“Who’s on the dime?” my father said. He kept his eyes on the road while he asked me this question, his hands firmly on the wheel.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I’ll give you a hint. He was a cripple,”
“Nate,” my mother said. She was in the front seat beside him, reading a magazine. I was in the back seat with my baby brother, Umoja.
“This one’s easy, Nia” my father said.
“I told you, I don’t know.”
“I’ll give you another hint. His wife was very ugly,”
“C’mon,” my mother said.
“It’s a joke, Sibby.”
“I don’t know who’s on the dime.”
“You’re eleven years old and you can’t remember who’s on the dime? Jesus. It’s Franklin Roosevelt. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
“It doesn’t matter if Eleanor Roosevelt was attractive or not,” my mother said without looking up from her magazine.
We had been driving for four hours. We were driving to Norfolk, Virginia, to see the museum, Historic Blacks of Wax. We were going there because I had won first prize in my school’s essay contest. You were supposed to decide which historical era you would want to live in, if you could live in any time. I chose England in the Middle Ages.
“Not Ancient Egypt? Or Kush?” my father asked when he found out my topic.
No, not Egypt. Not Kush. I wanted to live in an English countryside, in a castle, with a silk scarf knotted under my chin, a brocade covered cone supported by my own small afro. I had agonized over that detail when I envisioned my future in the past. How would I do my hair? I would need grease to keep it clean, but how could I manufacture it in the Middle Ages? Maybe butter? Or what was that oil that was always floating around in stories, myrrh?
In the essay, it was myrrh. I found a plate in a book in the library--some woman from a Renaissance painting with her mouth pulled wide, a distinct kink of fuzz around the crown of her head--and felt justified. She was included in the essay. I stated I would work as a weaver. I estimated my life-span and probable diet. For the research alone, my teacher said, I got an A.
My father said, “You could have picked Kush, you know.”
He had been pushing the illustrious kingdoms of ancient Africa on me from an early age. For my sixth birthday, he gave me a book of stamps with hieroglyphics carved into the rubber. We stamped each other messages back and forth. An owl, a small yellow bird that looked like a canary, two upright green leaves, a rigid brown arm held out in supplication: “You Are My Daughter.” A buzzard bent over and a lion coiled in profile were contained in my response: “Hello.”
For my eleventh birthday, my father had given me a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which sounded mysterious and ominous and promising. The copy he gave me was his own from college, the pages harsh and musty. Whenever I read it, I desperately wanted to wash my hands.
“I rise up out of the Egg in the Hidden Land. According to the desire of my heart I have come forth from the Island of Nesersert and I have extinguished the fire.”
I read these words a dozen times but I could never remember their order. I had no idea what they meant. They came from “The Chapter of Giving A Mouth to the Osiris Ani, the scribe, and Teller of the Offerings Which are Made to All the Gods, Whose Word is True, Who Saith.”
In the car, my father wanted to recite this chapter with me, but he got frustrated when I didn’t say the words loud enough. He knew I’d forgotten them. In his frustration, he began to recite all the bits and pieces of the past, near and distant, any part of the everyday he could connect to recollection. His question about the dime was a last bit of exasperation, an attempt to goad me into the lowest order of remembering.
My father worked for the city as a residential building inspector. Many days, he climbed wooden steps, knocked on walls and located studs embedded in plaster. But many more days, he sat at his desk where he should be making notations and instead read the histories of Africa. Books published by universities, tracts hand printed on someone’s basement press; manuscripts on reams of connected laser printing paper. My father traced our family genealogy from one end to the other. He determined our ancestors to be kings and queens. They were always kings and queens. “You are the descendants of kings and queens,” he sometimes said to me and my brother, accusingly. “Every one of us is. Things would be different if our people realized that.”
I had wanted to go to Salem, Massachusetts for our vacation. In school, after the essay contest, we began studying the Salem Witch Trials. We read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-grandfather, a judge in the trials who was cursed by a woman about to be hung for witchcraft. She stood on the scaffold and said “God shall give you blood to drink,” and ten years later the judge chocked to death and two hundred years after that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote it all down. I liked that phrase. I couldn’t imagine anyone actually speaking it aloud, except in an English accent. I said it now to the windowpane: “God shall give you blood to drink.” Umoja, in his car seat beside me, hummed the words back through wet gums: “Gashagheeooboddoodink.”
We’d gotten a handout, too, and I had it with me in the car, taped to the inside cover of my school binder. It was a photocopy of an engraving showing the execution of Giles Cory, the only man accused of witchcraft. He lay on the ground with straggles of hair worming from his head, his mouth carved open and his face covered in wrinkles. On his chest was one large boulder, as shapeless and craggy as a potato, irradiating with those nervous lines that exist only in a lithograph. Piled around the boulder were hundreds of smaller stones. The whole scene took place in some disembodied clearing on a bright, white day. The only foliage was a leafless tree sketched in the background. I lifted the cover every now and then to look at it.
When he looked into the rearview mirror, my father caught me studying the picture in my lap. He said the same thing he’d been saying to me since I brought the picture home, since I’d shown him the A on my paper.
“You come from royalty and you’d rather read about white people crushing each other with rocks.”
My mother said again, “Nate.” And then she closed her magazine and said, “We should stop and eat lunch soon.” She spoke to the road before us and not to me or my father. “We should figure out where we should stop.”
My father sat back in his seat and didn’t look in the rearview mirror again. Instead, he began to list the other relatives--the ones who weren’t royalty--that he had discovered. He talked about the self-taught engineer who drowned in a marsh in the Carolinas, weighed down by encyclopedias as he escaped his burning work room. He talked about the professor of chemistry who was reduced to making illegal fireworks for the celebrations of Chicago, when he could not find a position. He told me about the three-time winner of the Shakespearean Declamation awards who wiped babies’ bottoms for money. Men and women who made it their life’s work to know everything about the world and, in the end, couldn’t know how to escape being ground down by the fundamental workings of it.
“That’s your legacy,” he said. “You gotta remember your legacy.”
He said, “Forgetfulness is death.”
He said, “You’re made up of every single one of them. That’s what you’re made of. Not white witches and knights and, and,” here he took a breath, “looms. Those other people, they don’t even look like you. It’s irrelevant. You’re not even learning about people who look like you.”
“I know, that’s why I like them,” I said now, and my mouth went sour with the wrongness of it.
What I had meant to say, what I wanted to say, was that I didn’t think I would ever feel first hand the strange grief of an injudicious rock on my chest; that I liked that the pains that pierced the people in my books would always be a mystery to me, that I liked that their misery was irrelevant.
Before we left for the trip, my father made me another present. I had it on in the car as we drove. It was an ammunition belt he’d bought as a teenager: it usually hung from the tie rack in his closet, the stiff canvas turning brown. I liked the belt, the scratching weight of it around my waist. The pockets were still full of the crumpled, self-annotated pamphlets he’d carried. When I put my hands in the pockets too quickly, I would hear the faint, distinct sound of old paper breaking against itself.
The first time I wore the belt, my father became excited and said “Let me show you something,” and made me wait while he brought out his albums of the old days. Even though the pictures were taken in the 1970s, in some country where everyone possessed a concave stomach and casual beauty, my father paunched in the corner of every frame, his face too round and open for revolution. I resembled him: too soft for action, soft enough for the words, maybe. “These were the good times,” my father said, pointing to the saturated faces on film.
He said, “Your mother was already a Panther, I saw her at the Roxbury Crossing station, selling Mao’s Little Red book for the party. She was wearing hot pants and she had the biggest afro and I didn’t find out until later it was a wig.”
“When I wore it, the copies sold faster,” my mother said. “We had a quota.”
Stuck to the back page of the album was one of my father’s old poems. He unfolded it and began to read it to me in a tone I’d never heard him use before: his tongue went lazy and all the nose left his voice. He called Christ a big phony and Christianity the soul of the black man; declared his own love for freedom and then declared that freedom was impossible. He used the word ‘thou’ a lot.
“I got your mother to love me, and I was in,” he said. In the album were pictures of the pancake breakfasts he organized, the lectures he hosted: in all of them my father’s nails were black with dried poster paint.
“Well, where are all the people in the pictures now?” I asked, and my father didn’t answer. He showed me another poem instead.
When he had put the book away and gone back to his desk my mother said, “He couldn’t get the Panthers to like him, no matter what he did. They were foolish. We had to get out over it, eventually. They thought he wasn’t ready, that he was weak. It got so bad, he even started to believe them.” My mother made this belief sound like a thing of the past, like something my father had outgrown. But even at eleven, I could sense it there, though I couldn’t have named it. It sat on the top of my father’s skin, a dull sheen of sweat, the product of the overenthusiastic beating of his insufficient heart.
My father had a t-shirt that had a picture of a man’s face, his eyes wide his hands cuffed below his chin. He looked out from the wooden slats of a boxcar. Above the reproduction, in glaring yellow letters were the words: “AMERICAN JUSTICE”.
My father used to only wear the shirt on Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. But slowly, it worked its way into his everyday wardrobe. He had it on now, beneath a cardigan, “RICAN JUST” peeking through reassuring red wool.
My father pulled off of the highway for lunch. We were crossing the tip of New York by then. My mother had packed us sandwiches from home, neat squares of lettuce and herb soaked tofu. Neither she nor my father trusted food on the road. We drove along one of the side roads until we saw a convenience store with a picnic table in its parking lot. My father parked the car and went inside to get drinks. I went with him. I picked out four glass bottles of iced tea and handed them to him. My father took them to the counter.
“I’ll take these and a pack of cigarettes,” my father said to the clerk. He pointed to the boxes kept above the counter and as he lifted his arm his cardigan fell open. The clerk was an old man: the florescent lights of the store washed his skin into an indeterminate tan. It was impossible to tell if his coloring came from fluorescent lighting or the sun or pigmentation running fallow. When the clerk glanced down at my father’s t-shirt, he winced. He kept his eyes on the eyes of the man in the picture, and slid my father his change across the counter with one flat palm.
“You saw that?” my father said, as we walked back to the car.
“You saw what that man did?”
“It wasn’t because of you,” I said. “It was your shirt. Why’d you have to wear that shirt?”
“There’s nothing wrong with this shirt,” he said. “If it scares somebody that much, there’s something wrong with them.”
While we ate our lunch at the picnic table, my father patiently tore the labels off of each bottle of iced tea. He pointed to the outline of a ship printed across the paper. “That’s a slave ship. The slave ship Zong.” He directed this to my baby brother, who solemnly licked each label as my father set it on the table. I didn’t ask him why an iced tea company would put a slaver on their bottle. I let him pull at my label in silence.
When we were finished eating, my father strapped Umoja into his car seat while my mother and I cleaned off the picnic table.
“You think he’s too hard on you,” she said. “But he’s not. He just wants so much. It seems like a bad thing now, but it’s good, you’ll see. It’s good to want things that much.”
I didn’t answer her. My father had left the iced tea labels stuck to the top of the table, lesson over. I peeled each label off the wooden slats and rolled them into one thick ball until the boats were gone, until they were pulp. Then I dropped them into the bottom of the gas station’s garbage can and covered them with the wax paper from our sandwiches.
When we got to Virginia, we stayed with my father’s cousin Johnson.
I had to help his daughter, Alexis, clean the guest room. As she made the bed and I held the sheets for her, Alexis said,
“What’s your favorite type of music?’
If I was honest, I would say a cassette of commercial jingles I had begged my mother to buy for me. The tape consisted of ads from the 1950s for bubble gum and hairspray and bananas. I had memorized their lyrics with the fervor I knew my father wished I had applied to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. My father had wanted to buy me Public Enemy. He had that t-shirt, too, which he occasionally wore when he dropped me off at school. But my mother bought me the tape anyways. “She has her own tastes,” she said, rather strictly.
I knew enough that to answer the cassette tape was incorrect, so I said instead, hesitatingly: “Aretha Franklin,” if only because my mother and Alexis’ mother liked her. It seemed like a safe bet.
“Aretha Franklin?” Alexis started to laugh. “Aretha Franklin? That’s old people music. You like old people music.” Alexis liked singers and groups I had never heard of, though when she listed them I said, “Oh, yeah, those too.”
After dinner, during which my father and cousin Johnson spoke about how much better the South was to the North, Alexis and I sat in her family den and watched music videos together. Johnson and my father came to watch with us.
“What are you kids watching?’ Johnson said.
“Videos, huh? What is this? Who’s that?”
“Public Enemy,” Alexis said without looking at her father.
On the screen, three men stood in front of the concrete wall leading to a room. The man in the middle lifted his leg and kicked in the door.
“This is trash,” Cousin Johnson said, laughing. “This is trash. They shouldn’t be singing about knocking down a door, they should be singing about building one.”
My father laughed with him. He said, “That’s the truth, Johnson.”
The next morning, we got up to go to Historic Blacks of Wax. Alexis and Johnson said they had already been. It was only me and my father going. The color brochure for the place had, in large letters “Not Suitable for Young Children” printed across the top. My mother stayed home with my younger brother.
The museum was housed in a square, concrete building in downtown Norfolk. In brass letters above the double door was the name of the museum. The glass of the doors was covered with a sheet of black plastic, to make it opaque, but the plastic had buckled and changed color from the heat of the sun and instead of being an impenetrable black was a faint, cloudy purple. My father held the door for me as we walked in.
The first room of the exhibit was low and dark and hot: it was the room that prepared you for the Middle Passage. When you crouched through the opening and entered the door you were in West Africa. Chains creaked repeatedly through the speakers, and the sweet smell of theatrical fog floated around them. The lighting was brown and red and low. To our left, the first tableau was highlighted: a group of figures bent forward at the waist, attached to each other by heavy iron chains. They wore burlap loincloths: the women demurely covered their chests with crossed arms. Each of their faces had been molded into a rictus of sadness: mouths open, red vinyl tongues full, their glass pupils slid to the corner of their sockets, looking longingly towards home.
“Many were taken,” a woman’s voice came from the speakers. Her voice was full and slow: she spoke with the smoothed out consonants and vague southern accent of the black lady who read the news on tv back home.
My father pushed me forward.
The next tableau was Goree Island. The light changed to a milky blue, and the soundtrack was brought down to a low whistle of wind, with occasional sobbing. One wax figure, his black skin strangely translucent, stood at a Styrofoam stone window, his hand raised to the painted ocean before him.
“This was the last glance, their last glimpse of Mother Africa,” the woman continued. My father squeezed my hand.
As we moved through the darkened hallway, from lighted tableau to lighted tableau, I looked straight ahead. I tried to keep an expression of disinterest. Beside me, in the dark, the other visitors roamed: middle-aged men like my father, who did not look at the dioramas themselves, but instead read the descriptions of them in the cardboard pamphlets they held in their hands and teenagers who sniggered at the bare wax breasts of the female mannequins, and then laughed even harder at their own blasphemy.
I made it through the slave ship floor; plantation life; the Civil War, nearly all the way past Reconstruction. “The darkest days were yet ahead,” the woman’s voice said, from the speakers above us.
I turned to my father and said: “I want to leave.” I didn’t want to walk any farther. I already knew what was coming.
“But you need to see this,” he insisted. My hand was still in his. He led me forward.
Across the boughs of a plaster oak, a mannequin stretched his limbs into a “T”. The wax of his skin had been cut into ridges, with the hollows painted red and black. There were glowering red lights at the base of the tree, and all around stood white mannequins in fedoras and printed house dresses. On the wall above was a giant photograph of the same scene, except with the people it had actually happened to.
He said, “It’s good for you to experience this.”
He tried again. “You have no idea what it was like.” It was not an accusation this time. It was almost said with understanding. I squeezed his hand back. Then he sighed and said, “But you will.”
I let go of his hand. I wanted to say, wasn’t that the point? All those illustrious ancestors he always spoke about. I imagined that they relished my ignorance, my willful misunderstanding of the past, my willingness to claim arrogance in the face of history. I imagined, given the chance, they would do the same: would wash off ink and mud and baby shit and greet the future willfully innocent. “You should be proud of me,” I wanted to tell him
But I didn’t.
Instead I started walking faster. I walked the length of the gallery, away from my father. At the first open door, I took a left.
I was in the Harlem Renaissance. This hall was nearly empty. There was an imitation Langston Hughes, crouched over a piece of paper, a ballpoint pen with a slightly chewed pen cap positioned between his fingers. A banner was hung over the scene, his name spelt in gold letters, so you knew who it was. There was a café scene, too: a man with his cheeks slack, a saxophone posed before his lips, a crowd of mannequins at tables, posed for dancing, with their arms held up above them.
I waited until the few people in the hall left, and then I lifted the rope in front of the café diorama and stepped in. A female mannequin sat in a wire chair at a table in the back. I put my arms around her waist. I lifted her up. She wasn’t as heavy as I thought she would be. She wasn’t heavy at all. Her legs were still crooked into sitting position, her arms curved into semaphores of sophistication: she’d been molded to raise a flute of champagne. I sat her down in a dark corner of the diorama, still curled over, and took her place at the table.
The crowd of mannequins stood in front of me. Against the backs of their dresses and bluntly cut woolen suits, I could see the outlines of the metal rods that were holding them up. I could see the rough hems of the female mannequins’ wigs, and the paint that made up the male mannequins’ hair. I crossed my arms and lay my head on the table and closed my eyes. Underneath the lights, it was hot. I could smell the wax of their bodies: it smelt sweet.
Here, the only sound from the speakers was a low approximation of jazz: the squiggle of a saxophone supported by a lot of flutes. I was trying to figure out what the song was: I was concentrating on the song because it sounded so familiar, when I heard, from far away, my father. “Nia,” he said. He wasn’t in the exhibit room. He was in the hallway. I thought I heard him turn left, then right. I thought I heard him say to someone, “Maybe she’s over near the March on Washington.” But I knew he said my name again: “Nia.”
I thought maybe he was coming closer, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe he was in the room, maybe he was right in front of the display, but I couldn’t lift my head to look. Instead I said, my head still down, feeling my own breath hot against the crook of my arm, “Yes.”