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73 Learning How to Be Niggers GREGORY WILLIAMS "Come on boys. let's go to Aunt Bess's." We followed the alley to Monroe Street. As we trudged south, I realized I'd never seen so many black people in Muncie before. What bothered me most, however, was the tattered , down-at-the-heels feel of the neighborhood. The contrast with Grandpa and Grandma Cook's sparkling white two-story home in the new Mayfield Addition was striking . Here, gloomy weather-beaten houses tottered on crumbling foundations. Exposed two-by-fours propped sagging porches. Jagged glass shards were all that remained in many windows. Graffiti-covered plywood sheets partially covered doorways. The yards were small, littered, and unkempt. Across First Street the run-down houses were replaced by a series of flat-roofed two-story concrete block buildings, all a sickly mustard color. There wasn't a blade of grass in sight, just concrete, mud, and gravel. "This is the Projects, boys," Dad explained. "Colored families live on this side of Madison, and crackers on the other. Stay outta there. If the crackers learn you're colored, they'll beat the hell out of you. You gotta be careful here, too. Coloreds don't like half-breeds either." An electrical charge surged through my body. Never before had I thought of myself as a "half-breed." TV westerns taught me half-breeds were the meanest people alive. They led wild bands of Indians on rampages, killed defenseless settlers, and slaughtered innocent women and children. Nobody liked the half-breeds-not the whites, not the Indians. A half-breed! Turning it over and over in my mind, I forced my feet to follow Dad up a long hill, barely noticing a sand-and-gravel playground at the edge of the Projects. We skirted it quickly, and Dad opened the gate of a sooty one-story clapboard house. The ancient wooden porch swayed under our weight as the three of us stood expectantly at the door. A heavy, big-boned woman, almost six feet talL with light coffee-colored skin, angular features, and long black braids came to the door. She looked more like an Indian than a colored lady. A calf-length dress hung loosely over her thick body and sagging breasts. The aroma of cooking grease wafted from the house. Peeking from behind her was a thin, dark-brown-skinned girl about my age. "Boys, this is Aunt Bess," said Dad. "How you boys doin'?" she said in a slow drawl. Both Mike and I uttered a weak "Fine." "This is Mary lou," she said, pulling the girl to her side. She popped quickly back behind her. "Say hi to your cousins, Mary lou." Cousins! I winced as a muffled "Hi" floated from behind the large flowered dress. From LIn ON THE COLOR LINE by Gregory Williams. Copyright © 1995 by Gregory Williams. Used by permission of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. Copyrighted Material Learning How to Be Niggers 459 "Ain't no need to be standin' in the cold. Come on inside and rest your bones," she said, throwing open the door. Raising my eyes, I stole another glance at Aunt Bess and Mary Lou. Colored! But that didn't make me colored, I decided. I didn't look anything like them. I didn't know them, and didn't want to know them. Secretly, I examined the shabby room. A tattered couch nudged against a wall. Cotton stuffing spilled from the armrest of a faded green brocade chair. There was no television, just an old-fashioned Philco radio almost four feet tall. I turned to the window looking for an escape. Next to it hung a large collage of snapshots almost two feet square. My eyes scanned the dark faces, recognizing no one. Suddenly a photo leaped at me from the corner . White faces. I wondered why they were there. My mouth dropped open as my eyes fastened onto images resembling Mom and Dad. Certain my mind was playing tricks on me, I leaned forward. It was Mom and Dad! And Mike and I were right between them! Stepping closer, I recognized the concrete bench in front of the Open Air Theatre. Then I remembered when the picture was taken. Dad made me and Mike walk across u.s. Route 1 barefoot and in our underwear because he was in such a hurry to take that picture. I sank into the faded green chair. Was...


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