Elena

I have been called a nigger in two different countries—the one I was born in and the one I chose to call home. I have also been told to “go back to my own country” in these same two countries. At primary (elementary) school, if we were victims of name-calling, we were taught to respond with a rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. But they did hurt. It wasn’t bones they broke; it was this thing inside me that I like to think of as my soul.

Both times, in both countries, it wasn’t a child who taunted me; it was a grown man. The first time, the man was half way up a ladder painting the outside of a house. I was seven. I was walking home from school. He turned and looked at me. Then called me that word. Then he followed it with the direction to go “back” to “my own” country—some place unidentified, some place that was not the place that he called home. At the time, I was not only hurt, but also confused. I didn’t know what the word meant. (No one had explained it to me.) But even in my ignorance, I knew that whatever the meaning was it was something bad and he wanted to hurt me by saying it. And that country was he talking about? Until that time, I’d thought that my “own country” was the place in which I was born, went to school, etc. But I also knew that my parents were born in another country. And that they spoke a language other than English. 

The idea of being “sent back” to a country that I did not know terrified me. I didn’t want to go, and I had no idea who had the power to send me there. So in my response to this fear of being “sent back” to my “own country” I tried to become unseen, unheard, and unnoticed—invisible. Perhaps if no one saw me, then I could save myself from being sent “back.”

The second time this happened, I was in a different country. Not my parents’ country, but a new country; a new home. I was twenty-seven. I was buying falafels. A man walked passed me. Turned around. Came back. Then said that word. Then he said it again. Then he accused me of “passing for white.” This man was a stranger to me. We had had no interaction whatsoever. He did not know anything about me. He simply saw me buying my lunch from a street vendor and decided to make up his own story about who I was to use to hurt me. 

But by this time, I was an adult, who had learned the power of storytelling. This time, I was not hurt. At first, I was bewildered by this attack from a complete stranger. Then I was inspired. This time, I had the upper hand. This time, I had grown into an everything who had what she needed to transform pain into power, life into art.

Here is the poem that transformed this pain into power:

A Week in the Life of the Ethnically Indeterminate  

MONDAY

Sitting in MacDonalds on 103rd and 3rd
I notice a couple staring at me
and hear them say Indian.
They walk towards me.
The woman has white skin,
blond hair, blue eyes.
The man has ebony skin,
black hair, brown eyes.
Excuse me, says the woman,
we were wondering
where you were from.
Yeah, says the man
because you look like
our people.
I look at the whiteness
and the blackness,
wondering who their people are.
We’re Puerto Rican, they say
and walk away.

TUESDAY

Walking to the store
In Crown Heights I see
an African-American man
sitting behind a table
selling incense and oils.
He calls out, Sister, hey sister,
baby, and then he makes a noise
like he’s calling a cat.
I don’t respond.
On the way back
from the store
he calls out, Mira, mira,
hey baby.
In any language,
English, Feline, or Spanish
I don’t respond.

WEDNESDAY

I am buying lunch
at the falafel stand
on 68th and Lex
and the man serving me asks,
You from Morocco?
No, I say. Cyprus
Where’s Cyprus? he asks.
Above Egypt
to the left of Israel
and below Turkey.
Oh, he says looking blank.
How much for the falafel, I ask?
For you three dollars.
For Americans three fifty.
I go to pay and another man
stares hard into my face:
Are you a Jewish chick?
No, I say, just leave me alone.
I know who you are, he screams.
I know who you are.
You’re just a nigger from Harlem,
passing for white
with a phony accent.
Nigger, he repeats
as I walk away.

THURSDAY

My boss calls me up.
I have a funny question
to ask you, he says.
When you fill out forms
what do you write for ethnicity?
I check other, I say.
Well, I have to fill out this form
and it doesn’t have other.
We look really bad on paper
all the positions of power are white
and all the support staff are black
Could you be Asian?

FRIDAY

I am with my Indian immigration lawyer.
Do you mind if I ask you
a personal question, he says.
Go ahead, I say, thinking
he is going to ask me
how I’ve reached my mid thirties
and have never been married.
But instead he says,
I know you’re a Cypriot
from London
but do you have
any Indian blood in you?
There are so many
mixed marriages these days
and you look like the offspring.

SATURDAY

I am at a conference
and a European-American woman
looks at me excitedly
as though she’s just won a prize.
Oh, I know where you’re from, she says
my daughter-in-law is an Indian
with a British accent too.
I’m not Indian, I say.
She continues to not see me
as she concentrates on
hiding her anger
for not winning the trophy
in her self-imposed
guess the ethnicity competition
and then she walks away.

SUNDAY

I go to lunch at the home of a friend
whose family are Africans of the diaspora.
They don’t ask me where I’m from.
Later, my friend tells me,
They’ve decided you’re
a biracial Jamaican.
That evening,
I’m at a poetry reading
and an African-American woman
crosses the room
to ask me this question.
Are you the colonized
or the colonizer?
What do you think, I ask.
You could be both, she responds
and walks away.

This poem has become a poem that so many people can identify with. When I read it in public, at literary readings, people who have been through a similar experience come up to me to tell me that they identify with it. And together we laugh the hurt out of our bodies.