“Hey, Herb. Have you read this?” Captain held a copy of The Beautiful Struggle as he watched his roommate and best friend sip a concoction of various light liquors and bitters. He swished the fluid around in his mouth for a moment, let it rest for a moment, then spit messily into a kitchen sink full of dishes. Captain hated when Herb spent the week prepping for one of their bi-monthly parties. Daily chores would build up and near a tipping point, leaving Captain with the hefty task of cleaning the apartment, while Herb creates and forgets cocktail recipes.
Herb wiped his hands on his pants and took the book. “What is it? One of those Black Erotica books? Look, I told you, the woman at the booth told me it was like if Harry Potter was black, lost his powers, and ended up going to college at Howard.” He turned it over to read the back cover.
“I literally don’t know why I talk to you sometimes. Nevermind, dude. Give it.” Captain reached out to grab his book, but Herb swatted the hand away with a stinging slap.
“What are you reading this for? He a famous actor or something?”
“Nah, man. He just got the MacArthur Genius Grant and I wanted to check him out. Also, Kweli’s named some of his mixtapes the same thing.”
“Hm.” Many of the pages were dogeared and the would-be mixologist opened the book randomly and read aloud:
Girlfriend: Ta-Nehisi, what sort of girls do you like?
Ta-Nehisi: I like light-skin girls.
There must have been a gasp, but I was young and must have missed it, because my next image is postconversation, sitting in the car with my mother staring at me, the car unstarted. Her eyes were power drills, and though she herself was a shade from yellow, she was a patriot of a broader Africa.
Little Boy, don’t you ever say anything like that again. You can have your little eyes on whoever you want, for whatever you want. But you remember that these little black girls are somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister–your sister, and someday, somebody’s mother, and when it comes down, the white man won’t take time to make distinctions. You need to check yourself, little boy.*
“That’s funny to me.”
“In what way?”
“Him and his mother having that conversation in the car. The passenger seat can be a throne in the right circumstance. It can also be a witness stand, interrogation chair, the Pastor’s right hand, or a mother’s chair of reprimand. Looks like this was that and the electric chair all in one.” Herb handed the book back to Captain and began mixing another series of liquors.
“Yeah, I remember my brother looking at my red, crying face and shaking his head at me because I let an older kid take my bookbag in fifth grade. I was so embarrassed. He didn’t let up on me either.” Captain flipped aimlessly through the book as he reminisced. “That was the day he took me to the baseball field to show me how to throw a punch.”
“I thought you were a black belt…” said Herb, as he continued to practice shaking some kind of martini in two glasses held rim to rim. Most of the liquid only splashed onto his shirt.
“That happened later. The first punch I ever learned was from him. While I was sitting in that car, balling my eyes out, he asked me if the kid was black. I told him ‘yes’ through a series of hiccups and coughs. I didn’t know why it mattered, but I answered him ’cause he asked. But he said that if it was a white kid, then he would come with me to tell Mom and Dad so they could go up to the school. But when he found out it was another black boy, I had to set that kid straight myself.”
“He’s right. If word got out in the locker room that you soft, you’d still be running for your life.”
“You ain’t lyin’. Shame how we treat each other so different. White kid take my candy, I gotta snitch. Black kid take my candy, I gotta rock him to make sure everybody knows what’s up.”
“That’s how we’re brought up, homie. Prison mentality.” Herbert cuts a wedge of lime squeezes it onto his tongue, then drops the entire slice into his mouth; rind and all.
*excerpt from The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates