I didn’t join the school bus. I chose the long windy road that cut across Coney Island Avenue, off the corner of Avenue Z and its byzantine turns and archaic homes. It was a long walk and I probably chose this route because deep within me, the fear of Brian Hopkins and his gang had taken root, apprehension that grew over the years and almost smothered me.
With every limp, I thickened my resolve to fight Brian the only way I knew I could: Settle down to my studies, and give him a hiding in academics. I was going to teach him the superiority of the black mind. I was going to be better than any of his thugs could ever aspire to be. My plan was formed, my anger was born.
Mother stood beside the white small gate that closed off our lawn from the paved street, hands on her tapering hips, a worried frown on her creased face. Her black hair bobbed gaily with the slight breeze that lifted the hem of her shirt. She ran out, sweeping me into her arms. Her eyes widened, her lips dropped in horror as she did a quick scan of my body. She gathered me in her arms and hurried indoors. Then she set me down on a stool, rushed into the kitchen and grabbed a bowl, disinfectants and a clean white cloth.
“What happened, Maro?” Mother asked as her hands worked the cuts on my lips.
“Mama, did my father reject me?” I asked staring into her coal-black eyes.
She shifted her gaze to a portrait of Roosevelt that hung on the wall.
“Who said he did?”
I held her right hand in mine, stopping her as she meant to dab cotton wool on a sore spot on my forehead.
“Mama, who is he—my father?”
For the first time that I could remember, I saw shame in my mother’s eyes. She stared at her hands, trying really hard to stop the trembling. Then she lifted her chin and held my gaze. There was a slight quiver in her lips, her eyes moistened.
“I do not know.” She snivelled.
Her hands flew to her mouth to hold back the sobs that wracked her. She sat on the floor, held her head in her hands and cried.
I got up and wrapped my arms around her. I wasn’t angry. I just felt . . . empty, maybe saddened by the thought that Brian was right.
Mother looked up at me, surprised. I wiped the tears from her cheeks. The black marks that had dotted her face had begun to fade, and the last visible sign showing she ever wore a black eye was the tiny black welt just below her left eyelid.
She made a conscious effort to smile. “So who did this to my baby, and why?”
She drew me close and sat me on her laps. She kissed my cheeks and tugged at my chin.
“Some boys attacked me at school. They said I was coloured and should leave their school, threatening to bully me every day if I do not leave.”
Mothers lips widened in a rueful smile. “And what brought about these scars?”
She was so calm, I began to wonder if I hadn’t blown the whole situation out of proportion.
“I lost my cool and hit the leader of the gang in the face.”
Mother looked at me with disapproving eyes.
“This leader, do you know him?”
I nodded. “His name is Brian. Brian Hopkins.”
Mother’s eyebrows lifted. “Copper-coloured hair, crooked nose and about four inches taller than you?”
Now it was my turn to show surprise.
“How . . . how—”
“His father owns The Staplex Company. Brian must have broken into his office and somehow gotten my personal data file.”
“Coward!” I said with clenched teeth.
“Is that anger I discern?”
“Mama, those boys hurt my pride. They called you a . . .” I could not bring myself to say the word. “They called you names.” I said instead. “But there is nothing to worry about. I will show Brian and his gang what a coloured brain is made of. I would read and excel at my studies and at the right time, I will place them where they belong.” I spoke fiercely, determination brimming in my eyes, shelving the injustice meted to me into a cloak of righteous vengeance.
Mother was silent for a while.
“Maro,” she called softly.
“To work hard in your studies and succeed is a great plan, but your motives are wrong.”
I did not understand.
“Brian Hopkins has a right to his opinions, and you must know, in life, you will meet many more people who would want to use the colour of your skin against you. What then would you do if that becomes the case? Prove to every one of them just how special you are? And what would that prove really, if not to show that you are not much different from these bullies themselves.” She sucked in a lungful of air and expelled it slowly while caressing my cheeks.
“I don’t understand, Mama. Are you saying I should ignore Brian’s threats and go my way like he doesn’t exist?”
“What I’m saying, Maro, is that you do not need to prove anything to anyone. The earlier you know that you cannot live up to the expectations of everyone either in attitude, in dressing and even in your relationships, the faster and higher you would soar. It would be such a burden on your shoulders to go about fighting everyone who disregards you because of the colour of your skin. Don’t you agree?”
The silent motion of my head concurred.
“Always remember that great kings pick their battles. Do you think wise King Solomon of the bible would have fought a tyrant just because the latter failed to acknowledge the colour of his skin?”
“Good. That is why you must pursue your dreams with a burning passion, and see to their actualizations, not because you want to prove a point to anyone, but because you are my son. Africa flows in your veins. And if you must know, the average African man is no coward. He has the heart of a lion and the will of a thousand storms. Whenever Brian taunts you again, ignore his jests and take pride in the knowledge that you come from a long line of lions; take pride in your colour. Go about your studies and ignore him though it may hurt to do so. Only remember, a great king chooses his battles wisely.”
She stood up and dusted her skirt.
“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt, 1944.” I said brightly.
“No more fights . . .” she added weakly.
“No more fights,” I promised.
Mother was right, there was really no point in going the extra mile only to prove a point to a bunch of kids who probably would never understand anyway. Back in Manhattan my friends would go on and on about how matured I sounded when issues bothering our childhood were being discussed. So I knew exactly the strings Mother had pulled by reminding me of Eleanor’s famous quote.
That was a long time ago. So traumatizing was the experience, it scored a vivid imprint in my mind. Brian’s taunts only worsened as the days went by. It got so bad I became so scared of going to school. Never again did I let Mother know what I was going through. I could not stand to disappoint her. And when my silence got to that point where the tiny voice within me screamed coward, I only had to remember Mother’s words:
Africa flows in your veins. And if you must know, the average African man is no coward. He has the heart of a lion and the will of a thousand storms. Whenever Brian taunts you again, ignore his jests and take pride in the knowledge that you come from a long line of lions; take pride in your colour. Only remember, a great king chooses his battles wisely.
I felt the ice of hatred built over the years, thaw at the remembrance of these words.
I looked around me. No one knew I was at the theatre already. Nurse Shelby was probably in my office looking for me now. My pager beeped. It was Dr. Manuel.
Where are you doc, it read. Patient in dire need of surgery. Needed in the OR, ASAP.
Was saving the life of Brian Hopkins a battle I was willing to fight?
I rubbed around my left ear. “Oh hell.”
I pushed open the door and stepped into the theatre.