#60. Murmuration: wherein a flock of birds suddenly fly as a shape. Likewise, I suddenly see our race problem that’s always been there but hadn’t murmurated for me yet.
I haven’t mentioned race before because, well, because so far I’ve concentrated on murder and revenge and chickens and Sir Isaac and coffee shoppe drinks and explicit sexual lyrics and courts and Mom, Dad, me, Sam, Clyde, Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Oliver. Hmmmm. Quite a hot mess of narrative threads, but that’s life: tangled.
I bring up race now because saying nothing about racism is the same as being a racist.
In my opinion.
Our town has 4,325 people. Most of them seem to have a similar genetic background as Mom, Dad, Mimi, and Pop. I’m veering on racist with that “most of them” statement, but stay with me here, ok?
My grownups gave each other 23AndMe vials and mail-back boxes for presents last year, and the results were as we expected, with a few surprises: Pop is Scottish and Scandanavian (Swedish); Mimi is Croatian (Southern Europe); Dad was a combination of Pop and Mimi; Mom was British (Guernsey Islander) and Ashkenazi Jewish—not a country or region, but Ashkenazis have their own reference population because they’re so genetically distinct; though not distinct to ME, this being the first I’ve heard of this part of my ancestry! All four have a speck of Neanderthal in them too. That’s fun.
So, pretty European in origins, right? But, our town is lucky also to have a lot of non-Europeans. Pop, Mimi, Zia, and Mr Grim gave me background on families that I’ve met since moving here.
Oliver and I are friends with the Jefferson kids. Their families run the the pharmacy, the gas station and the foreign car repair shop. An older daughter is training to be a neurosurgeon and came to speak in Mr Grim’s class this week. (Mr Grim is short for I don’t remember what and he comes from Ukraine.) Back to the Jeffersons. They are descendants of enslaved people and came north during the Great Migration. Barack Jefferson is in Oliver’s class. He wants all his relatives to change their name to a Nigerian one, since who wants to be named after a white slave owner he says, even if he was the President. Gee, if you put it that way, I’d say, do it!
Mrs Nguyen is our Superintendant of Schools. She was one of 120,000 Boat People who fled Vietnam by cramming into boats and ships when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. The boats were good for sailing near shore but not the open seas. It was a humanitarian crisis. The Unitarian Church in our town sponsored the Nguyens, the Hoangs, and the Daos. We have several generations living here now.
Dr Moon is Korean and Native Hawaiian (Kanaka Maoli) and he is our pediatrician. His family came from Korea to Hawaii in 1903. That’s where his grandfather met his grandmother. By the time our Dr Moon was born and educated, Hawaii was a state.
The Freijes have owned and operated our grocery store for 50 years. They came from Syria. “Freijes Food” has organic fruits and vegetables, free-range chickens and beef or lamb, canned goods, grains, bread, and of course daily specials of Mahshi—veggies stuffed with rice or meat—and kibbeh—think: deep fried, torpedo-shaped, filled with meat. Yum. The Freijes donate food all the time; they have a huge community outreach.
The Razooks are Lebanese. They are candy makers. I met them at the end of this summer when Pop brought me to their store to watch them make the filling that’s in many of their desserts. It’s called Kashta. Mrs Razook boiled milk with rose and orange blossom water and extracted the clotted cream at the top. She hugged me. Mr Razook gave us sample dishes of Znoud El Sit, a fried crispy roll stuffed with Kashta and topped with nuts. Even though I was sad sad sad (it was only a few days after Mom and Dad were murdered), the surprise sweetness of Znoud El Sit tickled my throat and tricked me into laughing. I couldn’t help it.
The Amars own and operate our hardware store. Their daughters are our lawyers. For a long time they thought they were descendants of enslaved people from Africa. Then 23andMe showed their lineage here began with a man named “Tony” from East India. He was captured and carried to the early Virginia colony by a Captain George Menefie who traded Tony for a “headright” entitling him to 50 acres of land. The Amars have been here since BEFORE the Mayflower hit Plymouth in 1620!
One of my classmates is Atika; she is from Somalia. She loves hip-hop, wears a jaunty hijab, and is trilingual—her first language being Kinyamulenge which she learned as a tiny kid in a refugee camp. She and her mother Maryan belong to the Somali American Farmer’s Association and are experts on raising goats and sheep (but, alas,no camels) and fresh vegetables. Atika gave a report to our class recently where she described how the Somalis and several land owners are working together to make sure everyone has access to fresh and organic produce and meats. She explained that to jumpstart their efforts, land owners had donated parcels of land and put it in trust for the Somalis. This gave her people a cushion of security so they could, in turn,give food security to others.
Several years ago our town had a refugee influx from the Bosnian War. Because she speaks Croatian, Mimi worked with Mr Grim who had several refugee kids in his classroom. She noticed right away that all the kids didn’t speak Croatian and that they were not best buddies with each other. At the end of the first day, a terrible fight broke out between two of the kids. Turns out their families were on opposite sides of the conflict! Mimi was shocked by the hate in the kids’ faces as they slugged each other. Mr Grim called the families in and Mimi translated, ENOUGH ALREADY! She decided to use picture dictionaries to teach the kids to read, speak, and write English. Mr Grim asked his sister who runs a chimney sweep company to help out; she added two work crews and hired several of the adults. The situation is defused, as they say.
I know I don’t have all the groups, but now I must focus on Oliver and what happened to him.
While Zia is all Italian, her nephew married a woman from China—Oliver’s mother. Her family had immigrated to San Francisco, but then a shoe factory owner from North Adams, Massachusetts hired them to work as strike-breakers at his factory. Talk about a surefire recipe for super-charging a race and labor battle! This was 1870. Eventually, Oliver’s mother’s family made their way to Boston’s Chinatown where they thrived.
What does Oliver look like you might be thinking? Well, he’s cute, I have to say. Tall, jet black hair, wide cheekbones, and no crease around the top of his eyelids—I noticed this last detail because he sits across from me after school in the breakfast nook and, hmmm, I like to look at him. To tell you the truth since I knew Zia was Italian, I assumed he was Italian-American. Shows how much I don’t know.
So the other day he and I were walking past the courthouse; the twins—thank goodness—had been picked up earlier to go to Dr Moon for a checkup. We’d gone to the coffee shop to chat with Belle and were sharing a giant chocolate chip cookie as we walked home. All of a sudden a bunch of older kids pour down the court steps, high-fiving each other, and lighting cigarettes. Probably got off with a hand slap mutters Oliver with a scowl. He glances at them and then looks away, but I think he may have caught their attention, based on what happened next. (Not that I noticed what happened next WHEN it was happening.)
My mind registers that they’re talking louder than usual, but I’m so engrossed in telling Oliver about the twins run away attempt, I don’t attend to the scrum behind us. In fact I’m miffed that Oliver does not laugh at the funny parts of my story.
Suddenly Oliver stops and rounds on the loud kids behind us. He shakes his fist.
I do NOT eat bats. I am not your slave. I will not give you an N-pass. This IS my home. My family came to this country in 1870. And it wasn’t the China Virus. That’s crazy talk.
The gang stops too. Everyone’s fists are clenched.
I’m gob-smacked. First, I’ve never seen Oliver lose his cool. Second, I hadn’t computed the jumble of words behind me; I was so enthralled with my own story. But the slurs and taunts hit the bullseye—Oliver, loud and clear.
For a split second I wonder if this will be my first rumble.
Instead the kids spit, say F-U Asians, sneer, fist-bump, and cross to the other side of the street towards the station, giving us the finger as they climb aboard a bus.
To be continued in #61–Isabel Scheherazade