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August 2021

An Incident on The Playground

I don’t remember his name, but I do remember his words.

By Stone Erickson Mims

July 10, 2021

An Incident on The Playground

Porch monkey. Coon. Nigger. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember his words. The White boy in the gray strapped overalls dropped them, those words, “porch monkey,” “coon,” and “nigger,” down like stones on my head from the orange, rusted swing set—the one just south of the monkey bars with peeling yellow paint. It was a regular day at Jenks Elementary School. Mid-spring in Oklahoma. We were out for recess. The sun needled down into our eyes and bore down on our backs. A confection of humidity and sweat plastered our arms. I’d just asked the White boy in gray overalls if I could have a turn on the yellow swing after insisting that he “was hogging all the fun” and that he’d been on it long enough. In reality, he probably had not been on the swing all that long. But my six-year-old brain and its impatient neurons— spoiled and entitled by parents who ritualistically allowed me to tear open gift boxes and wrapping paper before the sun meandered into the sky on Christmas morning— contorted and stretched each fine second into a nexus of yearning hours. An unacceptable amount of time. 

“No Way! I’m not sharwing a swing with you,” the boy taunted. “My dad says our kind already shares enough with niggers.” The words came out slurred, barely intelligible, each syllable straining to slip through the cracks of absentee baby teeth and puffy red gums. “Colored kids shouldn’t even be in thool. They should be in thuh zoo.”

He said the words with zealous conviction, as though he’d hiked up and trudged down the snowy slopes of Mt. Sinai, his light up sketchers scintillating with each pained step, to hear them from Yahweh himself. At the time, I did not know what the word “nigger” meant. But there was something about the word itself. Perhaps it was the way the two “g” consonants form a callous on your tongue or how tooth and tongue must dig into the syllables twice for the word to crown from the mouth into space, but I felt a strange rage at the word and the boy who called it down to me. Maybe it wasn’t the word at all and just his disrespect.

Even now, it haunts me, the question of where that young White boy with tacky overalls found that word. I often wonder if it was his parents, mortal, not the divine Yahweh, who passed those words down to him, replacing bedtime stories like "Jack and the Beanstalk" with Jim Crow rhetoric. The other kids in my first-grade class watched, nodding in silence with blue and green complicit eyes, the way they always do. Maybe their parents told them similar stories. Or maybe it was the unflinching confidence with which this boy inflicted the word “nigger” upon my life that convinced the other children that there was something natural about this transaction.

I was too young for this exchange. So was he. My parents had not yet had the talk with me—about birds, bees, cotton pickers and browning fruit on strange trees. I was not yet aware that my grandmother’s grandmother worked those Southern fields or that a mere 40 years ago, “in a much different time," a White man in a blue pressed suit pulled my grandfather over on the side of a Louisiana dirt road, his thumb twitching and eager to exchange a man’s life for a measly five miles over the speed limit. And even if my parents had made me privy to this genealogy, I’d never have guessed that I had my own personal stakes in this lineage.

And while my mother and father had decided that I was too young to enter this world of clashing hues and skins, this young White boy in gray overalls had already memorized his lines. His gap-toothed mouth was a fountain spouting old timey slurs out that I only vaguely understood: “Jive talker.” “Orangutan.” “Ape.” I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember wrapping my sun kissed fingers over his gray straps and pulling him down to the wood chipped floor in front of blue and green eyes. I do remember the rage. I remember hitting him once, twice, again and again. And again. I remember his nose—broken—its intersecting angles above a swollen lip. The blood ran everywhere, seeping red all over my brown skin, my black hair, and my white, cotton T-shirt. Its sour, iron fun flooded my nostrils.

When I was 8 years old, my father began my education in colors. The curricular in colors for a black child began with the color blue. My father came home late from work one day at 3 AM, his eyes sunken deep into his skull. He’d been pulled over by a police officer on his way back from the night shift. He’d gotten a $1,500 fine for going 50 in a 45. I was supposed to be asleep. It was a school night, but I was trying to sneak a few Fruit Roll-Ups from the pantry and scuffle back to my room when he stumbled into the room and shot me a quizzical look. “Actually, I’m glad you’re awake. I need to show you sum’n.” My eyebrows rose with quizzical hesitance. The last time my father had “shown me sum’n”, he’d tricked me into taking a sip of beer by telling me it was apple juice. The memory of the rancid taste long lingered on my taste buds despite the long minutes I spent scrubbing my mouth with my tooth brush.

He gestured with his hand and I wearily followed his long strides from the kitchen into the computer room. The room was dingy, complete with loveseats and couch cushions worn down by the family like old socks and a computer monitor that mimicked a variety of wildlife, hissing and grunting with effort on start up. He pushed the “on” button and clicked the Internet Explorer symbol, his dusky fingers racing across the silver keyboard. I remember the words he typed in the search bar in big, black letters: RODNEY KING BEATING. Suddenly, a shaky, grayscale image crept onto the dusty screen. The date, “MARCH 3RD 1991” was scrawled in white, block text across the bottom.

I’d heard my dad talk about Rodney King before with his beer buddies over Sunday Night football, but only when he was sufficiently drunk. He’d called it “The Black 9/11.” I wouldn’t understand what he meant by that until I was 15 in my freshman year of high school. It was nighttime in the footage. Several grainy, white and blue figures surrounded a man on the ground. My father and I shared silence as we watched those White men raise their black billy clubs up and send them down on a Black man’s back. Up and down. Down and up. Like the White boy in the gray overalls on the swing. Up and down.

“Is this a gang?” I asked confused. I was a fan of Marvel comics as a kid. My favorite hero was Spider-Man. There was something magnetic about the idea of a costumed man in red and blue swinging down from the sky onto evildoers and serving justice on behalf of powerless people. My time reading comics as a child nurtured a dogmatic, moral binary about good and evil that even some Catholics would find simplistic. Violence was bad. So these men must have been villains or gang members. But there was no hero to save this man on the ground covered in his own blacks and blues.

My dad pondered my question. “Of a sort.” He pointed at the bottom of the screen. Beneath the date, in smaller letters, as though they were attempting to hide or blend into the background were the words “Los Angeles Police Department.”

I tried to look away. My dad turned my head back.

“You need to see,” he said. “This could be you someday.”

When the screen went black my dad said we should play a game. Dad would hold a finger gun to my face and my job was to try and escape.

“How do you get out of this situation?” he asked. The first time I tried ducking under the gun and running, like Spider-Man would do.

“Bang,” he said. “You died. Let’s go again.” The second time I tried fighting like Batman would do. I wildly flung a punch at my dad’s face. He dodged.

“Bang,” he said. “Dead again.” We might have played that game a thousand times. Each time I’d try some new stratagem or idea, and each time I would die, over and over again. Over time I grew frustrated. The game was impossible. Living was impossible.

“Okay, I get it! You can’t do anything in this situation.”

The edges of my father’s mouth pulled back in a half smile. “Not anything. Nothing. You do nothing.” My dad showed me how to win the game.

“Lie there. On the ground. Do nothing. Spread your arms.” I laid on the carpet for what was only two minutes, but once again my brain stretched minutes into millennia. Humiliation bloomed like wild flowers in my chest. It may not be possible to emasculate a boy before manhood, but the wound to my ego festered. Finally, my dad told me to get up and go to bed. As I limply walked up the stairs to my bedroom my father called me, one more time.

“And son. Sometimes, this doesn’t work either.” For the next two weeks I ignored my dad out of resentment. A year later, when I was 9 years old, my parents divorced and my dad moved out of the house. I wondered often back then whether my dad had loved me. And then I wondered if he did love me why didn’t he love me enough to stay. When I was 16, I remembered this lesson on the relationship between the colors black and blue and realized that there was no greater love than one Black man teaching another how to survive in this world.

At age 20, I found out that all of the Black kids grew up on the same curriculum as I did. It was summer. Georgia this time. You could swim in the humidity. I was working a part time gig teaching media and music production to local kids at a church in South Decatur. It was a good way to scrape together pennies and dimes between semesters for college tuition. It wasn’t the greatest paying summer job, but the supervisor I worked for genuinely wanted to help young Black kids and he inspired me to want to help in some small way. I’d let the class out early to play a few games of basketball on the gravel court outside. While the kids played, I sat on the bleachers with the other volunteer teacher, Tony, an 18-year-old Black kid from Union City. He was one of those Atlanta kids who still thought he could make a living off a decent flow and Sound Cloud subscriptions. But he was a good guy.

None of these kids are going to the NBA,” he muttered as one of the students fumbled a lay-up.

“Your brother might,” I laughed as another ball sailed above our heads into the shrubbery behind us. Anthony’s brother, Arthur, was 14 and nearly six feet tall. He’d made his high school’s Varsity basketball team.

“Don’t tell him that shit. He’ll drop out right now.”

“He’s a smart kid though,” I said. “You gonna teach him to drive anytime soon?”

Anthony paused. His eyes locked on his shoes.

“Bro, you good?” I’d never seen Anthony upset before.

“I don’t think I can teach him,” he said. “He’s too scared.”

“Of what? Most kids are excited for the freedom. Get out of the house.”

“Cops,” he responded.

“Oh,” I said. Suddenly my shoes also became an interesting spectacle as well.

“And I’m kinda glad he’s scared to learn. Cause I’m scared to teach him.”

When I was 18, the police found a Black man hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park, 32 miles away from my mother’s apartment. After a day of investigation, the Atlanta Police Department ruled the death an intentional suicide, citing that the flecks of yellow pollen staining his red sleeves, were evidence enough that he’d climbed the tree himself, tethered his neck to one of the white trees’ long arms, and hung himself right there. Authorities and news outlets refused to release the name of the deceased, on the grounds that they did not want to burden the family with the onslaught of local attention. Interestingly enough, on that very day eye witnesses spotted a throng of modern Klansmen, knights of the fallen confederate empire, passing out brochures.

This occurred in July 2016, five months before the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan organized a celebratory parade for the election of our democratically chosen President, Donald J. Trump, who was sworn into office in January 2017, almost five years after 28-year-old man, George Zimmerman stalked 17-year-old boy, Trayvon Martin through the streets of Florida and executed him. I watched the trial on national television when I was 14, two years before the shooting of Michael Brown, which occurred three years before Officer Robert Bates, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, north of Jenks Elementary where a White boy in gray overalls called me a nigger, confused his military grade gun with his taser and shot Eric Harris in the back, which happened 1,343 miles away from and 24 years after the LAPD pounded Rodney King into the pavement, which happened 14 years before my father showed me the video of said beating in 2005, which happened nine years before NYPD Officer, Daniel Pantaleo, placed his hands around Eric Garners neck and squeezed until the eyelids went slack in July 2014.

“Porch monkey.” “Coon.” “Nigger.” “Jive talker.” “Orangutan.” I don’t remember his name, but I remember his words. I remember the stink of the blood on the brown of my skin, the plum tinted blisters adorning my knuckles, and the salty tears in both of our eyes. I remember our first grade teacher, entirely too late to stop the violence—the violence that my comic book fueled moral code insisted that only a bad guy could be capable of—glaring at me like the sun on my face, her nostrils flaring like my own anger. Her beady, blue eyes protruded from her emaciated features. I would not understand that look in her eyes until I was 12, the next time I would be called a nigger. I remember time out, sitting on the decaying, gray tree stump as the nurse carried Carter—that was the boy’s name—off the playground. I remember spending the rest of recess on that stump as the blazing, red blood on my white, cotton shirt dried and turned to a crusty brown. And then a bitter Black.

Raised in Atlanta, Ga., Stone Erickson Mims is an MFA Candidate for Creative Writing at The New School concentrating in both Fiction and Writing for Children and Young Adults. He is currently represented as an author at Serendipity Literary Agency. A fan of experimental fiction, Stone works to create compelling narratives about race, adolescence, and the inexplicable ways in which we are all traumatized by middle school.

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