Paper Shackles

Now, when I think of it, I can see only the sun. I can feel its heat infiltrating my light brown skin, boiling the blood therein, and I can hear the other students sizzling beside me, can smell burning flesh. I have to remind myself that we were indoors. That this wasn’t some celestial oven. Just a normal seventh-grade classroom and a normal class day.

We had pushed all the desks to the sides of the room so that we could tape two, thin, boat-like shapes in the middle of the classroom. The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected. The teacher might have called it laziness; she had often questioned my work ethic, and, being thirteen, I would not have been able to articulate my position well enough to refute the indictment. No, I could not express how heavy those paper shackles felt, how inadequate a job stickers and glitter did of covering them, how disgraceful it seemed to me to make a craft of this inexplicable anxiety dwelling within me.

Still, we were to learn about the middle passage. We were to experience it.

At an age when hormones were supposed to turn me apathetic, I found myself preoccupied with slavery. The year before I was born, some archaeologists excavated the unceremonious burial site of several hundred black men, women, and children in New York City, and for a moment the nation had to confront the gaping wound in its past. [1] Black bodies mobilized. They demanded this history no longer remain invisible, buried. [2] Furthermore, I was born in the year of the LA Riots. I was conceived as Rodney King was beaten atop California pavement. Maybe that wave was still lingering in the atmosphere when my eyes first saw light. Often, I fantasized that I had been born a crusader for racial justice. I was less minority and more X-Man. However, my fascination with the institution of slavery was more fear than righteous indignation. I studied it in horror. I could not look away.

The class day prior we made shackles out of construction paper. Some of the kids decorated theirs, but I left mine blank—a solid shade of sky-blue upon which my imaginary sun reflected.

As we lined up and took our place in the imaginary boats, careful not to go over the walls indicated by lines of masking tape, the forward movement of time stopped, then regressed. I sat with my legs crossed and my right knee went overboard. If my classmates, white as they were, noticed my horror or if they were horrified themselves, I can’t recall, and, likely, didn’t observe in the moment. I would’ve been caught up in the waves now rising up to the ship’s deck, would’ve been fiddling with my shackles, would’ve been following the curved spines of black backs bent and broken.

Maybe I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn too early. At eleven, I had also marathoned Roots and, afterwards, crafted my own African identity. I was Udo Ka. Sean was my slave name. Or, perhaps, my resignation to the societal periphery had prompted my curiosity. For the first half of my childhood, we lived in the heart of Dallas, Texas, [3] and in those schools I was too white for all but a handful of my peers. My skin tone did not matter. The other kids had all seen my father, and his pastiness was an integral part of my brown. Dallas was where a kid shoved me into a garbage can—one of those big, gray, monolith-looking ones that teenagers have to wheel out at the end of their shift at McDonalds—and rolled me down a hill. Like the bullies did to the pale, scrawny protagonists in eighties teen flicks. In the bully’s defense I had called him precocious. We were six. I had it coming.

Then, before fourth grade, we moved to the country-suburbs of Wylie, Texas, [4] a town whose name cannot be pronounced without a hint of southern inflection, and all of a sudden, I was black. Less than black. I was a nigger; my mom, too. She had been called such at the Starbucks she managed. I sat nearby, Gameboy in hand and waiting for her shift to end.

Reading Huckleberry Finn aloud prompted some of my classmates to look my direction, apologetically, before each “nigger,” “nigga,” or “negro” while others read the words with a bravado and gravitas most often utilized upon the stage, reveling in the word’s inherent mischief. I knew that I was somehow conjured with each exclamation. Our English teacher would flinch whenever the word was uttered. She would remind us of its severity, of its history, every class period before we commenced the reading. Her voice rarely rose above a conversational tone no matter how enthusiastic she got about the lesson or how angry a student made her. That classroom was lined with posters—Rosie the Riveter, book covers, one or two motivational messages—and bookshelves occupied the remaining wall space. I had often borrowed books from her collection. She had pegged me as a part of her nerdy, literature-loving clan almost immediately, and when she gave the context lectures for our Huck Finn readings, for that pesky, little n-word, I felt as if they were for my benefit and my benefit, alone. In the desk next to mine, Ethan, a brute of a seventh grader, napped while she talked, face down and arms dangling off the side of the desk. He woke only when it was time to do the reading. He savored every opportunity to speak. That same year, in history, we learned about the slave trade.

My invocation of the sun has little to do with the lesson in particular, though I swear I still feel the burning of flesh and the boiling of blood. In reality, the classroom had one window in the very back of the room and was too far from me to cast any light, and the only burning of flesh I’d ever experienced was the naïve and childish touch of a hot stove. Instead, the fluorescents bore down on me, and the sun seemed intimately tied that room, to slavery in general. All the images in our textbook, paintings of black bodies toiling underneath the southern heat, foregrounded the sun—not the slave, not slaver, not for me. The lead actor in Roots? In Amistad? In Gone with the Wind? The sun.

So as we sat, aligned in rows of two, in the interior of the boat, I felt the sun beat against my flesh. I knew it would make me darker. Would make me all the more different from my classmates.

We linked our paper shackles together. The teacher stood at the front of the classroom. She had a habit of tapping a ruler on the back of her forearm while she spoke. I watched the rhythm as if she were conducting us in a symphony. She was the kind of lady who placed the now-tired phrase, “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it,” upon her breast. I would have her again for a humanities class. In that class she issued an assignment in which we relived our personal experience of 9/11 and wrote it into a letter to our future selves.

“Could you imagine,” she began her lecture on the middle passage.

I could do nothing but imagine.

Not even the ornamented shackles with their colorful patterns, garnished with glitter and sequins, could distract my imagination.

It occurred to me then that I couldn’t have existed. Or that I might have been a product of rape. Oh God. Something I cannot imagine—my docile, looks-at-his-feet-when-in-the-company-of-strangers father taking advantage of my mother who had bullied free food from a Chili’s because of her displeasure with TGI Friday’s. The power gained from racial hierarchy can only carry a person so far. Perhaps, I would have been the product of a secret affair, the product of the Romeo and Juliet of American Slavery. That would have at least been romantic. I would have at least been a metaphor for hope and possible reconciliation or some bullshit like that. And, of course, I had not yet ruled out the possibility of Immaculate Conception.

However I came to be, I would have no seat on that boat.

And yet here I was, simulating a ride that fascinated and horrified me all at once. As if to remind me, the other kids stared at me. They stared with eyes that insinuated that I would have been the only one among them on that boat. But they did not understand. They had not spent as much time thinking about it. And why would they?

Our teacher walked between the two boats. She tapped other knees that had fallen overboard back behind the line with the side of her boot. My knee was one of them. All the while, she described the atrocities of the events we were reliving. She reinforced the idea that these people were not treated as such. They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. [5] Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star. Our teacher did not make eye contact as she spoke. I do not think she could have if she tried. All the kids were staring down at the carpet, drawing imaginary lines with the tips of their fingers. She stared straight ahead, through the walls. Her words carried the weight of each body lost to the atrocity. That incalculable multitude, not even given the courtesy of a statistic. When those words fell upon us, our bodies became vessels of historical trauma and sunk below the surface of the earth. Our lines transformed from generic, geometric shapes into crude and invisible illustrations of dying men. As she spoke, the sun illuminated her red hair, white skin. I wondered which side she was on. Then, I turned the question on myself: Which side was I on? Which side would even accept me? I could still feel the eyes of my peers. Their eyes were pairs of suns. Discerning eyes, trying to decide if I was, indeed, one of them or one of them. But there were no sides, only an agonizing and ambivalent history.

They were cargo. Some refused to eat. Others leaped over the edge. Into the glistening sun. Centuries of history consolidated in a single lecture, a fiery star.

Time found a way to repress that history. So many years circled around me without even the slightest consideration of that seventh-grade classroom. I almost forgot that that sun still hangs above my head until a friend and I were walking to class. The sidewalk stretched into the clutter of campus, and we stumbled into a conversation about Huckleberry Finn. [6] It had been in the news. Headlines about removing “nigger” and all its various iterations in the novel filled our newsfeeds. Before I could decide otherwise, I was walking back into that seventh-grade classroom, recanting the lesson, searching for the comedic beats of the tale, but in the telling I lost myself. My humorous anecdote turned psychoanalytic confessional. The words spilled out of my mouth, hit the pavement, melted. Sweat formed on every pore, and the sun reasserted itself on the scene. Ever-present, that entity, [7] essential to my formation, and yet I forget it every morning. I wondered if my friend felt the heat too. There was discomfort in his face. This I saw clearly. He fumbled with his glasses, didn’t make eye contact, laughed at non-jokes. He’s white, most of my friends are, and I imagined, that if I were him, my mind would wander, as nonsensical as the thoughts may be—did my ancestors own the ancestors of my friends? am I somehow to blame for all of this? could I possibly go back in time and right all the wrongs? I stopped trying to read his face. Instead, I stared into the sky and hoped the sun would burn spots onto my vision.

Eventually, I finished the story. It did not end; rather, it dissolved into a nervous chuckle.

“Wow,” my friend said, “that’s a crazy story, man. Funny stuff.” We walked into silence, both of us peering ahead.

“Could you imagine?” I could hear the teacher’s voice behind me. Funny stuff, indeed. In that classroom, all those years ago, the lesson and the history it pertained to were one and the same, but now, as I recall it, bit by bit, I am reminded that I had never embarked on any middle passage. What was in me then and in me now was Sethe’s spiteful Beloved, the ghost that haunted house 124. I could see it, there among the two boats taped to the carpet, my white classmates, the teacher’s red hair and wooden ruler tapping against the crook of her arm, my horrified frame huddled over paper shackles, and a sun that will burn and burn and burn. Until nothing remains.

 

Author’s Notes:

[1] In 1991, before the planned construction of a $276 million, thirty-four-story office tower could get underway, Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI), an archaeological salvage and consulting firm, discovered the remains of 420 African slaves underneath a parking lot in New York City. The General Services Administration (GSA) had bought the lot hoping that 200 years and a shit ton of cement had all but eradicated any remaining bodies, but no such luck. Would you believe it? Those resilient skeletons were still there, were still reminding the Yanks that they had had slaves too.

[2] Black activists protested the GSA’s decision to continue with their construction project and were outraged that, as always, the fate of this symbolic discovery was in the hands of old white men. It took those old white men fifteen years to agree that maybe a museum was a more fitting tribute to those slaves than a parking lot. By that time, I had kissed my first girl. She didn’t like it when I talked about the burial grounds.

[3] At the time, Dallas had a minority (that’s black, Hispanic, “other” according to the Texas Department of State Services) population of 884, 887 out of about two million, but most of that (looking at you, black and Hispanic) was concentrated in the lower-class parts of the city. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grow up in the inner, inner city, but there weren’t a lot of nerdy white kids hanging around my school either. I’ll say that much.

[4] Now, I could give you the census data for Wylie, but the numbers really just amount to “Pretty damn white.”

[5] She gave one specific anecdote of a man: name unspoken, unknown, who tried to stage a mutiny but failed to stir the ire of his peers. He chose to drown rather than let the shipmen beat him to death. As the slavers approached him, whips in hand, teeth gnashing, he barreled through them. He even managed to snag himself a white man. Together, the two of them flew into the ocean, the sun spotlighting their descent. In all my research, I have yet to find this story, this man, but apparently, slave mutinies were less common than you might think. There was, of course, the Amistad mutiny made famous by a couple of paragraphs in your high school history books and Steven Spielberg, himself, in which some bold niggers from Sierra Leone used machetes to take control of their ship and good ol’ fashion lawyering to take control of their freedom. This story did not come up in our lecture.

[6] The debate exploded in 2011 when a publishing company in Alabama, of all places, replaced the heinous “nigger” with the much more tolerable “slave.” The publisher, appropriately named NewSouth Books, claimed the decision was less about censoring Twain and more about introducing the text to schools that had banned it. In the co-owner’s (paraphrased) words he wanted those uncomfortable with having the discussion to “have the discussion.”

[7] I feel this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that, in perhaps the most amusing political oversight in history, Mississippi did not officially ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 2013, after a studious watcher of Lincoln did some digging. Once again, Mr. Spielberg stuck up for the underdog.

 

Sean Enfield is an educator, writer, and musician based in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He graduated from the University of North Texas, where he received a University writing award, with a bachelor’s in English literature. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vine Leaves, Poetry Quarterly, F(r)Online, and Entropy magazine.