Anjoli Roy | Longreads | November 2019 | 28 minutes (6,945 words)
For most of my life, I’ve been trying to make sense of my Southern-drawling, Tar Heels–loving, fiscally conservative, immigrant from India, gyno, deeply loving dad of three daughters. There have been some strange contradictions. When my sisters and I were little and our parents were still together, he and our mom would drop us off at Sunday school at a nondenominational Christian church in our hometown of Pasadena, CA, while they skipped service and went who knows where, enjoying the free babysitting. When I was 14 and he found out my friends were having sex, he gave me birth control pills to “help with my acne.” He answered my friends’ and my questions about bodily pathologies oftentimes connected to sex without judgment and always with a professionalism that told me I could count on him. But, for most of our childhoods, he was traveling on the lecture circuit. It wasn’t until I was an adult that he became more than the scruffy cheek kissing us goodbye in our sleep, or the dry-cleaned suits encased in soft plastic sleeves hanging on an empty door frame, not to be disturbed. Until then, he was the grumpy, tired person I mostly avoided on the rare occasions he was home. He was the distant guy my middle sister Maya and I drew countless pictures for, of shoes with a plus sign and then a bee — a visual representation of how to pronounce his name, Subi — which he’d hang dutifully in his office at county hospital.
Today, my dad, the source of our brownness, is a marker of how I understand myself. I grew up the lightest of my dad’s three girls — the one who looked least like him. Maybe that’s why I reach for him so much: I don’t want to get swallowed up with Mom’s side of the family, locked in with the white folks. I have learned to subject him to the same critiques I aim at my own body. In some ways, his story is my story. Sometimes, it feels like we’re both half-told, bleeding onto blank pages.
In 2016, my dad was part of the terrifying legions who voted for Trump.
“We’ve got to give him a chance,” he parroted to my sisters and me, as we sat there, horrified.
I watched the ensuing heated debates with Maya, the lawyer and sports enthusiast who he affectionately referred to as his son despite how she has been the most femme-presenting of the three of us for most of our adult lives. Fighting with him about the importance of supporting social programs, keeping abortion safe and legal, challenging discriminatory immigration policies that locked kids away in cages, and the urgent need to expose and eradicate white supremacy was pointless. He had his beliefs, and he wouldn’t budge. He was the consummate provider. He cared deeply for us and the people we surrounded ourselves with. He loved and supported us. But he saw the world outside our small circles so differently than we did. His perspective felt like a kind of violence.
In 2016, my dad was part of the terrifying legions who voted for Trump. ‘We’ve got to give him a chance,’ he parroted to my sisters and me, as we sat there, horrified.
I learned that if I loved him, as I did — deeply — I just couldn’t talk to him about certain things. And, yet, there was some shit I couldn’t ignore. My dad grew up in the segregated South, went to white schools, and believed in bootstraps. He was a good old boy, but he was brown. I wanted so much to begin a conversation with him. How could he not know that his beliefs, no matter how conservative and vitriolic, would not protect him? How could he not know that the fear and hate growing in this country would come for his brown body too?
In his version of his immigration story, Dad grew up feeling welcomed in the small segregated university town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1950. He arrived with his parents and older brother when he was 8 years old. Two distinct waves of India-to-US immigration bracketed our family’s arrival: the Sikhs who came in the early 1900s to work on farms and in lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest, and the 1965 influx of Indian professionals. Our family came between these two waves, which might explain how our dad, presented as a singular and therefore nonthreatening brown face in an otherwise white sea, was welcomed. It probably also didn’t hurt that he was book smart, athletic, social, and shed whatever trace of an Indian accent he might have been carrying with him when he arrived from India. He became the quarterback and co-captain of his high school football team and was voted Best All Around for his senior year superlatives. He was also student body president.
“He did all this at 5’6” and 135 pounds, wet,” I would tell people. “Or,” I’d add chummily, “maybe his teams weren’t that good?”
I liked telling this story. I knew where the laughs were.
Dad had told us since we were kids that he hadn’t experienced racism until college when he tried to join a fraternity but was told he couldn’t because he was brown. Chapel Hill, as Dad described it, was devoid of racism — at least for him and his family. It was only when he was outside of his community that he and his family were heckled, that they were called “sand n—-rs,” when those hecklers said that they would not be fooled by my thakurma’s sari, that they knew “what” my dad and his family were.
“Father always wanted to take day trips and see the geography or the flowers — the azalea festival and stuff like that — and whenever we’d go far enough and we’d have to eat out, that’s when we encountered that,” he told me years later over the phone, gesturing through pronouns at racist encounters. “People didn’t want to feed us because they thought we were just putting them on because they didn’t think we were Indian. They thought we were just Black.”
Just Black? I never heard my dad generalize about people of color. He’d always been welcoming of my friends, no matter what color they were. His own friend group in southern California was racially diverse and included Black folks. I caught myself thinking this and shuddered at how much it sounded like the “I’m not racist, I have Black friends” fallacy. I noted, though my sisters had married white guys, we all had had long-term partnerships with men of color, including Black men. Dad had only ever been loving and open to our boyfriends, whoever they were, wooing them with shirts from India and piling their plates with food he’d made for them, clearly wanting them to feel welcome and at home in our family. If he was racist toward Black people, wouldn’t that racism have shown up in how he felt about his daughters’ partnerships? What was this “just Black” business?
“We didn’t react well, but what could we do?” he continued. “We couldn’t force people to feed us. I don’t remember if we talked them into feeding us or if we just went to other places where we were served. I don’t remember any major confrontations.”
He paused long enough that I wondered if our call had dropped, talking to each other, as we were, across the Pacific Ocean, he in our southern California home, me in Honolulu, where I had begun a PhD in English and was at the start of what would become an enduring obsession with our family stories.
He told a story about a kid who threw an orange at him and how they fought during lunch period. “That’s what happened when I got there,” he said. “The teachers put a stop to it by saying that if this continued then no one would have lunch period.”
“When you got where, Dad?” I asked. I was snagged on the azaleas and “just Black.” I was looking out to the turquoise of Maunalua’s harbor from a coffee shop that was my favorite dissertation-writing location because of its proximity to the ocean. A neat line of innocuous children on single-person sailboats passed a nearby dock. I pictured Dad at home, stretched out on his brown recliner. I could hear the dull roar of a basketball game on the TV in the background.
“Did your borda experience anything like that?” I was asking about his older brother.
“I don’t know about Borda. I don’t recollect anything happening to him. I was the darkest of them all,” he said, laughing self-consciously with that laugh I have too. The deflector laugh that angles away from pain, tries to hide what we all know very well is there. “I was always darker anyway, whether I was playing sports or not.”
I let a few beats pass. “How did that feel, Dad?” I asked. I tugged at my sleeve against a cool breeze, feeling outside myself for a moment.
“How did what feel?”
He was silent.
Even through the phone I could feel him giving me his professor look, like I was asking something soft, imprecise. This was another deflection tactic, maybe, because I generally withered under the intensity of this look.
“Being mistaken for Black,” I forced out.
“It was in a way amusing because I knew who I was and the family knew who we were and so it wasn’t something that Mother or Father or Borda said. We didn’t dwell on it. We just tried to fit in. We didn’t go out of our way to find an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves or have these ‘identity problems.’”
I felt him holding those words out in air quotes. Identity problems, ridiculous things.
“If you know who you are and people mistreat you, you just figure, how am I gonna get beyond this? What’s the next step? And just do that, rather than dwell on it.”
I tried not to feel the sting in this — consumed as I was with these “identity problems.”
Dad’s refusal to dwell is a coping mechanism, I told myself, a means of survival. My dwelling is a privilege, a measure of his success, perhaps, in getting his brown daughters to this place where we could dwell. Were safe to dwell. Had time to dwell. Unlike Dad, whose father had died when he was in his 20s, leaving Dad to take care of his mom and his two siblings who were 16 and 18 years younger than him.
When I asked him if he had participated in any of the integration and civil rights demonstrations of the 60s, he said yes, but only because of his best friend, Peter, who was white.
“Peter guilt-tripped me,” he said laughing again, but this was another kind of laugh. “You know, I didn’t feel that it” — racial discrimination — “had bothered me. I just went along to get along, because ultimately I was able to go into institutions and places like that, and agitating or participating in a movement for other people was sort of a novelty.”
“You didn’t feel that it would have benefited you?” I asked. “You didn’t feel that you were connected to that struggle?” I heard myself sounding shrill here.
When he said no, I felt my heart sink.
Years in higher education had taught me that racism is a structure that we are all responsible for dismantling. Feeling that the civil rights movement didn’t apply to him was unchecked privilege. It signaled a fear that he might lose his own privilege in doing so. His privilege being the illusion of fitting in. Of being brown instead of Black, of thinking that brown was more than “just Black.”
Today, my dad, the source of our brownness, is a marker of how I understand myself. I grew up the lightest of my dad’s three girls — the one who looked least like him.
I thought about the watershed 1923 court case of the US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian man who argued that he was Aryan, which he claimed meant he was white and therefore eligible for US citizenship. In graduate school, I had laid Thind upon the dissection table, wielding questions about whether he believed himself to be white and therefore worthy of naturalization in the US, or if he was trying to be subversive, demonstrating the fiction of whiteness to leverage humanity for his fellow brown compatriots. I decided that the lure to whiteness and its associated power was more likely and charged Thind with being selfish for what I, speaking from the vantage point of all my privileges, considered to be an anti-community, anti-coalitional move that sought to break from other South Asians and immigrant groups seeking naturalization who could not claim Aryan status. I charged Thind with striving for absorption into the dominant group, bolstering oppressive structures of power rather than challenging them.
Was our dad like Thind?
I didn’t know how to ask him about this. I didn’t know what the point would be if I did, considering how historically he hadn’t been receptive to these kinds of conversations. Would he hear me? Would his answers make continuing to love him as I did that much more difficult? I filled journal after journal up with my worries about this.
Even though Dad seemed invested in maintaining his narrative of growing up welcome in the segregated South, he acknowledged that he may have been tokenized as a person of color who his community embraced as a balm against racism.
“They couldn’t be perceived as racist if they had a brown boy leading their sports teams, the student body, etcetera, could they?” he said to me.
I nodded along with him as I asked something I thought I knew already but wanted to have confirmed on the recording we were making: “You and your borda went to white schools because Thakurda taught at the university, right?”
“I was led to believe that Borda and I were granted access to white schools because we were Aryan,” he said matter-of-factly.
I froze in my chair. Thind’s story rang like an alarm bell.
Dad had never claimed to be white, but was positioning himself as Aryan akin to trying to claim a white identity?
Nazi Germany through the Aryan Nations and beyond would weaponize the term Aryan to serve white supremacist causes, equating whiteness with being Aryan. Yet, I remembered, in Thind’s 1923 case, the Supreme Court acknowledged how “certain scientific authorities” recognized that Thind was of the “Caucasian or Aryan race.” But, the Court decided the term Aryan was a linguistic system rather than a racial identity, while the term Caucasian, which the Court described as “at best, a conventional term” of “scarcely better repute” than Aryan, was rejected as a synonym with “white persons.” In truth, the Court needed a way to articulate that these brown bodies were not white. They were foreign, and they would always be foreign — Aryan, Caucasian, or otherwise.
Did my dad manage to grow up as an Indian kid amid segregation not feeling foreign? In his adulthood, did his upward mobility due to his access to economic and educational opportunities allow him to forget he was brown? Was Dad clamoring for whiteness, as perhaps Thind was? Or, was it possible Thind and our dad were innocently attempting to leverage whatever privilege they had to survive in a nation intent on keeping them foreign? Certainly, anti-assimilation was not our dad’s priority.
As I asked myself these questions, a horrifying image flashed in my mind: our dad’s body before me, a scalpel suddenly in my shaking hand.
I don’t remember how Dad and I hung up that day, but when I put the phone down and collected my things, I was one of the last people to leave the Maunalua coffee shop. I rode my bicycle home along a highway that ran parallel to clear and shallow water before turning in the direction of the Ko‘olau mountains to a home where I rented a room. I was remembering a time when I felt close to and impossibly far from him at the same time: It was April 2011, and he was being inducted, at age 69, into his high school hall of fame for his achievements as quarterback of the football team and point-guard of the basketball team.
When I agreed to meet Dad in Chapel Hill then, to fly down from where I was living in NYC in 2011, I didn’t anticipate how my understanding of his childhood in the segregated South would shift so dramatically. I was expecting, at best, a handful of old timers gathered together in a crusty old cafeteria, eating off the plastic trays of their youth and reminiscing about the days of football and basketball victories. I was expecting the white dudes Dad had grown up with, who probably still nursed a peculiar brand of racism that allowed them to love him while hating all other immigrants and people of color, which allowed our dad to be the exception to a rule they fiercely held onto.
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While there were six other alumni from Chapel Hill High School who were also being inducted that April day, most had graduated in the 90s or 80s, or at the earliest, in 1972. A 1959 graduate, our dad was the only inductee from his era by a buffer of more than a decade. As for the handful of old-timers I’d expected, more than half of Dad’s graduating class showed up, some having driven to their high school from as many as four hours away.
If he was a token to them then, I remember thinking, why would they turn out now?
“They’ve come to remember,” Dad said, as if reading my thoughts. There were white linens across the cafeteria tables. No plastic trays in sight.
“‘Scuse me, mind if I ask how old you are?” asked a white guy I didn’t recognize. He was holding a paper cup, presumably filled with coffee. “Well, 20 years ago, I was out west for one of ya’ll’s birthdays. It was a great time. Your dad went round with one of those piña colada things on a string? Y’all went and whacked it with a stick, and all those goodies fell out of the basket. That was a good time.”
I smiled blankly, wishing my sisters were there with me. I wondered what else might be in this dude’s coffee. Dad ushered me to a seat at a table before he sat down a few seats away at the head.
A man named John, one of Dad’s teammates, approached the podium in a white suit jacket to read the speech that two of Dad’s good friends, Sue and Peter (the man who got dad to participate in the civil rights movement), had written about him.
“As far as the class of 1959 is concerned,” he said, “nobody deserves to be in the hall of fame more than Subi. Subi was not only the star athlete of our class, he was also the star person. Subi didn’t even set foot in America until he was 8 years old. He came to Chapel Hill with his parents from Calcutta, India, but Subi became the most all-American boy you could imagine.”
He continued by quoting their old football coach, who said, “‘Subi is probably the best-thinking quarterback I’ve ever had. When he calls the play, the boys are sure that’s the play that’ll go. They’ve got tremendous confidence in him.’ We did. Besides being elected student body president, Subi was probably the best-known and best-liked teenager in town during the late 50s. He was a favorite of all the moms because of his good manners and winning smile, as you will see, and he was also the hero with the dads because he helped the high school win so many games. Hey, it was the 50s, you know? Eisenhower was president.”
The audience laughed.
He added that Dad went on to become Chief of Gynecology at the University of Southern California Medical School and that he’d recently retired. “Thanks to the sports hall of fame,” he concluded, “other generations can now know that there was once a little guy from India with a heart as big as the sports he played, who ran the fields and threw the ball at CHHS and made us all proud. Thank you.”
Dad had told us since we were kids that he hadn’t experienced racism until college when he tried to join a fraternity but was told he couldn’t because he was brown.
The audience roared, and Dad approached the podium with that promised winning smile, looking small amid so many long and grayed white bodies, clapping everyone on the back and shaking their hands.
He was unrehearsed and charming. He spoke not just about his experiences playing football and basketball with his buddies, but of a cinematic 1950s childhood where kids rode bikes to the soda fountain, crime was nil, friends were close, and good times frequent. Watching him, I felt transformed into the little girl who traveled the world with him as he spoke about gynecology and the latest in contraceptive advancements.
“When Tina called me and said I’d been elected to the Chapel Hill High School sports hall of fame, I started laughing,” he said, having gained the podium. He paused and some laughter came from an over-excited audience that would likely laugh before a beloved comic reached their punchline. “Because at that moment,” he continued, “I was scheduled for spinal stenosis surgery and I couldn’t even walk! I said, ‘You might have to wheel me out there!’”
“But this honor in part is directed to me,” he said humbly, “but I think also to an era.”
He pronounced era like “ear-uh,” his Southern accent trotted out for an audience that loved him for it.
“1955 to 1959, the happiest years,” he said. He talked about the “single platoon era” of football and playing both ways — if you lost the ball, you had to get it back.
This was a lesson he taught us too, I remembered. If you mess something up, you fix it. You pack it, you carry it.
He named his teammates and the best qualities he could remember about each of them and countless, it felt like, odd turns of phrase that could only be inside jokes. He praised their parents, who guaranteed that, as he said it, “we were no turn-key kids.”
This was part of Dad’s charm. He saw the people he loved. He saw the people who loved the people he loved. And this was the way he won a spot in their hearts. Without, I wondered, demanding that they see him and love him with that same nuance in return. Did he want that, or did I?
But Dad was smiling here. He was enjoying himself. The rolls of laughter from the audience indicated that they were too. He talked about sock hops “in the old tin can,” their basketball court, in the new gym. He gave tributes to the teachers who were demanding and stimulating, calling them by their names.
“Ours was a special time, which all classes claim, however, witness the numbers,” he said, drawing a circle again and again in the direction of his teammates and friends, “who’ve returned after more than half a century to remember the wonderful times and our love for old CHHS.”
He left the stage to the same thundering applause with which he’d gained it.
Moments after he sat back down with us, when we were all tucked into private conversations at our respective tables, a younger man who had also been inducted to the hall of fame and had graduated perhaps in the early 70s came up to Dad in a rare moment when no one else was talking to him at our table. I watched him kneel beside Dad, maybe so as not to draw attention to himself in the otherwise crowded cafeteria, and told Dad that he grew up knowing that their high school was for white kids, but because he heard there was a boy of color on the football team, he knew he’d be able to go to school there one day too. The man, who was Black, thanked our dad for paving the way for him and for other people of color.
I watched Dad, hoping so much for him to feel this moment, to understand how his experience, whether or not he linked importance to race, connected him to other people of color. I wanted him to feel the honor this man was bestowing upon him. I wanted him to feel how this man had seen him and was seeing him right now in this moment too.
I watched our dad put his hand on the man’s shoulder, his other hand palm up in the gesture he uses when he is saying he hasn’t done anything. He shook the man’s hand, smiled.
Emboldened by this moment and despite the tears streaming down my face, I turned to my dad’s buddy, his former lineman who was sitting across from me.
“Do you remember if my dad faced any racial tension when you all were on the field together?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said without taking a moment to think. “It was hardest when we played away games. We’d have to create a human shield around him when we were walking off the field at the end of the game.”
I left the induction ceremony stunned. I was unable to talk to Dad about what his lineman had said. Maybe Dad had been trying to protect us all these years from what he did actually go through. Maybe he wanted his version of the story — the happy one, the one where he grew up without being on the receiving end of racism — to be true, for himself and for us too.
I told a version of this story to a group of strangers when I arrived from Honolulu, in fall 2013, to the Asians in the Americas Symposium at Pepperdine University. I didn’t think that talking about this story of our dad’s immigration to the US would make me cry. But there I was, in an ocean-view conference room, mining the dark caves of our dad’s story, building up to that striking moment of the human shield, when familiar salt water started biting the back of my throat and blurring my vision.
That night, I ate dinner with my family at the home I grew up in in Pasadena. Afterward,
I put my dish in the sink and thought about how knowing these stories about our dad has helped me understand him and my place in the world. I looked back at our family, scrunched together at a rowdy kitchen table, a glass tabletop that sat on a slab of polished and knobby redwood burl. Burl — I’d looked that up once. It was full of unsprouted bud tissue, the storage compartment for the genetic code of the parent tree.
Years in higher education had taught me that racism is a structure that we are all responsible for dismantling. Feeling that the civil rights movement didn’t apply to him was unchecked privilege.
I scanned our family. Mom, over from her house, Dad, Maya and her husband, our eldest sister Joya and her husband, my four nephews, and one niece. Knees touching knees. This was how we ate. Little ones on laps, squawking for potatoes, squawking for peas. Dad cooking for everybody, imploring me for days before I arrived to tell him what I was going to want to eat. At this meal, asking me, between bites of maach and rice, what I wanted for breakfast. And so on.
I looked at them the way you look at a picture from a beloved era.
“So, how’d it go?” Dad called out from the kitchen table. “I don’t even know what you gave your talk on.”
I scratched at the grout between the orange counter kitchen tiles of my childhood, hugging the lip of the sink. “It went well,” I said. “I started crying?” I said this last bit more like a question than a statement.
“Why?” he asked. The clamor around the table dulled just a little, a collective slowing of chewing mouths. “Why?” he pressed.
“I talked about your guys’ immigration story,” I said, feeling keenly how I was without a podium to protect me.
He gave me a confused look that said that was nothing to cry about.
“I talked about the human shield,” I added, finally. “The one they had to form around you at away games. To keep you safe.”
My sisters and mom, who were listening closely to all of this, went stone still.
Dad didn’t say anything. He cleared the dishes, and I moved away from the big mouth of the sink, stuffed with pots and pans, to give him room in the thickening silence.
It took me three years, when I was home for winter break, to work up the nerve to ask Dad privately this time about this moment in his high school football career.
“The truth is,” he said, “I don’t remember the human shield at all.”
I didn’t say that when I submitted to my committee my proposal for my dissertation, I’d indicated that I wanted to look into trauma narratives, including the power of forgetting as a coping mechanism.
“I was probably so involved in preparing for the game or whatever, or having played in the game, I don’t recollect. I guess they surrounded me and walked me out to the bus or to the locker room, but it wasn’t something like, ‘Let’s get lined up and do that.’ I think they just did it instinctively,” he said, sounding like he was working to make sense of this too. “People just didn’t know any better, and they were just giving vent to their prejudices. I didn’t dwell on it or hold it against people.”
When I asked him how he felt about not remembering that human shield, he said, “I’m sort of flabbergasted. I may have suppressed it so much that I don’t even remember it.” He laughed nervously at that possibility, perhaps wondering what else he may have suppressed. “I don’t know if Coach engineered it or what. But when you said that,” he said, talking about that moment in our kitchen years before, “I was really surprised.” He laughed heartily when he added, “Well, listen, you girls remember so many things that I don’t remember, I might just be accustomed to forgetting!”
I sat there thinking. If your body is a graveyard of all the half-finished stories that came before you, is the way you live in that body an expression of every desire, curdled and fresh, that your ancestors have dreamed for you? Was I helping Dad by excavating his high school experiences, presenting him with opportunities to work against old coping patterns? Or was I harming him, doing something more menacing?
Dad told me I should write to that lineman I’d spoken to across the cafeteria table back in Chapel Hill, the one whose words had broken this story about our dad wide open. “That guy remembers everything,” he said.
So, in July 2016, because graduate school had taught me to be thorough, I did: “If I remember correctly,” I wrote after a warm introduction, “you and I spoke about how, at away games, you all would have to form a human shield around my dad. What’s fascinating about this, to me, is that my dad has no memory of this — which makes me wonder about the way trauma and suppression work. Regardless, I was wondering if you would be willing to tell me a bit more about your experiences on the football team with my dad, how he was received as a friend and peer during your time in high school together, and also if you could tell me a little more about that human shield. To be completely frank, I’m interested in how well accepted my dad and his family were into the segregated South, contrasted with these moments of sharp racism when outside of the sanctuary of Chapel Hill.”
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t written to the lineman like this. I wish I hadn’t used words like “trauma” and “sharp” and “sanctuary.” After I got his response, I wondered if the way I’d posed my questions had shaped he answers. He wrote,
I do remember that discussion about our roles on the football team, especially your dad’s role as the quarterback and the role linemen played protecting him. I remembered your being so interested in how things worked! I vaguely remember describing the “running play,” in which quarterbacks advanced the ball down the field by running with it, and how the linemen protected them from being tackled by forming a human shield and blocking the opponents. All of this sounds very familiar and much like Andy Griffith’s famous description in “What it Was Was Football.” However, I don’t recall race or ethnicity being an issue on our team or when visiting out-of-town teams. Subir was a natural leader which made it very easy to get along. If ever there was a question of our togetherness, it may have occurred between Chapel Hill kids and Carrboro kids. That’s because we came from different middle schools and/or our families came from different backgrounds: academia versus agriculture/mill/trade.
I don’t know if Chapel Hill was a “sanctuary” or just a very special place. You have to remember this was the ‘50s, everyone was getting along. “Separate but Equal” was the law of the land. We had “separate but equal” water fountains, waiting rooms, restaurants, bathrooms (wonder what the LGTB community would say about that?), and schools for our black communities. My guess is that the color of your family’s skin was not enough to question their acceptance in Chapel Hill’s white community. Nor do I think they would have had trouble being accepted by most segregated towns in the south, but probably would not have had as much in common with those communities as they did in Chapel Hill. I guess acceptance is a two-way street!
Finally, let me conclude my thoughts on your request by relating a story told to me that night at the Hall of Fame reception. Someone, whose identity I can’t be sure of, told me that they had had a discussion earlier that evening with a hall of fame recipient from the “equal, but separate” Lincoln high school. The person from Lincoln, who must have been around our same age, said he would frequent our Friday night games, just as we frequented their games on Thursday nights. After all, Lincoln High School had one of the highest ranked black football teams in NC. He said when he first saw Subir playing football for the white CHHS team, he thought that our black star quarterback had been placed in the white school to facilitate the slow integration process. So, I guess Subir was accepted as quickly by the blacks as he was by the whites.
I’m afraid my thoughts don’t provide too sharp a contrast for the segregated south. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure things were tough in the black communities all over this land, but for southern white communities in the ‘50s, before all hell broke loose in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was relatively mild.
And then he signed off.
I slammed my computer shut like one might a door. I didn’t look at this email again for a year before I told anyone about it. I’d shared this memory of what the lineman had told me at the induction ceremony, at this point, to countless mentors and friends and not only one academic audience but two. This email riddled with holes my theories about trauma and suppression. At the very least, it made me into a bad listener. Or, at worst, it made me a liar. I told myself it was the ramblings of a homophobic, separate-but-equal-endorsing white dude. I’d asked him at the induction ceremony pointblank about racial tension when we were seated across the cafeteria table from each other, and he’d answered me so quickly that what he’d said had to be true. Hadn’t it? Or, had he misheard my question? Had we misheard each other?
Maybe my email had triggered him. Without the context of Dad’s speech that so clearly celebrated the era that the lineman clearly also loved, he couldn’t allow for my critique, my academic-speak that tore that era to the ground.
Had he changed the story on purpose? Had I?
The person with the highest stake in the lie is the likeliest one to be the liar, I considered to myself.
“If you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras,” Mom liked to say, drawing from her wisdom as an emergency-room nurse that cautioned against wild medical diagnoses.
Had I been thinking zebras?
Had he changed the story on purpose? Had I? The person with the highest stake in the lie is the likeliest one to be the liar, I considered to myself.
The story I’d cobbled together of our dad, which culminated in the story of the human shield, offered proof for how Dad was seen by other people of color in Chapel Hill. In this version, Dad was recognized as a victim of racism rather than “just” as an anomalous brown boy who benefited from being close enough to whiteness to make connecting him to Blackness seem ridiculous.
I benefited from this story.
As the storyteller, I knew the value of the gasp I could expect when I told folks about the human shield. The purchase in the audience’s hearts. The getting of them onto our team. And that, I realized with the same metaphoric scalpel I’d used on our father’s body now pointed to my gut, revealed murderously and accurately my own privilege. I was a daughter of a doctor who sent us all to private schools from grade school through college, who took us all around the world, who let us touch the bright white sky with our little brown fingers, a vantage point from which, perhaps, I’d learned to twist these stories into counterfeit narratives that placed us alongside other communities of color in the fight to dismantle racial inequality, even as we continued to benefit from the same structures that preserved it. Maybe I’d been desperate to redeem us for our years of lazy entitlement, years that we spent protecting the ease of our privileges and hiding desperately from the responsibility to do something about it.
“Holy shit,” Maya said when I finally shared the lineman’s email with her.
We were talking on the phone and scrolling through the Google document of this story together.
I admitted that I hadn’t told Dad what the email said, that I didn’t know how, that I was only now coming to terms with how I needed to confront the email after more than a year of letting it sit, starred in my inbox.
“I get it,” she said. “Dad feels so far away now. In the Trump era.”
We went silent for a moment.
“Fuck that guy,” she said, referring to the lineman.
I said I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know how to make sense of this story, or Dad.
“Maybe you can say more about how difficult it is to get information out of Dad. . . . How you can consult other sources but then those sources are also seemingly unreliable,” she offered. The lineman, she continued, “was the one who was there. We weren’t. What do we know? Who else was there?” she asked a bit desperately, thinking about Dad’s three siblings and parents. “Everyone else has died, except Pishimoni,” she said, referring to our aunt. “But she was a baby. We really know nothing.”
I struggled to transcribe into the Google doc what she was saying.
“Literally,” she said. “I said, ‘we literally know nothing.’”
We laughed. I fixed the document we were both viewing, despite the ocean between us.
Maya said how exhausting the story was. She’d just cried and cried. “It’s like this story is about one step of progress in understanding what Dad’s childhood was like, but then you get this other message that messes it all up. No, you misremembered, little girl,” she said in an enlarged voice, I’m not sure whose. Maybe the lineman’s. Maybe Dad’s. Maybe our own.
I feel myself return to what I knew at the beginning of all this questioning: I love our dad completely. Whether that be despite or because of his experiences may be irrelevant. But I wonder — in our walling off what we can talk about and what we cannot, in our work to accept each other despite our conflicting views of the world and how to live in it, in deciding who we talk to and who we write off — how can we move forward together and fast enough to heal ourselves, our communities, this planet? Because that is what we are losing in the fractures.
Meanwhile, this story of Dad’s induction and the human shield remains unresolved — a hazing ritual in storytelling that leaves the story crumbled to pieces, the truth (whatever that is) lost in memory’s dust while we sift through bleached pages.
Perhaps equally elusive, even as we talk story with him, chop vegetables for the food he cooks for us, tickle grandkids he holds so lovingly, laugh alongside him at the dinner table, wrap eager arms around him for one of his signature gigantic hugs, all while averting our eyes from the Fox News he toggles to during commercials between games, our dad and why he sees the world the way he does still feel miles away. Perhaps, in these moments, pieces of me skulk in the shadows too, along the perimeter of my own averted eyes that I’m also not yet ready to own up to.
As I struggle to put this story on the page, my heart rattles in my chest. I still feel instinctively the need to lay our dad bare. But I also feel pulled to lay down my own fumbling body, to shield him from this last line instead.
* * *
Anjoli Roy is a writer, high school English teacher, and cohost with Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng of the literary podcast It’s Lit with PhDJ. She lives in Honolulu.
Editor: Sari Botton