The Right of Way

At the intersection of the six-lane highway I live on in Washington, DC, I waited for the light to turn green and for the little white man to appear above the numbers—starting at twenty-six—counting down how long I had to cross the street. I looked carefully to make sure no cars were going to make a right turn; vehicles infamously whip around the corner as if it’s a race track with right turns instead of left. No cars were coming. I stepped out into the street.

After that, my memory slows down each second, moment by moment.

*     *     *

I first learned that anger is synonymous with evil from my father. It was his life’s goal to become a preacher and, by the time he did, my mother had left him, partly because of his horrible temper. The memories of my childhood that feature my father most prominently are ones in which he is angry: his voice booming so hard I swore I felt the walls shake; his eyes bugging out, determining who would be the target of his wrath; his veins swelling from his arms so I thought they would jump out of his skin; his hands reaching for one of my sisters, to throw her against the wall.

My mom struggled with clinical depression for years during and after her marriage to my father. With therapy and medication, she began to feel like herself again, the self who could smile and laugh, not just stare blankly at the walls. When I showed signs of sadness or anger, my mother was on guard. She didn’t want me to be depressed, so she ensured that I always displayed happiness. Emotions other than joyful ones were looked at with suspicion. If I became angry, I could behave like my father, losing control and physically lashing out.

When I was ten, my cousin pushed me and I scraped my knee on the curb. So, I pushed her into the dirt, ruining her all-white outfit.

“Vonetta, why did you do that? You know not to do that!” My mom chided me as if I’d killed the girl, using the same tone she used when my father hit my sisters. Her equating my behavior with his frightened me.

Despite him physically abusing them, my father was hopelessly devoted to my sisters. The children from his first marriage, they occupied a different space in his mind and heart than me. He loved them obsessively. He refused to let them get their driver’s licenses until after they had graduated from high school, so he was the only way they could get around. He defended them against his wives’ complaints about their disrespectful behavior.

My sisters often didn’t speak to me even when we lived in the same house. As an eight-year-old, when I wanted to laugh with them, watching television, they stopped laughing the moment a sound came out of my mouth. They left the room when I entered. They rolled their eyes at me when no one was looking. My sisters were angry that I even existed.

I didn’t know what I’d done to make them so mad that they treated me with such contempt. Years later, I learned that our dad was still married to their mom when I was born. Their mother decided that she hated me. In a way, I couldn’t blame her, what with my being walking evidence of my father’s infidelity. But she groomed my sisters to hate me, too. I guessed they never thought to question why they pointed their ire at me; I hadn’t chosen to be born.

 

Sometimes, when I was at home by myself, I cried silently, my body seeking even just the smallest bit of release. But then I swallowed it all again, immediately put my face back on, and marched back into line.

After my mother left him, Dad didn’t try to stay in touch with me. My mom pressured me to call him periodically, and each time I spoke with him I became more and more aware of how much he didn’t think about me.

“I’m so proud of you,” he said in a voice that sounded so close to genuine.

“Thank you,” I squeaked, trying not to let on that I was moments away from bursting into tears. I knew he was lying.

Subconsciously wanting my father to love me, or at least to make him look like a fool for abandoning me, I decided that I would make good grades and follow all the rules. I was a quiet, shy kid who liked to laugh, so I took all of the anger I felt toward my dad and sisters and let it fester at the base of my belly.

*     *     *

I saw that cars were waiting to turn left. I made eye contact with the driver of the first car, a black SUV. I saw him, so I figured he saw me. I thought he was slowing down.

But then, I realized that he wasn’t slowing down. In fact, he appeared to be speeding up. Since facts from my high school honors physics class were permanently burned into my brain, I knew that he was going too fast for me to continue without contact and that I did not have time to jump backward, out of the way.

*     *     *

When I was in eleventh grade, one of my classmates took to bullying me. He was a big dude, a star of the varsity football team. I usually brushed him off, ignoring his taunting about my glasses and crooked teeth because I didn’t want to dignify any of it with a response. Until one day.

I can’t remember what exactly he said, but it enraged me. It was as if I stepped outside of my body and was replaced by a sensationally bold girl who looked exactly like me. Very calmly, but very quickly, she picked up a ballpoint pen with the cap on, and poked the guy—hard—in the back. She didn’t want to hurt him, just for him to leave her alone. How much damage could a capped pen do?

He immediately took off his shirt. The pen had ruptured a small hole in his flesh, the size of the pen head. It had gone through the plastic cap and into his skin. A dot of ink spotted where blood should have been.

My eyes shot open as I dropped the pen, the plastic skittering across the floor for a second.

“I am so sorry,” I said, immediately panicking as I anticipated his retribution. He could literally crush me, and I was sure he was going to at some point.

He was speechless as he left the classroom to go to the bathroom. I followed him out the door and down the hall, almost going into the boys’ bathroom, repeating, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

When I told my mom what happened, she looked at me through squinting eyes. “Maybe we should get you in to see a counselor,” she said.

She knew I’d decided to stop speaking to my father and quickly made the connection between the two situations.

“I know the boy probably made you mad,” she continued, “but you can’t go around hitting people. You know what the Bible says about being angry.”

The Bible said that one should not sleep on one’s anger, implying that anger rotted your insides during your slumber. I always assumed that it meant that being angry was a sin: totally wrong, a moral failing against God. My outburst confirmed this for me.

My mom never followed up on therapy, so I went along suppressing my feelings.

My bully never hit me back. Instead, he made me do his vocabulary homework for the rest of the year. I intentionally put down some wrong answers, so the teacher wouldn’t suspect someone else was doing it. I learned the words “surreptitious” and “diatribe,” among others, and as a result, I did remarkably well on the verbal portion of the SAT.

I decided that I would never be angry again. I wanted to be righteous, and there was no room for failure.

*     *     *

As the SUV hit me in the left knee, I screamed. His tires screeched, striking up the smell of fresh asphalt. Both of my knees buckled, sending me onto the ground. My sunglasses fell off my face and skidded a few inches away. I caught myself on all fours, my knees scraping the ground.

My jeans better not be torn, I thought. They were my favorite: straight, dark Lucky Brand jeans it took me months to find.

*     *     *

For college, I went to Georgetown. Just being around so many rich white kids produced an annoying amount of jealousy in me. But the insistence that their opinions were more meaningful than mine was most infuriating.

Once, in a leadership class, a white guy insisted that Black people just hadn’t worked hard enough to gain economic equality to whites.

“You’re ignoring the existence of institutional racism,” I said, trying to be kind and explain the issue in objective terms to help convert him to common sense. “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you work; you just don’t gain as much if you’re Black.”

“You need to look up Robert Johnson,” he replied, assuming I was unfamiliar with the owner of the then Charlotte Bobcats and his inspiring—though highly uncommon—rags to riches story.

My heart started to beat faster and my cheeks began to flush. “I’m from Charlotte!” I said, not quite yelling, but making sure he could hear me.

His eyes widened and his jaw clenched, but the conversation was over. After class, we apologized for getting so heated with each other. I knew I’d done the right thing, but I was ashamed, convinced that he would have listened to me if I had not gotten angry.

*     *     *

On my hands and knees on the pavement, I felt no pops or snaps. No sounds of shattered bones. No rushing sensation of torn muscles or ligaments. My books were on the ground. My purse was on the ground, dangling from my shoulder. I picked up the books, adjusted my bag, then stood upright.

At the same moment I realized I was okay, I realized that I had been hit by a car while walking in the crosswalk, with the right of way.

*     *     *

In my early 20s, I dated a guy who prided himself on his extreme liberalism. Even though I disagreed with nearly everything he believed, I asked him questions and listened earnestly to his reasoning because I liked him and that’s what you’re supposed to do with someone you like. He said he liked me, too, but he didn’t bother asking me any questions about how and why I came to the conclusions I’d come to.

After a couple of months, he texted to tell me that he hated my conservative-leaning centrism so much that he couldn’t be with me any longer. He followed up with a pages-long email detailing everything he thought was wrong with me, mostly that I was an impostor, in his opinion. He appreciated my respect for his views, though.

Standing on a friend’s deck outside of a raging house party, unable to choke back tears, I lamented on the phone to a friend, “I accepted him. Why couldn’t he do the same for me?”

*     *     *

When I went to business school, I was one of few women and the only Black person actively participating in the student investment fund. During my stock pitch, a few of the guys asked for information about the inventory levels of the company I was presenting. I hadn’t looked at the balance sheet that closely, because no one ever looked at it that closely.

When I said I didn’t know, one guy said that a few of them just met with that company’s CEO a few days ago, a meeting to which I was not invited. The CEO had confessed that inventory was problematically high.

I blinked, wondering why he would ask me a question whose answer he already knew, why he would embarrass me in front of the whole club.

My ears and eyes grew hot, but I exhaled, cooling them.

*     *     *

Standing in the middle of the street, I inhaled, my lungs filling with a sharp gust of wind that I could not stop from making its way out of my mouth.

*     *     *

During my job after business school, my Latina coworker and I met with the “HR” partner at our firm to report some racist things our bosses had said to us. She scribbled down notes and made her face look distraught.

“I’m sorry, girls,” she said, shaking her head. “But don’t worry, we’ll look into it. And don’t be afraid of retribution because there will not be any.”

My coworker and I gave each other grateful, relieved looks.

 

Forgiveness starts peace, but an apology completes it. The acknowledgment of an offense, and remorse for it, rounds out the sharp edges of wrongdoing. It doesn’t make the bad action disappear, but it helps it to fade.

 

Over the course of the next year, my coworker was given poor performance reviews and I was not given any new projects, even after begging for work. During my year-end review, the company president told me, “You’re not as engaged—we need you to be engaged.”

My ears set on fire. My jaw clenched. I balled up my fists under the table. I released my fingers and pinched my thigh through my dress pants. I was not going to be an Angry Black Woman. I was not going to lose control.

Sometimes, when I was at home by myself, I cried silently, my body seeking even just the smallest bit of release. But then I swallowed it all again, immediately put my face back on, and marched back into line.

*     *     *

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? DIDN’T YOU SEE ME? I HAD THE LIGHT AND EVERYTHING!”

I pointed to the walk signal, where the little white man still stood over the countdown, which had gone down to ten. The white man turned into a red hand and the numbers flashed: nine, eight.

“WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?”

My knees were throbbing, my hands were shaking, my heart was blasting, and my voice was raw. I screamed every word from the deepest depths of myself.

It was as if I was screaming at every person who had ever hurt me.

*     *     *

I wanted to know why they had hurt me. I had followed the rules, done what I was supposed to do—be born, be smart, be a team player, be accepting, stay in the crosswalk and walk only when the white man is there—and they hurt me. I was holding up my end of the bargain, bringing my contents to the table, but they had all chosen to turn the table over and discard my contribution. Righteousness never mattered—people would hurt if they wanted to hurt, if they held themselves in higher regard than me.

*     *     *

Just like after I pen-stabbed my eleventh-grade bully, my heart nearly stopped. I had just screamed at a person. I wasn’t supposed to scream at anyone.

The driver had stopped, and the passengers in a few of the cars on the other side of the street looked on. At the sound of my bellowing, the driver got out of his car, in the middle of the lane. He was an older Black man. He wore a tan three-piece suit, a straw trilby, and brown rimless sunglasses that kept me from really seeing his face.

“I’m sorry, sis.” He shook his head faintly.

I am not your sister, I thought.

I considered apologizing for screaming at him, but I quickly reasoned that I was not wrong here. And the way the man shook his head and looked down told me that I was safe. He looked nothing like my father; he was an age my father would never reach. And unlike my dad, this man wasn’t going to attack me if I said the wrong thing. So I continued to let it out.

“WHAT WERE YOU DOING? I HAD THE RIGHT OF WAY!”

“I had the right of the way, too,” he said, holding his sun-spotted hands out.

“NO, YOU DIDN’T! YOU DIDN’T!” I started to add, “I’M MARRIED TO A LAWYER, I KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT.”

But before I could, he said, “Yeah, I know. Pedestrians have the right of the way.”

“You scared me, too!” He continued, his hands trembling.

I looked at him as if he’d just called my mother stupid. I’d never said that he had scared me. Sure, I had screamed—because that’s the appropriate reaction when an SUV rams into your knee. But he had not frightened me at all.

“Do you want my insurance information?” The driver asked.

Insurance information seemed irrelevant. What was relevant was why he had chosen not to follow the rules. I had been following the rules and he violated them. His lack of regard for these boundaries resulted in my being harmed. Rules keep us from hurting each other because we are capable of causing so much pain.

On the sidewalk, an old Black lady yelled, “You ain’t supposed to get up! You ‘sposed to stay down on the ground until the police come! You know better than to get up when you get hit by a car!”

I realized then that we were in the middle of a highway at almost five o’clock in the evening. Traffic stretched out behind us for what looked like miles, but, miraculously, no one was honking. It seemed that they knew what had transpired and were going to wait for us to figure things out, but not for much longer. I was in the way, and I hate being in the way because I hate when people are in my way, and you do unto others as you would like to be done unto.

I asked him for his business card. He said he didn’t have any on him, but he wrote down his phone numbers and asked me for mine. I hesitated to give him my number, but then I thought he might want to check on me later, to see how badly he’d hurt me and to try to make recompense.

“Where do you go to school?” He asked as he scribbled.

“I’M NOT A STUDENT. I’M A REGULAR ADULT.”

My hair was in a ponytail, so perhaps that made me look younger than thirty-two. If he was trying to flatter me, it wasn’t going to work—I was not going to let him subvert my power by delegitimizing me because of my youthful appearance.

“Miss Young,” he said, peering at me through his sunglasses. “I am truly sorry.” He took the paper and offered his other hand. “I am truly sorry.”

Still infuriated, I looked at his hand.

Something deep inside, below my belly, below all the crevices where I’d stored all that anger, whispered to me, “Forgive.”

*     *     *

The best explanation of the difference between forgiveness and bitterness was told to me by the anti-trafficking activist Christine Caine: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

Forgiveness liberates you, not the perpetrator.

I couldn’t say that word in the moment. If I forgave him, I would have no recourse to funds if something did actually go wrong with my body. People always said they felt worse after an accident the next day. I felt fine in that moment, aside from the trembling hands, scraped knees, and inability to speak with an inside voice. The word “forgive” seemed too potent for what had just happened and what could happen if my body happened to fall completely apart in the near future.

But that thing inside, over the course of only a second or two, told me that it was the right thing to do.

*     *     *

“I accept your apology,” I finally said, in my normal voice, at my normal volume. I shook his hand firmly and looked in his eyes, which I still couldn’t really see.

“Thank you, sis,” he said.

He got back in his car and I huffed, then crossed the street with the red hand and numbers flashing nine, eight anew.

The old lady yelled at me again as I walked away. I shook my head, wondering if she really would have blocked traffic on a busy road during rush hour. By the stoop in her shoulders, I was certain she would have. But I didn’t need the man’s money. The only thing he owed me was an apology, which he gave me, multiple times.

*     *     *

My therapist once asked what I wanted from my old bosses.

“The same thing I wanted from my dad and my sisters,” I said. “An apology that I will never get.”

Forgiveness starts peace, but an apology completes it. The acknowledgment of an offense, and remorse for it, rounds out the sharp edges of wrongdoing. It doesn’t make the bad action disappear, but it helps it to fade.

*     *     *

As I walked toward the library, I noticed that my breathing pattern had changed. The air went deeper into my body and came out fuller, more completely.

It was relief.

It was like I’d been carrying a boulder for miles and had finally dropped it.

I had been angry, but I hadn’t lost control.

It took being hit by an SUV to create a safe space for me to feel this emotion and dispel almost thirty-three years of pent up anger, guilt-free.

Everyone told me that I’d feel worse the next day, and I did, a little. My knee was sore, and my hip felt a little gimpy. Yet I felt the strongest sense of peace, almost like sitting in the relaxation room of a spa after a massage.

The driver never called to see if I was okay like I’d fantasized about him doing, being what I felt a good man would be. I decided to let God handle the justice angle, if there was one. I’d done my job: learned that anger isn’t evil when it’s done the right way.

 

Vonetta Young is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her essays have been published in/by Catapult, Past Ten, Blavity, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Levo League, and The Billfold, among others. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up with an absent father who was a preacher with a black belt. Follow her on Twitter at @VonettaWrites.