My American Childhood in Reverse

Photo: © S. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

My tiny revolution: at 30, I tell my parents they can’t say n____
in front of my daughter. When they visit the city, they are afraid
of the subway, the crowds, the men soliciting change.
They try Thai food but tire of walking everywhere. One year,
I don’t go home at all. When my parents call
to ask when I’m coming back for good, I am silent.

K, the only black girl in our group, is silent,
then cries, when R chooses a song with the word n____
in it to be her “life theme song.” I’m 21. Our college production is called
“As Soon As I Find My Voice.” R is afraid
K won’t like her anymore. K explains that for years
she’s felt that word’s sting. R changes

her song. Before I leave for college at 18, you’ve changed
my boyfriend tells me. I am silent.
He’s right: I do like using big words; for years,
I’ve looked forward to leaving. That’s n____
music
, mutters my father, whom my boyfriend fears,
about the song blaring as he speeds away. When J calls

to ask me to the ninth grade dance, I don’t call
back. Though he makes me laugh in math, I can’t change
the rule that white girls date white boys. I’m 14 and afraid
I’ve hurt his feelings. From now on he’s silent
in class. This refrigerator looks like a n____’s
my grandmother mutters as she cleans. The year

I turn 10, I get a Barbie Dream House. The year
I turn 8, I write in my diary B didn’t call.
I get to take ballet. Yesterday, some n____
came to see Daddy’s truck. The leaves are changing
colors. I like fall.
On the school bus, I am silent
when C asks if she can touch my hair. I am afraid

of her. I want to ask to touch hers too but I’m afraid.
In the grocery checkout, 5 years old, I try to read headlines: 1983, Year
of the
—word I can’t read—and fall silent
when my father casts his eyes to the side, calls
softly boola, boola, and grins at me. Searching for change,
my mother hisses shh and we go home.

Kimberly O’Connor is a North Carolina native who lives in Colorado, where she is the Young Writers Program Director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her poetry has been published in B O D Y, Copper Nickel, Colorado Review, Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, storySouth, THRUSH, and elsewhere.

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