"i didn't know you were black!"

Living in the Bronx, as an pre-teen, the conversation becomes more nuanced as you expose yourself and forced to venture out into the world; communities merge, children interact, and families meet; I was embraced by the African-American community as “black that spoke spanish” but never understood the concept, or how the kinship was solved and later applied; what did black folks see that I couldn’t or was not able to see then?

Elliott, I didn’t know you were black! - What do you mean?

Well, that’s your father over there, right? You look just like him - Yes, but. He’s Dominican…


I’d turn around, and see my father in the window - in hindsight, I understand now is a visibly black man; but then, in those instances in my youth, I would deny the fact that - based on idea that the man smiling in the window (who I always felt resembled and behaved a lot like Martin Lawrence) although was visibly black, was unlike the average African-American because he came from a Spanish speaking nation - he was a black man.


An almost two decade long relationship with understand my blackness would start deep in recess of my mind when one day, while studying geography on a globe with some classmates, in a cruel attempt to elicit some laughter from my peers when we discover a country named Niger, and neighboring Nigeria - two nations in West Africa - I make a crude joke and mention that Niger is where all the niggers come from. 

The room went still, Rhonda Wooten-Jackson, my homeroom teacher turns to stone and quietly exits the room. Mr. Jefferson, the teacher from the room next door, enters moments later with Ms Jackson, and immediately, I was sentenced to a detention period after-school with no one other than Mr. Jefferson. One of the quietest and calmest teachers in the school, he never seemed to lose his cool (and he and I, even though he was not my homeroom, nor had he ever taught me directly, still maintained a healthy rapport) until he caught wind of what I had said. 3:15 arrived and five other students and I shuffled into Herbert Jefferson’s classroom, which, strangely, was the only classroom that had this unusual brown tint to it, especially with the sun shining into the room at this hour, it appeared especially warm. 

He walked over to the cupboard above the sink - which to this day I can’t understand why there was a full on sink in each, and every, damned, classroom - fingers through the collection of books and he pulled out a rather modest sized one from the many that were part of his personal collection.

Do you know what a “nigger” is? No. He pauses, looks at me, and then opens the book; his name is handwritten on the first page of the book - this is definitely his book.

But you heard this word used somewhere right? Yes.

And you said it without knowing what it means? Instead of responding aloud, I just lower my gaze.

He’s not looking at me anymore.

Now he’s fixated on looking for something specific in this book, flipping slowly. Deliberately, so I can see the multiple images of black people in bondage, chained, and several displaying the aftermath of physical abuse, squeezed in between what seemed like several hundred pages of paragraphs.

Slavery is something we’ve already taught you about, and you learn about it several times in school, but...

there’s a few things we as teachers, can, and can not, talk about.

I think you’re intelligent enough to see and hear a few things that others can’t. 

After Herbert is done explaining the history behind the n-word we sit in silence for a moment and I ask;

So why do some black people use it today? And he replies, Exactly.

Which I realize today is a response we use in conversation when we hope that, not only does the person finally understand the significance of what we’ve just told them, but, that they also have the answers to the questions we’ve had for ourselves that have haunted us since the moment they were conceived; it was probably something Jefferson had once (and to this day is something he still) asked himself and decided in that moment to burden me with his piece/peace of mind.