Being two different people is so exhausting. I’ve taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I’ve mastered it. As much as I say I don’t have to choose which Starr I am with Chris, maybe without realizing it, I have to an extent. Part of me feels like I can’t exist around people like him.
Chris and Maya walk through the gate, and my stomach gets all jittery. I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.” Shit is exhausting.
Mr. Lewis from the barbershop next door stands out front, his arms folded over his big belly. He sets his narrowed eyes on Daddy. Daddy sighs. “Here we go.” We hop out. Mr. Lewis gives some of the best haircuts in Garden Heights—Sekani’s high-top fade proves it—but Mr. Lewis himself wears an untidy Afro. His stomach blocks his view of his feet, and since his wife passed nobody tells him that his pants are too short and his socks don’t always match. Today one is striped and the other is argyle.
Daddy hums to Marvin, but he couldn’t carry a tune if it came in a box. He’s wearing a Lakers jersey and no shirt underneath, revealing tattoos all over his arms. One of my baby photos smiles back at me, permanently etched on his arm with Something to live for, something to die for written beneath it. Seven and Sekani are on his other arm with the same words beneath them. Love letters in the simplest form.
Cameron holds his grandma’s hand as he leads her into the living room like she’s the queen of the world in a housecoat. She looks thinner, but strong for somebody going through chemo and all of this. A scarf wrapped around her head adds to her majesty—an African queen, and we’re blessed to be in her presence. The rest of us stand.
“Wait,” Momma says. I peek out with one eye. Daddy does too. Momma never, ever interrupts prayer.
“Uh, baby,” says Daddy, “I was finishing up.”
“I have something to add. Lord, bless my mom, and thank you that she went into her retirement fund and gave us the money for the down payment. Help us turn the basement into a suite so she can stay here sometimes.”
“No, Lord,” Daddy says.
“Yes, Lord,” says Momma.
I get lost again as classmates and teachers that I don’t know are discussed. I can’t say anything. Doesn’t matter though. I’m invisible. I feel like that a lot around here. In the middle of them complaining about Denasia and their teachers, Kenya says something about getting another drink, and the three of them walk off without me. Suddenly I’m Eve in the Garden after she ate the fruit—it’s like I realize I’m naked. I’m by myself at a party I’m not even supposed to be at, where I barely know anybody. And the person I do know just left me hanging.
Something’s bugging me. I wanted to ask Uncle Carlos, but I couldn’t for some reason. Daddy’s different though. While Uncle Carlos somehow keeps impossible promises, Daddy keeps it real with me. “You think the cops want Khalil to have justice?” I ask. Thump-thump-thump. Thump . . . thump . . . thump. The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen—people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.
He wipes his nose before his lie.
“I don’t need help from nobody, okay? And that li’l minimum-wage job your pops gave me didn’t make nothing happen. I got tired of choosing between lights and food.”
“I thought your grandma was working.”
“She was. When she got sick, them clowns at the hospital claimed they’d work with her. Two months later, she wasn’t pulling her load on the job, ’cause when you’re going through chemo, you can’t pull big-ass garbage bins around. They fired her.” He shakes his head. “Funny, huh? The hospital fired her ’cause she was sick.”
It’s silent in the Impala except for Tupac asking who do you believe in? I don’t know.
Clearly a much better set of options could be provided to African Americans—and poor people of all colors—today. As historian Lerone Bennett Jr. eloquently reminds us, “a nation is a choice.” We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.