This story was originally written in 2015. It’s part of 25 flash fiction stories published in June, 2015. At that time I was reluctant to include it in this collection, wondering if it was simply too extreme–that it would seem too sensational.
A mere two years later, on January 20, 2017, Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke tweeted the following:
At this point I’m convinced this story is far from extreme. This stark reality represents an existential threat to many.
It was an uncomfortable day in early June—the second day of summer vacation after Kenya’s first year of middle school. Whatever that was. She lay sprawled on the living room floor, in direct line of a weak fan, vacantly paging through a book she’d been encouraged to read. She loved to read. That wasn’t the problem. But she would have loved to decide what she would read during her free time.
The sharp pounding on the front door, mere inches from where she lay, jerked her body to attention. Terror instantly invaded her dark eyes. The last time this had happened in their economically depressed neighborhood, their house had been targeted by a loud, demanding group of hooded men. Who were they? What did they want? Why were they dressed like that? Her mother had been vague and had tried to brush it off, but her blue eyes had revealed her own panic.
Her heart pounded as her stepfather strode to the door. “Kenya, get outta here. Now!” he barked as he passed. Quick as a hummingbird, she flitted under the table in the adjacent room.
Her stepfather was a minister in a small rural church made up exclusively of white folk. Except for her, of course. She was “black”. At least that’s what he had told her years ago. She never referred to her stepfather by his given name and she refused to call him Dad. Her real dad was a pharmacist in the city. She saw him on holidays.
She could hear his voice, low and tersely appeasing. “No, brothers,” he spat out, “I am with you. I am one of you! Don’t forget that!”
Kenya slowly peered around the corner, then pulled a breath in sharply. Hoods! She disappeared and slunk to the far end under the table. More loud, almost indistinguishable sounds from under formidable hoods. She could only make out a few words. “… she has to go …” and “… she’s not one of us …” was all she could hear.
Instinctively she knew whom they were talking about. A cold shiver ran down her sweaty back. Horror gripped her. She had once wanted to check out a book from the library that had a picture of people dressed in white hoods on the jacket, but her mother had quickly snatched if from her, stating it was “unsuitable.” And because she didn’t go to school, she had never had the opportunity to ask anyone about it.
The voices hissed and droned, rose and fell. They were not giving in and neither was her stepfather. She could tell by his voice that he was getting angry.
But why? Why her? “Not one of us”? Why not? Her family lived here; they went to church here; she went to the store with her mother and four half-brothers and sisters here.
“You’re black. You’re black. You’re black.” The words she’d heard from him years ago reverberated through her brain.
“No, I’m not!” she had argued, looking down at her pale cappuccino colored arm. She had been four. “I’m not black! I’m … I’m beige,” she had insisted, having just learned various nuances of color.
But there had been no arguing. She was black. That was it. He had said so.
Kenya’s entire body shook with humiliation and fear. She hated who she was. When she was old enough to run away, she would go to the hair salon and have them put light brown dye into her hair. Like her granny’s hair.
But, of course, she hadn’t seen her granny in a very long time because she had been there when he had called her black. Granny had said that black was lovely, but that she could be beige if she wished. Granny had fought for her. For her “Baby Kenya” as she’d called her. No one called her Baby Kenya now and she longed to hear that voice again. Not that she was a baby, but because her granny said she would always love her no matter what.
He stormed back into the house, slamming the door. Rage was in his step. Her thoughts quickly went to what to do next. She never knew.
“Ken? Where are you!?” She hated being called Ken. That was a boy’s name, but he hated Kenya, as he said it made her sound like she belonged in Africa. And that must always remind him that she wasn’t white. Not the perfect, holy, Sunday-school-picture color that he said he and her mother and siblings were.
His shoes appeared next to the table near her and he stooped to peer under. “Get outta there,” he snarled, grabbing her right arm even though she was already wiggling her body out.
“Stop that! That hurts,” she wailed, not even looking into his steely eyes. “Robot eyes” is what she called them. But only to herself. Never out loud.
He shook her again. “You! You’re to blame for all of this! If you weren’t … black.” He heaved her arm down with disgust and turned to leave the room. “If that damn girl weren’t …,” he spat at Kenya’s mother, “…a…a fuckin’…,” he paused again. Furious.
Kenya knew all too well which word he meant to use. He’d used it so often in the past and it had broken her. “If we didn’t have her,” his words were laced with contempt, “We wouldn’t have these problems.”
Her head dropped, tears collected in her eyes, fists clenched. Every time he lashed out, he left her destroyed. Humiliated. Violated. Discarded.
Something moved in the doorway he had just roared through. Without even lifting her face, she knew it was her mother. When she did turn, she saw her weary mother mouth the words, “I’m sorry.”
Quickly Kenya turned and went to her room. She threw herself onto her bed, sobs wrenching her body. She wished more than anything that she could go far, far away, color her hair and read any book she wished.
One day I will, she vowed. You wait–one day I will.
© Julia Penner-Zook, 2017
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