It is a shame that, for the rest of my life, I will associate the word “nigger” with the Star Wars universe. It was 1977, and by the time that I got to kindergarten, I had seen George Lucas’ epic five times. It was everything a little boy could want: spaceships, laser guns, good vs. evil, all the stuff a growing boy needs to activate his imagination.
I’m not sure about you, but the kids at my school always wanted to “play” whatever movie or television show that was popular at the time. So, that autumn, all you heard at recess was, “let’s play Star Wars.” I always wanted to play, but I used my recess time to read comic books and daydream. Rarely did I hang out with the other kids. The Sunday of my second week of kindergarten, my mother took my uncle and me to see the film again. It was different this time. Much different. I was no longer a voyeur to the spectacle; I was in that mutha! I was Han Solo. By this time, I had already shown that I had criminal leanings, so Mr. Solo was the perfect choice.
Monday’s recess came around, and this time I was ready to get my Star Wars on. I stood in line to get picked, and Matthew May (his real name) began to assign people to their respective characters:
“Okay, Bobby, you can be Luke Skywalker. Tia, you’re Princess Leia. Nick and Mike, you’re twins, so you can be R2-D2 and CfweePeeO. And I’m always Han Solo.” He looked at me, his face one big ass knot of confusion, “Um…Shawn. Um…Well, you’re a nigger, so you can be either Chewbacca or Dark Vader.”
Dark Vader, mind you. Not Darth.
Matthew had just called me a nigger. It wasn’t like I was a stranger to the word. I heard it several times a day in my neighborhood. Everyone called each other that:
“What’s up, nigger?”
“You know, nigger. Just coolin’.”
But it was Black Folks saying it. Plus there was an undercurrent of affection, so I never thought that anything was wrong with it. It was a fact of ghetto life.
But Matthew? That was the first time that I had ever heard a white person say it. Directed at me with no affection whatsoever. Needless to say, for reasons that I didn’t understand back then, I felt like shit. Total and absolute shit. But, back to the game.
So my choices were to be either a big, furry, non-intelligible dog man, or to be the biggest, baddest, blackest source of evil in the entire galaxy. As you might have guessed, the choice wasn’t difficult at all,“ I’ll be Darth Vader.” With that choice, I turned myself in to a double minority. I was the only black kid playing Star Wars, and I was the only villain. There were no Stormtroopers around to conveniently absorb the onslaught of rebel hostilities. My aunt always told me that, no matter what I did or where I was, I should always have back up or a weapon close at hand. It was five against one, and I wasn’t a real big fan of those odds. Not to mention that I was drowning in a ball of confusion and haywire emotions, due to Matthew’s nigger barb that rolled so easily off his tongue.
I searched the ground, and then the sky looking for answers, looking for a way to even the odds. In truth, I was also hoping to find a name for what it was that I was going through at that moment, but 5-year-old minds and spirits aren’t ready to handle concepts of this nature. And then, POW, an epiphany! A gift from the cosmos landed, ever so lightly, in the forefront of my consciousness. It was on. I headed back to the school building. Matthew blocked my passage.
“Where are you going?”
“I need to get in to character,” I told him. The Darth Vader wheeze corrupting my words.
I continued my march to my homeroom and right there, on the blackboard’s chalk tray, I saw what I needed. A yard stick. Armed, and feeling more empowered than I had ever felt in my young life, I bopped back to the playground. My classmates were already in the middle of a heated game, when Bobby Andersen (his real name) pointed at me and yelled at the top of his asthmatic lungs, “There’s Dark Vader! Get him!”
I remember it like it was yesterday. A herd of white kids bounded off of the jungle gym and began to rush towards me. Why they didn’t notice — or comment on — the yardstick that I was holding was beyond me.
“You puny rebels don’t stand a chance against me,” I said in the most sinister, breathy voice that I could muster.
Bobby came in to range first. Making the appropriate lightsaber noise, I clocked him right upside his head. He was down for the count, a goose egg already beginning to form. Tia got it in the knees and the ankles. I was a child possessed! You should have seen me; I was so nice with mine. The twins, Nick and Mike, caught it in the nose and the right arm, respectively. All that was left, was Matthew’s nigger-callin’ ass. Mind you, I still didn’t know why I was mad. I just knew that he had to get his ass whipped. It was his destiny.
I stalked him all around the playground. In the back of my 5-year-old mind, I was wondering why none of the teachers saw this or tried to stop it. Finally, I backed him in to a corner. He tried to say something, but with the blood rushing in my ears and the rage in my heart, I could not make it out. I just unloaded on him. Whack! Whack! Whack!
Just as it was starting to get good to me, the enormous Miss Miyonovich (real name/incorrect spelling) grabbed me, snatched the yardstick from my hand, and then slammed me to the ground.
“What is going on here?” she asked in her thick Yugoslavian accent.
All of the kids that I had attacked came gimping up to us, looking like Night of the Living Dead mini-me’s. Ever the leader, Matthew decided that he would speak for the entire group of injured kindergartners.
“He just went crazy and beat us,” he said. His crew all nodded in agreement.
“And what do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Taylor?” she asked, not caring about what excuse I was about to give.
The tears were at the front door, ready to exit. But I couldn’t let them go. You see, in my neighborhood, real men didn’t cry. So I sucked it up and told her why I went off on their asses.
“He called me a nigger, Miss M.! And I didn’t like it!” I said this with as much conviction as possible.
“Is this true, Mr. May?” She asked him this probably knowing it was true, but not wanting to believe it, or not caring either way.
Matthew, as bold as headline news said, “Unh unh. He’s a liar and God hates liars.”
Miss Miyonovich lost her mind.
“How dare you lie on this boy? You are a nasty little thing. I’m taking you to the principal’s office!”
She snatched me by my overalls and dragged me to the office of the most evil person in the entire galaxy. More evil than even Darth Vader was Principal Byrd. He was the living embodiment of every kindergartner’s nightmare.
He was around 6′ 3″ but couldn’t have weighed more than 120 or 130 lbs. His skin was a combination of white and orange — like a demented, anthropomorphic Dreamsicle.
We entered his office and Mrs. M. relayed the story to him, conveniently leaving out the part of Matthew calling me a nigger, and left me alone to deal with He-Who-Frightens-Little-Kids.
“Shawn,” he used my first name. He always called kids by their surnames. I must have been about to get in super trouble, I thought.
“What on earth were you thinking about, attacking your classmates?” His breath smelled of cigars and hot cheese.
“Matthew called me a nigger.”
“Miss Miyonovich didn’t say anything about that.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Are you calling Miss Miyonovich a liar?”
“No, but that’s what he called me.”
And. Now, how fucked up was that? There I was, dealing with my first taste of prejudice, and this guy says “and.” I just stared at him; the seed of my own prejudice had just been sown.
“He hurt my feelings.”
“Are you going to hit everyone in your life that hurts your feelings?” he said, standing and slithering towards me. He put his hands on the arms of the chair that I was sitting in, knelt down, leaned in, and said something that shattered what little ego that I had left.
“Know your place.”
Without another word to me, he called my mother and informed her that she had to come and get me right then, and keep me out of school for a day due to my behavior. Suspended as a kindergartner. That’s a damn shame. Of course he omitted the fact that I was called a nigger. After speaking with my mother, he waved his hand and shooed me out of his office. As I was waiting for mom, all of these emotions were rippling through me. I was mad, sad, and confused all at the same time. When my mom came to get me, let’s just say that she was a little south of happy.
Let me tell you a couple of things, to put all of this into perspective. My mom was newly divorced and we had next to no money and we weren’t getting any type of child support, so she was a bit bitter at anything relating to my father. Being that I was my father’s son, she didn’t have much use for me at all. We had no car, so she had to take a long ass bus ride to come retrieve me. And, on top of all this, she really wanted to be white. Well, that isn’t terribly accurate. She just wanted to seamlessly fit in to white society. Maybe even find herself a white man, with a decent sized bank account, who would sweep all of her troubles away with a couple of well-placed dollars. Having a maniacal chocolate chip of a son that was suspended from school in kindergarten — who also was acting out “above the radar” — was not in her plans, so, I was a dead man.
I told her my side of the story. Hell, I told her three different versions of my side of the story, but she just wasn’t having it. If spanking a child were a sport, my mom would have been the MVP of ass-whooppings. She beat me with such glee that I thought that she would never stop. She beat me until her arm grew tired.
I got in fights all the time on the block, and she never got that mad. Well, I never used yardsticks on white kids before, but still. Little did I know that my mom was dealing with a lot more than I could imagine. Now I know she had been dealing with an unchecked mental and physical illness for almost her entire life. But back then? She was labeled “enemy.”
I spent my day off doing what any other wronged person would have… I plotted my revenge (never went through with it, though). I also made an impossible pact with myself that I would never see another Star Wars film. At the time, I didn’t even know that more were coming out, but what the hell. Three years later, The Empire Strikes Back bumrushed movie screens all across America, and I was first in line. To this day, I love the hell out of that movie. Although he had an inter-galactic perm, Lando Calrissian was the man! He was even working in concert with Darth Vader; betraying the intrepid heroes. All right! Justice, after a fashion — or so I thought.
Even though I had made this vow, I couldn’t stay away. The power of that fantasy world had me in thrall, despite my negative associations. Then, some years later, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit theaters, and the world was introduced to Jar Jar Binks and the rest of the ethnic space crew. George Lucas can deny all he wants, but that shit was fucked up and racist. If the movie didn’t suck, I might have been able to forgive him. But the movie sucked.
I’m not trying to say that it was Star Wars or George Lucas that activated Matthew’s prejudice, nor am I saying that I blame them for the wave of racism that I felt through the rest of the 70s and then on in to the 80s and beyond. All I’m saying is that I feel cheated that most of the people of my generation can — and do — bond over the Star Wars flicks. I can’t even recall a scene from any of the movies that doesn’t stoke the little belly-fire of rage that I have been trying (and failing) to suppress since I was a child.
Fuck Star Wars.
- My Grandfather Was My Dealer (thenerdsofcolor.org)