I can’t wait to get to college and fuck all the cornfed white boys is the text I send my best friend on a school night. She is, incidentally, also white, and we are both seniors in high school. I sit on a stationary bike in my living room, glancing at the framed photos on our TV shelf. I can’t wait to leave behind my wine red carpet and parents unwilling to understand why I want to seclude myself in the rural midwest. I can’t wait to trade in the cold, bleak Chicago winters for piles of Minnesota snow.
For now I know nothing of sex and its mechanics. But I think of cornfields and wispy hair and twinkling eyes and, my heart stirs.
I cut my teeth in the Chicago you don't hear about - the far north side, teeming with Asian, African and Central European immigrants. We had all the good restaurants like Nigerian Kitchen, Demera, Pho 777, and Pho 888. You saw Africans in graceful tunics, women with scarves and men with skull caps, headed to the mosque on Fridays; Sundays you saw different bodies, same shades of brown, church-bound in bright ankara patterns, heels, and fitted suits.
My elementary school was blocks from Chicago’s little India, and most of my classmates weren't American-white. We had the red squiggles under our names in Word. Some of us missed school for Eid or Rosh Hashanah. We had multicultural assemblies. Every day in February “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” played instead of the Star Spangled Banner.
I appreciated this wealth in hindsight, once I left for high school - moderately diverse, but pale in comparison. I didn’t date any boys those four years or the nine elementary ones. But I imagined white boys wouldn’t expect things from me. They wouldn’t be pushy like the 40something black men in my neighborhood who hit on pigtailed 15-year-olds. They wouldn’t question how Nigerian or black I was. Me, with my clumsy as-salaam-alaikums and full-bellied Ramadans, with my standard English diction and love of Billie Joe Armstrong.
I thought I could impress white boys with my knowledge of music history - the best Ramones albums, whether The Clash or the Sex Pistols were the better band, and other ways I was decidedly unlike other black girls. Like the ones at my neighborhood high school. The ones who wore bright colors, had laughs that filled sidewalks, and wouldn’t hesitate to scrap if someone tried them.
Come senior year I exclusively applied to liberal arts colleges. My parents nudged me in other directions:
What about Howard? Washington University in St Louis? You’re just getting deeper and deeper into the suburbs.
For my AP Lang & Comp class I wrote an essay against reparations. Clint Eastwood, Bob Dylan, and Morrissey peppered my bedroom walls. I was obsessed with Scorsese and Tennessee Williams. So I knew what I wanted in a school and got into my first choice. Only once did I voice concern over my college environment to my best friend.
"I think we’re just spoiled as city kids. It’ll just be different."
I nodded. I wanted different. That was why I wanted to leave.
The first year is dotted with tiny marvels: the smell of chocolate wafting from the nearby cereal factory, the wind turbine powering a ⅓ of our campus, visible miles away. The illicit clinks of Svedka bottles while we pack tight in dorm rooms. The first hit of green that launches me into the stratosphere. A fully stocked salad bar and a bevy of desserts at every caf meal. The lush trees and rolling hills that make everything look like a permanent postcard.
I don’t fuck any cornfed white boys. I’m invisible in throngs of sweaty limbs rubbing against one another at dances, and the covert dorm drinking that always ends in makeout sessions (without me). I am invisible in white boys who mistake my box braids for cornrows and tell me I'm a strong black woman who don’t need no man, in white girls who tell me they love “Niggas in Paris” because it gives them an excuse to say what they've always been itching to say, and in English classes where I’m the only one who knows the story of Emmett Till before we read “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon. '' I sing in the first year women’s choir; in winter we take a group photo in the snow with our matching sweatshirts. Friends who see the picture remark that I’m a speck of pepper in a sea of salt.
That winter break, I pick up a used copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I spend all of January reading it, bringing the book on solo cafeteria dates. I sit on the balcony level and peer below at the patagonia sweaters, yoga pants, blonde hair I chose to surround myself with. One day my red-haired English prof passes me in a hallway as I'm tucked in with Malcolm in a window seat. She asks what I'm reading and nods her head when I hold up my book. She looks directly at me and speaks slowly when she says,
"I'm so glad that you're reading that. I'll see you in class later."
My sophomore year roommate is my partner in hijinks and I love her, even if I have to explain that Kwanzaa, a holiday I don't observe, isn't Jewish. We befriend a group of upperclassmen who live in our school’s Asian Studies house (fun fact: there are no Asians living there until the second semester. And then she is the only one). I spend the year in the house’s dank basement and its conspicuously named “Opium Den”. I chase Canadian whiskey with malt liquor, grind platonically with friends, and stay up late riding house grooves.
I don’t fuck any cornfed white boys, but I spend time with many. In the cocoon of friendship it’s almost easy to forget I’m not one of them. It's almost easy to get lost in booze and social capital until it isn’t. This year, someone writes “what’s with all the niggers on campus” on a residence hall board. We make up 2% of the student body.
I'm still invisible: when my roommate's friend from home complains about the "weird" African dudes that hit on her. When professors include images of lynched black men in their slideshows without warning. When white boys let soft "niggas" escape their mouths during Mobb Deep songs. Hell is a quiet chorus of I should have said something.
Among my friends, misfit is a word I hear a lot. As in, we're a band of misfits. As in, we smoke cigarettes while everyone goes jogging in single-digit weather. As in, we drink our weight in alcohol on a dry campus. As in, we could give a fuck about hot dish. As in, no one understands us.
We watch Die Antwoord videos together and I'm the only one uncomfortable by Yolandi’s body paint in “Fatty Boom Boom”. In fleeting moments, I entertain the thought of a transfer. Starting over is too much work though. It feels like less work to stay.
When I'm a junior, I do sleep with a cornfed white boy; it's mediocre. He doesn’t last long but is nice, even if he says fracking isn’t that bad and is on our school’s Ayn Rand objectivist listserv. I don’t plan to marry him so I overlook these things. Mostly because his corny jokes make me laugh, and his brown curls and earnest intentions endear me. That fall I visit his house and swallow a the tiniest trickle of bile when, as I start up his father’s internet to print our concert tickets, land on Fox News as the home page.
I swallow another tiny trickle of bile when he shows me his room. The first thing I notice is a vintage blackface piggybank on his desk.
"Why do you have this," I ask.
It’s a server carrying a platter. Harmless Americana. Except there’s no such thing as harmless Americana as far as black people are concerned. Except all relics look benevolent if you don’t think about it.
"A tasteless white elephant gift," he responds.
In his marble kitchen, we sip cherry wine from Argentina. I think about my ancestors forgiveness for letting this boy into my body. And I realize that I'm probably the first black person to see his room. Aside from me and our mutual, biracial friend, his favorite blacks are in his music. He quotes “Reasonable Doubt” as his favorite Jay-Z album, studies Bootsy Collins riffs, and wants to become a bassist in the legacy of all the black greats. In spite of this, our goodbye feels bittersweet at the airport that December. I'm spending my spring in France and he'll graduate.
A year later, when we're no longer together but still friendly, I text him to ask if he’s tossed the piggybank. He has not. I ask when he will. He tells me he'll give it to our mutual friend and quips, really glad this conversation has come up again. I place my phone facedown on the table, grateful I stopped fucking someone who drinks milk with every meal.
Senior year I live in a house with six other women, 50% of whom are women of color, 100% of whom are with white partners since those are the odds at a school like mine. The tiny marvels of my first year are not as marvelous. Everything is too contained in a five-mile radius. I smoke myself into oblivion and watch old Lizzie McGuire episodes on repeat. Three years of being the other has worn me out. I spend less time on campus and more time in my room alone, or sitting on the kitchen floor, talking with my housemates.
We watch the TV in our living room one December evening, broadcasting that Eric Garner's killer would not be convicted. Campus is silent about black death but loud with the buzz of our annual Christmas festival, a mish mash of choral song and orchestration. I attend because it's beautiful, even if I don't really sing anymore. When it ends and the lights come on I remember that I'm in a full auditorium, that I can look around and count the brown faces on two hands. My heart beats uneasily and I find the quickest exit.
I don’t fuck any cornfed white boys, although I come close. A year of accidental celibacy, plus living in a bubble where everyone pairs off à la Noah's Ark, tells me I am ugly. My drunken outings sometimes end with me sobered on my bed, crying and journaling. I tick off my positive attributes; good listener, excellent taste, well-dressed, genuine human being. I also paste cut outs of Jeff Goldblum on my walls and envision the day I graduate and can go home, back to my city of many-hued bodies. Maybe I can find some cute black boys who like poetry.
Back at home, the uncertainties drive me up a wall: when will I be able to afford to live alone, how I can turn a part-time internship into a full-time job, is this an ordinary intensity or should I go to therapy? I’m grounded in the certainty that whiteness has lost its appeal. That winter I have friends in town, visiting. The same group I spent many euphoric weeknights with sophomore year, dancing until the wee hours. We meet at a place that happens to be blocks away from my high school.
Upon entering the club I find a spot off to the side, drink in one hand, swinging my box braids to The Migos. As I put my screwdriver to my lips I feel a hand graze my upper back and shoulders. I turn and there's a stocky, pink-faced man with glasses and blonde hair facing me. He answers the question marks in my eyes simply:
"I liked your hair, so I touched it." Before I can process how to react he walks away with away his friends.
I tell one of the many white males I’m with about what happened. How it's rude to fondle a stranger's hair without even seeing her face first. My friend nods sympathetically and then asks,
“But your hair is beautiful. May I touch it?”
I acquiesce. He did ask, after all. I am tired suddenly, wondering when the novelty of my existence will wear off. I spend half the night dancing and half the night watching my friends on the dance floor. They swing limbs with abandon like no one else is around. Taking up so much space, like the world taught them to do.
-- OlaFaletiis a native Chicagoan who loves her city. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere. She also writes grants for a local creative writing organization. Ola's favorite number is 9.