Issue 35, Final Fringe

Vintage Fringe: Some Kind of Nigger

by Matthew Haynes Issue 25 01.31.2011

Butte, MT

Chuck and I were standing in the hot lunch line holding our blue trays. We were tired of waiting. He pushed at the tray’s edges and spun it like a basketball on his pointer finger. I held mine steady. I would like to say that it was because I was reverent and respectful and aware of my actions, but, indeed, I couldn’t make trays spin on my pointer finger, attracting the wide-eyed gaze of both younger kids and coming-into-themselves girls.

At some point during the painstaking wait, while I was counting floor tiles and arranging them into some grand Escher extravaganza, a few boys lanked by and not exactly whispered, niggers.

Chuck was aware of its meaning, but I was more naïve. What is this niggers, I thought? At home my mother explained to me the significance of the word and the whys about not using it, but only after popping me in the mouth with a flick of her hand.

Kahului, Maui, HI

I used to think that it was because my mother forced me to school that first day, in nearly seventy-degree weather, clad in a tight chocolate wool sweater and fading brown corduroys. I tried to imagine that it was the glasses that my mother made me wear, all brown-rimmed and big, two storm windows across my eyes. I was sure it was the way I laughed and how I scrunched my nose, the bridge seeming to buckle between my eyes, which squinted and lost themselves in the folds of my lids.

It was a Japanese girl named Susie who noticed it first—when I raised my hand in Hawaiian language class when the teacher asked, Who here is Hawaiian? Susie turned to her pasty friend and said, He’s not Hawaiian…he’s hapa haole. I’d heard the term before, but consulted my mother when I got home. She told me that it meant half white and that it was bad to say. It was a way of saying that someone isn’t really part of something.

After that year in sixth grade, Susie never let up and, instead, was able to recruit many more to her cause.

Chuck, however, was never harassed. I thought that it might have been because he was a football player, had confidence, got popular. I thought it might have been because he had lighter skin than I, that maybe because he didn’t necessarily look Hawaiian, but possibly more Italian, they didn’t expect as much from him.

Chuck told me that I didn’t fit in because I didn’t speak Pidgin. Because I couldn’t:

Ey, bra? or

You hear dat Mrs. Takanawa go da kine? or

Da car broke down already, bumbai go make, die, dead, eh? or

Some fool you. Like one backhand?

And he was right. I couldn’t. It didn’t make sense. I tried once with my Samoan friend, Ka’inalu, but he told me I sounded like some asshole in the movies. He said that I sounded da kine, which clearly meant hapa haole.

I tried to explain to Chuck that I knew more about Hawaii than they did. I knew the dances. I knew the music. I was better at learning the language. I had my mother’s stories about old Hawaii. And I was Hawaiian. I was kanaka. Though not of Hawaii, I was part of Hawaii. They were the transplants.

Hapa haole. I would rather they called me hapa Hawaiian.

Jacksonville, FL

My brother, Terry, is as dark as me. He has that same thick, brown nose. My mother calls it Hanamaikai, her family name.

Here, there were more differing colors of skin than in the Midwest. His first day of school, Terry stopped for water at a drinking fountain. A boy interrupted and told him that it was a white-only fountain. Not wanting to get into a fight or make an issue, he moved on to the black fountain, biting his tongue all the way. As he bent down for a sip he was interrupted by a black boy who told him that he couldn’t drink there, that it was a black-only fountain. He wondered where the brown-boy fountain was. He spent that year drinking out of the groundskeeper’s garden hose.

Bradner, OH

They made me sleep in a trailer, she said. I asked them if the babies could sleep inside, but they wouldn’t allow it. We all had to sleep in a trailer.

My mother thought that Hawaii was bad, being second class in your own country, having to move to the side when a naval officer passed by, hearing the ladies cough from under their half-mooned hands, carrying handkerchiefs, Damn, jungle bunny. But there was worse. Like:

Marrying a man named Gomer who loves you, and you give him two children, and he takes you home, to Texas, and he is so certain of himself that he doesn’t stop to think about his family who hates blacks and how they might see his brown wife and they won’t let you or your children through the door, they simply turn the corners of their mouths down, fold their arms across their chests all pious-like, and tell him, not in this house, and he obeys and you sleep outside and you ask them if the babies can sleep in the house, but they won’t allow it and you and the babies sleep outside while your husband drinks scotch in the living room, making small talk, catching up, remembering old times. You’re just happy there’s a pot-bellied stove in the trailer.

In a Bathtub

There came a point when being white seemed to be my only option. So I filled the tub with bleach. Three gallons of bleach. Some hot water. I lay in that tub until I couldn’t take the burning anymore. My skin pealed and cracked. I couldn’t wear pajamas that night. The soft mattress picked at me. So I fixed myself on my back in one spot on the hardwood floor, and tried to look through the ceiling, tried to look beyond the roof and the tree and the clouds, their wetness cooling my skin, and tried to go even further then, shooting through the stratosphere. To float. And if I didn’t find God then, I would blend in with the dark. They wouldn’t find me in the nightness.

Matthew Haynes

Matthew Haynes

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Matthew is a full-time faculty member in the English Department at the College of Western Idaho and holds a B.A. in Literature, M.A. in Fiction and M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Boise State. His work has appeared in several anthologies and journals including SOMA Literary JournalO’iwi, and Cold Drill, and he has published two books, a novel Moving Towards Home, and a chapbook, “16 November 1996,” which was selected for inclusion in the NYC MOMA permanent library. “Distant Tides,” his collection of multi-genre writing, was chosen for the Wayne Kaumuali’i Westlake Monograph Series, and will be published by Kuleana Press in 2011. He has also been a finalist for the Faulkner Award in Nonfiction, earned a literature fellowship from the State of Idaho Arts Commission, and received partial fellowships to attend the Prague and St. Petersburg Summer Seminars. Currently, he is shopping a new novel and collection of nonfiction.