Saturday, January 30, 2010

Race in a Box

                                                                     By Keith Lee     

                                                                    Copyright 2009

My favorite thing in the world when I was four and five years old was a box of 64 Crayolas, the one with the sharpener in the back.  I remember the way it smelled when I opened the box for the first time.  All the colors looked so perfect mixed together.  One of my favorite things to do (other than coloring) was organizing the colors into rainbows. I use to carry that box everywhere.  I walked around holding it in my two little hands.  No matter how beat up the box became, I couldn’t throw it away because it had the cool sharpener in the back. 

The problem was that I loved that box more than I did people.  I didn’t have many friends.  We lived in an apartment complex in a poor district of Dallas, Texas and my sister and I didn’t go out much.  One day my parents opened the front door and told me to go find some friends and play.  Then they shut the door.  It was summer time and it didn’t take long before I found a group of kids getting into trouble.  It seemed that three of the bigger kids ran the pack. 

One of them said, “Who wants to play Cowboys and Indians?”

Most everyone said yes.  I was excited because my mom had told me earlier that week that I was part Indian on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family.  I thought that was the greatest thing in the world at that point.  I came from something.  So when the big kids asked who wanted to be an Indian, naturally I said “ME!”

No one else said anything.  No one wanted to be an Indian with me.  One of the kids said, “Well, all right then.  We’ll have to pick for you.”

Two black girls about my age were picked, one boy my age who was super thin, and another girl who was also thin and had been teased on and off since I showed up.  The boy pleaded to be on the cowboy side.  They finally let him over. 

“How do you play?” I asked the girl beside me. 

She looked at me with a very straight face and said, “You run.”

The cowboys picked up rocks.  I knew what to do then.  We ran.  It wasn’t long before they cornered us in someone’s patio.  The rocks hurt.  The small thin girl started crying.  I didn’t know what to do, so I stood in front of her.  I didn’t want anyone to cry.  The rocks kept coming.  One of the black girls said that she wasn’t playing any more.  Then all three girls started to leave. 

The biggest cowboy picked up the biggest rock he could find and said to me, “You ready to be one of us yet?”

I was too young to be a smart-ass.  I was just trying to be honest when I said, “I can’t change who I am.”  I caught the rock with my stomach.

I sat outside my front door crying quietly.  I didn’t know what to say to my parents.  My mom opened the door and asked what had happened.  I told her, and my father overheard.  He tried to lighten the mood by saying, “Well, I guess the peace talks didn’t go well for you today.” 

My mother told me that I should probably keep being part Indian to myself because not everyone understands.  I sure didn’t.  I looked white like the big kids, but I had something else in my family tree.  I didn’t like the idea of just being the same.  But I guess that was the reason for the game.  Or as my mother put it, one of life’s lessons. This was in the 1970s. 

Just before I went in one of the black girls came up to the door and asked me if I could play.  I asked her why she wanted to play with me.  She said, “I don’t know.  I guess because you can’t change who you are.”

There are a lot of lessons learned on a playground.  Now I had a new friend.  One day when we were outside she took out her jumbo pack of crayons and asked me if I wanted to color.  She only had eight fat crayons and I told her about my big box.  I then ran home to get it.  My box had seen better days.  It was barely held together and some of the colors were missing, but as long as I could hold it in both hands it was fine.  We started coloring right away.

We were coloring when it dawned on me. I said, “Hey, you’re really not black” as I held the crayon next to her skin.

“You’re not white either,” she said, holding the white crayon against my skin hard.  “You’re more of a peach,” holding the next color even harder against my arm.  “I’m more of a brown.”

Now boys are a little slower than girls.  I sat there for a few minutes.  You can imagine the look on her face when I said.  “Well, I don’t think I can call you brown.  What do I call you?”

“You call me by my name!” she said.

That’s when I got it.  It was the first lesson that hit me like a Mack truck.  And like every woman I have met after her, she put me in my place with just one sentence and not much else.

I used crayons in my art work for years.  I used them all the way up until I went to art school and an instructor told me that I couldn’t use them in her class because It wasn’t professional.  If I didn’t like it, I knew where the door was.  For once I listened because I was tired of flip flopping through life and I needed this education to get a job that would pay the bills.  So I thought, but that’s another story.

Time moved on, life happened, and my daughter turned two years old before I knew it.  I had to go to the store for groceries one day and I happened to see a box of crayons. The 64 with the sharpener in the back.  I held it with both hands like a little boy as I brought it up to the register.  I told the cashier that I didn’t need a bag.  I took it home with both hands and gave it to my daughter.  We opened the box together, and smelled that container of wax.  That was a special moment.  It would have been a good day if I had not have forgotten the groceries I was supposed to have bought.

My daughter turned four and asked me one day, ”Daddy, how do you play Cowboys and Indians?  The kids at Molly’s wanted to play.”

Every nerve in my body was on fire.  I wanted to say, ”You cross your arms and you stand there and take it.  You stand your ground. The harder they hit the less you will feel.  You stand your ground.  YOU STAND YOUR GROUND!”  But something stopped me from saying that.

“Daddy, am I in trouble?  You look mad.” 

Then all of the sudden that rock I caught with my stomach many years ago fell to the ground and broke into little pieces.  I guess I just dropped it.

“No, Baby... you’re not in trouble,” I said.  “It’s just that being Native American is not a game. Nor is it a game to be African or Chinese.  It’s a culture and a way of life. Let’s pull out those crayons and you can draw me a picture of what you think a Native American looks like.”

“How do I do that?” she asked.

“You can start by drawing a picture of yourself, because that is part of who you are,” I said.  “That is something you can be proud of.”  The year is 2007.

I showed her how to blend peach and brown together to make all types of skin colors.  She is five now and she is showing her brother how to do it.  We call those colors skin colors and she keeps them in a special place with her drawing pens so they don’t get lost in the big box.

I smell that box all the time.  I smelled it when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America.  I smell it every time I meet someone new.  In a box of 64 I learned tolerance, found friendship, became a teacher, and found myself.  I am red, yellow, peach, and brown.  I am black and white.  I am a box of 64 Crayolas with a sharpener in the back, but you can call me Keith.  Thank you Mary.

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