"You got messed-up color"

When my husband and I moved to a mostly black neighborhood four years ago, 8-year-old Tyrone became our friend. Then one day he asked me if I was white.

By Robin Lentz

Published May 4, 2004 10:31PM (EDT)

Tyrone was on my doorstep.

"They-they-they they told me you was white," the 8-year-old stuttered, nodding in the direction of the bodega on the corner that sold single cigarettes and served as a backdrop for all sorts of questionable behavior.

"They told you what?" I asked. I didn't get it.

"They-they-they they told me you was white."

"They what?" I asked, glancing down the block at the usual crowd of apathetic teens in dark clothes outside the bodega. I wasn't sure what Tyrone was saying. Maybe I hadn't heard him correctly. I bounced my baby girl up and down on my hip to keep her from getting fussy.

My husband and I had moved to this out-of-the-way street from an apartment on the nicest block in this "up and coming" Brooklyn neighborhood four years earlier. Ernestine, who kept vigil from her second-story window, commenting on the goings-on below like the old men in the booth on the "Muppet Show" and whom we never saw from the shoulders down, told us not to worry; the folks over on our new street would warm up to us eventually.

"They'll get used to you," she offered one day. "They're not used to white people over there, but they'll get used to you."

I was expecting my first child, my son, and had my share of things to be worried about. This hadn't been one of them. Now I was worried.

The disgusting smell of the house we were renovating forced me and my newly sensitive nose out on the stoop a lot. It would be months before we'd learn that there were other white people on the block -- they just didn't spend any time out in front of their homes like everyone else. They came and went quickly from their cars and peeked out from behind drapes in response to a ruckus. Alone on the front step with my big belly and a book, I was an instant neighborhood attraction.

Tyrone and his sister Millie started to hang out with me immediately. They were a funny pair -- sort of like the smart little criminal and the big dopey sidekick of old cartoons. Millie was the 3-year-old firecracker, and Tyrone was the softer, slower, 4-year-old brother looming behind. They lived in the house across the street and just walked up one day and started grilling me: "You live here?" "That your husband?" "You got a baby in there?" "You got money for the ice cream truck?"

They had no visible adult supervision, though their mother -- an enormous, louder-than-life woman with dark eyes and strong opinions -- always managed to find out when they'd done something wrong. One day I asked her where I should send her kids when I had somewhere to go (on occasion I did have reason to leave the stoop) and she pointed out the acceptable houses. She seemed to appreciate my concern for her children's well-being and from that time on we developed a nodding relationship.

I'd nod at her when I'd catch her staring at me, and she'd nod at me when she'd catch me staring at her.

Over the summer, painters, plasterers, plumbers and electricians came and went through our unlocked front door, and so did this brother-sister pair. We'd find them wandering around the parlor floor, helping themselves to the fridge. They liked to drink the water from our cooler. They liked to use our bathroom.

We spent time together over the years. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Afternoons with Tyrone and Millie satisfied my maternal urges to do art projects that my infant son was too young to do. I'd invite them in to paint. I gave them disposable cameras. Sometimes we'd have dance parties. When baby No. 2 was on the way and my energy was too low to entertain my toddler in the tricky pre-dinner hours, Millie and Tyrone's company made things easier. We planned to run a lemonade stand but never got around to it.

My husband and I developed warm neighborly friendships with the visible people on the block -- pulling each other's trash cans to the curb, sweeping in front of each other's homes. It was the white folks who never really came around. Once I caught a cluster of them staring at me icily while I twirled a jump rope.

Millie and Tyrone's mom continued to nod at me from a distance. I avoided having conversations with her. She was unnervingly inappropriate. At one point, complaining about a bruise Millie got in school (which may or may not have been from the teacher), she said, "I don't leave no marks on my children." That was a conversation stopper.

She was always yelling at Tyrone, and it didn't take long for everyone on the block to follow suit. He was ridiculed for liking pink (for his fifth birthday, he said, he wanted "pink cake and pink icing and pink candles and pink balloons"). He was ridiculed for stuttering. Eventually even Millie stopped sticking up for him. He became the block's punching bag.

And there he stood on my doorstep, four years after we'd met, an 8-year-old in the body of a doughy teen, wearing a filthy white T-shirt down to his knees. His sweet hopeful face was streaked on the sides with dirt and sweat. He was having trouble catching his breath. His stutter took hold as he geared himself up for the words.

"He said you wuh-wuh-wuh-was white," he said.

"He said I was white?"

"Mmm-hmmm." Tyrone nodded in a "nuff said" kind of way. He folded his arms and cocked his head to the side to punctuate his surety that I would agree that this was an alarming and awful thing.

I stood for a moment, willing this to make sense. Tyrone shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other and sighed a sigh that seemed connected to his shoulders. He was waiting for my response.

My ethnicity has never been a source of confusion. I am white. Plain old American mutt-white. My husband is white. My son could be the poster boy for "white": His hair is like a dandelion, yellow and spiky or white and poofy, depending on the day. My daughter is the Gerber baby -- plump and pink-cheeked with wispy blond curls.

Maybe "white" was slang for something? Maybe Tyrone was just mixing up his words?

The silence finally got to him, and he started the story again. He slowed down to tell it -- walking me through it with a condescending patience, like he was reading to a child. His stutter disappeared.

"Some kids said that you was white, and I said, no, you're not -- 'cause I can't like white people. So they called me stupid and said they'd seen you and you was white. I said you can't be white and I told them you're light-skinned like me." He pointed to his yellowish arm to demonstrate his theory. "I told them you've got messed-up color.

"They kept telling me they'd seen you and you was white and my momma says I can't be friends with white people. My momma knows I'm friends with you, so you can't be white. I just kept telling them you got messed-up color, but they said you was white. So I hit one boy and then I got hit back."

He studied me for a moment. Then his eyes scrunched up with a new curiosity. "You're not white, are you?"

I tried to see what he was seeing when he looked at me. What image of me was in his mind when he was down on the corner defending me? Didn't he see the thin pink skin and wimpy WASPy hair? Didn't he notice that my baby was whiter than her diaper?

"I am white," I said, and instantly felt that it was a weird thing to say. I hated the way it sounded out loud, on my stoop, on his block. In the seconds of silence that followed, I kept hearing the echo of it and it embarrassed me. Had I sounded proud? Could I take it back? Midwestern guilt -- a certainty that I'd done something wrong -- bubbled to the surface. I had a hard time meeting Tyrone's imploring eyes. Had I misled him somehow? Was this a betrayal?

Tyrone's reaction was an honest-to-goodness jaw-drop. "Dang!" he shouted. "My momma says I can't like white people," he stamped his foot in exclamation, "and I like you. Dang!" He decided to try again. "You're really white? You're not messed-up color?"

"I'm white, Tyrone," I said and I sank my teeth into my tongue to stop the "sorry" that wanted to follow. "But I am a little messed up, if that helps..." My attempt at humor meant nothing to this overwhelmed third-grader.

He drew back to check me out in this new light. He couldn't deny that I was the same person who'd invited him in to dance and paint and to decorate Easter eggs, that I was the one who provided him refuge from the mountainous mother who shouted obscenities at him day and night, that I was the one who helped him play "school" on the chalkboard-paint in my entryway and who treated him like a good kid even when he wasn't.

His disappointment in me was palpable, but he didn't give up. He insisted that I couldn't be white because he liked me. I told him that I liked him too and that I was glad he was my neighbor. I tried to add a sentence about color not mattering, but it seemed too much like an after-school special. He'd have to come to his own conclusions about that, whatever they might be.

He shook his head and exhaled a long defeated sigh. Then he lunged forward and kissed me on the cheek before thundering down the stoop. His mother was down the block, hollering out for him in a tone that suggested he was already up to no good. Tyrone stopped for a moment, looked in her direction, and then lumbered back up the steps. He put his face close to mine and begged in a slow voice so that I would understand clearly, "Just don't tell my momma you're white, OK? Please don't tell her."

"OK," I agreed, letting this teachable moment slide. I gave Tyrone a look that said my color would be our secret, and then I closed the door to the block.

Robin Lentz

Robin Lentz teaches at a middle school in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their three children.

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