I’m shopping at Walmart (it must be date night) and come upon a beautiful boxed doll that makes me stop in my tracks. His skin is almost bronze, his lashes longer than a Kardashian’s, his left cheek marked by a big dimple.
It’s Tophs! They’ve plastic-cloned him. We’re rich! Paul, order those Omaha steaks for Christmas after all.
No, wait. I take a step back and look the doll over. It’s then I realize he is wearing a gray frock coat, gold sash, and knee-high black boots. He comes with a sword and binoculars. When you pull the string, he says, “At ease, men,” and “Pass the hardtack; I’m famished.”
It’s Confederate Tophs!
At first, I am horrified. Where is his gun? He won’t last a day at battle.
It’s Confederate Tophs, Paul reminds me. Hence, the sword and frockiness.
Ohhhhh. Oh! Oh? OH MY GOD! Confederate?! Noooooooo!
I’ve only had this daydream once.
It was sparked by a recent family trip to the dining hall. Most of our meals at the dining hall are centered on my gluttony. It’s like of course I need the Hungarian goulash and meatless meatballs and salmon-stuffed cod and a Belgian waffle with ice cream.
Kidding. I don’t like fish, and the Belgian waffle is Paul’s thing. Usually I carry Tophs in the BABYBJÖRN because Paul is training Elie up in the way of the waffle. As for me and my house, we will serve the Carb. So while those two are off discussing the pros and cons of emergency PAM usage on a non-stick surface, I am bargaining with the Soup Nazi’s cousin. She works at a stir-fry station. And I have this feeling that if I were to meet her anywhere else, say at a Victoria’s Secret semiannual sale or carnival where the all-you-can-eat funnel cakes are fat free, we would be besties. We would prance around in our new “brassieres” as my dad still calls them, laughing and wiping the powdered sugar from each other’s cheeks before running off to get our names painted on rice. Arsenic-free rice, that is. We can’t have toxins burning a rice-sized hole through our sternums.
So in real life, my bestie is the best. But here, the mix of heat, fried shrimp, and students asking for fried shrimp has gotten to her. Homegirl is wore-out.
On rare occasions, the dining hall is about much more than food. You know what the dining hall teaches, besides anaerobic caloric intake? It teaches character, man. Some parents influence the next generation by traveling the world or buying a full set of encyclopedias on credit. Paul and I teach our kids the truly important stuff at a free buffet.
Sometimes the lessons are simple, like: Be nice to everyone and pray over your food.
Or like when we overheard a student in the booth next to us say, “I’d ride my bike naked!” we agreed instantly on the take-away:
Lesson One for Elie Mae: Boys are cray.
Lesson One, Re-inerated: Go ‘head. Bring home a crazy naked boy on a bike and see what happens. You wanna test your father?
Sometimes the lessons are more complex. Picture this: the other night, I’m guarding a table with Tophs. It doesn’t take much to reserve a table for four. There has only been one girl ballsy enough to actually move our double stroller out of the way so she could sit down. Usually our buggy and my sagging mom jeans act like a flu mask on an airplane: That’s okay, no, really, take this seat. I’ll sit in the bathroom all the way to Peru.
Anyhow, I notice a student sitting to my left. He’s with a nerdy-looking guy in a presidential campaign T-shirt and two girls scrolling through their cell phones. When he gets up from his seat, I see the familiar Confederate battle flag emblem on his shirt. Familiar, that is, since I moved to the South for the college. I didn’t see it much growing up in Ohio. Now I see the rebel flag print everywhere: bumper stickers, taxidermied deer heads, pediatricians’ stethoscopes, communion wafers.
Let me be clear: I hate stars. I hate bars. I do not like the stars ‘n bars. I do not like them on your shirt. I will not be your Black convert. I don’t even like ‘em with ham or bacon!
And I’m pretty sure I get the argument: The flag didn’t do anything. Flags don’t enslave people; people enslave people. The poor flag, an ironic victim of symbolic violence. Bet Bourdieu never saw that one coming.
Usually when I see the flag, I stare, stew a moment, and then get on with my day. But this guy, he has the audacity to wear a shirt with a punch line on the back:
If this shirt offends you, you need a history lesson.
I need a history lesson like he needs a date with Nicki Minaj.
I can’t avert my eyes (Are those red lasers coming from me? How much damage can they do? Why didn’t we test them at that rest stop outside Charleston?) He returns to his seat and looks my way but never quite makes eye contact. Nerd keeps checking up on me, somehow showing me his long, white teeth without smiling. Is it a nervous smirk? Does he like me? Does he want to steal my Black baby and clone him as a Confederate doll?
Sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine what Jesus would do, so I go with a close second: Inspector Gadget.
Penny won’t come through on my Citizen watch (bloody Eco-Drive!) so I keep holding Tophs and turn all my attention to one action: making this guy feel my Blackness. If I can just focus, I can create a super-magnetic Negro force field… knock him off his chair… turn him into Cleopatra Jones… or a piece of fatback. I really believe this can work. I feel strong.
He doesn’t budge. Doesn’t even change colors or sprout a fro. Wait a second… one of the girls at his table gets up… she’s leaving… wait for it… it’s happening.
Snap. I think she just had somewhere to go. #coincidence
God, I pray, what is interrupting the proper unleashing of my Racialized Magnetic Nuclear Lasik? I get frustrated for a moment, then it hits me like bad gas in a crowded cab: The force must be generated from a pure Black source. I am an amalgam. As Black folk say, I got Indian in me. Plus, I do not watch BET… except when Tyrese’s Baby Boy comes on. Kidding. I can’t stand the way his character rides around on that bike the whole movie. Man up and rent a car, Jody.
Anyhow, talk about shooting yourself in the foot. If only I were Blacker…
I have to do something. This is a teachable moment. Somehow, even after I’ve failed to right the world by changing one man into a female Blaxploitation film star, Elie Mae and Paul are still making waffles. I’ll have to act alone.
I look down at Tophs. His deep brown eyes could swallow you whole. I know what I have to do. I have to go passive-aggressive with a side of baby babble.
You don’t wanna grow up to be like that guy, Tophs! No you don’t. He doesn’t know anything about history. He can’t even get Nicki Minaj to date him. She would jump at the chance to date you, Tophs.
Tophs smiles. He gets it. The kid is a total sponge. Future Anthro major. Crap, that means he’ll need help finding a job.
By the time Paul and Elie Mae get to the table, others have joined us, and Paul can’t see the guy or his shirt. I give him the rundown later, and I don’t even have to ask. I already know he’s filed the small incident (we’re certainly aware of more devastating racial inequities) under the UVA Love-Hate heading. The dichotomy isn’t new, it’s not clever, and it may even be oversimplified. But somehow that makes it no less useful or real.
The memories we’ve stored there are a mix of titles we’ve collected over the years: Blown Away By UVA’s Beauty. Classmate Thinks a Black Person Stole Her Friend’s Admission Spot. Selected as Member of UVA’s Prestigious Lawn Community. Fellow Black “Lawnie” Discovers N-Word on Her Car. Great Conversation With Tobacco-Spitting Kid From South. Tobacco-Spitting Kid From South Hangs the Flag on His Wall.
These specific “hate” memories weren’t the most horrific or violent or systemic or pressing, but I’ve found they all twist your gut in just the same way. They remind you with all its charm and intellect and progress, something’s not quite right here, whether at UVA or in the world.
As husband and wife, as equals, you can share those feelings. Paul and I can play “Remember when” and “Did I ever tell you about the time?” and feel comfort in our oneness. We can even laugh about the hate files that now seem more absurd than hurtful. Like the drunk kid who yelled, “All the n*ggers are taking our women!” I mean that is straight from a Dave Chappelle sketch. So I’m glad that Paul gets me, gets it, with no context necessary.
I don’t know what, if anything, we do with these files as Mom and Dad. Chances are, we have some time. But that doesn’t keep me from thinking about the first time Elie Mae or Tophs experiences something that requires more from us than sarcastic baby babble.