That Scrap Book
by Rachel Thomas
My mother has a scrap book that she keeps on the coffee table. There are pictures of my sisters and I with our cousins, all of our school photos, napkins and match books and coasters from retirement parties and graduations and weddings. This scrap book is full of things I don’t want to remember, things I’m not proud of, mementos of an unmemorable rural life. I have spent that life being told that I am better than African Americans, Latinos, Jews, and homosexuals. Sometimes I was told violently. Sometimes I was told earnestly. Whatever the mode of delivery, the refrain was the same: blacks could not be trusted, Puerto Ricans wanted to rape me, and that lesbians would try to convert me.
The first picture we see is six-year-old me standing in the dining room of our house, the pink of my sweatshirt clashing with the green window frame. We just moved in. My father’s voice booms out over the kitchen, not aggressive but not not aggressive. In this memory, I’m not sure if he’s in this picture. If he is, maybe he’s cut out of frame just slightly, but I know I’m standing by the window because the window plays a big part in this. My mother, I’m pretty sure, is sitting at the table.
“If you ever bring a black man home, I’m throwing you through that window.” My mother nods furiously in agreement.
I don’t understand the sexual context, the over sexualization of the statement, or even how or why I would bring a black man home. At six years old, I am more concerned with learning to tie my shoes than I am about interracial marriage. For a month, every day after school I am vigilant about checking my backpack for interloping black men. For a few weeks I have nightmares about being thrown through the window. I suspect now my father’s outburst must have had something to do with one of my many older cousins dating a mulatto boy, or as my father calls him to his face later that summer, a “mutt”. It’s 1991.
Years later, my parents inevitable divorce takes place, I ask my mother about that statement and its repetition over the years and why she sided with my father. Her response?
“He was my husband. I had to agree with him.”
My mother has a Southern Belle’s fear of black men which is ironic since she grew up in a rural town just outside of Poughkeepsie and raised us in the same area. As my sisters and I grow older and begin to date, she warns us about the lascivious sexual appetites of black men and their goal to “ruin” white girls. She cites my cousin and her ex-boyfriend, the mutt, for reference. Today my cousin is a successful web developer and married to a detective. They have four beautiful kids. Racism doesn’t always require accurately citing your sources.
This next photo is from 1993 and I’m eight years old at a school Christmas sing along. I trip coming off the choral risers because the cuff of my jeans get caught on the corner. The music teacher catches me with a smile and a pat. The bleachers are filled with parents ready to take their sugared up kids home for Christmas break. My father meets me, red in the face, and my mother tugs on his sleeve to prevent a scene. At this point I’m good at gauging shit storms and my mood plummets. I am in trouble. I don’t know for what, but the why of things has stopped mattering. We get to the car in silence. It is not until we are almost home when my father turns around.
“Does that jigaboo push you around a lot?” At eight, I find a strange pride in knowing a racial or derogatory term for almost every letter of the alphabet. I dawned on me that he assumed the black girl behind me, I think her name might have been Jennifer or Jessie, pushed me off the choral risers. I could say no, and he wouldn’t believe me. I could say yes and he’d blow up at me for not socking her in the face. I say nothing and eventually it blows over.
Go back almost a decade to 1989 and this memory is more yellowed, the edges of the photo paper rounded off. My mother and her Godmother are talking about leaving the small Methodist church they attended for almost a decade because of the new Korean minister and his weird smell. He smells so bad, according to my mother, that she can smell him all the way from the back of the church. I’m almost four and have a that annoying toddler instinct to repeat everything I hear. I say loudly in church the next Sunday that I didn’t smell anything funny. My mother recounts this story through out my life as if I came up with the idea our pastor smelled funny by myself.
This next photo jumps ahead to 2004 and I’m a senior in high school. My parents have given my sisters and I a sex talk that mostly included “don’t get pregnant” and a more aggressive refrain about being thrown through the dinning room window if we bring home black men. I have my own car and am friends with mostly gay guys and the nerdy girls who are madly in love with them. My purity is definitely not at stake. Band practice runs late one day and a friend asks me to give him a ride home. He’s a foot shorter than I am and about 25lbs lighter. His father is the town’s chief of police and he is black. His father is white. I drop him off and his African American mother waves from the porch as I wave back. I like his family, they’re nice people. He’s not my type though he’s asked me out before. My mother finds out about both the ride home from school and that he’s asked me out and takes my keys away for a month.
Jump forward two years and I’m in my sophomore year of college. There’s pixelation and smudges on the paper since I haven’t gotten the hang of printing pictures yet. I’m living in the dorms. My RA is black, the resident director is black, and the housing director is Latina. I have a white roommate and I’m embarrassingly relieved about this. We have a very diverse student body; a diversity that shocked me like cold water to the face at first but one that I’ve come to be comfortable in. I’m starting to realize that we are all human and that being afraid of people because of their appearances is something ignorant people do. After all, I no longer live with my family and I’m starting to see what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. I’m starting to learn that sometimes the people you call family are more dangerous than some black man walking behind you in a parking lot.
My seventh grade school picture from 1997. I have stopped smiling in school photos by now. My sister is dating a blond haired, blue eyed boy with the last name Martinez. He goes to our school and wears Carhart jackets and Dickies pants, he takes the first day of hunting season off every year. He wears a John Deere hat and is the president of Future Farmers of America. My mother works with his father, but my parents are still cautious – he might be Puerto Rican. My father hates Puerto Ricans more than he hates blacks, but only slightly more. The story he tells us is about his childhood in the verdant garden district of Vernon, New Jersey where migrant workers lived in shanties to help bring in harvests during the late 60s and 70s. One summer, my father recounts, they were “overrun” with Puerto Ricans. In his typical white rural clip, he pronounces it Purrt-Oh Rick-in. His beloved baby sister, my Aunt Helen, was 16 at the time and an absolute angel. She went missing one warm summer night and threw my Catholic grandparents into a panic. The men of the family searched the fields and the barns and came up empty. My aunt returned home bruised and scratched in the early morning hours and claimed she had been abducted by a group of “spics” and raped. The way my father tells the rest of this story makes a small crack in who I am. According to him, he, my grandfather, several of my great-uncles, and most of the men from the meandering clan of my father’s extended family descended on the shanty town where the migrant workers lived. They burned the shanties and bungalows, rounded up men of likely age and beat them. My father always smiles when he tells this story and this time is no different. “There are bodies,” he says. “There are bodies that won’t ever be found.” I am thirteen. My sister stops dating the Martinez boy.
This next snapshot is a bleary yellow polaroid of my father, his head ducked out of the shot last minute so his features are blurred. You can only clearly see an ear. To understand my father you need to understand failed machismo, the staggering weight a man bears when he’s incredibly intelligent, more than intelligent enough to realize how thoroughly he’s fucked up his own life. That’s the kind of machismo that makes you wish you’d actually killed someone when you hadn’t. My Aunt Helen and my grandmother recount this story for me when I’m 18. Their version is cleaner but just as malicious. Helen had been getting drunk with some boys from high school and ended up screwing one of them in a hayloft. They lost track of time and started smoking weed. She fell out of the hayloft and I guess falling ten feet onto handpicked dirt and hay jolted her into some type of sobriety and she realized how late it was. The fall from the hayloft gave her the bumps and scrapes she needed to pass off a rough night. She blamed it on an unfortunate group of teenage boys and my grandfather went berserk. According to my grandmother, he drove around until he found one abandoned bungalow and burned it. They broke some windows and my dad roughed up an unsuspecting Italian kid who had the misfortune of looking Puerto Rican. Nobody was killed, but both my aunt and grandmother think the story is funny. My grandmother had helped Aunt Helen come up with the lie so my grandfather didn’t kick her out.
“This is shameful. This is such a shameful time for this country,” my mother says with tears in her eyes. It’s 2008 and Barak Obama just won the Presidential Election. She says she’s upset because he’s a Democrat but I know it’s because he’s black. This picture is as smooth and clear as a professional portrait.
“Look. Just look at this! She has an Adam’s Apple!” My father-in-law waves a magazine in my face. He’s pointing to Michelle Obama. “She’s really a man. Look at that square jaw and monkey brow. She’s a man!” He laughs at his cleverness. “Michael Obama.” It’s 2012 and Barak Obama has been reelected President of the US. We hear this often.
A blurry 2009 cell phone picture of my first apartment. I’ve finished my first year at graduate school in a small city in New Jersey. I’m live 3 hours from home. My parent’s divorce is final. My mother and sister visit me to cheer themselves up. My apartment is small and secure. There are key codes to the front door, the stairwells and the elevator. From my window I can barely make out the spires of a Mosque. A family of Muslims live across the street from me. My sister sees the mother take her children for a walk and asks, fear flashing across her face, if we should call the police.
Two days after my wedding, my husband and I are cleaning up the yard and helping pack up the folding chairs as my mother talks to whoever is listening. She is talking about nonsensical things and then switches gears. “I’m glad Carrie didn’t come.” She’s talking about my sister’s best friend. I ask why, since she always like Carrie. My mother giggles, a hopeful look on her face mingled with a firm smile. She’s going to say something horrible and wants me to agree with her. “ She would have brought her kid. That halfbreed of hers. I’m sorry but it’s just wrong to have a black man’s baby.” The napkin I’m holding reads June 5th, 2015.
Some pages of this album have stuck together and we must peel them apart. I used too much glue for this photo, maybe on purpose, maybe to damage it. It’s one of my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversaries or maybe it’s someone’s retirement party. I don’t know. I’m making the rounds with my father, a huge smile on my face. He’s parading me around table to table and stopping conversations. “Listen to this joke my kid tells.” I’ve told this joke about five times and I feel prouder every time. A lot of my uncles are drunk and are giving me quarters or dollar bills for telling this joke. The joke goes like this:
A white man walks into a bar and sees three blacks sitting at the counter. He bets them that he’s stronger than they are. They take the bet and they go up the roof to settle it. The white man bets the first black man that he can’t jump off the roof of the bar and bounce. The man takes the bet and jumps. He dies. The second black man gets upset but the white guy holds him back and say “hey, watch me”. The white man proceeds to jump off the roof, bounce lightly off the pavement, and land without a scratch back on the roof. Emboldened, the next black man tries it and dies. The cycle repeats again with the third black man. A man inside the bar asks the owner what all the commotion is and the owner replies “oh, that’s just Superman fucking with a bunch of Niggers.” I am almost nine. I am wearing a blue dress.
This picture is a speckled and too-orange employee ID. An obese white man sits across from me. He has a noose tattooed on his forearm and swastikas on the knuckles of his right hand. He has needle tacks pocking the ink of the tattoos like bloody potholes. I’m helping him fill out a public assistance application that will allow him to receive safe housing, food stamps, and addiction services as well as enroll him in Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act has been in effect for five years. He is a felon. He injected his 8 months pregnant girlfriend with a lethal dose of heroin because he wanted her to party with him again like she did before she got pregnant. She lost the baby and almost died. I finish the application and tell him I don’t see any reason why he should be denied assistance. He gives me a level look. “Oh, it’ll be denied. Prob’ly because of some knocked up Mexican whore welfare rat. That’s why.”
It is summer and my hand is mostly covering the lens in this picture; you can see my bare feet and that I’m in that awkward stage of preadolescence where I need to be reminded to comb my hair and then defiantly don’t. I’m eleven and not old enough to stay home alone yet according to my father. I accompany him to a big building with marble columns. He files a bunch of paperwork and the lady behind the counter says she’s sorry for our circumstances and gives me a lollipop. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with our circumstances, but hey. Free lollipop. We drive forty-five minutes with the windows down and the greens and golds of the Hudson Valley splatter past. We get to another big building. My father pulls a back brace out of the back seat and wiggles it up over his beer belly. “Don’t say anything about the other lady to this lady, understand?” I nod because I don’t really care. I’m in the middle of a Goosebumps book and all I care about is what happens to the garden gnomes. My father files papers and I get another lollipop and more sympathy. A black man holds the door for us as we leave and my father sneers at him.
“That man has never worked a day in his life, I guarantee it.” Later on I will realize that my father was fraudulently cross filing unemployment and disability claims in multiple counties.
Filter free and with stunning clarity, this is a picture of a bright blue ocean. My husband and I don’t visit our relatives anymore, or at least we try not to. When we do we keep the visits short and direct the conversation as strongly as we can toward the weather (a hoax) our respective jobs or degrees (a waste). We scrape and save enough for small island honeymoon almost two years after our wedding. My father-in-law tells us not to go, that it’s dangerous for white people to leave American soil right now. There is no evidence of this that isn’t produced from Breitbartesque chatrooms.
This is a picture torn out of a magazine with a recipe on one side and an article for laser hair removal on the other. My grandmother saves articles she thinks we’re interested in. Towards the end, she gives us jaggedly torn shreds that cut the article in half or made no sense, or was a pull out add for men’s erectile dysfunction meds. I’m home from college for a long weekend. My sister and I take our grandmother out to lunch. Her dementia is getting worse and we shouldn’t have let her pick the restaurant. She thinks we’re at a diner she frequented back in the 90s. Same location, but now it’s an Applebees. From the parking lot I can see the MTA station and the commuters hustling back and forth, trying to keep warm on the platform. A group of young black men come in and are seated across from us. My grandmother locks up in fear. She won’t finish her lunch. My sister and I sit there, praying she doesn’t say anything.
These next two are audio clips. I talk to my mother about Treyvon Martin. She says it’s a shame he’s dead but it was his own fault. “They shouldn’t wear hoodies,” she says. “Or keep their hands in their pockets.” She’s turning sixty soon.
“They recommended that Tiffany be removed from the school.” My mother is telling me about my cousin’s daughter, who was in an altercation on her first day of first grade.
“What did she do?”
My mother laughs. “She said was she didn’t want to sit next to a dirty Mexican and then pushed the little girl out of the seat next to her.” The other little girl hit her head on the corner of the desk when she fell and needed stitches. This is left out of the story for me to find out later.
This last picture is dark. It is a dark alley from my apartment building to the parking garage. There is a small courtyard where the parking garage meets the building. Anemic trees stretch for light that hardly filters down between the two concrete walls, studded with exit doors and air conditioners. A young black man is leaning against the tree. I check my purse and realize I don’t have my phone or my mace. The young man is in a button down shirt and slacks. He’s smoking a cigarette and looking at his phone. I stop, he looks at me and my heart drops to my feet. I can’t get my keys out fast enough or run back into my building because that exit is a dead bolt that takes forever to open. He sees the panic on my face and sighs.
“I’m not going to hurt you, you know. I’m just on my break.” He says this like it’s for the fifth time tonight. I say nothing and shuffle past. The closer I get, I realize he’s probably in his teens. I’m 24.
The things I’m showing you are not things I’m proud of. It is a scrapbook of what I can’t ignore anymore. They are stories that hurt me to tell because I still love some of these people, even though I know they’re toxic. What strikes me the most, weights the heaviest, is my silence. The times I didn’t say anything, the times I didn’t stand up. My silence is probably my biggest privilege and was my only armor; if I hide and say nothing I will not be the target. The ability to shrug it off and say it isn’t my problem is woven around the cracks in the stone and mortar foundation of who I am.
We talk about racism as if it’s a past relic. As if it is something that has been taken out of context or as if it’s a conspiracy created keep poor white people down. This fall I watched the lid come off the can of all the worms I was fed during my childhood and I worry about my cousins’ children, I worry about my nieces and nephews. Racism is born of toxicity and anger and a need to destroy. It consumes people so much that they feel the need to tell their six year old that they’ll throw them through the window, and then years later brag about killing a man. Racism is human uranium and racists boil and burn until they become a tiny Chernobyl and that toxicity leaks out. They have to take it out on someone, that bullying, just like it was taken out on them. Racism, for all it’s ugliness and darkness, has turned on a light for me. Toxic people in my life have always exposed their toxicity by being racist. It’s subtle, a wink-wink-nudge-nudge glance or comment. It’s an assumed inclusion until told otherwise, its extreme offense at being called a racist while not being upset or outraged about real racial injustice.
I don’t know happened to my father to make him create a fantasy in which he kills a bunch of teenage migrants, but I can guess. My mother’s family makes jokes about my grandfather’s right hook, and about the fact that as a cop he called his night shifts “coon hunting.” Racism, like abuse, is systemic. It’s learned. And it won’t stop unless we stop – unless we question our parents, our beliefs. It will not end unless we stop it.