On February 14, 1992, I was sitting in my second-grade social studies class learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 90-mile march from Selma to Birmingham when the infamous question preyed upon me.
What side of history would I have been on?
Today, in 2021, I cogitate why I didn’t interrogate my teachers more. Was it because racism camouflaged itself like a snake in my rural Georgia classroom? Was it because society had already coaxed me to believe racism had been defeated?
Why wasn’t I vexed by the question, What side of history am I on?
In 1989, there was a brownstone on Hegeman Avenue in Brooklyn, East New York. This brownstone was full of familial laughter. Three teenage boys occupied the bottom level with their mother while their two older female cousins lived upstairs. They all lived under grandma’s roof. All the family celebrations – birthday parties and barbeques – were hosted here. The family gathered around the wooden table covered in cornbread, grilled meat, and 2-liter soda bottles. With full bellies, everyone would move the party to the stoop out front.
One day Yusuf and his friend were hanging out on the stoop out front. Yusuf looked down, examining something like peanuts on the sidewalk.
Yusuf squashed the peanuts concealing the crumbs in the highly trafficked cement.
“What are you doing?” asked his friend.
“I’m stomping it out because somebody around here would eat it off the street,” Yusuf replied.
At recess, one of the boys I played with was named Xavier. Zay for short. He was short like his nickname. Easy to talk to. Fun to play with. He was Black. Like the Hawkins brothers, Zay had a flattop haircut. Occasionally, he would let me pat the top of his head ever so lightly. I was intrigued by its springiness and sheen. We were friends. We’d chase each other around the playground, and we’d laugh a lot. Even in the middle of class, we’d sometimes make eye contact which always made the both of us smile.
It was party time on Valentine’s Day, and we were all eating heart-shaped sugar cookies with red and pink sprinkles and salty potato chips. Just like any other indoor recess day, Zay walked over to my desk, but this day was unlike other days. I heard giggles from little boys and girls as he strutted over like a peacock. When he approached my desk, he presented me with one velvety red rose and a box of chocolate-covered cherries.
“Will you be my Valentine?” he asked.
On August 23, 1989, a white Italian-American girl named Gina was having a birthday party, just seven miles from Hegeman Avenue, in a neighborhood called Bensonhurst. Gina invited all of her friends to her party including a Black boy she was rumored to be dating.
Word got around the neighborhood.
I wonder if the infamous question ever preyed upon Gina.
What side of history am I on?
My desk separated Zay and me as my face burned with mortification. I was so shy and squeamish about cooties and boyfriends. I received speech services because teachers suspected I chose to be mute, but I talked to Zay. In reality, I was apprehensive to talk to my teachers and some of my classmates, because I was embarrassed, or maybe because I was afraid I’d say something wrong.
School was one place I had control. I couldn’t control the hateful word my dad called my Black friends when they’d ask if I could play. I couldn’t control why my clothes smelled mildewed. I couldn’t control that I never got to wear new clothes or shoes once I picked them out because my mom had to put them on layaway to afford them. I couldn’t control I had to ride around town in my mom’s “hoopty.”
At school, I obeyed the rules like a model student. I worked hard and made good grades. I controlled who I talked to and who I didn’t. I camouflaged and kept people’s eyes off me.
In this moment, I could feel every eye in the world on me, and they were burning holes right through me. Not knowing what to do or say, not realizing this was my moment to choose which side of history to stand on, my freckled face forced a bashful smile and accepted the gifts from my friend.
Back on Hegeman Avenue, a friend asked Yusuf and the rest of his crew to go investigate a Pontiac for sale. Yusuf and three of his boys took off to Bensonhurst, just a few train stops away, to check out the car before it got too late.
Upon exiting the 20th Avenue Subway Station in Bensonhurst, they made a pit stop at Snacks and Candy on the corner of 20th Street and 68th Street below Gina’s apartment. Yusuf’s friend bought some Duracell batteries and film. Yusuf bought a Snickers bar.
Outside Snacks and Candy, the four teenagers paused searching for the Pontiac’s address. Meanwhile, the neighborhood juveniles had mistaken them for Gina’s Black party guests and announced to their white crew, “The Black guys are here.” The neighborhood boys swarmed Yusuf and his friends surrounding them with bats in their hands yelling racial slurs.
I reached across my desk and accepted Zay’s Valentine. The ohs and ahs bounced from one corner of the room to the other like the live audience they were. Then, the camouflaged snake postured and hissed.
Two words, straight from a Spike Lee film, slithered from the lips of a classmate, “Jungle fever.”
Nervous, afraid, and cornered Yusuf and his friends pleaded their case explaining why they were in Bensonhurst-in a segregated New York City.
For a Pontiac.
Amidst racial jeering one white boy’s hateful adrenaline took control as he aimed and pulled the trigger.
Yusuf backed up.
Then, dropped to the ground.
He was pronounced dead upon arrival at Maimonides Medical Hospital.
Gina and I cupped control in the palm of our hands whether we knew it or not. We were, and are, powerful. Our decisions, in each of these moments, had the power to put others in danger simply by being unaware of our authority.
What I didn’t know, and what my teachers and family never attempted to mention, was Black boys like Zay could die asking white girls like me to be their Valentine.
For more than a year, Yusuf’s family and a thousand others marched the streets of Bensonhurst for justice. For life.
I imagine Yusuf and Zay being similar because of their thoughtful hearts.
I wonder if Yusuf, his brothers, and their friends ever thought about the potential dangers that awaited them as they pedaled their bicycles all over New York City.
I wonder if Zay and his friends ever pedaled their bikes down the suburban roads around town. How far away did Hegeman Avenue or Bensonhurst feel to Zay’s family versus how far away it felt for mine?
What side of history am I on?