I was in my freshman year of college when I heard, for the first time, a recording of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” I repeatedly listened to her sing both “Don’t Explain” and “Strange Fruit”—the former about a wayward lover, and the latter about the black victims of a murderous South. The images and moods in these two songs, the hushing and howling, Billie’s voice ringing with a huskiness my fingers could almost touch—all of it would merge in my mind until I saw lipstick smeared over twisted mouths and dead eyes bulging with hopes of greener pastures. I listened, again and again, until lovers’ bodies and bloody roots entwined, and a sweet rot emanated from my own mouth.
It seemed as though Billie were singing directly to our family. It seemed as though she were seeing us—the whole line of us, at least as far back as the age of Jim Crow.
Psychologists call it “trauma ghosting”—the body’s ability to “remember” a trauma that happened earlier in life or in an ancestor’s life. It can manifest as an extreme and inappropriate reaction to anything that “reminds” the body of that early trauma. I think about my aversion to the stage, how my body shakes from its innermost core at the prospect of a crowd in front of me. Perhaps my body sees an audience, senses it, and remembers a mob staring at my great-grandfather Burt as he is about to be lynched, or as another ancestor is being whipped in front of a crowd, or as another is standing on top of a platform being sold.
Let the dead bury the dead, Jesus said, but here I am: guilty of pining after my dead. Not knowing one’s story is like being buried alive. The living pretend they don’t know you’re under the soil, but there you are, plain as dirt, providing a foundation over which they trample and build and move on with their lives.
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A few weeks into my pregnancy, I dashed into my go-to import store, an open warehouse of a place filled with home interior fashions and art we so loosely exoticize, materials we cloak and surround ourselves with to feel worldly and cultured. It is a chain version of an export store, bringing “the world” to those of us who can’t regularly afford to travel to faraway places or frequent exclusive import/export boutiques. I was stopping by the store to pick up some small percussion instruments for a volunteer workshop I was teaching at an elementary school.
Inspired by Afro-Caribbean music, I named the workshop Drumming Up Words and intended to marry song, syllable counting, storytelling, and poetry with the beating and shaking of percussion instruments. To add to the collection of instruments that I was bringing from home—djembe drums, a wooden xylophone, rain sticks, a triangle, bells—I wanted to see if the store had a few small last-minute items, such as a tambourine or maracas.
In the small toy section, I spotted some tiny plastic-rimmed tambourines. Determined to find something better, I bent down and combed my eyes over the bottom shelf. Something jumped out at me: bright colors on shiny metallic. I picked up the toy and my heart skipped. My hand flew to my mouth. The word hangman was blazoned across the toy’s packaging.
I raised it closer to my face. No, my eyes were not playing tricks on me. The metal box contained a magnetic version of the game that so many of us played in grade school. Except the letters were painted on magnetic pieces waiting to be spelled correctly or else the child (five and older) would be hanged. Unlike the stick bodies of our long-ago drawings, the “man” in this game was a realistic depiction of a human: a half-smiling white cowboy, chin full of stubble, a wide hat on his head, a rope around his neck, and an incomplete body. The rest of his body parts were just waiting to meet him, courtesy of the loser.
“This is not okay,” I said aloud, straining to get up. “This is not okay.” I wanted to buy the game as proof but didn’t want to be caught buying it. A few people, at ease on that quiet afternoon, passed by me and glanced at my stricken face as I stood in the middle of the toy section with my mouth agape.
I pulled out my cell and took a picture of the hangman game.
I was grateful that I was not yet a mother. What if I had been with my child, innocently looking for toys, when we discovered the hangman game? What if my child begged and begged me for it, and I, still in shock, had to explain why we could never buy such a game? At least now I knew to watch out for it. At least now I knew that I could be in the middle of Los Angeles shopping at a store that promotes a “global” take on living and run smack dab into a reminder of lynchings, wrapped in shiny, cartoonish packaging.
At home, I opened my computer and searched for the hangman game on Amazon, and there it was, bright as day. Parents love it, starred reviews revealed. And the product description made no bones about the objective and consequences of the game: “Guess an incorrect letter, and a body part is added. Solve the word before you get hung!”
A take ’n’ play anywhere game. All for the price of $9.99.
A memory (what feels like a memory) comes to me:
A white boy is writing his name—Lloyd—and mine on a blackboard, drawing a line between us. The chalk squeaks and strains against the board as the boy creates another long vertical line—his hangman’s pole—and a series of short blank lines beneath it. He turns to me with a sneer and the most difficult phrase he can fathom locked in his head, which is covered with silvery blond hair and filled with tricks.
We are in second grade, and every year, we stand next to each other when it’s time to line up in alphabetical order. A veil of camaraderie has emerged from this mash-up, but we are not really friends.
I sit in the middle row surrounded by vacant desks, praying that my brain will fill in all the blanks of Lloyd’s person, place, or thing.
I glance out the window where the rest of our classmates are running and squealing with delight, their faces glowing with sweat. Why have I chosen to spend my recess in a cold, quiet classroom filled with the grin stretching across Lloyd’s face and the anxiety over losing pinching at my chest?
I call out the letter first because it seems to be a staple ingredient of most words, but there is no r, and there is not even a t—none of the usual standbys apply. Letter by letter, the boy hangs my errors, drawing in the body parts of the little stick person: head first, then neck, then right arm. If this boy were just a teeny bit nice, he’d give me facial features and fingers; he’d bless me with a triangle skirt, endowing me with more time.
I am stuck. I run out of the safe consonants and vowels. I feel caged and can sense my stomach sinking. Half of my stick body dangles on the edge of the pole as my opponent greedily waits to shout out my defeat.
I sit frozen in my bone-hard seat, feeling myself diminishing, centimeter by centimeter. The line extending from the expressionless, carved-out head on the blackboard is a vein in my neck.
But how was I losing? How was I losing to this boy—a C student?
I was the spelling bee champion. Our teacher, Mrs. Crain, had called me “smart,” and her praise had been like gold.
“Where’s Miss Spelling Bee now?” Lloyd teases as, time after time, he fills my stick body in on the chalked gurney.
“Hung!” he rings. I picture a little silver bell dangling at the back of his throat.
The word echoes through the room. Fear and saliva rise in my throat.
The school bell rings. The other kids trickle back into the classroom, moist and happy. Lloyd does not offer the answer to his puzzle, and I do not ask.
Better to not know what hanged me.
These ghosts of memories are scattered across the landscape of my childhood recollections, much of them inseparable from my imagination and interpretations. Unbeknownst to Lloyd and me, we were players in a game much bigger than us. Unlike our parents, our only school option was the integrated school. Our teacher was black. My mother’s high school had not integrated until the year after she left, in 1970.
I do not know if Lloyd’s parents had taught him about segregation, but already I knew my place. I was fighting against this unspoken yet pervasive contract. I was fighting, as stealthily and stubbornly as it was. Through the sheer power of my supposed brilliance in those early grade-school years, I was attempting to break out of the mold that had been set for me. I was smart, they said, my family and Mrs. Crain, but they were all black, and Lloyd had proven them wrong. If I couldn’t hold my brain up as a prize to say, Look, I am more than you say, what good was I?
Marcus and I spoke often about our childhood moments of feeling devalued, and we swore to shower our child with love and affirmations, impenetrable shields from the mental arrows that would one day come, long before we had to fear the path of bullets.
This muscle of building up a child was already formed in Marcus. I had witnessed him pumping up his older sons and trying to infuse them with the power of who they could be, even when they were slipping and drawn to the streets that had once swallowed him. Marcus had not had a father to guide him, so he was teaching himself how to gift fatherhood to his flesh and blood.
I was rushing against time to locate and pick up all my missing parts, the fragments of which I had not felt the need to really salvage because I had not had the responsibility of young black life under my hands.
I was woefully unprepared.
From We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane. Used with the permission of the Feminist Press. Copyright © 2021 by Cassandra Lane.