by Kait Austin
You are in the same car you have been in before, with the same people. This time you are speeding down scenic LA-18 with the windows rolled up tight and the A/C blaring. You sit in different places, but the atmosphere is the same. You are collectively silly and young, and the occasional camera flash bothers no one. Unless you count the occasional Ew, I look like a man in that one! Delete it—delete it now! But you forgive those moments and bob your head to the song you don’t know. Everyone else in the car seems to be a hip-hop connoisseur, and you don’t mind that. You kind of like this stereotypical experience. After all, what is adolescence without a car full of white girls screaming, Fuck a bitch in the ass! while the car swerves, narrowly missing a light post, a fence, or a kid? As a middle-class American, you’re basically obligated to be there. But this time you are more hesitant to accept the rap and the girls; you remember your first in-car teenage experience a few months back.
This same batch of heterosexual white girls was singing along with the infamous rapper, Lil’G, expressing their nonchalant gangsta’ love for the pussy. You were in the drive-thru at Taco Bell having that moment again, that damn-I-love-being-a-teenager moment, because you’d just realized how wasteful you were being with your time. And it didn’t matter.
Except, unexpectedly, six sets of eyes latched onto you, and the lips of the white girls continued to move along with Lil’G’s street woes. They weren’t shouting or making mystery signs with their hands. Their shoulders were still, eyes narrowed, as they opened their mouths a little wider.
Lil’G was confident with his I’mma fuck ya up, Nigga; the white girls were less sure. They were divided. Ashley and Bridget pulled out at the last second, silent. Steph lowered her voice but still committed. Alex said it like a question. Brianne and Allie exceeded even Lil’G’s expectations and sang a bold “Nigger,” careful to squeeze out the “er” with lips pursed and teeth bared. After, they challenged you with their blank expressions.
“Here’s your chalupa.” The bored Taco Bell employee handed over a bag. Steph took the food, one bag at a time, as you processed what had just happened.
First, you remembered that you were different than everyone else in the vehicle. You felt like an idiot for momentarily forgetting. In that moment, you were not simply a black girl: you were a representative for the entire black race. So when Alex asked, “Can we say that word?” you had to come up with an answer for the 1.3 billion black folk worldwide. You came up with something breathy and unsure sounding, but for the rest of your life you’d always think of better things you should have said.
And now, like a dumbass, you’re in the same SUV with the same white girls, and you’re pretending you’ve gone deaf. You’re trying to enjoy the moment, but Brianne is saying, “He goes to school with Ryan. He’s so hot, like, it doesn’t even matter that he’s black,” while snacking on pretzels. “Oh, my God, y’all, look at this fat,” she says while she pinches the few inches of skin underneath her exposed belly button. You ignore that because you’re in high school and, at this age, where else would you be? You don’t have a driver’s license—Steph is the only one who does—so you’re deaf but hearing everything.
“I don’t think I could date him, though,” Brianne ponders, still clutching on to her sliver of abdominal fat. “Things just wouldn’t work out with a black guy.”
Allie turns up the music because the conversation isn’t about cum shots or her, or cum shots and her; she is the only sexually active one in the group. You feel the bass in your abdomen as Allie sings, “Nigga what’chu want—I’mma bust a nigga up.”
You’re rolling down the long driveway to Oak Alley Plantation, Allie producing three Niggas per second and Brianne still verbally fantasizing over the only black man she has ever found attractive. You feel Ashley looking at you, concerned. You pretend to write a text message and then stare at the time until the minute changes. You have your own silent fantasies about getting out of this loaded space.
When your friends had suggested going to a plantation, you, of course, declined. What the hell would a black person want to do at a plantation? You seemed to be the only person in Louisiana who hadn’t visited one, though. They said that it didn’t have to be about slavery; people went to plantations all the time to look at the architecture and learn about history. In their eyes, you were uncultured to think that slavery, painful and scarring, was a legitimate part of recordable history. Besides, they had said, you’re a light black girl anyway. You would have been in the house.
Ultimately, you went for the architecture.
Brianne is still chattering about the black guy, the cute one, and everyone is still interested. Boys are all they ever talk about. You pretend to care because this one is real—he isn’t on Cosmopolitan‘s “Top Ten Hottest Guys” list.
“What’s his name?” you ask. It seems wrong that every other guy, every other Jordan or Michael or David, had a name, while the black guy is just Black Guy. No, he’s Hot Black Guy. He’s special—for a black guy.
“Skye. It’s so not a black name,” she answers and—because his name isn’t Tyrone—smiles like that makes him a little more acceptable.
When you get out of the car, it’s so hot outside that you can feel the sweat gathering on your legs. It feels like it’s crawling up your thighs. Chalky dust from the stones atop the drive feeds on your moist skin. Ashley stays close by your side but doesn’t say anything.
“Your name is pretty white, too,” Brianne tells you, and the rest of them agree, except for Allie, because she doesn’t give a shit about you or your name. She’s still thinking about that guy her Mom caught her blowing in their living room last week. You realize you should be annoyed about the name thing.
“Yeah,” you say, because Kaitlyn is an Irish name.
The seven of you are walking through the doors when Brianne, unable to let the similarity go, laughs. “You both have white names, and you’re actually pretty for a black girl.”
And maybe the world should have stopped right then. Maybe that enormous plantation door underneath your palm should have held itself open, and the spirits of all those abused slaves should have raised you, ascended with you, to the ceiling of the antebellum foyer. You could almost picture Brianne’s stupid face in the scenario. She would be horrified as you and your beautiful black-as-night ancestors floated threateningly over her head, and paralyzed while you and the spirits educated her on how to be a human being.
Great-Great-Great-Great Grandmother Abena would moan woefully about losing her culture and having to learn English, dropping to her knees for some God she barely knew. Abena’s daughter, Great-Great-Great Grandmother Esi, would tell the tale of her rape, of how she was snatched from the fields, away from the black life-partner she could not legally wed, away from the children they had. Esi would tell of the stench on Master’s breath, how it tasted in her mouth, and the hateful way that everyone—white and black—looked at her after she gave birth to a light-skinned child whom the Master named Rebecca. Great-Great Grandmother Rebecca, a house slave who had also been raped, would divulge that a slave’s life was painful, whether spent blistering under the sun or under unwanted hands. Then you would sail forward to Brianne with a tale less suffered but innately spiteful. You wouldn’t say much, but with your eyes deranged and your fists tight, your voice would echo as you declare: I’m not pretty for a black girl, Brianne. I am because I am, despite centuries of being told otherwise.
But you, stupid you, remain in that door instead. You are so stupefied that you hold it open for all of your friends to go through. You wonder how many slaves held these doors open for white people. You wonder how Brianne feels, saying something so insensitive and incorrect, and then grinning as she prances through the door you hold open.
“I don’t think you should say it like that,” Steph says to Brianne with her eyes on your face. Her words aren’t good enough, though, because like that sounds like Brianne simply has an issue with tact when, really, she is just destined for Hell.
“That wasn’t a compliment, Brianne,” you add to Steph’s weak defense, incapable of saying anything else because you know you’ll get loud. How premeditated would a speech about race sound at a plantation? (Remember, you’re still representing the 1.3 billion blacks out there.)
“What?” Brianne laughs and fondles the blonde silk of her hair like the strands are an excuse. You go to the bathroom because you need to look in the mirror—to assure yourself that you are still better than her. You are not silly-headed or innately prejudiced, you don’t laugh at every little thing, and you rarely talk shit about other people. You’re better than her, of course you are. Though this time you are unable to convince yourself because, in this plantation house, she looks like she belongs. She laughs, and it fits. You just feel heavy.
You wonder, Where is my uniform?
The water is running wildly as you rinse your face and droplets whip at your T-shirt. You watch the wetness carve down your cheeks. You think you want to see Abena or Esi. You want to know what your ancestors’ actual names are and which plantations they worked. If they materialized now, would you apologize for being light-skinned? Would you ask if they had been raped? Would your blood start to burn in your veins as you realized a monstrous slave-owner’s DNA is weaved into yours? Would you wish you never existed?
You turn off the faucet, and the thoughts go away with the rush of the water. You hear your friends laughing outside, waiting for you. You are almost to a place of acceptance. You are almost able to convince yourself that you won’t think of Brianne’s comments for the remainder of your life. A paper towel is lying on the edge of the sink, and you use it to blot the moisture from your face. You realize that your skin is warm, like you have a fever.
Then you see the soap.
The plastic container and the gel inside are cheap. It probably came from the backwoods dollar store you passed earlier. You stare at the gel as if it speaks to you. You are unable to handle the volume. Thick and everywhere, you’ve seen this hand soap before. You can’t step out of the bathroom and smile through this token situation. It’s an impossible process, this storing away your frustrations. You can’t make it home to your siblings with this one.
Allie soulfully mispronouncing Lil’G’s Niggas, you can handle. Brianne calling the entire black race unattractive, you can swallow. But the plastic canister of Fresh Cotton hand soap at a plantation? It’s not ironic or sweet or nostalgic. It’s another reminder of the cash crop you’ve always illogically blamed for the creation of antebellum slavery.
You imagine Brianne rubbing the silky concoction between her palms, laughing manically. The navy-blue beads suspended within would burst at the sound, smearing tracks of glittering moisture across her pale palms. Within seconds, her skin would be clean. She would have no conscious thought about the significance of cotton hand soap at a plantation. And you couldn’t even look at the bottle.
This is a Saturday. Today you are a teenager, and nothing you do or say is of major consequence. This is the day you will march out of the bathroom, call Brianne a slut, and walk halfway home before your mother picks you up beside the river. This is the first time you will say, “I hate white people,” and though you don’t mean it, you think you do.
Your friends will tour the plantation without you, and, when Brianne uses the bathroom, she will curse because someone poured all of the hand soap down the drain.
Kait Austin is a Creole fiction and poetry writer, born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. She attended Louisiana State University and earned a BA in English – Creative Writing. She moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where she earned a Certificate in Editing. However, New Orleans’ humid romance and irresistible food drew her home. She now lives near the French Quarter with her sister, Tabitha, and spends her time on a handful of creative projects.