A childhood summer afternoon is thrown into relief.
I’m 10 years old. My big sister Kat and I are spending the day at Lake Texoma, the man-made gulf between the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations of south-central Oklahoma. I’m scratching my initials into the shore with a snapped twig, letting them wash gradually into the lake: a satisfying private ritual. Kat is further upshore, propped on her elbows across a terrycloth Garfield beach towel, reading The Babysitters Club and eating Bugles from a Ziploc bag.
A young boy walks between us, dripping wet, and calls out to her:
“¿Qué pasa guapa? ¿Serás mi novia?”
She thumbs her page and turns toward him, not bothering to look over the polka-dot Minnie Mouse sunglasses she’s weeks away from outgrowing.
“No habla,” she says in a bored Okie drawl, and returns to her book.
I watch this boy as he walks away, deflated, beads of lake water drying on his brown shoulders in the early August sun. I remember other kids assuming my sister was Latina. I never wondered why no one made a similar mistake about me.
I look back at her, wiping Bugle dust on Garfield’s dispassionate smirk. I want to ask about the Spanish thing, but I’m afraid the answer might be embarrassing for one of us. I’m not sure for whom.
“Austin says we’re not really brother and sister,” I tell Kat one night from the bottom bunk in the bedroom we share. I don’t know what I expect her to say to this. I know we’re not related by blood (an enormously upsetting phrase) but I also know that she’s my sister. The few years of my life before we became family are far-away and gauzy, like a dream, or the faint rhythm of a misremembered poem.
I need her to confirm our connection to each other.
“Austin’s an idiot,” she says. “Go to sleep.”
I’m interviewing for a copywriting job at a public radio station in Dallas: a failed eleventh-hour effort to avoid going back to grad school. I tell my interviewer that I just published an article—my first!—about Ralph Ellison. I also casually mention, with the nonchalance of a seasoned humble-bragger, a recent talk I gave at a conference dedicated to the work of James Baldwin. (“In France. Ever heard of it?”)
This prompts the question I’m somehow never prepared to answer:
“Why are you so interested in black people?”
He doesn’t say it like this, but that’s what I hear.
It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. When some people encounter a white person who studies anything that sounds like “race,” they demand an explanation. (This, I should say, only happens with other white people. No black person has ever asked me why I read black writers.)
“Well, my family is Choctaw,” I stupidly begin.
Then it happens. His face changes. Suddenly, I see him see something else.
I mean to walk him through my braided family history, explain how the threads came together, and tell him how being seen differently from parts of my own family woke me to the social construction of racial categories. But I don’t.
He’s embarrassed. He’s sorry.
“That,” he concludes, “is what you get for making assumptions about people.”
Here I could say the two words that will release him: I’m white! But I just sit there, letting my misread identity hang above us like mistletoe, waiting to be kissed.
“I come from a multiracial family,” I could have said. But I’ve never said that.
Multiracial. It sounds so clinical, so cold: like respiratory, or stepbrother.
Kat has two kids: a boy and a girl. Her son, my nephew, has chocolate brown eyes and skin the color of burnt caramel. His mom styles his deep black hair in a fauxhawk that drives me up the wall, and he can count to 20 in Choctaw. (“That’s it?” I tease him. “Not impressed.”)
His little sister is a bowl of peaches and cream. I assume her auburn curls were passed down from her white dad—a Skoal-dipping deer hunter from Anadarko—but I’ve never seen him without a baseball cap, so I can’t confirm this.
They have a cowdog named Sampa, a Choctaw word that means dig.
Side by side, these “blood” siblings look like they
come from different families. Strangers must think so. I imagine the explaining they’ll have to do as they move together in a world that will feel entitled to—will demand—that explanation.
I wonder what it means to satisfy that demand, and what it means to refuse.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016