This month's Moon Prize, the sixtieth, goes to Lourdes
Dolores Follins's short story "Camp, 1979."
I’m almost ten years old and for the past two years, I’ve
gone away to Girl Scoutsleepaway 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 cartoonsalone 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’reall
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?”.
says and continues to focus on what she’s doing in
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 likeall
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
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
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
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, soit
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
“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
“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!” Whatit’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
“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 hislooks, 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
“What’d Victor say to you??” they ask almost in unison.
“He asked if I was okay,” I say
“Why’d he ask you that?” they puzzle, even though they’d just seen my exchange with
“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 differentlybecause 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
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 shiftright 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 atwww.lourdesdfollins.com