked again as she was closer. "How dare you- how dare you!! Whay, I outta skin you alive boy, I outta-" With one hand scooping Leigha onto her hip and the other hand bracing Lisa, Eliza firmly blocked Lisa's charge toward the now-cowering Stephen.

"Lisa, Lisa, shhh, it's okay, calm yo'self, he din't know what he was sayin', it's okay."

"I'll show him what he was sayin'!" Lisa shouted, glaring at her son who was still watching his two mothers in terror. Lisa's face suddenly crumpled into a mask of shame. "'Liza, 'Liza, I swear, I swear to you, we don't say stuff like that in this household, you know us, we don' think of you people like that, honest to God- you know us! We would never- never! I don' know where he even picked this stuff up from, I swear- I would never- we never!!"

"I know, I know, I know," Eliza soothed, gently guiding Lisa back from her son as Lisa continued shooting glares at him and promising him she would whup him if she ever heard such dirty words come from his lips again. "I know, don't worry, it's not you, he din't even know what he was sayin', he musta picked it up from school, I know...."

Years of working with Whites had taught Eliza through painful experience that if you wanted to keep working, you had to make them forget their guilt. If you didn't, they eventually would start to take their guilt out on you as a way of getting rid of those things which showed them too clearly who and what they really were. So you had to make them forget it, soothe them back into feeling that they were the chosen people they wanted to think of themselves as. Because if you didn't, you were going to be the one who paid for it by being put out and having to find another way of feeding your child. And they talked, these Whites. Talked amongst themselves and talked about you- she knew it, because when she had first started working for them as a maid and hadn't yet figured out the secret of White Guilt she had learned the hard way just how cruel they can be when they want to take their shame out on you so that they can forget their own guilt. It made them see things too clearly, reality did, and for the number of them that wore glasses they seemed to abhor anything but severe near-sightedness.

So she had learned to soothe them to save herself. Learned to laugh and smile at them and brush off that near-sightedness that made them bump thoughtlessly into others and into painful corners of herself. She would let them convince themselves that she, their maid or nanny, was their friend- probably their only friend that wasn't White- and even at times bring her daughter with her to their houses when she couldn't find a place for her to stay while she worked, which had the effect of convincing some Whites further how good they were and what good friends they were that Eliza would do such a thing. Lisa especially liked to take the opportunity to have Leigha play with Chantelle, Eliza's daughter, and Eliza didn't mind because it gave her a little less work to do. This way, too, Lisa could convince herself that their lives weren't so different, that her and Eliza weren't so different. But when Eliza and Chantelle took the bus back across town to their neighborhood with its constant police presence, homeless wanderers pushing piles on shopping carts, its boarded-up windows with spraypaint and the littered streets, Eliza and Chantelle both knew there was a difference.

And so, too, did Lisa.

Leigha, however, wasn't so convinced. As Lisa and Eliza both began to notice the greater disaffection Leigha began taking with her mother, eyeing her strangely as Lisa would approach Leigha smiling with open arms for a hug or a kiss and then watch the girl run to hide in Eliza's legs or bury her face into Eliza's breasts, Eliza knew her days were numbered there. The day Leigha came back on the bus with her brother from first grade and saw Lisa standing there at the end of their street instead of Eliza, Lisa beaming in expectation of meeting her daughter after her first day of school, a gut-level feeling of distrust, anxiety, and paranoia began twisting in Leigha's little stomach and instantly froze her limbs as her brother insistently dragged at her.

"Come on, Leigha, don't you wanna get off the bus? Come on!"

The bus driver raised her head and caught her wary eye in the rearview mirror. "Whassa matter back there, honey? Everythin' awright?"

Stephen sighed. "She doesn't wanna get off the bus."

Leigha saw with fright the pale lady with tight permed black curls approaching the bus and rooted herself even more stubbornly into her seat, shaking her head that she was at the wrong stop, that this wasn't her house, that she didn't see her mommy there.

Lisa stuck her head through the open bus doors. "Is my daughter in there? Leigha? Stephen?"

The bus driver gently called back to Leigha and Stephen. "I think that may be your daughter back there. Honey? Is this yo mama? She says she is....." Leigha's wariness at approaching the woman standing at the bus doors made the bus driver pause a little in her assumption, but Stephen nodded exasperatedly.

"Yeah, that's her. Come on, Leigha! Come on! See? Mama's right there! That's our mama, remember?"

Leigha bunched up her face, confused, hurt, and scared. "But....that's not my mama...." her tiny voice hesitantly ventured out. Was it? She knew her, she knew this woman, she was familiar.....but she didn't look anything like the person so strongly linked to sensations of Mama in Leigha's head. The bus driver watched, amused, as Leigha uncertainly stepped down off the bus with her brother and her mother's help. Feeling embarrassed and self-conscious at her daughter's uncharacteristic display of stubbornness Lisa tried to nervously excuse herself to the bus driver.

"I am her mother, I don' know what's gotten inta her, I swear..." She laughed anxiously, then began rambling even faster to try to evade the driver's judging gaze. "I swear, I really don' know, she must jes be so shaken from her first day of school, it's so different there an' you know in a child's mind time goes by so slow, yes, that must be it, she feels like she's been away so long that she's even forgotten what her mama looks like din't you dear? Silly girl-child, you've only been gone not even a day, how could you forget what yo mama looks like?" Unattached and unconcerned the bus driver shrugged and shut the doors in Lisa's anxious face, driving on the rest of her route with a slight smile to herself.

Leigha watched this strange woman's rambling with mistrust, and as Lisa leaned in towards her daughter for a hug at the last word, she moved warily away. "You're not my mama," she pointed out matter-of-factly.

The simple words hit Lisa so hard she felt like collapsing right there, but she caught herself and hid her pain behind a smile. She stood up instead and commandingly yanked Leigha's hand into her own. "Don't be ridiculous," she said, trying to hide the whipcrack snap of her voice behind a laugh. "Of course I'm your mama. Who else would be your mama?"

"Mama." Leigha said simply.

"And who is mama?" Lisa asked dangerously as Stephen walked on ahead, not wanting to get tangled in emotions and a discussion he knew all too well and still hadn't figured out how to deal with himself.

Leigha had to think this over. Who was Mama? As Lisa walked along at a four-year-old's pace with her daughter, Leigha looked around her at the dark green magnolias and the broad-leafed fig trees shyly exposing budding green nubs that would later ripen into rich, fuzzy, deliciously sweet purple-black bulbs. The taste of the soft outer fuzz tickling her tongue and the unexpected explosion of juice and sugar across her mouth as she bit into it presented itself against the question. Her mind traveled to the warm, gentle brown fingers with their pinkish-brown palms and impossibly smooth pink-and-white nails holding the fig up to her mouth, the other hand cupping- pink-brown side up- beneath her pale chin to catch the juice and bits of fig falling down from her inexperienced attempts to bite at the overripe plump fruit. Mama.

Mama was that person who was always there. Mama was the one you cried to when you hurt. Mama was the person who fed you when you were hungry. Mama was that person who waited for you at bus stops with little treats like hugs that covered your whole soul and kisses and figs plucked sweet from the tree sitting there by the stop sign that looked like it stretched up into forever. Mama was.....mama. But was she Mama?

"Mama, can I have some figs?" Leigha asked as they passed the tree, testing the waters.

"Maybe later, honey."

Leigha tugged at her hand and pointed. "But they're right there! We can have some right now."

Lisa drew in a sharp breath, annoyed. "No, honey, we can't have those figs."

"Why not?"

"Because they're not ours! You can't just take other people's stuff without asking, it's against the law."

Law was a new concept to Leigha. The concept of personal property was even more foreign to her. "So why don't we just ask? They're right there. Why would they be upset if we took them? Who do they belong to anyway? Do they belong to the people in that house? What is belonging? Why are they right here on the street then? If they want figs for themself then why did they put them here where we can eat them?"

"Leigha," Lisa hissed warningly. "Just trust me. You can't have those figs. We'll go buy some later."

Leigha closed her lips disapprovingly. She knew you could have those figs if you were hungry enough because her Mama had helped her pick them when she said she was hungry. But these words like law and property invoked impressions of invisible walls surrounding the fig tree keeping her away, walls with tiny holes in them only certain hands could fit through and fearful spikes at the top to keep you from jumping over them to get what you needed or wanted. Her Mama hadn't seen those walls, though. Her Mama hadn't talked to her about law or property, only about how good the fruit was and had let her tiny hands play about in the wide dark leaves and branches while she explained the difference between ripe and green and laughed as she had Leigha test out the experience for herself. Where was Mama? Who was Mama?

Not wanting to aggravate Lisa further Leigha gauged the waters again. "Someone different comes here to pick me up. Why are you here? Where's.....where's the Mama that picks me up?"

"Eliza. You mean Eliza. Her name is Eliza. I'm your Mama. She's Eliza. Chantelle's Mama."

It meant the same thing to Leigha, so she just ignored her mother's distinctions. "Yes, Mama 'Liza. Where's Mama 'Liza?"

Lisa's lips pressed down together in agitation. "She...had to go away." Glancing down at her daughter's hurt expression, she corrected herself. "For a while, just for a while. But she won't be picking you up from the bus stop anymore," she added definitively. "I'll be picking you up."

This was too vague for Leigha. "Why?"

"Because you're my daughter and I love you." Lisa was feeling more and more certain now that letting Eliza go had been the right decision. It had pained her to have to do it- after all, she was so amiable and helpful- but she had promised they'd stay in touch, and as she could see, her daughter had been becoming far too distant from her own mother for Lisa's comfort. It wasn't as if Lisa needed Eliza anyway. She didn't have a job or anything, it had just been convenient to have some help around the house so she didn't feel too overwhelmed. Besides, she had grown up with Black maids and nannies in her home, too, and she always thought they were wonderful and even felt that it had helped to shield her against so much of the racism she saw the other Whites perpetuating. Her parents had certainly never told her Blacks were inferior, which had helped to shape her more egalitarian views towards the races, and she was convinced she was passing this same egalitarian worldview onto her children by having nannies like Eliza around to cushion them from the racism she saw so much of the world around them immersed in.

But she couldn't have her daughter forgetting that she was her mother. So she had had to let Eliza go, and Eliza had understood. It would be difficult convincing Leigha, but she was young and her confusion should only last a short while. They bounce back easily, children. Besides, it would be far worse if she hadn't nipped this in the bud now. What kind of trouble would it cause for Leigha and herself later if Leigha grew up thinking that Eliza was her mother? A Black nanny, the mother of a White child! It was too much to even consider. Maybe she could have Eliza come back every now and then to visit, or if she needed a little help around the house. Lisa glanced down at the hurt and confusion she could see her daughter still carrying around in her tiny shoulders and the wary way she seemed to be looking at the world now as she struggled to think of where it was Eliza- not Mama, Eliza, Lisa reiterated in her mind- could have gone to. Then again, maybe Eliza shouldn't come visit, or only visit at the times when Leigha was away at school. At least, until Leigha got more used to the idea of Eliza being gone and forgot this obsession with her.

Eventually Leigha did forget, to the Nord family's relief, but began to act out in other ways. She was fascinated by the beauty of the Black women she saw leaving hair salons or standing around family-owned businesses in the majority-Black sections of town when her mother or father would drive through them with the windows rolled up in their Suburban sedan. To her family's embarrassment she would wonder aloud at the brilliant colors or streaks shining out from ebony or deep brown waves of their smoothed hair, or about how much she wanted braids or curls like theirs. She would stare in fascination at the neon curves of their fingernails or marvel in appreciation of the brilliant underglow that deep brown skin can have or the sweet cream to mahogany complexion of some contrasting with waves of honey-colored hair in curls, twists, and braids piled on top of their head. Alarmed, her parents tried to curb this unhealthy obsession by exposing her to more Disney movies, Barbie dolls, books of fairytales, Brer Rabbit, and older Hollywood musicals. For a while these all appeared to have some positive effects against Leigha's abnormal association of Blackness with beauty, and the Nord family breathed a small sigh of relief.

But then, like her brother before her, Leigha was teased and ridiculed at the private Catholic school they attended. Unlike her brother before her, however, she found relief in staying away from the White students who made up the majority of the bullies and hung around instead with the other groups of similarly ostracized. Which, in this setting, was comprised mainly of Black students, with some Vietnamese and Latino. The Nord family just didn't know what to do.

Coming back from Church one day dressed in their Sunday finest, Lisa and her husband William speedwalked from the car into the house to loosen ties, kick off heels, and start on the Sunday dinner while Leigha and her younger brother raced to beat each other at climbing the holly tree majestically guarding their driveway entrance. As the two tried to beat each other at how high they could climb they argued and kicked and cried and threatened and cajoled, their sparkling clean flouncy dress with white stockings and neat blue suit shining with brass buttons getting crumpled, torn, and covered in dusty bark in the process. Hearing the commotion Stephen walked out to check on the two. Seeing them both precariously balanced on forks and limbs midway up the sturdy tree, Stephen had a moment of heart-stopping panic at being beaten for allowing his siblings to put themselves in such a dangerous situation, then out of fear began to act by yelling harshly at them.

"Leigha! Jules! Get down from there right now! You're gonna be in so much trouble if mom'n dad see you up there! Get down, now!!"

Startled and beginning to pout at Stephen's sharp voice, Jules' face started turning red as he squirmed and found out he didn't know how to get down, but was equally terrified of his brother's reprimand and getting a beating from his parents if they found him where he was. He tried to tell Stephen that he couldn't get down but didn't quite know how to explain it through all these scared emotions crowding his oversized four-year-old head, and so instead he started to really cry in frustration.

Aggravated at having to personally intervene when they should have know better than to climb the tree in the first place, Stephen sighed and easily plucked Jules from the bottom branches he was frozen on, then turned his annoyance onto his little sister who was watching him from higher up with a stubborn determination that she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of obedience.

"Leigha!" Stephen snapped, dropping Jules on the ground and swatting gently at his diapered behind with the command to go inside. "Leigha get down from there! I'm warnin you!"

Leigha sniffed dismissively and nonchalantly looked around. "I'm not ready to yet," she breezed, settling more firmly into her spot. She had actually reached the conclusion before Stephen came out that she should probably start climbing down now since she didn't feel she could go up any higher, but her brother's dominating attitude made her set her heels in and steadfastly refuse to comply.

"I'm gonna tell Dad!" he warned shrilly.

Leigha laughed at him. "Go ahead, go tell him. By the time you've gone an' gotten him I'll be down on th' ground already, an' then it'll be your word against mine. An' who do you think he'll b'lieve, huh?"

"He'll b'lieve me, not you," Stephen snapped with authority.

"Why? Cuz you're the oldest?"

"Yeah, and because I'm a guy. He knows he can trust me more'n you."

The slap of the insult made Leigha focus her willpower even more into not budging. "Hah, yeah right!" she sneered nastily. "That's what you'd like to think, idn't it? He'll give you a whuppin first for bein' the oldest an' not keepin' us from climbin' the tree, an' then he'll give me one after you've gotten the worst of it. But at least I'll have the satisfaction of watchin you cry!" And she laughed coldly at how red her brother's face was turning.

"I'm gonna tell!" Stephen shouted again, and this time he sounded determined. Leigha intuitively felt that she'd already crossed some dangerous unseen limit, but her pride and stubbornness propelled her further forward.

"What's so wrong with me being up here anyway, huh? Why is me bein up in this tree making you so mad, huh Stephen? What is it?"

"You're not supposed to be up there, that's why!" Stephen was looking angrier and angrier.

"Why not? Huh? Why am I not supposed to be up here?"

"Because you're a girl! You're not supposed to be climbing trees! You're not supposed to be doing any of th' things you keep doin'! You're not supposed to be runnin around with Black kids like you do at school- you're White, what are you even doing hanging around with them anyway?- and you're not supposed to be acting like some- some- guy, or some wigger like you're always doing all the time, running around with Jules or our neighbors Timothy and Guy and playing with bugs and climbing trees and playing hopscotch and double dutch with the Blacks! You should be inside helping clean and cook like a woman's supposed to, and hanging around with other decent White kids! What's wrong with you??"

Leigha sat very quietly, intently listening and watching her brother's rant. When he had finished unloading and was catching his breath, his face red from yelling and his hands clenched into fists at his side, Leigha swung one leg around to sit perched on the branch so she could better look down at her older brother. A small pressure, like the feeling you get when thunderstorms are building up, began to let itself be known in the areas behind her temples. Something deep within her felt like it was starting to wake up, pricked with some sharp feeling she would later label injustice and sliding about on top of layers upon layers of submerged memories. Very quietly and thoughtfully she tried to respond to it, and to her brother. "I'm not White," she said very calmly, mental images of Crayons lying on the table in front of her and their matching paper labels bubbling up into her mind. White was white like paper, white like the chipping paint on tombs, white like chalk. Black was black like asphalt, black like oil spilling from their car into the collecting pan underneath when their father was working on it, black like chalkboards so you could see the teacher's writing on it. She was not white, and her friends were not black. None of them fit either category. So what was she then? "I'm peach."

Her brother snorted derisively. "No, you're White," he said certainly.

Leigha's face screwed up, struggling internally with this contradiction. "No," she said, just as certainly. "I'm peach. See?" She held out her arm. "An' my friends are brown. But why's it a bad thing that I hang out with them an' play with them? The other kids tease us an' don' want t' play with enny of us, so we decide to play with each other instead. An' why shouldn't I play with Jules? He's our brother. Or Timothy or Guy? They're our friends. Why shouldn' I play with them? I've never heard Mom or Dad say anythin bout me not playin' with them before...they're the ones tellin me to go out 'n play anyway."

"You're so stupid, you don't even pay attention to what's bein' said to you, what's goin on around you. You don' lissen. Idiot. They jes keep hopin' one a these days you're gonna come around an' lissen to reason, lissen t' what they're really tellin' you, but you're too stupid to even notice. You're White, an' you're a girl, an' you're not supposed t' be doin' any of this stuff. You need to get back where you belong! They don't approve of you doin' stuff like this an' neither do I! An' I'm gonna show you- I'm tellin' Dad!" And with that, he ran off towards the house.

Suddenly terrified that he was right and of the whupping that she would get for it, Leigha flew down the tree trunk as fast as she could, further tearing up her now-grey stockings and dirtying her once-immaculate dress. She ran into the house after Stephen, rushing to get to their father first to wholesale deny anything Stephen would say about her, but by the time she came screeching to a halt in the living room Stephen was finishing up his story to their father.

William looked sternly over at his daughter stumbling to a halt, at the picture she made with twigs poking out of her now-mussed pigtails and dirty bark showing all over her dress and the holes in her once-white stockings. Leigha remained frozen as Stephen paused to glance over at her with a smirk dancing about the corners of his cupid's-bowlett lips and his clear blue eyes, then erased his face and earnestly continued on describing how rebellious Leigha was being.

Leigha was frozen in trepidation. Her father was a big man- big in stature, in weight, in voice, in personality, and in strictness. His character and voice were so ebullient in nature when he was in a good mood that it drew his children to him like metal filings to a magnet, laughing and convinced of their love for him because thinking anything else would have led to an all-too-true admission that their dedication to him stemmed more from fear of his violent punishments and stentorian voice of authority than from any sense of warmth and care. As Leigha held her hands behind her back and assumed a submissive downward-looking stance that effectively presented herself as offering to whatever judgment this pillar of bipolar swings between intense affection and intense violent hate would give her, her heart felt like it had stopped beating. She could feel the gloat in Stephen's voice without having to see his face, and it stung her as much as she knew the coming swats from her father would. What boiled beneath her skin most was the understanding that her father was aware of Stephen's manipulation for his own advancement, and that their father even seemed to encourage it by just laughing it off later while punishing the people Stephen tattled on in the moment.

Stephen breathlessly finished his tale with an accusing glance and the mention of Leigha not behaving "properly" and her hanging around the wrong people at school. In the weighty silence that followed Leigha felt that same stabbing sensation she had in the tree, felt something rustling deep within her- something that was at a level much deeper than bones- and had to bite down hard on her teeth and dig her fingernails deep into her palms to keep it from taking over her.

"So." The deep, commanding voice seemed to pronounce her sentence before it was even put into words. Guilty. "So, you don't see it fit to obey your brother, do you?" Leigha kept her eyes fixed on the carpet before her. "You think it's okay to just ignore him an' continue on doin' like you were before, even though you know he's actin' in your best interest, and that you're supposed to obey him like you would your father or mother in our absence? And as if this wasn't bad enough, you actually try t' defend yourself an' then make fun of him? Your older brother? Even though you know he has authority over you when we're not there? Am I unnerstannin' this correctly? Answer me, girl!"

Leigha felt as if her nails should be drawing blood by now. "Yes," she choked out in a whisper.

"What was that?!"

"Yessir," Leigha nearly strangled herself from fear and a burning sensation of what she could only describe as not-rightness.

William Nord seemed to take this as satisfactory enough. He laid his hand on Stephen's shoulder and watched carefully his daughter's bent figure. "Your brother here also tells me that this is becomin' something of a habit with you. That you've been runnin' around wild an' with a bad crowd at your school. Is this true?"

Leigha scowled at the accusation, hurt, trying to focus deep into the pile of the rug to keep the burning stings at her eyes from developing into tears. "I'm not running wild, an' they're not bad people. He jes' doesn' like them cuz he says that they're Black an' I'm White an' so I shouldn't be with them or like them in enny way, an' cuz he's angry that I'm playin' with guys an' not cookin' or cleanin' in the house like Mom does." She sturdied herself for the blow.

Instead there was a long silence. William removed his hand from his son's shoulder and moved closer to Leigha, but his actions didn't seem to diminish any the promise of her oncoming punishment. "That's very unfair of you to accuse your brother of such low thinkin' as that. If he says that the people you're hangin' out with are bad people, I'm sure he would know cuz he's older'n you and he's seen more'f them than you have. To say something like that, to make your brother sound as if he's one of these racists you see around you is a terrible thing, a terrible thing to accuse your brother of. Do you unnerstan' me, Leigha?" The weight of his voice threatened any further dissent would result in her sentence being administered before the full verdict was out.

"Yessir," Leigha whispered bitterly.

"What did you say?!"

"Yessir," Leigha responded a little louder.

"I don' like the tone you're sayin that in, y'unnerstan' me?"

"Yessir." Leigha tried to remove the pain from her voice the best she could, apprehensive of her father's slap if she didn't.

"That's better. We're tellin' you this for your own good, girl. I've noticed myself sumuf what you're brother's tellin' me, so know that we're not just comin' out of nowhere with this. You've been wildly misbehaving, an' your mother an' I've been seein' it ourselves. We thought in givin' you a lil' more freedom it'd be better for you and help you be more motivated in helpin' around the house more with your mother, but what we're seein' is not the case. Not only do you end up neglecting your chores in the house, you're runnin' around like some tomboy instead of the young lady you're supposed to be, goin' wild an' climbin' trees and dirtying your clothes- look at this! Look at this dirt! Whose gonna clean it, you? Or are you gonna end up havin' your mother clean it for you again, like you always do? Young ladies don't act like this- they jes' don' do it, y'hear me?!" William's voice crescendoed into a thundering boom that would not be denied.

"Yessir."

"Now I want you to start straightenin' up from now on, unnerstan? We've been spoilin' you far too much, an' it's plain t'see where it's goin' to. I want you to start b'havin' like a young lady, not like some, some wild Indian or a boy from off the streets, y'unnerstan?! You're a young lady, not some- some goddamn dyke or a whore. Learn to act like one."

Maybe being slapped would have been better, Leigha reasoned with herself, because these words stung in a different way that she didn't know how to weather. She had heard them before used against her mother as she watched the back-and-forth between her parents, watching them intently and mentally recording, ingraining, learning: This is how a woman acts towards a man. These are the consequences if she doesn't do it right. This is how a man and a woman are supposed to interact with each other. These are the consequences if the woman doesn't follow the rule of interactions right. Was this what it meant to be a young lady? Was this what it meant to be a woman, what she was or was supposed to be like? Why was it like this?

"But...but Dad, I've jes' been actin' like you told me to- I haven't done anythin' against what you said..."

"What?!" Her father's voice almost cracked, and Stephen stepped back, knowing just as well as Leigha what would come next. "You openly disobey and talk back to your brother an' now you're doin' it to me, too?! C'mere, girl, I'ma show you jes exackly what happens to know-it-all young girls who think they have it all figgered out an' don' have to act like a young lady should!!"

Leigha knew a line had definitely been crossed and was somewhat glad because it meant the violence of words would stop and the violence of a whuppin would begin. Watching the toll her father's words took on her mother and weighing the effects of her brother's and father's words on herself, she reasoned in the moment that the pain of the latter was probably a little easier to get over than the pain of the former. Turning her backside to her father to give him an easier target and thus evade greater repercussions, Leigha tensed her body to brace herself for the blows as her father's hand rose above the six-foot-four height of his head.