In the summer of 1997, my paternal aunt moved into my family’s spare room. It was her first trip to the United States from Ghana. In the days after her arrival, my dad paid for buffet dinners, my mom took her to Wal-Mart for toiletries and my sister and I offered our own brand of the American welcome wagon: A walk to our beloved corner store.
Kids like my sister and me, bored and starved for autonomy, spent our muggy summer evenings charging toward the local Stop ‘n’ Go. It was our idea of freedom. In our pockets were the silver coins we’d slid off our parents’ dressers. We were finally old enough to make an adventure of the 20-minute walk through middle-class duplexes and along a dirt path beaten by Houston heat, bicycle wheels and the footsteps of those who power-walked for fitness.
My sister and I, ages eight and 10 respectively, wore sneakers and tank tops, and my aunt sported a long tie-dyed housedress with wide dolman sleeves. And she had rollers in hair, looking every bit the African Mrs. Roper.
The corner store provided more than the refuge of air conditioning for those who’d been moving through the steamy, humid air outside. I was heady with delight at the prospect of being able to buy anything I wanted with the quarters and dimes in my pocket.
However ordinary, going to the corner store as a child was always a hallowed experience, and having our aunt with us that day made us feel like we were showing off. As the others scoured for candy and sodas, I stopped at the magazine rack, picked up the latest magazine with a pop star on the cover and weaved in and out of the aisles with one eye on the words and another on my footsteps. That trip to the store, as many others, was unremarkable. The three of us left with our snacks and down that familiar patch of dust and brown grass.
Cars barreled down the two-way street as they had always done. This was the part of the trip where my imagination would run its wildest, where I tended toward the side of the dirt patch furthest from the street for fear that one of these cars might jump the curb and plow toward us. I remember one car, a rusted sedan, with its paint faded from wear and heat to a faint tint of pale blue. It sped past, but slowed just enough for me to identify a klatsch of red-faced teenage boys inside it. One of them stuck his head out of the passenger side window to yell, “Nigger!”
The three of us walked in silence, our shoulders shrugged, our heads down. I don’t know where I’d learned to shrink like that. I wanted to look over at my aunt and ask her if she’d heard what they said and if anyone had ever used that word in Africa. But I stayed silent. Her housedress was flowing; the heat was drying her curls; the plastic bag that carried our treasures crinkled as my sister let it dangle from her palm; sweat cascaded down my arm. I pictured the car of teenagers making a sudden U-turn and driving back down the street the way they came. Now I knew real fear. I wanted to round the corner into the neighborhood where our Hispanic and Indian and Asian and black and white neighbors lived together in what I perceived as a communal suburban utopia. We could be safe again if only we could make it to our street.
Two syllables introduced my sister and me to fear. I shrank with an immediate desire to be unseen, a posture I’d never known before, yet would reluctantly assume and fight to reject throughout my life. And despite its perceived progress and symbolic social and racial wins, America had rolled out the ugliest side of its welcome mat for my aunt.
Some acts of violence simply use words as weapons, reverberating within them the profound implications of a society in which some people are free to move with a sense of confidence and safety that others are not afforded.
Like me, many African-Americans recall the exact moment in which they learned to brace themselves for subtle and blatant acts of discrimination, regardless of how seemingly innocuous their surroundings or how harmless their excursions. And like me, they’ve reflected on the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a teenager who was not as fortunate as were my sister, aunt and I to make it home from a walk to the corner store.
Published in the Houston Chronicle on Aug. 1, 2013.