Okay, so remember that school you used to go to?
You know, that nice one. Modern looking, maybe a smidge traditional. Relatively large, spacious classrooms, nice uniforms and a strict dress code. Yeah, that’s the one; pretty Christian, pretty private, pretty white. And in all honesty, that last fact in itself isn’t the problem.
No, the problem is the fact that you’re in this sea of white, and you’re the one black speck.
On top of that, the one thing that I’m sure might resonate oh-so-deeply with you is that moment when the teacher would decide to talk about racism or slavery.
And every single eye would be on you.
That’s me right now. And when I say “every single eye,” I mean every single eye: from the kids who could normally give less than a crap about history class, to the other top tier nerds in front who barely interact with me if they can help it.
They’re not even subtle about it, and pale eyes are burning into my skin, which is practically on fire, by the way.
Meanwhile, we have Ms. Wilson in front, short, dirty blond hair tucked precariously behind her ear, as she goes on about the Atlantic slave trade, and how my ancestors were whipped and tortured and abused.
Her eyes flicker to me for almost a tenth of a second before they go back to blatantly avoiding me.
I hear a sound from behind me, a scoff or snicker of some kind. I’m thinking some strange mix of the two.
My eyes drift in the direction the sound came from as subtly as they can.
Messy hair, a consistently arrogant grin stretched onto his lips, his entire aura dripping in pure future fratboy.
Brett. Brett McSomething. McKelly? McClain? I’ll never remember.
He’s positioned with his eyes on the teacher, a pencil lazily positioned between his thumb and forefinger, and the shadow of a smirk on his lips. Move up a bit and you’ll see his pale blue eyes and brushed brown hair that he’s certain makes him the most attractive being in the space.
Brett is the one your parents should’ve warned you about: a never-dropping cold expression, a cool demeanor that commands the universe, a scathing glance that drags all attention to him in seconds. When the universe fears you, you’re indomitable.
With Brett, there’s no semblance of calm, no thoughtfulness, no understanding of the fact that he isn’t the sun, or that the rest of us don’t in fact orbit around him like serf-esque planets.
However, it’s far too early and I haven’t had any coffee, so I don’t dwell on the thought.
Instead, I will my gaze back to the front to Ms. Wilson who is emphatically talking about how everyone was negatively impacted by the slave trade, or how it gave descendants of slaves better opportunities than their African counterparts, or something equally as scary and staggeringly inaccurate.
Even so, I’m planning on saying exactly nothing.
After all, that’s my role in the school. The black girl that does not utter a word unless mandatory. Someone who stays quiet through every untruth told during history class; an aid to help the majority feel comfortable.
As a “minority”, in this country and in this class, I’m the one student whose ancestors actually lived through the hell that Ms. Wilson is trying so hard to downplay.
Minority. Strange how the word slips from people’s lips in such an othering way.
As in, one of those things is not like the other.
Brett raises a hand as Ms. Wilson is speaking and I internally exhale an exhausted gust of air.
“Yes, Brett?” she asks, dropping whatever she was saying to let him speak.
My mind flickers back to the few times that I’ve raised my hand in this class, Ms. Wilson’s response usually being a “hold your thought, Amina, I’ll get back to you in a minute.”
She’s never actually gotten back to me, but I digress.
“I’m wondering why all this focus on black slavery is necessary,” he starts, and other students physically recoil at the dreaded word, and the unapologetic audacity he possesses to ask that bold a question smack in the middle of class, “seeing as tons of other races were enslaved.” He finishes it with a glance in my direction as though he’s waiting for me to say something.
I say nothing.
“That’s a good question, Brett,” Ms. Wilson lies through her teeth. Although, maybe she genuinely believes it. I’m not sure which is worse. “It’s because as good citizens and students, it’s important to look back on history and understand the mistakes that have been made in order to improve.” She nods emphatically, grey eyes wide and passionate.
My mind tosses that thought over in my mind; whether slavery should be classified as a ‘mistake’. After all, the word ‘mistake’ is for when you drop a fruit in the grocery aisle. A mistake is when someone jostles another person at the airport. A mistake is when you forget your math homework at home the day it’s due.
Capturing and enslaving an entire race for over four centuries? I trill my lips. Not sure if mistake is the word she’s looking for.
That being said, I’m sure the answer is supposed to satisfy Brett, but he’s not done. “Interesting point, Ms. Wilson,” he nods, speaking in the charismatic way he always has, “but I feel like it’s become a bit of a crutch for the black community and is starting to do more harm than good.”
A blonde girl to my left makes a small gasp at the somewhat alienating label of “the black community” and my eyebrows fly upwards at the word “crutch”.
There’s some value in talking about how you snatched people from their land, shipped them halfway across the world, tortured, abused and assaulted them, hung them, set them on fire, and benefited off their enslavement for centuries. I bring my bottom lip beneath my teeth. History can’t be erased. Brett knows this.
Of course, I’m better off not voicing that statement.
Ms. Wilson visibly fumbles for words and Brett raises an arrogant eyebrow, waiting for the lady to formulate a coherent sentence. “I don’t know if that’s particularly appropriate, Brett.” Her eyes dart to me, “I think it’s still important to talk about since it’s quite a significant part of global history and… ” she chuckles nervously, “this is history class, after all.”
Her words are feathers, barely grazing the surface.
There's more to the Triangle Trade that separates it from other types of enslavement.
That’s what I want to say.
No other slavery was based on race. That’s what I would add. After all, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Debate with Mr. Pham, context in an argument is everything.
I tilt my head to the side.
If I had a voice, I would tell the class that the belief that people were inferior due to their race was what gave slave owners the liberty to do whatever the hell they wanted to their slaves.
Shaking my head, I click my pen. Once, twice.
If I had a voice, I would state that racism was created to justify it. Slavery. What I should say to the class is that racism was the game changer; something unseen in other types of slavery.
Also happened to be the first and only large-scale slavery operation that history had ever seen.
Tilting my head to the side, I hold my pen to my bottom lip in thought.
Comparison, analysis. Always emphasized in an argument.
Whoever was the descendant of a Roman slave some two thousand years ago? Not exactly distinguishable from a descendant of a Roman emperor in this day and age.
Ergo, they can’t be treated differently.
In another world, I would’ve told Brett that Roman slaves were literate, were allowed to read, had slaves of their own. Meanwhile, black slaves were lynched or tied to train tracks for even attempting to read.
I exhale a silent laugh. There’s a reason that the word ‘slavery’ is associated with the Atlantic slave trade. My lips quirk upwards. It was one of a kind.
However, in this world, I don’t utter a word to Brett. This world is far too big for me to fit into. In this world, I’m miniscule and silent and non-existent, and my words are not meant to rise to the atmosphere.
“Well, I think—” Brett starts, ready to continue grilling Ms. Wilson, but the bell rings, saving us from the rest of the painfully uncomfortable conversation.
Practically jumping to my feet, I shuffle my supplies, more than ready to be done with that conversation, and the other teenagers around me seem just as eager to head out.
Eyes flicker about uncomfortably, eyes that were not-so-subtly burning into my skin moments ago.
“We’ll continue this discussion next class,” Ms. Wilson forces a pretentious smile onto her lips and Brett rolls his eyes once her gaze is off him.
I tuck my stuff into my backpack as Ms. Wilson lets us know about the homework for today, and I’m out the door a few moments later, behind the swarm of kids that are leaving the classroom.
I raise a hand to the side of my face. Still burning hot. Then I’m shaking my head, heading over to my locker and making sure to avoid brushing past anyone.
I’ve always seen history class as a living, walking nightmare. Stu-Co elections are fast arriving and all competition is hashed out in classrooms.
That being said, Brett McWhatever doesn’t necessarily have competition. Not anywhere else, and certainly not in the classroom.
A feathery grin curves onto my lips.