Probably the most fun teaching writing I’ve ever had is with the Insight Program at the University of Chicago’s Graham School. The students are brilliant high schoolers who come from all over to Hyde Park for three intense weeks. I think about them all year long because, no matter what else I’m doing, they set a particularly high mark. In fact, I frequently try stuff on them I later use on college kids – they’re that talented and that great.
This summer, my Insight kids were their usual brainy selves, but also just a talkative, active, head-spinning bunch overflowing with talent. We did our usual stuff about point of view, conflict and characterization but this time we did something a little different.
Because the University of Chicago is neighbors with the DuSable Museum of African American History (740 E. 56th Place), we got to see an exhibit called “The Black Panthers: Making Sense of History,” which marked the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Party, and we used it as a jumping off point – a prompt, if you will – to write stories.
The exhibit, which runs through this Friday, has more than 50 historic photos, news footage, interviews and other artifacts. My Insight kids were asked to get outside their young 21st century selves and dig deep to tell tales from the point of view of someone living through the 1960s and in close proximity to the Panthers. What they wrote was fiction but had to be based on research prompted by the DuSable exhibit.
The truth is, I got nine fantastic stories. But I promised I’d publish at least one. And so that’s what I’m going to do. It’s written by Jenny Davis, a 15 year-old New Yorker. I promise, she’s going to knock you out.
By Jenny Davis
July 4th, 1939, Birmingham, Alabama
I was not a beautiful child. Sturdy and robust, I longed to be tall and thin with legs that extended for miles. My grandmother had passed on to me her straw-colored hair that, much to my avail, refused to curl under any circumstances; I slept with magazines under my pillow for years before I realized that a cutout of Vivien Leigh would not bestow upon me tumbling black locks and creamy skin. From my father I inherited teeth that protruded out of my mouth, making me resemble a bunny, and from my mother vision that required thick, cumbersome lenses to correct.
During cool summer nights I slept under the Alabama stars in the backyard of my parents’ suburban home, negotiating with God. The deals we made included exchanging my new bicycle for curly chestnut hair, my dolls for catlike green eyes, even our wood-paneled library for snow-colored skin and a small, perky nose like Vivien’s. Obviously I had just seen Gone with the Wind. My friends and I had spent recess under the oaks behind our elementary school absorbing Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece for weeks in preparation for the long-anticipated movie. The four of us had sat open-mouthed in the dark, marveling at Scarlett’s Georgian mansion, Tara. I closed my eyes during those nights and imagined myself dancing with Rhett Butler at an Atlanta masquerade, my dress, hand-sewn from the curtains that hung in my living room, rustling on the polished floor.
I stared down at my hot dog during our annual Fourth of July picnic at my grandmother’s house, contemplating whether one more bite would make me look like a tomato in my bathing suit. My mother, especially thin in a white cocktail dress, chattered with a cigarette perched between her fingers and a martini glass swishing in her left hand. Like me, she required glasses to see clearly; she refused to wear hers, though, causing her to squint at people as if they were mere specs on the horizon.
Suddenly I heard a shriek from the pigpen my grandmother kept in the backyard. Grandma darted in between astonished red, white, and blue-clad guests, arms outstretched to capture an enormous pig, waddling his way across the yard. His thick pink skin swayed gently as he ran, shiny black hooves crushing the grass below as he snorted along, the taste of freedom casting a small smile on his rubbery lips. My grandmother was an animal lover and did not kill her myriad of farm friends; no, she kept them as pets.
My parents called my father’s mother “eccentric” when they were feeling polite and “unfit to live on her own” when they were annoyed by the neighbors’ complaints of her round-the-clock banjo strumming. Although she had married a wealthy older man, she insisted on reliving her rural Alabama childhood in her old age. A pond, covered in lily pads, was her favored swimming spot, which she called her swimming hole.
I abandoned my hotdog and stood unsteadily. Capturing the pig was my forte. Huge cottony clouds stretched across the enormous sky, as thin and dispersed as a spider’s web. The expansive back side of the mansion loomed over the slightly shaded yard, almost swaying in the whispering breeze. I tore a piece of bread off the bun of my hot dog and slowly approached the pig, who stared at me with small, black beady eyes that challenged every move I made. As I leapt left, he dodged right. Dangling my bread in front of his tongue, which wagged out of the corner of his mouth, I led him to the pond, tantalizing him as only I knew how. His eyes bulged with excitement at the prospect of getting both a swim and bread in one day.
“Come on, Piggie,” I cooed, making kissing sounds. I caught my grandmother’s face behind the pig, her jowly cheeks nodding up and down in encouragement.
The pig leapt for the bread, his talon-like hooves sinking into my arms as he pushed us both backwards. We landed with a huge splash in the pond, sending a few frogs flying in the air, ribbeting furiously. The water was warm from the sun and smelled like death. I felt it, squishy with algae and microorganisms, sink into my clothes and seep into my ears, nose, mouth and eyes. I swallowed, the thick water creeping down my esophagus and waging war with the acid in my stomach. Head still submerged I flailed my arms uselessly, feet kicking slowly as I began to sink. I was too frightened to even register terror. I couldn’t swim, and had refused to learn to even float on my back. The ache of oxygen deprivation shot through my chest and dragged me downwards, nails and fingers frantically searching the surface for my rescuer. I dragged down lily pads instead, crumpling the delicate leaves in my fists. The depths of the ten-foot pond were probably not shark-infested but I panicked, thrashing and gulping in desperation.
Suddenly a pair of hands was around my waist, strong hands that pulled me out so fast I thought God was taking me up to heaven. I quickly reviewed my life, starting with birth. I had been a colicky baby, skinny and allergic to everything but air and water. I mentally passed through my toddler years, all the blocks I had cracked on my sister’s head, all the times I had shot marbles under the radiator and forgotten to remove them until Grandma slipped on one and broke her hip. At nine years old I believed myself to be innocent. Surely there was a spot in heaven, a golden chair inscribed with “Minna Lou Levy,” just waiting for me. I closed my eyes and breathed in the fresh air, aware of my guardian angel’s skillful hands removing a piece of scraggly plant from my cheek.
Hands pushed on my stomach, hard, and I felt a sudden rush as its contents emptied, leaving me deflated, panting on the grass. Groggily opening one stinging eye, I could see that my guardian angel was not, in fact, in a white gown with soft yellow curls, but Gus, the teenaged son of my grandmother’s maid, Beryl. At thirteen Gus already had thick dark eyebrows and a sturdy nose that seemed molded from clay. The thirty guests at the party breathed a collective sigh of relief. My sister, Sophie, age seven, snickered. Of course she looked adorable in the American flag dress Beryl had sewn especially for this occasion.
“Minnie?” Gus asked. And it was only then that I was aware that his hand was still under my back, supporting me.
February 28th, 1967, West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
This morning Willa left for school with dark brown hair and came back a blonde. I didn’t recognize my own teenager as she sauntered through the door, dropped her book bag , and started for her room. I honestly thought an intruder had entered the house and was reaching for the extension when my daughter turned to face me.
“What?” she asked, annoyed.
Beryl, who had been husking corn with me at the counter, shot over a look that made my stomach gurgle. Having taken to wearing traditional African apparel in support of Gus’s newfound passion, Beryl wrapped her head in a colorful Ashanti headscarf that exposed her huge dark eyes and enormous cheeks. She stared at Willa, her granddaughter, shook her head, and turned back to the corn.
I wiped my hands on my apron and approached my oldest daughter, almost afraid to touch her hair. I could feel the cold breeze from the open door enter the house and creep up the short sleeves of my blue dress.
“Honey, what did you do to your hair?” I peered intently into Willa’s face. Her cheeks, the color of pecans, were dotted with faint freckles that skipped over her perky nose. The exact nose I had wished for relentlessly as a child, and later grew into during high school. Suddenly I thought of my childhood, of bargaining with God.
“I bleached it. Can I go now?” Willa shifted positions, her stocking feet barely making noise on the floor. She weighed too little for a thirteen year-old, with legs as thin as a flamingo’s and skinny arms hanging off her body as if they were attached by springs. A black skirt and stockings, short-sleeved white shirt, and black beret were required at her junior high school, but like all of the eighth graders she had shirked the beret after fifth period. I noticed her skirt was rolled higher than I would have liked, but I reminded myself that we had bigger fish to fry.
“I know, Willa. Why did you bleach it?”
She flipped a stiff chunk of blonde hair over her shoulder as if my questions were as unending as ones asked in an FBI investigation. “I wanted to be blonde. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to be blonde?”
“Sweetie….” I attempted to take her arm, to lead her over to the sofa where we could talk about her feelings. Obviously the poor child was, as all the parenting books and child psychologists had predicted, going through an identity crisis. Before I could touch her a small wail echoed from the nursery down the hall. Willa took the opportunity to escape, swishing up the stairs heavily as the baby’s cries grew louder and louder.
I heard Beryl let out a soft “Hmm” before the sound of her tough hands smoothing the yellow silk off the corn resumed. The golden threads, shiny and thin, gathered in a pile near her left elbow.
I wanted to go to sleep on the sofa and never wake up. I had given birth to my third child, a boy, Willie, exactly four weeks ago. After my maternity leave was up, I would leave the baby in Beryl’s experienced hands and return to my job at Walnut Hill elementary school. Right now a roomful of rowdy fourth graders seemed easier to handle than my own children.
I felt guilty for letting Willie cry for so long—what if he was choking or suffocating or worse? I reached the nursery and scooped the wailing infant into my arms. Immediately he quieted, emitting a small, contented sigh before resuming his slumber. His soft cheek nuzzled my bare arm and his tiny mouth moved in precious circles, as if he was dreaming about sucking on a bottle. I kissed the baby’s silky forehead before laying him down in the crib and slinking out of the room.
When I returned to the kitchen, Wanda, my middle child, in fifth grade at Walnut Hill, was sitting at the counter talking animatedly to Beryl, who looked like she wanted to give her granddaughter’s lips a few good swipes with the cheesegrater. Wanda’s black beret was perched perfectly on her small head, and I noticed a sheet of homework was spread out beside the unhusked bag of corn. Wanda wanted to be a teacher like me, and she studied diligently. Willa had her heart set on becoming an actress, but although she certainly possessed a dramatic flair, after watching her perform in her school’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I had to admit that odds were not in her favor. My daughter recited Helena’s lines like her pants were on fire.
Guilty thoughts. I sucked in my cheeks to erase my smile and smoothed the skirt of my dress before checking the clock. Gus should have arrived twenty minutes ago, but what with the traffic no one could predict these things. I stepped into the bathroom and stared at my face in the mirror. High school had been good to me, turning my hair from straw to gold and allowing my face to grow into my nose and teeth. The ends of my shoulder-length hair still curled upwards but that was the fashion now. Pregnancy had given me a glow that colored my cheeks even in the dead of winter. I dabbed some makeup under my eyes to hide the clownish purple circles and fixed a bright smile on my face. Time to deal with Willa.
I knocked hesitantly on my daughter’s door, aware of my shaking hand. It felt ridiculous to be scared of my own children, as if I was disturbing a sleeping lion instead of a teenager. Willa flung the door open to reveal a week’s worth of laundry strewn over the floor and a record loudly playing the Jackson 5. Wanda’s bed was made up and her schoolbooks were stacked on her desk. A single pair of black stockings dangled over a post on Willa’s? bed, a backup should she tear the ones she currently wore.
“Yes?” Willa leaned into the hallway, pressed to the door, creating a barrier in between her bedroom and me.
“Shall we talk?” I gestured stupidly into the room.
“Fine.” She scuffled across the floor and turned the record player down slightly. It was a start.
“Homework done?” I asked hopefully. Wrong question.
“God, Mom, I’ll do it, okay?” She began to pick at her thumb angrily.
We stared at each other in silence. My daughter was suddenly a foreigner, an exchange student who I couldn’t reach through the language barrier. The thought terrified me and I pushed it out of my head.
“Why did you bleach your hair?”
“God, I already told you.”
I waited in silence. It was a tip I learned for disciplining children. The longer you stayed quiet, the more they talked. And just as it had cracked countless hallway runners and gum chewers, it cracked my daughter.
Willa began to speak. “I wanted to be blonde. You always say that because I’m both I get to be whoever I want to be. And I choose this hair.”
It was hard to argue with her logic. But how did one tell her daughter she looked like a long skinny stick with an exotic yellow caterpillar perched atop it?
“Biracial means I’m two races. White and Black. And I choose White.”
I wanted to put my arm around her shoulders in a show of solidarity. How could I tell her that I understood how she felt? All those ethnicity cards she had to fill out for school. Black, she always chose, because her father thought it was important, but I imagined the poor thing trying to decide. She wanted things to be easy. She wanted a choice, a line that divided, a line that separated and distanced. She wanted to stand on one side of that line and belong to a group, white or black, that lived and breathed together.
I wanted to tell her what it was like to become a parent for the first time, to know that a part of me and Gus had created a cell that was both tiny and enormous. I wanted to tell her that when she was inside of me, I changed because she had lived in me, needed my blood to survive. Only nobody could see that I too was biracial. My children were the most beautiful part of my life. In being neither my husband nor me—nothing—they managed to become absolutely everything. Sometimes they were the only things that allowed our family to stand on the middle of the line that separated white from black. Only this line was a tightrope on which our feet trembled and swayed, forcing us to grab each other to keep from falling. On either side of the rope, underneath the long stretch of wire, battles were fought and wars were waged, but as long as we could keep our balance we were completely sheltered walking in the sky, our feet miles above the chaos.
That night I dreamed I was standing at the 30th street station in Philadelphia, along the yellow barrier that protected me and my children from the approaching train. As if fugitives from a foreign country, we all wielded suitcases and dressed in thick Ellis Island-style tweed coats and colored headscarves like the ones I’d found in Beryl’s laundry. Suddenly a black panther approached us, stalking up to us, shoulder blades shifting and yellow eyes glowing. His padded claws clutched the concrete ground as if used to a fertile jungle floor. He was so close I could hear his slow raspy breaths as he approached Willie, in my arms. I saw the wiry whiskers tickle my baby’s squashy cheeks and the wet black nose press itself against my child’s. Wanda handed me a crowbar stealthily. I had no idea where it came from. It was time for me to protect my family. I shut my eyes and brought down the bar, heart jumping and blood running to my face. Just before the crowbar made impact I jolted awake and shot up in bed, my heart beating out the Black Panther revolution song.
Gus let out a heavy sigh and rolled over in his sleep. He’d come in late last night, after we’d finished dinner, and I served him silently in the living room, pretending not to notice his crooked glasses and slightly cut lip. A lawyer, Gus had recently taken time off work to devote himself to the cause. Beryl approved wholeheartedly, of course.
I reached for my husband’s arm and ran my hands over it as if to warm myself although I could hear the radiator cranking out heat. I explored the dark contours of his bicep, the tough elbow that had been pressed into desks and slammed on tables. His hands were strong, too, with thick fingernails cut straight across the tops. I remembered the strong arms that had held me as a child, pushed down on my chest to release the poison that had threatened to drag me down into the dark unknown. They could protect me from a greedy pig lunging for food, but it had become my job to defend my children against the ferocious panther of my dreams. Now his arm looked stronger, more impressive, less inherently and unconditionally good. I was suddenly terrified that the arm, lying limply but powerfully across me, would begin to take me down with it.
I watched his chest rise and fall in the near-darkness before slipping out of bed and creeping through the silent house until I reached the nursery. Willie was limp as I lifted him gently and sat us down on the rocking chair. I marveled over his fingernails, barely big enough to grab at, much less hold onto, anything. Scooping up the baby I carried him quietly upstairs and pushed open Wanda and Willa’s door. Both of my daughters slept silently, their heads peeking out from behind masses of comforter. Willie dreaming of pacifiers in my arms, I stood watching my children. The four of us would teeter along the tightrope until the wire gave way to flat earth and all around us was sky.
Jenny Davis is a rising sophomore at the Chapin School in Manhattan. She is passionate about writing, baking, and animal rights and is very interested in the 1960s-1970s African-American movement.