She, Fat Brat, was never allowed to say the word “nigger” as a child. It was the worst word. It was a word never used in jest or joking, in casual greeting or slicing insult. After all, her family was the High-Yellow Clan. Marked them different from other Black folks. Her mother, Pretty Mama, had hair like a shiny black river of waves rippling like she was from some distant island. Uncle Philosopher’s pale skin and slick hair was built more for accusations of terrorist post-911 than niggerdom. Lil Baby’s coarse hair was a small clue to the Blackness swimming in the banana of her smooth skin. Mixed and all looking different from each other. Mixed and separated. DNA tossed like dice.
The High-Yellow Clan never said nigger in their house, never called each other nigger. Fat Brat got called Aunt Jemima by the White kids and Oreo by the Black kids. Looking around at the pale yellow of the generation before her, Fat Brat bemoaned how ordinary she was in comparison to them. Hair frizzy instead of wavy and smooth, skin more caramel than café au lait and the only clue to the myriad races in her blood held in hazel eyes diluted by glasses thicker than mason jars. The secret was that those hazel eyes and her girth were from her all-the-way Black father, Long Goner, and not from her mixed mama. Fat Brat was technically a Goner, not a Pretty or a Jazzy or a Baby. The Coca-Cola swivel in Pretty Mama’s hips and the tall bustiness of Nana Jazzy and Lil Baby had skipped her entirely.
When she was little, none of this really mattered. Nana Jazzy was Nana Jazzy, making cookies and fudge at Christmas. They’d walk to the corner grocery store to pick up a piece of liver for dinner or some fish, walk to the Methodist church up the block on Sundays, walk and talk and laugh. They were best friends in those days. Spent every day together. Nana Jazzy smoked Benson & Hedges and both of them drank coffee, even though Fat Brat was only three. They spent mornings watching The Price Is Right and soap operas and spent afternoons making art from macaroni and glitter and watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
Where they lived, in South Deering, in Trumbull Park, the steel mills were shutting down. On that far and much-fabled East side of Chicago, Indiana was right over the bridge and everybody was poor. Blocks littered with glittering bits of broken glass and shaved metal stretched long, dark and empty, tall grass and rust begging to strip the flesh of lost children.
Fat Brat had no idea that they were so poor that they lived in the projects. No idea that her Nana Jazzy was White, Jewish and full of pills and bitterness and pain. Fat Brat had no idea that she was Black, not really like her mother, who was mixed and not at all like her grandmother, Nana Jazzy. No idea that each of these designations, these boxes on forms that they will each check and check and check will keep them strangers to each other, unable to get inside any of the others’ experiences.
Nigger wasn’t who they were until her Nana Jazzy got older, got dementia and lost the filter that kept this word from her White tongue. Once the seal broke, Nana Jazzy talked about who she really was, who she wanted to be, who she became. Nana Jazzy cackled one night in her sickbed, “I’m gon’ write a book about my life and it’s gon’ be called ‘Nigger in Sheep’s Clothing’ and Bette Midler’s gon’ play me in the movie!” The laughter that followed came from somewhere deep in her gut, some place down dark where she felt the children she’d borne by two different Black men redefined who she was to the world, to herself. Gave birth to a family of niggers who’d had more niggers and now all she had left were niggers, so she must be a nigger, too, no matter how pale her skin.
The High-Yellow Clan spent their lives running from that word “nigger,” though it was all in their blood. All in the stories of how the generations back in Baton Rouge ran the bootlegging game, how Chef Asshole came back from WWII to find his wife in bed with a man she claimed was her cousin but wasn’t no relation and beat them both so bad that he was run out of Baton Rouge, forbidden to ever return, how Nana Jazzy had an affair with the neighbor next door, how Uncle Philosopher sold drugs, did drugs, stole shit, went to prison, got out, went back, got married and ended up a single father in his 60s, how Pretty Mama drank away her sorrows and broken heart before she decided to get her shit together, be responsible and marry Mr. Slick Blowhard who turned out to be a murderer, how Lil Baby was always treated worse because her hair was nappy and how not one of them had parents who were legally married, a mother and father who loved each other and them. Fat Brat herself had questions about the father she’d never met. Fat Brat somehow knew to keep those questions about Goner to herself because whatever happened between him and Pretty Mama was so bad that no one ever spoke of it.
The irony is that none of the above belongs exclusively to Black folks or poor folks or mixed folks. Not a bit of it is confined or defined by the word “nigger,” but they still tried to outrun it with nice clothes and slick furniture that had to be replaced every time Chef Asshole kicked Nana Jazzy’s ass and they got blood on the couch or broke the coffee table. They tried to become White, beautiful sheep with no dark thing showing through, except the fun parts. Rhythm, style, swagger, flair. Curse elegantly, threaten to call lawyers who don’t exist, charge it all and borrow today’s ego from tomorrow’s regrets. Never show pain unless it profits you to pimp your own lack, your poverty, your miserable circumstances, then laugh as if none of it matters while your friends laugh along with you.
99% of the universe is dark matter. As a teacher once said to Fat Brat, one drop of Black blood in you means you’re Black, you’re Black and you’re always gon’ be Black. Slaughter the sheep and confess the dark matter. None of us are the good ones.