Your home—Columbia, South Carolina—was not the kind of South where one might wake one night to find a burning cross out front and a lawn chock full of white-hooded men robed in Mama’s finest white sheets. No it was too civilized, too polite for that sort of thing. It was the kind of South where it was okay to fly the flag of the Confederate States of America above the State Capitol grounds; old Stars and Bars itself, a bit lower than the flag of that more modern, united version. When my wife and I took our first drive down Gervais Street, we looked out the window of my truck. Jen: “Was that a—”
Me, head shaking: “—Confederate flag. Yes.” There were black people walking down the sidewalk, and they didn’t look twice at that flag in the genteel breeze overhead.
Columbia was the kind of South in which I found myself addressed as “Yankee” by our slightly unhinged landlord, not an ounce of irony upon his unkempt moustache. Woauh of Naaathun Uhggreshun, he said, and, States’ Rights.
It was this kind of South: when I addressed the same landlord about the cockroaches that crawled across Jen’s face at night, he claimed cockroaches did not exist in Columbia. After my glancing attempt at the entomology of large, flat blacked brown and black insects that occasionally fly, eat shit and other offal, and were by my estimation, Harbingers of the Apocalypse, his response: Oh, Palmetto Bugs. They don’t mean no harm, just looking for some water to eat.
I tell you this because I need you to know: I’m different. I know the difference between heritage and hate; between a 150-year effort to revise history and the real reason brother killed brother; I know to call a cockroach, a cockroach.
As a half-Japanese boy in the Minnesota northwoods, Dad told me the only excuse to fight was if someone called me “Jap” or “Nip.” I laced my hockey skates pre-game and imagined it—a corner scrum for the puck, something muttered my way. I would drop stick and gloves and shove my skinny fists right under his facemask. I’d pull his collar from behind his neck and defend my race.
Some part of me of thinks, no—knows—that I continued to run through your home in Columbia, the Gonzales Gardens projects, because it made me better than all the other honkies with their goddamn Sperry Topsiders, floppy hair and untucked pastels. It was the closest thing to the ‘hood that I’d ever known. Section 8, straight up.
The loop was seven miles and change through affluent white neighborhoods, around the shuttered mall on Two Notch, back into Crackerville, then up the yellow dotted line that led me atop Stratford Road. I’m not sure how I found the route, or whether the loop found me. But find it I did, and runners crave the routine, the wildly predictable. So I came back again and again for a half mile of modern segregation, pausing atop Stratford to make sure I had a good piece of rap music in my earbuds for the three and a half minutes to come.
I couldn’t put the ball in the net, but I could run forever and I fought for every ball. Coach Cane knew it and pulled me aside during halftime. While I fiddled with my shin guards and re-laced my cleats, he told me he was putting me on defense. The opposing team was an advertisement for the Hitler Youth, mops of Aryan blond and square chins atop their well-sponsored soccer jerseys. I took it to their left forward, played him close and spared no opportunity to lay a hockey shoulder into his chest. Their midfielders liked to play the long ball, but I beat him to his own team’s pass every time. With each successful defense, his frustration rose until his tanned cheeks blotched red. Another long pass—this time we got to the ball simultaneously. I forced him towards the sideline, shut down his lanes with my stocky frame. He turned, nodded a head feint; but his belly telegraphed his true intention. My foot snaked out, tapped the ball out of his reach and then I cleared it right back into their half. The refs were turned upfield while we jogged towards his end, trading elbows while he breathed insults at me. “What’s your problem, huh? Fuck you, you fucking Spic. You goddamn wetback.”
Thing is, I’m not white. Not exactly, anyway. Not quite yellow either. Sort of an off-white, if you will: beige? I check the “Asian” ethnicity block. With a Japanese last name, it seems to make sense.
The state of relations between Asians and African Americans is a mystery to me. I know the Chinese do a lot of business in Africa. Is that racist? I don’t mean to come off racist. So long as we’re talking skin color, I should probably reference myself as “yellow” and you as “black.” Ethnic heritage: “Asian American” and “African American.” I ought to avoid mixing classifications. Your people have other, less polite names; but you know them already. I get it, a little anyway. We were “Chinks,” “Japs,” “Flips” and “Gooks” for a long time.
I suppose, then, that we share some limited cultural narratives. Your people were enslaved for hundreds of years and won their civil rights one blood-soaked inch at a time. Mine lost their rights overnight, were interned for a couple years, and then got them back. Still, I recognize that this limited acre of cast-off land we co-occupy isn’t likely to bring us together anytime soon.
When the mayor of Duluth, MN assembled a diversity council of high school students, of course my principal pulled me into his office: I was the only non-white kid in my class of fifty four private college prep school students. Alongside other children of diversity from other Duluth schools, we participated in a statewide summit in St. Paul. Activities included: an Underground Railroad re-enactment, human art sculpture, and a closing dance. During one art exercise, about 30 of us were in a civic center room, and I’d never seen so many black people up close. Facilitators selected kids to pose the rest of us into scenes depicting racism. Those of us frozen in place held poses while the rest of the kids discussed. I was placed in front of a black girl as uncomfortable as me, and we tried not to look each other in the eye during the discussion. Out of the corner of my eye, a diminutive girl, one sweat pant leg pulled up, pointed at me and said, “And this white boy right here, he’s…”
Thing is, I always wanted to be a little black. I still consider Gangster Rap the defining music of my teenage years. Every Tuesday night, the University of Wisconsin-Superior radio station put a black DJ on-air and beamed NWA, Snoop, and Dre across the St. Louis River Bay on FM 91.3. I closed my bedroom door and turned the black boom box down low—my parents would not have been happy with me listening to accounts of murder and the crack industry. But for me, it was never about what they actually said. It was about the sounds. Those beats and hooks and flow—my god, those beats were big. 808 kicks fed through distortion boxes, hooks straight out of horror movie soundtracks. Snoop Dog’s drawl. Dre’s back-of-the-throat depth. 2Pac’s two vocal tracks, one just out of sync with the other. I loaded blank cassettes into my boom box and taped entire shows so I could replay them for the following week and trade other weekly recordings with the two Jewish kids at school who loved rap music more than me.
We were crammed four to a dorm room my freshman year at the Air Force Academy. One of my roommates was black, and that semester was my longest period of close proximity with an African American. I thought maybe it would be enlightening—my parents seemed pleasantly surprised I had a black roommate—but went home by Christmas with no life-changing revelation in hand, no moment of recognition of my own inherent racism. Privately, I wondered why he spoke in a different manner to us, his roommates, than he did with the other black classmate we had in the cadet squadron. Their conversations seemed exclusive, filled with the rich timbre and cadence of an entirely different kind of English, posture, and mannerism. I wanted to be a part of their club.
Daydreams littered the mile markers of the 5000 miles I ran during my two years in Columbia, and Gonzales Gardens played backdrop to a particular fantasy. Passing by the long rows of red brick that once housed enlisted families from nearby Fort Jackson, I dreamed of starting a track team for all the surely dispossessed youth. Not that I’d seen that many, but they had to be there. It went like this: I would start the track team, and recruit a bunch of poor black kids to come out and run. Think McFarland, USA. We would persevere as a team until all of Gonzales Gardens got in on the action. Our grassroots effort would make the paper and before long, ESPN runs a 30 for 30 documentary on us. Black kids grow up, get educated, become doctors, lawyers, community leaders. I even had a name for it: “Together We Rise.”
I was somewhere in America, somewhere white, in conversation with an older gentlemen. Talk turned to heritage and ethnicity. Politely, he asked for mine. Komatsu—that’s an odd name. I told him: half Japanese on my father’s side. “Nothing wrong with that,” he smiled.
I labored, winded from the climb up Stratford but full of Jay-Z’s “Run This Town.” The beat was getting heavy, Beyonce’ was hitting her high notes, and I was mid-daydream when you appeared on the sidewalk that separated Gonzales Gardens from the unkempt homes across the street. Was it a catcall you sent my way? You—67 inches of nothing wasted, nothing spared. Me—glistening in the heavy air of Carolina evening, stripped lean by back-to-back 100 mile weeks. Your halter and bra were two sizes too small. Creamed-coffee skin spilled and quivered above shorts that hugged a perfect line from ankle to ass. Not that my 3.5” inseam shorts left much to the imagination either. But you? Damn. Jungle Fever.
But as I closed, the look on your face turned from pleasant to angry. My eyes strayed to your mouth, saw staccato rippling down your neck. Your pose, electrified. Spine rigid, arms bent, head cocked but eyes locked in that sister-from-the-block look you see in the movies. My footfall quickened. I paused the MP3 player. Behind $250 noise-isolating earbuds, the thrum of my heartrace. And this, slightly muffled: “Pussy! PUSSY MOTHAFUCKA! PUSSY MOTHAFUCKAH” Over and over until I was down the hill and across the road that separated black and white Columbia.
I run to and from work most days. During the abbreviated days of Alaskan winter, the commutes occur solely by headlamp. A friend once asked if I worried about getting hit in the dark by a car, maybe a drunk driver. I told him no, then joked that it would be a hardcore drunk behind the wheel at the hours I ran. His reply: if it was an Alaska Native driving, it was a safe bet that the driver was drunk at any hour of the day.
Despite my discomfort, I laughed.
Six years separates us, a bubble of time that expands even as I write this. My wife and I have a kid now, a boy we named Finnegan Shichirō. Half of me, half of his white mother, he’s one-quarter Japanese and I wonder what that quantification will mean to him. I still run, a little less these days, but the miles are no less filled with daydreams. Mind afield, I often drift to our puzzling encounter.
Some part of me thinks you were high, expecting me to stop and make a pass at you. When I didn’t—BOOM. Angry. But that seems sexist, egocentric, and maybe a little racist. Maybe I missed your real target, some real low prick on a stoop across the street. Some bastard who did you wrong. I could have just been caught in the crossfire, so maybe I shouldn’t take it so personally. But that too seems stereotypical, privileged and also racist.
The time that separates us has been mapped by events: Trayvon Martin; Mike Brown; Eric Garner; Freddie Gray. And now, Charleston. Turns out South Carolina was that kind of South. I’m not sure how to think of us against this backdrop. Are we a metaphor for the state of race relations? Perhaps a cautionary tale on the dangers of a lack of dialogue; or a stern reminder of the need to understand The Other.
I know—I’m grasping. Maybe the truth of what happened is all we’ve got, all we can ever have. A nearly naked half-Japanese man ran through an African American neighborhood and an attractive black woman shouted obscenities nearby. Maybe at him but then again, maybe around him.