by Lourdes Dolores Follins
I’m almost ten years old and for the past two years, I’ve gone away to Girl Scout sleepaway camp for the entire summer—nine weeks! When school ends, I’m excited about seeing my friends from camp, as well as being away from my parents and the two of my four step-brothers who still live at home. Camp usually begins a week after the last day of school, but Mom hasn’t told me to start packing yet.
One Saturday morning, after I finish watching my cartoons alone in the living room, but before the Abbott and Costello show starts, I corner Mom in the kitchen. Even though I’m really into my shows, during the commercials, I remember that camp’s coming. Dad has gone upstairs to my parents’ bedroom to finish reading the newspapers, while Marshall and Little Harold have gone out somewhere. When I walk into the kitchen, I notice how determined Mom looks. Her thin, dark brown eyebrows look like they’re knit together, she’s frowning, and her light blue cotton nightgown sways as she moves from side to side. The curl in her dark brown, relaxed hair is limp. I’m standing close enough to tell that her edges have grown in and she needs a touch-up. Even though the sun shines directly on her and warms up her cocoa brown skin, I can’t fully feel its heat because of the thick, beveled glass in the kitchen window. Whenever I look at it closely, the glass in the window reminds me of Dad’s bifocals.
She is silently cleaning up after cooking pancakes, bacon, and eggs on the electric griddle. Dad usually does all the cooking, but when he makes hot breakfast, it’s usually Wheatena, oatmeal, or Cream of Wheat. You know, plain beige stuff. Somehow, even though they’re all different, Dad finds a way to make it all look and taste the same—bland, lumpy and dry in spots, and creamy in other spots. Mom hardly ever cooks, so I got really happy when she pulled the griddle out of the wooden cabinet in the dining room a couple hours ago. With the commercial break still on, I ask, “Should I start packing for summer camp?”.
“No,” she says and continues to focus on what she’s doing in the kitchen.
“Oh!” I’m surprised, but I can’t read her face. I can’t tell if she’s tired, in a bad mood, or just thinking about something else. I’ve spent most of my short time on this earth trying to read her moods, stay out of her way, and most times, I succeed. But I never know if one day, I’ll do something to upset her and make her give me The Silent Treatment. The Silent Treatment happens when Mom is mad at you. Instead of yelling, she just stops talking to you. You become like Casper the Friendly Ghost: You really want her to see you, but you’re dead to her. It feels awful because it’s like all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the air and you don’t know when it’s gonna end. I just do my best to never get on her bad side and make her mad at me. So far, so good!
I take a chance and press on anyway. “Am I going to sleepaway camp this summer?” I bite my lip and try not to cry in case she says, “No.” I love going to sleepaway camp! It’s a world of mostly Black and Brown girls like me from different parts of New York City and it’s always fun. From swimming in the cold lake on hot, steamy days to roasting (and burning) marshmallows over campfires, and from learning how to distinguish between different types of trees to picking blood-red raspberries off thorny bushes, Girl Scout camp is the best-thing-ever!
“You’re going to day camp first, then sleepaway camp next month,” Mom continues washing up. Her thick brown hands are dripping with soapy water and they dip in and out of the water as she washes the mixing bowl and plates, splashing a bit each time, like playful dolphins diving into the ocean. The blue stone in the gold ring Mom always wears winks at me.
Day camp? Why day camp? I wonder. I am suspicious because I never heard of day camp, but I know better than to ask my mother too many questions. It always seems as if there is some unknown limit to the number of questions I’m allowed to ask before she snaps at me and shuts down. I figure two questions was one too many and trudge back to the living room to watch my show.
The day camp that Mom signed me up for is located on the South Shore, in a part of Staten Island where very few Black people live or work. Despite the fact that it is home to one of the nation’s oldest free Black settlements (Sandy Ground), Staten Island is 85.3 percent White (mostly Italian-, Irish-, and German-Americans). With the exception of Sandy Ground (which is on the South Shore), the majority of Black people on the Island—like my family—live in racially segregated, poor, and working-class neighborhoods on the North Shore. The island also has the highest proportion of Italian Americans in the country.
A few weeks after my exchange with Mom, I am at day camp and it is lunch time. For some reason, my mother braided my hair into small, medium-length box braids that swish when I turn my head from side to side. I rarely wear my hair in braids and Mom has never put my hair into this style before, so it feels weird to feel my hair move. Mom usually puts it into pigtails, cornrows, or two plaits that follow the shape of my head. It’s always kinda tied down so that it doesn’t get messed up. It doesn’t move quite like the White girls’ hair, but I still feel like I’m part of the group as I shake my head to the Grease soundtrack with my new friends.
“You’re the one that I want!
“The one that I want, oh!
“Ooh! Ooh! Ooooo!”
We’re nine- and ten-year-old girls singing together on the benches, shimmying in unison, jockeying to see whose version of Sandra Dee or Rizzo is best. However, I don’t try to out-shimmy anyone; I’m just enjoying belonging. I’m shy and quiet, and I am the only Black girl at camp. I don’t go to school or church with anyone else at camp, so I’m really an outsider. I’m pretty sure that the other girls only speak to me because we’re in the same group—the Stingrays. All the kids are separated into groups named after fish and the older groups are named after big fish, like the Sharks or the Whales. The younger kids are in either the Goldfish or the Guppies, and the other group of kids my age are the Eels.
Since day camp began, there have been moments where I feel like I am accepted by the other girls and most of the boys. But then, there are other moments where it feels like everyone else got a note that I didn’t get, telling them when to laugh at each other’s jokes, who to pick for your kickball team, who to hit with the dodgeball, and who to let sit with you at lunch. Today, we all got the same note and it feels good to hear my voice in harmony with the other girls.
“Nigger!” a white boy named Mark says. I vaguely remember him from the kickball game my group had against his group, the Eels.
“I got chills
And I’m loo-sing con-tro-ol!”
I am singing so deeply from my heart that I don’t hear Mark speaking to me.
“Nigger!” He is now standing six inches away from me and for some reason, Mark looks angry.
“What?” I am confused. I have never heard or been called this word before, but I instinctively know it’s bad. I don’t know why, but I can tell that Mark is trying to hurt me with this word. I am also confused because Mark and I have never talked to each other before now, so I don’t understand why he would be mad at me.
“Your mother!” I do not know what has come over me, but somehow I know that if you want to hurt someone’s feelings, you talk about their mama. It must be part of the Black collective unconscious.
Mark apparently knows this too, but persists. “Nigger!!” he spits at me as his eyebrows come together like a drawbridge that’s been lowered.
“Your father!” Why are you still shouting at me? I think to myself.
Mark’s freckled face turns pink. “Nigger!!!”
“Your grandmother!” What it’s gonna take to make him leave? I wonder.
“Nigger!!!!” Mark’s face looks as if someone is playing Connect the Dots with his freckles. It’s difficult to see where one ends and another begins.
“Your grandfather!” I am exasperated and wondering where is everyone else. For this short moment in time, it feels as if Mark and I are in another universe, floating as we hurl small but potentially harmful words at one another. Out of the corner of my left eye, I see my new friends sitting off to the side and simply watching the show. Out of the corner of my other eye, it looks as if someone shouted, “Freeze!” during a camp-wide game of Freeze Tag. No one else is moving and it feels as if even the air around us has stopped moving.
“Alright! That’s it. Leave her alone, Mark!” Victor says to him as he inserts his sinewy body in between us. Victor is an older White boy who’s fourteen years old. He’s so close to me that I can smell his musk from playing basketball with the other older boys. I think I hear an audible gasp from one of my friends, but that couldn’t have happened because neither Mark, Victor, nor I have tagged anyone to release them from being frozen.
“But…!” For some odd reason, Mark wants to continue this. I am still confused—I hadn’t even been talking with him when he started calling me a nigger.
“That’s it, Mark! Leave her alone,” Victor insists.
Victor is the cutest boy in camp and all the girls swoon whenever he walks by them—except me. It’s not that I don’t notice his looks, it’s just that he looks like a lot of the White boys I’ve seen in this part of Staten Island. He’s got brown, slightly wavy hair like John Travolta, dark brown eyes like Robert De Niro, muscles like Sylvester Stallone, and wears a gold Italian horn necklace. His back is to me, but I see signs of Victor’s exertion on the basketball court: the under-arm sweat stains on his red muscle shirt that clings to his lower back and the damp hairs at his neck line. After a lifetime of watching Mom and reacting to her moods, I notice everything about people. I like to think it keeps me safe.
Victor then turns to face me. “You okay?” I know the words coming out his mouth, but I have never heard them put together before. No one has ever asked if I am okay.
“What?” I feel like I’m under water and he’s standing above me, talking.
Victor peers at me, checking for signs of life—or intelligence. “Are you okay??” My friends are still frozen in their seats, but I smell their jealousy as they shift and look at one another as they watch Victor talking to me as if I am human.
“Um… yeah,” I answer, looking at his face as if I have never seen it before. There are tiny hairs sprouting above his upper lip—or is it dirt mixed with sweat?
“Cool.” Victor walks away, leaving me standing alone where Mark attacked me. I’m not sure who it was, but either Mark or Victor had tagged the other children, for the entire camp is suddenly in motion. Peals of laughter bounce off the monkey bars as young girls swing in the swings and little boys chase one another and pretend they are being eaten by Jaws. Feeling foolish, I walk back over to my friends who look at me warily. I feel foolish because everyone else is behaving as if nothing happened.
“What’d Victor say to you??” they ask almost in unison.
“He asked if I was okay,” I say quietly.
“Why’d he ask you that?” they puzzle, even though they’d just seen my exchange with Mark.
“I dunno.” I am hanging my head. My so-called friends’ questions make me feel as if I have done something wrong for getting Victor to intervene on my behalf.
When my parents pick me up at the end of the day, I climb into the back seat of my mother’s car. Dad is seated in the passenger seat. After I fasten my seatbelt, he turns to me, smiling and asks, “How was your day?”
As I tell my parents about what Mark said to me and what I said back to him, I see Dad stiffen and darken. Dad is the darkest Black person I know, so it is difficult to actually see him get darker. Today though, I see his face cloud over and it looks like a storm is coming. Before today, we’ve never had any conversations about color. I’d never had anyone call me names or treat me differently because of the color of my skin before. My parents never warned me about or prepared me for the mean things that White people might say to me because I’m Black. So the fact that I had the verbal response that I did is remarkable. I don’t know what I need to hear from my parents, but I know that I need reassurance that I did the right thing and that I will be okay.
At first, Mom says nothing, but when I lean forward to look at something in the front of the car, she says, “People are ignorant.”
I don’t know what she means, but it feels as if she’s saying what happened wasn’t that bad. I wonder if it’s not a big deal to Mom because she’s lighter than Dad and I. Dad remains silent and stares out the window, looking angry. I have never seen Dad look like this and am both puzzled and scared. I can’t tell if I did something wrong or if he is upset about what happened at day camp today. Maybe he’s had this happen to him too? But I don’t know because he’s not saying anything.
Dad’s silence is confusing to me, especially since I can feel his moods shift right now and Dad is never this quiet. I mean, when he and Mom are together, she does most of the talking. But Dad’s not really a quiet person and doesn’t do the Silent Treatment. The few times he’s been mad at me, Dad’s told me what he’s upset about and why; then we’re okay. Leaning back in the hot, sticky pleather back seat, I wonder if I made a mistake by telling them what happened. Like all the other racist incidents we experience either individually or together, my exchange with Mark is never discussed again.
* * * * *
Lourdes Dolores Follins is a Black queer woman who comes from a long line of intrepid women and working-class strivers. She’s been published in Rigorous, Watermelanin, Indelible Ink, and elsewhere. When Lourdes Dolores isn’t writing, she works as a psychotherapist with QTIPOC and kinky people in New York City. Check her out at www.lourdesdfollins.com