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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 367-380

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Bernie And Me

Emily Raboteau


Bernie-ism 18.1: It is a privilege to be able to invent oneself. It is also a burden.

My big brother Bernard took great pains to learn how to talk Black. Street Black. Prophet Black. Angry Black. Which wasn't something you heard a lot of where we grew up. It started when his voice suddenly changed. One day, he spoke in the smooth tenor treble of a choir-boy angel, and the next he possessed the devilish bass of Barry White. Once he was blessed with that depth, Bernie culled some of the diction from our father's brilliant friend, Professor Lester Wright and pulled the rest from Public Enemy. The result was stunning.

It pissed off our mom. "Talk like yourself, Bernie. Please," she'd say. If he was in a good mood, he'd touch the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the other and answer, "Mother Lynn, I am nobody but myself. Do I make you uneasy? Let's examine your fear." Pure Professor Lester. Perfector of charm. If he was in a bad mood, he'd just snarl, "Step off, bitch," and mom would lean over the kitchen sink and cry into a dishrag. He shaved his head like Michael Jordan. He was a teenager. He had transformed.

When we were little, people remarked on two things about us.

The first thing was how we got along so well. Bernie and I never fought because I adored him too much. He told me once he thought we were the same person in two different bodies and that's why he'd never hurt me. It wasn't that he adored me back. It was that he thought I was an extension of himself. I wasn't finished yet when I came. I came too fast and I left some of me behind. That was you. So you came afterwards to finish me up.

The second thing was that we didn't look Black, although Bernie came closer: fuller lips, darker skin, flatter nose. Still, most people would guess Bengali or Brazilian when meeting him for the first time. Until his voice changed and they heard him speak. Then he would make more sense to them.

I remain a question mark. When people ask me what I am, which is not an everyday question, but one I get asked every day, I want to tell them about Bernie. I don't of course. I just tell them what color my parents are, which is to say, my father is black and my mother is white. [End Page 367]

People don't usually believe me. You look ______________ (fill in the blank) Puerto Rican, Algerian, Israeli, Italian, Suntanned, or maybe Like you Got Some Indian Blood, but you don't look like you got any Black in you. No way! Your father must be real light skinned.

In fact, he isn't, but somehow in the pooling of genes, our mom's side won out in the category of hair. And this is really what makes you Black in the eyes of others. It's not the bubble of your mouth, the blood in your veins, the blackness of your skin or the Bantu of your butt. It isn't your black-eyed peas and greens. It's not your rhythm or your blues or your rage or your pride. It's your hair. The kink and curl of it, loose or tight, just so long as it resembles an afro. And ours didn't. That is why when Bernie shaved his head, he started to pass for the whole of one half of what he was. Even more than talking the talk, that was the act that did it for him.

My big brother Bernard is a vegetable now. Mom keeps him on a cot in the living room. Him and his wires and tubes and bags of fluid and breathing machines and the shit-and-piss pot. She gives him sponge baths three times a week. When I...


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