Preface to “Magical Girl”
The concept of “Magical Girl” came about after I had proposed the idea of writing about a digital project my younger sister and I have been working on called “The Black Girl Virtual Reality Project”. That project, which seeks to document and process conversations and sentiments about black girls on social media, discussion forums and chat rooms, was dreamed up as a way of helping people to see the way that they talk about young, black women through the eyes of the very people they were talking about. Because of time constraints, concerns about anonymity and other potential obstacles in the development of such a project over what was ultimately to be a short period of time, I had to abandon my initial idea and focus on a smaller part of it: thus, “Magical Girl” was born.
The title and some of the concepts in the story by my sister’s lifelong love of anime and, in particular, the magical girl genre which, rather than masculinizing women in order to give them power-by-proxy to manhood, centralizes femininity as a source of power and tends to amplify what girls “already have” in order to make them over and bring about a certain transcendence (Saito 145). The character Juney (and, really, everyone else) is a composite based on some of what my sister and other young women color who spent much of their lives in predominantly white cities or institutions told me about their lives and self-esteem. The “Anna” character is another composite based on personas that both my younger sister and I created during our own fanfiction writing days—though this character, for all her implausibility, was less disastrous in just how unrealistically idealized she was in comparison to the alter-egos my sister and I came up with back then.
Though both creative writing and ethnography (and narrative in general) are far from my specialties, I tried to lean on the works of Keith Gilyard (Voices of the Self), Sapphire (Push), Samuel Selvon (The Housing Lark, and also The Lonely Londoners, which is one of my favorite books from undergrad) to create a work that was at least somewhat realistic in its portrayal of a teenager, which I haven’t been for some time (I did set the story in 2008 intentionally in the hope that, maybe, my portrayal would hold up a bit better for a “period piece” than it would for something more modern). The humor—but also the tragic sense of self-doubt—and the frequency of cursing was borrowed in part from my own life and in part from Push, which always made me laugh in between tears. Juney’s fabulous sense of imagination about what Anna was like was also supposed to be evocative of Precious.
The narrative’s dreamy, not exactly linear stream of consciousness was to be my homage to Selvon, who could tell you all about a person’s history in just a few lines before returning to the present action. Where Gilyard comes in is the narrative’s focusing on how Juney read and wrote various life situations—navigating literacies of being in relation to her hair, in her choice to use (actually steal) a “white or Asian lady” avatar, in the way she understood her mom’s mood and various manners of speech, and an aside about her learning about sexuality from a surprising source. Because I am fond of digital rhetorics and composition, I threw in some references to digital literacy as well, although I didn’t have enough pages to explore that side of things in depth and would expand on Juney’s internet life in a revised, expanded draft.
Overall, I don’t think that this was really my most successful writing effort. Though I did try to remix and reproduce elements of style from some of the writers in our course and some concepts that I thought were meaningful, I’m sorry to report that I think I should probably stick to writing non-fiction seminar papers, mainly because I found myself hating the pacing of this story, and could not think of a way to make all of this come gracefully together like I might be able to do with a traditional paper (which, as I finished and tried to revise this fiction piece, I wish I had written instead).
Saito, Kumiko. “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 73, no. 1, 2014, pp. 143–164., doi:10.1017/S0021911813001708.
Part 1: Juney Brown’s Secret Identity
When I was young, I often thought about how words could free me. I, like many young folks, saw words as a vehicle to new worlds and new possibilities that were decidedly less frustrating than my own dreary life. Fictitious words could transport me to magical realms where the main concern of the day was defeating some obtusely sinister being with the power of love and friendship—a lesson I learned early on in reading books like the Harry Potter series, inhaling X-Men comics and leafing through Japanese “magical girl” manga, the latter of which I discovered through my older brother. These words, and the worlds that they built, could situate me far away from myself—and the consequences of being me. At least, sometimes it felt that way.
As a little girl, an early favorite of mine was Sailor Moon—both the anime which came on faithfully at 3PM every day after school, and the manga, which I was able to get a hold of through the ordering system at the one local library in my town. Even though you had to use the ordering system to get almost anything good from that podunk little library in the podunk town I spent all my life in, I loved it, because even when I tried to get my hands on extravagant things like manga that I could not afford, it didn’t matter. Even if the library lady regarded me with cold eyes and didn’t seem all that happy to talk to me basically ever, the fact that had no money of my own (except when I managed to save up the lunch money my mom gave me—if she did any such thing) didn’t really matter. I had the same rights as everyone else there, and wasn’t no one, not even the stuffy library lady with her circle-y glasses and scary, black Angelica Houston witch-lady bob, about to tell me different.
I can’t say for sure why I was so immediately drawn to Sailor Moon, but I’d bet at first that it was simply because the girls in the comics and the show were so pretty and feminine. Almost everyone in the series—which was about “magical girls” who used magical cosmetics and accessories to transform into “beautiful soldiers” to fight off whoever the villain of the season was—wore fashionable clothes that I never saw on anyone in real life except my mom sometimes, and had long, colorful hair that flowed in the wind whenever they did anything. If the wind so much as touched my hair, it repaid me for my neglect by sticking straight up like a middle finger.
But it wasn’t just that the girls were pretty or anything like that. It was also that they fought bad guys who stayed gone after the fact, had love interests, and, other than the supervillains that regularly plagued Crystal Tokyo—their barely-fictionalized version of the Japanese city as far as I ever knew—everyone was nice to each other, even during their teasing moments. Usagi—the central character’s secret identity when she wasn’t fighting evil under the guise of Sailor Moon—had a mom who said “I love you” to her daughter, cooked breakfast each day, and was home waiting for her every day to berate Usagi for her terrible grades before relenting and letting her know that even though Usagi was a “lazy girl”, she could and should do better because her mom, Ikuko, wanted her to have a good life. Over time, Usagi became the kind of woman her mom wanted her to be—she was smart, gracious, and worked hard for what she believed in… which conveniently happened to be beating bad guys rather than raising her grades, but while the bad guy beating profession wasn’t available to me, I still took comfort in these fictional worlds… maybe because my experience was so different.
Well, for the most part.
One thing Ikuko-san had in common with my mom was the constant criticism of my grades, which I could admit weren’t my crowning achievement. “All that goddamned time you spend on the computer,” my mom would yell, while making me unplug the only computer we had in our house so she could pack it up as punishment for my failures, “All that time reading those fucking books, and you getting a C-minus. A D?”
All that time on the goddamned computer was spent reading and writing fanfiction about the books and shows I took comfort in. None of the books I read were particularly appreciated by any of the academic institution’s I’d attended since matriculating into kindergarten at the tender age of four years old.
“Juney, I know you’re smart. You know you’re smart,” my mom would tell me, coming home from a long day at work in pink, or teal, or blue scrubs and smelling just like the dental office she’d worked in for as long as I could remember. “But this right here is dumb bitch behavior. You’re acting like a dumb bitch, and you keep on playing around like this, you’re going to end up like one.You’ve got to be kidding me.”
What, like you? I always thought that but never said it because it felt gross to put my mom and “bitch” in the same sentence… and I couldn’t understand why it was so easy for her, and practically everyone else in the world to do that to me.
But back to the school stuff. I can’t say it was an unfamiliar refrain. Like Ikuko, my mom wanted her daughter to perform well academically so that she could have a better life. Unfortunately, unlike Ikuko, she went about expressing that primarily through insults that would leave me in tears, and because she worked so much, these interactions were sometimes all we’d have together until the weekends, during which my mom was mysteriously much nicer. I never could tell her why it was that I did so bad in school despite being smart—and she was right, I knew I was smart, or at least creative, because people online who thought I was some pretty white lady or an Asian girl or whoever’s photo I snagged from Google said that my writing was “amazing” and that I should become a “real writer” someday. In a way, I was like Usagi. A lazy and unremarkable girl with an fabulous but secret alter ego.
Everywhere else in my life (which consisted pretty much only of the three schools I attended in my time: Andrea J. Mitchell Elementary School; Maxwell Garrett junior High School; and Santa Teresa High School) , nobody cared about all that mess. In fact, that I spent so much time reading “those dumb Japanese books with the big booby ladies” made me even weirder to all the boys and girls at my mostly-white (I think there was one other black girl, tops) school, and God knew what they might do if they read the kind of stuff that I wrote about. Boys called me “ugly” and “annoying”, “black”, and, my favorite, “nigger-bitch” most of my life if they said anything to me at all (and although maybe once or twice they got into trouble for that, for the most part, nobody seemed to believe me when I’d say something like that happened, or they’d tell me that I would just need to “get over it and not let words affect me”.) Girls were even meaner and more personal in their attacks—or maybe it just felt this way because I thought there was some theoretical sameness that should have protected me. They’d criticize the way I dressed (admittedly, I didn’t have much in the way of style for most of my life despite loving fashion… as I said, I was on the “my mom gives me money at random intervals and none of it is enough to buy my own clothes” financial plan, which meant that new clothes came to me only when my mom bought them, and while she was herself a snappy dresser, I looked like a skinny old lady in the stuff she bought me), make fun of the books I read, call my hair “steel wool” or “dry straw”, say I had crushes on boys that everyone thought to be gross (mean, yeah, but they were kind of gross and even though it was wrong of me to share in so cruel an opinion considering my situation, I still felt injured by it), and in the next breath accuse me of being a “carpet-munching dyke bitch”, which was probably the wildest string of insults I’d ever heard in all my sixteen fairly shitty years.
Early on, I’d tried to fight back against the horrible words these girls would say to me—sometimes physically. I’d call them names (my favorite: calling this one girl “Brittany” who always had some shit to say about me “Gluttony”), or just punch them in the face. I’d always been physically stronger than other girls, and I fought my brothers so much and so viciously at home that beating a bitch’s ass at school was almost second nature until one incident when, despite the fact that I was simply defending myself, it wasn’t just the high school dean (Mr. Bowser, who shared his name and attitude with the leading villain of the Super Mario video game series) I had to deal with, but also some cops who let me know that “girls like you could get locked up for a long time in juvie” for assault. Even though school felt like an extremely hostile, prison-like environment already, juvenile detention seemed worse, so the ass-beatings had to stop, which meant that I was just going to have to go ahead and be a nigger-bitch carpet-munching ugly dyke for the duration of my K–12 education. Oh well.
Since I couldn’t fight back, I just tried to engage as little as possible. I was quiet in all of my classes, skipped my lunch period, and spent any free time I had as far away from other people in the default world as possible. I holed up in the library and read or, if I could figure out a decent workaround the school’s content blockers (I often did), I’d use library computers to log on to Fanfiction.net, where none of my bullshit mattered and where Anna—the glamorous white or Asian twenty-one year old (with her own apartment, on-again-off-again boyfriend and a job in something sexy, usually fashion or public relations or some combination of the two depending on who was asking) that I became when I was on the internet.
Other than the… little problem of Anna’s appearance (it wasn’t always easy in 2008 to find a picture of a white or Asian lady that wasn’t either famous or too stock-photo-y to arouse suspicion), I had the details of Anna’s life down pat. She was basically everything I was not… at least not yet. She wore high-heeled shoes every day, worked a stressful but fulfilling hours at a company that required her absolute secrecy in her dealings with its clientele, was beautiful, erudite, and had a boyfriend named Neil who was as feckless and lovable as every man I’d watched on sitcom television since I was a toddler. Conveniently, whenever something was bugging me in real life and I needed to vent, I could, on the internet, tell my chat room and message board friends about how my boyfriend was screwing up or hurting my feelings—which, despite the fiction of it all, made me feel better about, like, everything else.
Maybe it was a little pathetic, but I loved to be Anna. The hours I spent online writing as her—impressing people as her, making friends as her—made me feel like some part of me truly as glamorous and sophisticated as the girls in Sailor Moon sometimes were. When I wrote stories about those girls, I learned about faraway places around the world that I was sure I would never be able to go myself, read about customs that sounded exotic to a girl who didn’t even go to church on a regular basis because my mom was too tired most Sundays, and learned everything I possibly could about fashion designers, and makeup, and beauty. Anna was the stunning, sophisticated, and self-possessed kind of woman I liked to read about—who was nothing like the lanky, yellow-brown-skinned, “Flying Lucy”-haired broke girl that I was, and probably always would be. My internet alter ego was intelligent, driven, kick-ass and beautiful. She “spoke” in the forums with florid, precisely proper language that impressed people and gave the impression that she was a classy lady who came from somewhere and was going nowhere but up. I was Juney Brown, who said nothing much of the time. I was just a girl who was invisible to anyone who might love her, and all too visible to people that didn’t.
Part 2: Saturday Morning
I don’t know if most kids longed for the weekend because I hated other kids and had almost nothing to do with them, save for my brothers. What I did know was that, personally, the weekend wasn’t great. Since I was grounded (as usual), that meant no computer—unless I broke into her room heist-style, hooked it up and did my internetting on the rare weekends she would go off to do whatever stuff she did on her own time, which typically involved going to family gatherings that I managed to get out of by irritating her by “getting ready” as slowly as possible, or pouting, or fighting with my brothers to the point that she would just say: “Go on and stay here, then, but don’t come crying to me when you’re hungry or bored.”
She liked to punctuate that particular refrain with a string of curse words and stomping out of the front door. It had taken years, but I was able to resist my urge to laugh or smile at that.
This weekend, I had no such luck. I’d intentionally laid in bed all morning and into the early hours of the afternoon, my eyes shut as I focused on trying to hear or otherwise determine what was going on around the house. The sound of running water, which you could somehow hear from the pipes around the house no matter where you were, combined with the loud clanking of pots and pans and the smell of that gamey, horrible Jimmy Dean sausage my mom liked cooking told me that this was going to be one of those days where she rooted around the house in search of things to yell at me and my brothers about. Her favorite subject: various minor messes that nobody ever seemed to notice but her. Sometimes I really, really thought she made them herself.
I couldn’t escape to the chatrooms and forums this weekend. All of my fictionalizing would have to happen in my head—and maybe with pen and paper if I dared to risk it, although the last time I had, my mom had found some of my material and was… not thrilled to learn that her only daughter was writing about sex-stuff. That had resulted in an overly explicit version of “the talk”, a very awkward mother-daughter purchase of condoms (about which she joked with the cashier at the local 7-11 that our family regularly frequented, saying: “We won’t be having any babies any time soon” to my infinite embarrassment), and what felt like an F.B.I. investigation of my alleged sex life.
That last subject, my mom would not let go of, despite the fact that I’d accurately told her that I had never even kissed a boy romantically, or even hugged one who wasn’t related to me as far as I knew. Besides, I was writing about gay stuff at that time—men in love with men—so, like, there was next to no correlation between what she thought was going on and the reality of things. Often, with my mom, that was the case.
The whole incident made me cringe so goddamn much that I swore off writing stuff that I technically shouldn’t have even been reading according to federal and state laws (which I knew all about because I broke them regularly by asserting via a click that I was, in fact, 18 years old before proceeding to consume internet content not meant for my teenage mind). Even though writing smut and gay stuff, in particular, was really popular online and had earned my alter ego—who was 21, and who was born on September 10th, 1987 just in case anybody asked—it wasn’t worth it to risk a non-standard trip to the gynecologist, or whatever the hell my mom would come up with if she thought that something was amiss with the parts of me that the world acknowledged as “girl”.
Talking about sex stuff with my mom gave me the heebie-jeebies and was, despite her best efforts, completely unnecessary. I knew everything I needed to know about periods and sex, and all of that muck thanks partly to school but thanks mostly to the internet, which it turned out was maybe a little too generous in its instructive capacity if you typed “sex” into the Google search bar. I knew from looking at the internet history on school computers—not to mention the one we had at home—that I wasn’t the only person ever to do that. My gross older brothers should have counted themselves lucky that I was always good enough to delete my own browsing history when I was done computing—because their indiscretions ended up being flushed right along with mine.
All of this awkwardness was on my mind as I remained curled in the fetal position beneath my covers, a pillow between my knees because my back would start to hurt from laying around all day otherwise. I was determined to sleep in as long as I possibly could, temporarily ignoring my need to pee and the treacherous hunger pangs I was experiencing because those were minor forfeitures if it meant that my mom wasn’t going to be cutting my ass all day about every damned thing.
That plan was unceremoniously abrupted by my mom’s favorite house-wide communication strategy: the earth-rattling yell of a child’s name that meant you’d better report to her in seconds. If you didn’t, you’d be treated to her second favorite phrase to yell—in the menacing, bellow-y way that the giant from the Looney Tunes “Jack and the Bean Stock” cartoon howled “FEE, FI, FO, FUM!”
“Juney Petunia Brown, I know you hear me,” she cried, menacingly. “Don’t make me come up there! If I do, you’re not going to like it.”
Two things: first of all, my mom seemed to have a built-in megaphone in her voice box, so, she was right, I did hear here (even though that wasn’t always true despite her assertion to the contrary). Second? While it was true that I wouldn’t like it if she indeed came to my room, which was admittedly a pig-sty and would earn her explosive ire, I was also sure I wasn’t going to like whatever designs she had in summoning me downstairs. I, therefore, had a choice to make not unlike one of the only things I remembered from middle school English class—Scylla and Charybdis from the Odyssey, the old rock, and the hard place. I couldn’t remember which was which, but knew that Odysseus had chosen to deal with the Scylla—the weird, sentient rock thingy—rather than Charybdis, which was a raging whirlpool who swallowed everything that came near.
If I continued to ignore my mom, I was basically skinny dipping into the maw of Charybdis, because she would get so mad that everyone would get in trouble, which meant that my brothers would be pissed at me too. So, Scylla it was. I crawled out of bed, threw some crappy sweats on, and replied with my own megaphone voice: “I’m coming! I’m coming already!”
Part 3: Mama
When I got downstairs, I cut through the “living room” that none of us kids were allowed to go in (allegedly this space was for guests at the front of the house, although my mom hadn’t had a guest over since I was like three, and that guest ended up marrying my uncle shortly after) and walked into the dining room, where my mom was seated conspicuously alone, plates of breakfast laid out for two. It looked dumb as hell because the dining room table sat at least six.
“Uh, yeah?” I asked, realizing that I should have made some effort to mask my attitude but failing. That was kind of just how I talked, and everyone hated it.
“Uh, nothing. I’ve made you breakfast,” my mom said, and despite her yelling earlier, she now sounded soft and pleasant… like she was talking to me with her “black lady on the phone” voice. When she talked like that, she was being nice, but in this case, she had no reason to be nice to me, so instead of relaxing, my hackles were raised as I cautiously took my seat. “I didn’t put sugar in the grits. You don’t need all that. But I made the eggs over easy like you like.”
“Thank you,” I said in earnest. I did like my eggs over easy, partly because it was the first thing I’d ever learned to cook. My granddaddy taught me years ago, before he passed away. “Where is everyone at?”
It was an innocent enough question. I realized that I hadn’t heard any of my brothers making their usual, fighting related noise. Nobody was playing video games in the den, which was a different room than the living room that was essentially the same thing except that we were allowed to hang out in there… Only, the price of admission was that it was one of those places mommy would spend her weekends examining with a fine tooth comb in search of some shit to get mad about when, in reality, she could have just gone on and relaxed like normal folks were supposed to do.
“Your father picked them up. They are having a day for just the guys. They’re gonna see Iron Man and stay the night at his place.”
“What?” I said weakly because I wanted to say: “Well, that’s bullshit.”
I wanted to see Iron Man, too, and everyone knew it. What made this a guy’s thing? Or was this a part of my punishment?
“Juney. Lose the attitude. I thought they could use some time out of the house,” she said. Her tone was a warning, but being told to “lose the attitude” miraculously translated to: “Juney, go ahead and get a lot more pissed off.”
I used a butter knife to cut a little too hard into my food, clinking the knife a against the plate in a dramatic fashion and shaking the table.
“And unless you got plate money, I’d cut the bullshit. I’m trying to do something nice for you this weekend,” she said, which only slightly breached the rising wall of my temper. “I feel like you been a ghost around this house. I hardly see you and when I do, I’ve gotta beg you to speak.”
I wasn’t in the mood for this. In the midst of my very dramatic, unnecessary sausage cutting, I paused to shoot my mom an irritated look. As usual, she didn’t relent.
“But that’s not all,” she continued to explain, although I knew that I was already beginning to wear on her famously threadbare patience. “I talked to your English teacher. Leslie…. Mrs. Knotts.”
Mrs. Knotts was a patient at the dental office my mom worked at in downtown Santa Teresa. She was one of a couple of teachers who went to that office, and while I hoped that most of them were getting their molars drilled to oblivion—including the math teacher who regular told my mom about how I was failing his class or not turning in homework as if she needed to hear that from a guy with her fingers in his mouth—I generally liked Mrs. Knotts. Quite a lot, actually. She was one of the only teachers who ever seemed to notice me beyond, like, scolding me for not doing anything. In fact, she was usually very nice, and was one of few people who I told—in very veiled terms—about how much I liked to read and write outside of class. She told me that was special and, in kind, I usually did the work in her class, even if a lot of the time I was late as hell since she was my first period and I hadn’t been on time to school in, like, a decade.
“Good to know a bunch of grown folks are gossiping about a teenager,” I said glibly. I didn’t care that the accusation was unfounded. I didn’t like the idea of people talking about me when I wasn’t there. Especially not Mrs. Knotts who, again, I thought was nice. I was starting to revise my opinion of her.
“June. Stop it. We weren’t gossiping. What would we even gossip about?”
A good question that irritated me. Unlike the fictional self that my mother had unknowingly cut me off from this weekend—unlike Anna—I had nothing interesting going on in my life. Just the same old, “go to school, do nothing, come home, day dream, fight with my brothers, get bullied, and consume whatever media I could” routine with the occasional phone call from my dad, who’d promise me that we’d do something cool or that he’d take me shopping for some nice dresses and then not show up for weeks or months at a time. Nothing to write home about. Jeeze.
“Well, I’m doing fine in that class, so what did you guys talk about?” I pressed, punctuating the sentence by stuffing my face with a tenuously fashioned forkful of grits and sausage that tasted too salty for my liking.
My mom, a pretty yellow-brown lady like myself, with very long black hair and a heavier-set frame that didn’t look fat to me—just big like she was strong—was strangely smiling behind a white mug that was probably filled with tea. My mom didn’t do coffee. Nobody did but my oldest brother, Lawrence, who liked to make a sugary dessert out of it that made me and probably anyone who didn’t want diabetes gag.
“She was telling me about how beautiful and smart you are, and how it’s a pleasure to have you in the class. But she said you don’t talk enough,” my mom explained, and there was something in her voice I recognized from my childhood. It sounded a little bit like delight; a rare tone from her since I’d become a teenager and she’d become, in my estimation, kind of an asshole.
“Oh,” I said. What did my mom care about what some old and clearly delusional white lady had to say about my looks or smarts? And what was so hard about being “smart” in English? Everybody spoke and wrote English. There was nothing special about that.
“She wanted to know what you wanted to be when you grew up, and whether you planned to go to college. I told her that I wasn’t sure about what you wanted to do, but that I thought you wanted to be a writer. I also told her that you were going to college one way or the other,” my mom continued to explain, and while she was kind of right about the former, the idea of my going to college when I was flying at full-speed into “F-country” in all of my classes except English and, like, history or whatever social studies crap that was kind of interesting was laughable. Plus, my family didn’t have college money. So I never even thought about going. Not once.
Anna had gone to college. She’d gone to a good state school, where very plausibly she’d dual-majored in fashion and journalism, leading to her high-powered, top-secret, celebrity-laden life as a high-powered public relations pro. She was an ace student who was good at everything she tried on top of being beautiful, refined and cool. If it weren’t for the fact that my fabricated internet idea were meant to be a real person, I’d have probably called her a “Mary Sue”—an implausibly perfect character whom everyone loved and whose abilities were boundless—but that she was a self-made woman whose little empire was built on the foundation of her boundless ambition, and that, like me, she could sometimes be kind of… not the world’s nicest person gave her enough flaws in my opinion to take her out of Mary Sue territory.
“Ummmm,” I said, not really considering anything my mom said and deciding to flippantly dismiss it instead. “Well, that doesn’t seem really likely. What college am I gonna go to? Boo Boo the Fool’s School for Dummies?”
I laughed, My mom didn’t. That sucked. I loved Boo Boo the Fool jokes.
“Girl, do you want to be nothing but a dumb bitch with nothing going on for you?” my mom asked, and the pleasant phone voice was gone, replaced by her “ghetto” voice that I hated.
“No,” I said coldly. “But I don’t know what you people want from me. I can’t get into any college. I’m not going to get any scholarships. I’m stuck here being nobody.”
My mom set down the mug, too hard. She did have mug money, I presumed, so she could break shit all she wanted. Not fair, but that’s the way things worked. The house wasn’t a democracy after all—which my mom loved saying whenever I protested anything.
“You know, you can’t go on like this, Juney. That big world out there ain’t gonna give a shit about helping you do nothing, and you sure as hell not gonna be up in this house living up off of me,” mom said. She sounded irritated, but she wasn’t raging like I was used to. “You’re sixteen. You got two more years of high school. You can write. I know it. I’ve seen it. They got scholarships for girls that can write. Mrs. Knotts told me. So stop pretending to be a dumb bitch, because you’re not. Not yet.”
She looked me dead in the eye. My breakfast was getting cold. I felt weird about this whole conversation.
“But you will be if you don’t get yourself together and do something. You are not a victim. If you think you can act like those nothing-ass white girls who just get knocked up and do nothing at home, you’re wrong. It doesn’t work that way for us.”
I hated hearing my mom say that last part, because she was somebody who had expected to be a stay-at-home mom with her little family. That’s how she’d been raised. Instead, she wound up raising all of four of us kids mostly by herself while working all day and night to keep the roof she’d inherited from our granddaddy over our heads. In vulnerable moments, she’d say that she was happy to have us kids, but that she wouldn’t pick this life if she had a choice. Shit, me either! But neither of us asked to be here, and yet here we were.
“OK,” I said. I wasn’t really interested in breakfast anymore. I wanted to get away from my mom to go lay down and hopefully sleep through the rest of this unnecessarily awkward weekend. That was probably not going to happen—but hey, a girl could dream.
“You got me off track. So, about Mrs. Knotts, she was saying that you should register for Advanced Placement English classes next year. She said she’s been telling you this since you first got into her class and started writing in there, but you brushed her off,” my mom continued to expose Mrs. Knotts swelling encyclopedia of well-intended treacheries. “If you do well, they count as college credits. And that’s a start.”
“True,” I replied nonchalantly, although I knew that my brush-off technique wouldn’t have the same effect on my mom as it did on skinny old Mrs. Knotts. My mom had often said that talking to me was like pulling teeth… but unlike Mrs. Knotts, my mom was an expert at it—both literally and figuratively. So, I decided not to test her any further, in part because I actually liked the idea… even if it seemed a little farfetched.
“Well. That’s like an honors class,” I said to my mom. “I’m not exactly an honor-roll student. More like a—”
“You could be an honor roll student if you just applied yourself. You’re gonna have to be an honors student, because you’re taking that damned class, and you’re gonna thank Mrs. Knotts for the opportunity,” my mom said, and it was clear that her word was my bond. “Remember when I used to read to you? When I used to make you talk on the phone in your phone voice when you were little?”
I nodded. Those things had helped me out in life. I was a great reader. I spoke well—which literally every old white person in the world felt inclined to tell me, it seemed. I wasn’t nervous to phone the pizza delivery place when my mom called home late from the dental office, telling us to get some dinner because she wouldn’t be home to cook anything. Maybe… I could learn to do more. I guess that if I could assume my phone voice persona little bit more at school—or think more like my endlessly competent internet self—I could turn things around at school.
“I’ll try,” I told my mom, and myself. “I’ll do it. I guess I don’t really have a choice.”
“But you do,” my mom insisted. “And that’s what this is all about. Making sure you have choices and make them while they’re still available. I know you think I’m just being a big old bitch and bossing you around, but don’t you think I might have learned a thing or two about life?”
She stood, picking up her plate and mug. I don’t know where she found the time to eat over the course of our conversation. My breakfast was an ice block by this point, and I was no longer interested.
“I just want you all to have a good life. They expect you to be lazy, so they can call you ‘those lazy, stupid black folks’. Don’t be that,” she explained. “And, jus in case you thought: you better heat that damned food up and eat it, because we don’t got food or money to waste in this house.”