Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrongby Joan Steinau Lester
As a biracial teen, Nina is accustomed to a life of varied hues—mocha-colored skin, ringed brown hair streaked with red, a darker brother, a black father, a white mother. When her parents decide to divorce, the rainbow of Nina’s existence is reduced to a much starker reality. Shifting definitions and relationships are playing out/p>
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As a biracial teen, Nina is accustomed to a life of varied hues—mocha-colored skin, ringed brown hair streaked with red, a darker brother, a black father, a white mother. When her parents decide to divorce, the rainbow of Nina’s existence is reduced to a much starker reality. Shifting definitions and relationships are playing out all around her, and new boxes and lines seem to be getting drawn every day.
Between the fractures within her family and the racial tensions splintering her hometown, Nina feels caught in perpetual battle. Feeling stranded in the nowhere land between racial boundaries, and struggling for personal independence and identity, Nina turns to the story of her great-great-grandmother’s escape from slavery. Is there direction in the tale of her ancestor? Can Nina build her own compass when landmarks from her childhood stop guiding the way?
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BLACK, WHITE, OTHER
By Joan Steinau Lester
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Joan Steinau Lester
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI'm furiously heaving it all into my green suitcase—the black Nike sweatshirt that I live in, my favorite Oakland A's T-shirt, underwear, jeans, charger—all because I have to go to Dad's place. It'll be my first time staying overnight, and even though I'm fifteen, he never even asked, just called and told me I was coming tonight. Period.
Wow. "Fifteen" sounds good. I'm just getting used to it since my birthday last week. But my parents still treat me like I'm twelve.
"I don't want to go," I mutter when I'm halfway to the front door. Mom is curled on the couch under the lamp, head bent over the New Yorker and petting Rolling Stone, our cat we hardly ever see. Normally he only comes out from who knows where when it's time to eat, but he's lying by Mom as if he knows I'm leaving and wants to comfort her. I've seen tears in her eyes a few times lately, since Dad moved out.
Everybody says I'm the clone of my mom—except I'm the tall, tan version with "mocha skin," as Dad calls it, and Mom jokes that she's the short, white original. But it's true: we've both got red hair (mine's curlier and darker, with red highlights), the same perfect pitch, the same guitar licks. My face is wider and my cheekbones higher, but we sound exactly alike. When people call and I answer, they start, "Maggie ...," I have to interrupt with, "No, it's Nina."
Aretha's singing "chain, chain, chain. Chain of fools," and Mom's humming along, peering up at me. "You know we agreed," she says.
"No," I moan. "I never agreed, I was told. Why do I have to go? Don't I get a say in this?" Ever since the day last summer when everything went crazy, Mom and Dad have acted like I'm a robot they can simply program. "I wanna stay home."
"Look, sweetie." She pushes Rolling Stone off her lap. "He's your father. Plus, you haven't seen Jimi all week." I can tell exactly how Mom feels by simply listening to her breathing. Right now she's holding her breath, so I know she's lonesome. But what am I supposed to do? "Bye, sweetie," she says softly and glides over. "Give Jimi a hug—you can pass this one along." She grabs me.
"Call me when you get there, okay?"
"If I go. It's so unfair." If I can't be home, I want to be with my friends, the only sane people on the planet lately. "I could go over to Jessica's if you're trying to get rid of me."
She presses her lips into a line and slouches back to the couch.
Since I can tell this is a losing battle, I start toward the front door, but suddenly I freeze. The air feels different; what is it? Then I see what's missing: Dad's pictures, the ones from the bookshelves and the piano, and even the ones on the wall. He took the Paris prints and the photos of his parents, leaving spaces where the paint is lighter. When did he come to pick up his stuff? When I look back at Mom, she's tiny under the high ceiling of the room, nestled alone in the far corner of the couch. I could help her, keep her company, but here she is shoving me out the door.
I slam out, trying to bang the front door, which is hard since I'm dragging my suitcase.
I walk fast, the way I do, five blocks to the number 62 bus. Everything feels strange today; even the sun is an odd red color from the fire, as if marking the end of the universe as I know it. Just as I'm coming around the corner, I hear the bus roar up in front of the library steps, so I sprint through the smoky air and get there in time to see the green-striped bus glide past. I holler, only the driver doesn't hear or doesn't care. Since the light at the corner is still red, I dash over as the bus slows down, but it pulls away before I can bang on the door.
A few other girls are hanging out at the bus stop, laughing. I've seen them at school. One of 'em is shaking her head so her dreads wave around and the beads click against each other. I realize I'm staring, watching them strut and shoot each others' pictures, making silly faces, but they're not paying any attention to me. I wonder where they're going.
We all climb onto the next bus; they hop up first and prance to the back, talking and singing, clapping, taking up every inch of space with their giggles and loud voices. I sprawl out behind the driver, leaning back into the seat. I'm not there two minutes when something hits my shoulder and lands by my right foot: a wadded-up sheet of yellow paper. I whip around; the bus is empty, except for the girls laughing in the back.
"What are you looking at?" the smallest one asks with a wicked grin before she rolls her shoulder and turns her gaze out the window.
"You," I say, raising my eyebrows before I swivel my head back. But I add, sotto voce, "Don't do that again."
"Do what?" she snaps back at me.
"Throw stuff." I sigh, wondering if they're trying to be friends or only fooling around. While we roll along, I stare out the window. My neighborhood is so green it's like a park, with oak and maple shade trees, and lawns bordered by roses. Here, where El Camino Boulevard changes its name to Martin Luther King, storefronts sprout up. Cajun Fish, E-Z Credit, and Best Beauty Supplies. By the time I get to Dad's corner, everybody is black or Latino. Why did he have to move all the way to San Joaquin Boulevard, at the very edge of Canyon Valley?
I hop down at the corner of Muir Street—the three girls are still on the bus—and bump my suitcase down the steps. "Hey, good lookin'," a man calls out. He's old, moving slow. He doesn't look scary, but the three guys down the block do. They're leaning on a beat-up blue car, blowing puffs of smoke, with a radio blasting. I tighten my hand around the suitcase handle and cross to the other sidewalk, even though Dad lives on this side. The street is straight and broad, bordered by a few spindly oaks turning orange.
When the guys look over, I stride faster, holding my head up and shoulders back, trying to look cool. As if I'm just in a hurry to get someplace. "Hey ..." A shout, but I can't hear the rest of it due to the reggae. At the corner I almost run back two houses to Dad's, where a bunch of agapanthus, blue and white, line the sidewalk. I take the steps two at a time. Nine of them. That's my unlucky number, though it's Jessica's favorite. I shiver. When I look around behind me, the block is quiet except for the guys at the blue car and a truck rattling by. Dad's apartment is the top half of the house.
I press the buzzer over and over, but Dad doesn't open the door; he might be late since he had to pick up Jimi at school. Another reason I didn't need to come! Furiously, I dig into my pocket for his key ring. The first one, with the red-rubber cover, won't fit into the keyhole, no matter how I jiggle it, but the second one glides right in and turns. After I step into the hall, it smells different from home—the house that's Mom's and mine now, except when Jimi sleeps over. At home, as soon as I open the door, the sharp scent of ginger tea hits my nose. Mom slices up the root and steeps a pot of it every afternoon. This smell might be ham baking and—I sniff—something else I don't recognize. Strong, like garlic and onions. And cilantro. The landlady must be cooking downstairs.
When I get to the inside door I try the red-rubber key. It slides into the hole, but I can't get the lock to turn, even though I push, harder and harder. I stop and turn the key slowly, gently. The lock won't budge. I don't want to go back outside, not with those men, so I keep trying until my armpits are sweaty and my forehead is wet. "Take another crack at it," I can hear Mom's voice encouraging me.
Finally, I sit on the floor with my back against a wall, unzip the suitcase, and retrieve my American History book and a pen. After a minute, though, I can't see the writing on the page. Everything's a blur. I have to wipe my eyes and sniffle. I hate American History, especially this unit on antebellum life. Why do we have to study something that happened a million years ago? All of American history's stupid. It's never about anything useful.
* * *
"Nina." I hear Dad's voice before his hand shakes my shoulder. "Don't you have your key?" I jerk and look up. Was I dreaming? We were home, snug and warm, all four of us squeezed on the couch: Mom, Dad, Jimi, and me. I shudder and try to retrieve the cozy feeling, but in real life I remember where I am, and don't want to wake up.
"Nina!" Dad's pulling on one arm, and Jimi's tugging on the other.
"Hey," I say in Jimi's direction, glad to see his skinny little self, with his stupid braces. I can tell by his grin that he's happy to see me too, even though now that he turned ten he's not throwing his arms around me like he used to. "Double-digit dude!" I call. He leans backward, straining to pull me to my feet. "Hey, little dude, what's up?"
Jimi grins bigger, yanking my shoulder practically out of the socket. "Not little ..."
"Okay, okay, let go."
"Are you all right?" Dad asks. He pulls me in for a hug, squashing me against his broad chest. I'm mad that he ordered me over here, but now that I'm here I like being near him, smelling his sweat and Old Spice lotion. It's a familiar mix. He looks different though. He always kept his hair short; now it sticks out an inch all over, like a soft black helmet. His cheeks are wide like mine, so his head seems huge. And he's wearing a loose blue shirt that I've never seen.
"Yeah, I'm okay." I rub my eyes. "I fell asleep."
"I see. But, sugar, what are you doing out here?"
"I couldn't get in. The key wouldn't turn."
"Oh," he says, rubbing my shoulder. "It's tricky. I thought I told you. You have to use a light touch, and then it turns to the right. Like this." He demonstrates. "Re-e-a-l easy. You try it."
* * *
Once I'm inside, everything's familiar but changed. The same pictures we always had are here, but not where they should be. That big red oil painting by the couch: at home it hung over the fireplace. The photographs of Grandma Bettye and Grandpa James sit on a sparse shelf here, but at home they crowded the piano. And now, as soon as we pull off our sweaters and toss them onto a chair, Dad hurries over and flips on the TV, which he hardly ever did at home.
The gas explosions again, and the flames that are still burning block after block of houses. Dad frowns. "If it were white people"—is it my imagination, or does he turn his head and scowl at me?—"the Red Cross would be swarming by now. See that!" He thrusts his hand toward the TV, as if I'm arguing. "Look! Don't people ever learn? Those poor folks in West Oakland are gettin' it this time. Of course CG&E upgraded the pipes in the rich neighborhoods. But not in Oakland. Eighty-year-old welds! No underground shut-off valves! Nope, save money on the blacks in Oakland." His face is twisted like he's about to cry.
The blacks? I've never heard him spit out those words before with that bitter tone. Come on, Dad, I want to say, it could've happened anywhere. Two thousand people who lost their homes, lost everything; don't we see that in California after every earthquake, every fire? But I hold my tongue, not wanting to hear more from this heartbroken man who's inhabiting my dad's cheerful body.
There's footage of dark-skinned people hobbling through rubble, trying to find their way to shelter, and others fleeing the fire, which is spreading. We hear more explosions, and gunshots. Rescuers are finding trapped people, some dead, some miraculously alive, under the smoldering wreckage. One little boy is pulled out whimpering. Heavy smoke shrouds every picture. Then the TV shows two black women with blistered skin on their faces squatting in a vacant lot, surrounded by a pile of belongings and a knot of white cops. "There they are, with guns and uniforms ..." Dad gives a strange kind of laugh, not really a laugh at all. It's a sound I've never heard, more like a gurgle. "'Shoot on sight.' They should be digging people out, helping the fire fighters, not shooting innocent people." He shakes his head. Who is this dad? My dad always told me, "People are people." That we're all God's children underneath. The color of their skin is the last thing that's important. "It's the content of their character, like Dr. King taught us."
Since he's glued to the plumes of smoke, I plop into the brown easy chair that used to be in his study. If I sit still for a minute, my real dad will stroll through the door, place his hand on my shoulder, and say, Sugar, let's later this joint, and I'll hear his deep laugh, 'cause he loves to crack himself up with his tired old sayings. Even that lame joke would sound good to me now. Yeah, the fires are upsetting, even here the air is hazy, but why is he so mad? Accidents happen.
"I used to think I had enough Black Power to last a lifetime, before I was ten." Dad spins around, as if we were continuing a conversation. "Your grandparents..." —he shakes his head—"God bless 'em."
I know, I know, I want to say, but I don't dare. Last summer when my parents sent me to Atlanta for a week, like every summer, Grandma Bettye showed me a book she'd made for Dad when he was little, with a red paper cover. "Black is beautiful, like sisters, like brothers. Like night, like earth." She drew pictures too, of the night sky.
"I thought I'd had enough of that stuff," Dad says. "But it had its merits, and it might be time to bring it out again. This is unbelievable." He's pointing at the TV like it's evidence in a court case. "A white person at the front of a line"—his voice is strangled, as if he can't talk— "of hundreds of African American and Latino citizens waiting for two days for something to eat, for someplace to go. With no water! Old people, look at them. It's not like the gas company didn't have warning. They knew the old welds were vulnerable, everybody did. The Chronicle has been exposing it on the front page for the last five years. But CG&E didn't want to spend the money in Oakland."
He acts like I don't know about the explosions. I've seen the news. Everybody knows what happened. The newscasters are calling West Oakland a "war zone" with "unprecedented devastation" that will take years to undo. It's sad; of course it is. Nobody likes it, Dad.
Dad's grief-stricken eyes are glaring at me like I personally put that white woman at the front of the line. Where's Jimi? "Look at that," Dad repeats, as if that's all he can say tonight. He hunches over. "If I were walking down that street"—he points —"even Jimi and I wouldn't be safe, with those trigger-happy cops shooting at anything brown that moves." He grunts. "Fleeing while black."
"What's for dinner?" I ask, like I would at home, trying desperately to make this horrible new apartment, this scary, strange dad, feel like home.
He stares through me, mumbles something inaudible, and returns to the TV. "Look in the kitchen," he mutters. "They owe us, big time."
When I slink out of the living room, Dad doesn't even notice. I slip into Jimi's bedroom, crowded with two bureaus and a computer table. This room is gonna be mine now too, every other weekend. I can't imagine it.
I tiptoe up behind Jimi, who's staring at his computer, and land a good punch on his shoulder. When he looks up and laughs, with that milewide mouthful-of-silver grin, I figure I just might make it.
After an hour Dad bounds in, kind of twinkling in his old, familiar way even though he looks tired too, and all of a sudden the three of us squat on our haunches in a spontaneous huddle, hunched down with our arms tight around each others' shoulders, facing inward. After a long three-way smile, Dad shouts, "Go Armstrongs—here's to our new home," and we all burst up into a jump. Yeah, this is the Dad I know. Maybe I was imagining that other Dad. Though he probably did have a point. I never heard about a white neighborhood exploding and the fire department taking forever to get there so that blocks of houses burn for days, and hardly any ambulances arrive. And no food. I never thought about tragedies that way, about what town it happens in and how who lives there could determine whether people live or die.
Excerpted from BLACK, WHITE, OTHER by Joan Steinau Lester Copyright © 2011 by Joan Steinau Lester. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Joan Steinau Lester, Ed.D., is the author of three previous books, the most recent Mama’s Child, as well as Fire in My Soul, a civil rights biography of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Her first YA novel, Black, White, Other, was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. The former Executive Director of the Equity Institute, a national diversity consulting firm, she is also a frequent NPR commentator and print columnist.
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