Things My Father Said To Me

“I won’t be happy if you ever bring a black guy home.”

We were eating dinner, and nobody was talking about boyfriends or black guys. He looked at me, this dad of mine, his head resting on plump dark fists pushed together like bear paws, his elbows triangled on the table.

“Oh-kaaaay.” I tried out the nasal quality of my fourteen year old voice.

“Nobody was asking.” Now, the haughtiest quality.

“We’re so proud of you.” There was a weird hint of a second sentence, a buried sentiment that was dark and critical and forbidden on the day of one’s high school graduation.

“Why? I didn’t do anything,” I sneered. Stupid flowers.

“You know, smart people usually have poor handwriting. And people with neat handwriting are stupid.”

I was seven. I pondered the validity of this comment for years until it occurred to me that my dad was trying to make me feel better about my inability to write in cursive.

We were driving, and it wasn’t raining. We passed a billboard with an ugly child on it, and I mentioned with disgust that the boy was ugly.

“Why?” My father couldn’t just accept that some things simply are.

“Because he’s dirty.”

The next day, my mother–probing at first, then plainly demanding–asked me why I thought the billboard boy was ugly. “His face was dirty”. “You mean, dark?” “No, just dirty, and he looks mean.”

My mother gently told me that Daddy was upset because he thought that I didn’t like the color of the boy’s skin. “I don’t. He’s dirty.”

“You mean, because he’s black? Daddy thinks you don’t like his face because he’s a black boy, and we just–”

“He has dirty bruises! He’s mean!” The ad was an awareness campaign for child abuse.

“Oh…” Relieved laughter.

“What’s black?”