We arrived in late 2010 as an anomaly—conservative, Republican negroes; this, they’d begrudgingly allow as long as I said that my parents didn’t vote for Obama. They welcomed us with semi-open arms, with smiling eyes that’d flicker disdainfully every now and again. Our family was loved in this northern Virginia House of the Lord, though at an arm’s length.
I could say I started off normally in their sphere. I quietly took my seat on the first day of fourth grade—tall and boxed-shaped in the elementary school’s plaid jumper, ashy shins peeking out from underneath the hem. I became fast friends with a girl who couldn’t watch TV except on Christmas—who didn’t own pants, and whose mother was still having children well into her 50s. At recess we usually played horse, sometimes mommy. She was always kind enough to share her chocolate wafer cookies with me at lunch. Today, this early friend would probably see me as Beyoncé, the Anti-Christ, public enemy number one of the Christian church. But I was truly fond of those days, chewing honeysuckle at spring recess.
Beginning in the institution’s middle school marked the beginning of the end of my capacity to feel happiness. Their plain, modest uniforms were designed for their thin white daughters who’d be blossoming into wives for their thin white sons. The seams just didn’t fit right on a nappy-headed outcast with protruding mammy yams. Their gazes already held a sort of guarded disgust when I had bled for the first time in fifth grade, when I asked, with candied-beads in my hair, for products from the school secretary. Now the eyes of female teachers would glare at my thirteen-year-old chest, offended that I simply let those ghastly things hang there instead of making an effort to suck them back into my body—to be safely and soundly modest.
Sometimes we had visiting pastors. Not “Preacher,” the head of the school and church, who preached to us most Sundays—but visiting pastors, colleagues of his from the fundamental Baptist colleges dotting the south, institutions that ran up as far north as Virginia.
I remember one in particular who visited us for spring revival. Before the service, he bounded from pew to pew, shaking the hands of various people, shaking the hand of a poor woman still mourning the grief of her only son marrying a Latina.
The visitor had floppy jowls, a southern accent, squinty, pale-blue eyes and a keen tendency to think “eating too much food” jokes were hysterically funny.
Four or five times throughout his sermon he’d lean forward into the microphone, chuckling.
“Can I get an amen?”
And unironically, the rest men in the congregation, who looked exactly like him, would guffaw back, jowls flapping, and bellow from their beer bellies (they’re not allowed to drink actual beer, though), all in unison—“Amen!”
It’s true he continued to visit us countless times, and I’m certain it was the same man. Sometimes he’d be taller, sometimes he wore thick glasses—had more of a western accent rather than southern. His name would be different too, and he could never quite look my family in the eyes in the lobby after service. But I’m certain it was the same man.
There were people you’d call “normal” in my class, but there were quite a few who were kids of the teachers, youth pastors, general administration—kids who believed their family and themselves to be pioneers of a “new and righteous” American Dream.
Should you turn around in your desk and ask them what time period they’d adore, almost always they’d blurt the 50s. Of course, they would: there’d be no more apes on the basketball court, no illegal immigrants in Spanish class, no whores acing the Calculus exam, and certainly no Monkey Luther King.
I sampled a new flavor of human disdain during an apologetics class in my junior year. I think the real purpose of the class was to train Baptists to be able to lose an argument to an atheist in sixty seconds than the standard ten and a half.
I’ll never forget in our time studying “Errant Cults,” we watched a cartoon video on Mormon theology.
My white peers sat comfortably as they were told the good angels were blessed with blonde hair, blue eyes, and porcelain skin. At my desk, I was too mortified to even look up as the narrator then described bad angels transforming into ugly furry creatures with wicked grins and black skin from Satan—evil monsters called Negroes.
After the video finished, the teacher cleared his throat and told us it would be blasphemous for Baptists to behave that way.
Yet, to this day, I wasn’t quite sure if it was on purpose when he ran a hand through his blondish buzz cut on the way back to his desk, blinked his blue eyes with emphasis.
Maybe the old man in the sky has the receipt stored away somewhere—printed information documenting a teacher’s silent prayer of thanks for non-brown skin.
Ursilia Beckles is a sophomore at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and a student in the Honors College. At Virginia Tech, she is pursuing a degree in English pre-education and works as a research assistant in VTLx, Virginia Tech’s linguistics lab. As an emerging writer and aspiring anthropologist, she continues to gather inspiration from her favorite authors: Frank McCourt, James Baldwin, and Dorothy Allison.