The sun beamed into the small kitchen window of Tallulah’s 2nd-floor apartment as the open window allowed the morning breeze to flow in. The apartment was small, but she liked to use the term “cozy” whenever her parents mentioned its size. The two-story, the grayish building was an old warehouse that had been converted into four apartments about fifteen years ago. The windows faced east, so there was always plenty of sunlight. Tallulah had found the apartment soon after she graduated college. The rent was cheap, and the neighborhood – though not the nicest in the city – was pretty safe.
Tallulah was a pretty girl. When she was in college, she was often referred to as “thick”. Her skin was the color of brown sugar, and her brown eyes and thick lips accented her high cheekbones. She’d started growing dreadlocks when she turned 15; one night while watching TV, she saw a woman with beautiful, long dreadlocks and decided right then and there she wanted the same for herself. Her mother thought she was crazy, but her grandmother liked the idea and helped her figure out how to grow and maintain her locks. Once she’d transformed her hair into twist locs, there was no turning back.
Tallulah was of slightly above average height, standing about 5’7”. She was happy she was tall because it evened out her thick thighs and long torso. Her butt was round and full and poked out when she walked. When she was younger, she’d tried to cover it up or hide it, sometimes tying a sweater or hoodie around her waist to conceal it.
Her mother always told her she was pretty, but it’s hard to think you’re pretty when everything around you says skinny, blonde, blue eyes and milky white skin is pretty. Some of the white girls at her high school would make fun of her and call her “big lips” or “bubble butt”. It wasn’t until she got to college that she realized men like women with big, round asses, thick lips, and soft but firm thighs.
When Tallulah first moved into her apartment, the walls were white. The landlord gave her permission to paint them a soft earth tone blue, which was perfect because that was the only paint on sale. She purchased all her furniture second hand and found her small kitchen set at a flea market. Chloe, one of her best friends, had mentioned her grandmother had the exact same set in her house. The two chairs were metal, painted yellow. The table was also metal and covered in big yellow painted flowers.
Tallulah had managed to find some old pictures at a thrift store. Because her funds were limited, she went with the ocean beach setting and found another picture of a little Black girl running through a field. Chloe had donated the small sofa for her living room; it was just the right size for the space. Meanwhile, her downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Herrera, gave her a small coffee table.
The only thing Tallulah moved in with was her bedroom set, a graduation present from her parents. Her queen-sized bed barely fit the bedroom, but it did allow enough room for a small dresser. The bathroom was equally small, with only enough room for a shower, sink, toilet, and small wall cabinet.
Tallulah sat in her living room, typing on her laptop. Scattered around her were samples of her past and recent articles, poems, and unfinished short stories. She stopped typing long enough to glance at a piece of paper that read “Notice of rent increase”. She frowned as she stared at the notice; news of the increase had thrust her into panic mode, and she immediately started looking for additional work. She’d been applying for several different writing positions all morning, sending writing samples to editors of magazines and newspapers, as well as blogs and various online publications.
Tallulah reached for the coffee cup sitting on the small coffee table directly in front her, took a long sip, then set the ceramic cup back down on the table. Just as she placed it down, her email notification chimed; it was a reply to a job she’d applied to. She felt a slight quiver in her stomach as she guided her cursor and clicked on the email, and then suddenly frowned.
“Fuck!” she said out loud. She then stood up and set down the laptop. “If I get one more rejection, I’m gonna kill myself!” she yelled. Her voice echoed throughout the apartment as she let out a huff and said, “Rejection is not cool.”
She began to pace around the apartment, stopping in front of two pictures sitting on the kitchen window sill. The first one was in a silver metal frame, the second in a brown wooden frame. She picked up the picture in the metal frame, looked at it, and smiled; it was of her and her girls, Chloe and Zoe. They were smiling, holding up their diplomas, having just graduated college. She set down the first picture and picked up the second one. In it was Michael, her best friend from high school, and her parents. Tallulah stood in the middle of the trio, smiling widely. She and Michael had just graduated high school and were holding up their diplomas.
She set the second picture back in its place and sighed. Everyone in her life was doing what they’d set out to do. Zoe and Chloe had their careers on an upward trajectory, and Michael had started his own paper.
She stared at both pictures a moment longer, then said, “Y’all are doing great. Me…not so much.”
Tallulah’s circle of friends was small; she preferred it that way. She hadn’t had many friends growing up. She always felt she was different like she really never fit in anywhere or with anyone. She’d grown up in a mostly white neighborhood, so she was constantly singled out by the other kids because she looked different. She’d learn, over time, how to navigate through various situations, but most of the kids didn’t let her forget she was different, looked different. It wasn’t until college that she began to feel comfortable in her own skin.
Chloe and Zoe had been her girls since the first day of college. The three of them were freshmen roommates and had clicked right away. As Tallulah looked at the pictures, her mind wandered to the first day she met them. Her parents had driven her to school, and she begged them not to come up to see her room; she didn’t want anyone to think she needed her mommy and daddy to walk her to her dorm room. They reluctantly agreed, then she kissed and hugged them, picked up a large box, and they watched as she lugged it up the stairs and out of sight.
As Tallulah carried the box into her dorm room, number 10, she spotted Zoe sitting cross-legged on a blue yoga mat. Her eyes were closed, and she was softly chanting. Tallulah was afraid to speak; she didn’t know what to make of the strange girl chanting. So, she scanned the room, spotted an empty bed, walked over to it, and quietly set down the box. She didn’t speak, she just rather observed the girl sitting and chanting. She had no idea what she was doing and didn’t want to interrupt. She thought about unpacking the box but didn’t want to make any noise; so, she just sat on the bed and didn’t make a sound.
A second girl, who would later introduce herself as Chloe, walked into the room, singing loudly and off-key. She didn’t seem to notice the girl chanting, sitting on the floor.
Surprised to see Tallulah, she smiled and said, “You the new roommate?” As she carried a basket of clothes to her bed, she looked at the girl sitting on the floor and noticed Tallulah was also staring at her. “Oh, don’t worry about this bitch. She’s bringing positive vibes into the room with her meditation stuff.“
Tallulah smiled and shifted uncomfortably on the small twin-sized bed. As she looked down at her feet, she felt Chloe’s eyes on her.
“Where you from? Don’t you talk? You deaf?” Chloe said, pulling clothes out of the basket.
Caught off guard by this line of questioning, Tallulah stammered, “N-n-no, I’m not deaf.”
“Well, that’s good,” said Chloe. “I thought I was gonna have to sign or some shit.”
Tallulah noticed the girl on the blue yoga mat stirring. Finally, she opened her eyes. “Damn Chloe, you always say some dumb shit. What if she was deaf? She wouldn’t have heard your dumbass anyway.” The girl stood up, shook her head, and smiled at Tallulah. “Hi, I’m Zoe. That mess over there is Chloe.”
Tallulah shyly said, “I’m Tallulah. Tallulah Brock.”
Chloe stood up and said, “Tallulah?! Your parents gave you that name? How you spell it? Damn, girl, we need to shorten that shit to T, just plain ol’ T.”
Tallulah shook her head and replied, “I’m good with T. My parents call me Lula.”
Zoe looked at Chloe, then turned to Tallulah. “I was just meditating. Something I picked up a few years ago from my cousin. She’s into the Universe and connecting. What’s your major?”
Tallulah watched Zoe as she moved around the blue floor mat. Her hair was styled in short twists, her skin a deep chocolate brown. The shortest of the three of them, Zoe was Coke bottle-shaped, with a small waist.
Tallulah answered, “Journalism.”
“What do you write?” Zoe asked, going into a downward dog pose.
Tallulah watched her in amazement; she was so flexible.
She answered, “Poems, articles, and short stories, stuff like that.”
Zoe dropped down into a full plank and lowered herself to the floor. Tallulah was intrigued by how easily she flowed into each move.
“Really? I could never write. No good with words,” Zoe said while slowly moving into cobra pose.
Tallulah stammered, “W-well, I really want to be a writer one day.”
Zoe released her cobra pose and stood up. “I’m a business major,” she said, smiling, then sat on the bed next Chloe.
Tallulah looked to the floor and rubbed her hands together. She was nervous.
Chloe grabbed a bag of chips sitting on a small desk. “I’m a PR major,” she said as she ripped open the bag and started eating.
Zoe shot her a look of disapproval, similar to that of a mother scolding her child. “You know those’ll kill you. Full of fat and grease.”
Chloe looked at the bag and said, “Ah, no, they’re potatoes, and potatoes are good for you.” She looked at Tallulah. “Damn, girl, you all thick an’ shit. You datin’ anyone? You know there’s a party tonight! We gotta show up and show out! Goddamn, the fellas are gonna love that ass!”
Tallulah twisted her head over her shoulder as if to look at her ass. How could this girl possibly know I have a fat ass? She’d never been called “thick” before; she wasn’t sure if it was a compliment. Chloe then broke it down for her. She told her thick isn’t fat; it’s curves and softness in all the right places. From that moment on, Tallulah would always describe herself as “thick”.
Chloe was tall and thin. Not an unhealthy thin, but a thick Black girl thin, as she described it. She took care of her body, although junk food was her weakness. Her nails were perfectly manicured and painted light pink. Her hair was long, and she’d dyed it blonde. Her eyes were green, but that was because of the fake contacts. Her makeup, although light, was flawless. Chloe loved makeup and fashion. She said it was her calling.
Chloe’s small closet was full of shoes. She had more shoes than Tallulah had ever seen one person own. She watched Chloe as she put down the bag of chips. She had a certain aura about her. She was full of confidence and spunk. Tallulah liked that.
Chloe noticed her looking at her collection of shoes and smiled. “As you can see, I love shoes. Now, if you decide you wanna borrow a pair, you ask me.” She looked at Tallulah’s feet and frowned. “I dunno, girl, your feet look kinda big. Maybe you’d better stick to those Skechers you got on.”
Tallulah looked down at her feet. What’s wrong with Sketchers?
Zoe lit an incense as she said, “My major is business.” She sat down. “I’m gonna have my own restaurant before I’m 30. Cooking is my thing. I’m getting my degree to make my parents happy. I’m the first person in my family to go to college.”
Chloe chimed in with, “But more importantly, this bitch can cook her ass off. If we had a kitchen, girllll, we’d all be big as houses. Now me? See, I’m gonna be a publicist for the most important people. I’ve got the people skills.”
Zoe looked at her and rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about this one,“ she said to Tallulah. “She’s harmless. I should know; I’ve been keeping her out of trouble since the 8th grade.”
Chloe smirked. “You love me!” she shouted while throwing a pillow at Zoe. She then sat up and donned a serious look. “We do have a couple of rules in dorm room 10. Number one, I call everyone ‘bitch’. It’s a term of endearment, so don’t get mad. Second rule, we need to stick together. Ain’t too many of us around these parts!” she said in her best redneck voice. Tallulah softly laughed at this comment. “Third rule, no guys. The room is just too small for all that. Follow these rules, and we’ll have no problems.” Chloe sounded like a grade school teacher.
Tallulah smiled at her new roommates. They weren’t at all what she expected, but she liked both of them. The three of them remained close all through college, as Tallulah smoked her first blunt, lost her virginity, and learned to hold her liquor. Chloe and Zoe made her feel like she belonged. They let her know she was a queen, not an outcast. Zoe told her it didn’t matter what she sounded like; it only mattered what she felt like. Tallulah finally felt like she belonged, and she couldn’t remember ever feeling like that before.
Making friends and getting through school had always been challenging for Tallulah. The academics came easy to her (she was smart), but the social aspect was where she’d always had problems. Her mom was always saying things like “You’ll make friends, you’ll see,” or “Go outside and play with kids across the street.”
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood had many challenges. Sometimes when playing with kids, someone would comment on the way Tallulah looked or talked. They’d make fun of her hair or nose. She heard one little girl’s mom tell her she didn’t want her playing with the little colored girl; she may pick up some of her bad habits. Tallulah had no idea she had bad habits.
When she would go to the corner market, Mr. Sabin, the store’s owner, would always watch her like a hawk. He would say things like, “I know you people like to steal, so I gotta watch you.” Tallulah had never stolen anything in her life, but she noticed how he treated her differently, watching her and following her around the store. She tried to be friendly, but Mr. Sabin would say, “You may sound like a little white girl, but you’re black. If more of your kind moves in, the whole neighborhood will go to hell in a hand basket.” She had no idea what he meant, but she didn’t talk back. She’d just nod her head and put her money on the counter.
The children in the neighborhood would play with her sometimes, but they always seemed to treat her like a science experiment. “Why are your lips so big?” one little girl asked once. Tallulah didn’t think she had big lips, but as she compared her lips to the little white girl’s lips, she began to understand the difference. The little girl laughed and pointed at her lips. “They’re so big, like a jungle person!”
Tallulah held back the tears and ran home. Her grandmother was in the kitchen making pies when she rushed in the back door.
“My word! What is the rush, Lula?” her grandmother said.
“Why are my lips so big?” Tallulah cried.
Her grandmother looked at her in dismay, and then took her by the hand, sat down at the kitchen table, and held up Tallulah’s chin with her finger. “Who said you had big lips, baby?”
“The little girl across the street. She says I have big lips like a jungle person!” Tears flowed from her eyes. She didn’t want to have big lips. “She said I was different,” Tallulah said, looking up at her grandmother.
“Well, baby, you are different. Why do you want to be like everyone else? You’re special,” her grandmother said, hugging her. “Who’s that little girl to you, Lula? Is she your friend?” Tallulah thought for a moment, then shook her head no. “Don’t let anyone steal your light, Lula. People will try. They’ll call you names or tell you you aren’t good enough, but it isn’t true. They see your light and want some of it, but they can’t have it, so they try to dim it or put it out altogether. Do you understand?”
Tallulah smiled and said, “I do!” She liked talking to her grandmother; she always knew what to say to make her feel better.
As she grew older, the taunting by the white children became harsher. They’d tease her about her hair and told her it looked like steel wool. They’d tug at her braids and take her barrettes. They called her Sambo, Jigaboo, Blackie, Darkie, and of course Nigger.
The first time Tallulah heard the word “nigger”, she was alone. It was a word they didn’t use in her house, and her parents had forbidden her from ever using it. She was riding her bike down the sidewalk when she noticed a small group of older white girls walking in front of her. Instead of going around them, she slowed down and hopped off her bike, then slowly walked behind them, hoping they wouldn’t notice her. One of the girls caught sight of her and motioned for the small crowd to stop walking.
She then grabbed the handlebars of Tallulah’s bike, snarled at her, and said, “Why you following us, nigger?” The other girls laughed. “You probably stole this bike. All niggers steal; everyone knows that.”
All the girls laughed. Tallulah thought their faces looked twisted and mean. She felt herself getting frightened, so she pulled back her bike, and the girl released the handlebars. “Leave me alone!” she shouted as she backed up, not taking her eyes off the girls.
The girl who’d grabbed the handlebars snickered at her and said, “Cross the street, nigger. This is our sidewalk!”
The girls howled with laughter and gave one another high-fives. Tallulah continued to back up with her bike until she finally stopped, looked across the street, then back at the girls.
“Cross the street nigger!” they all yelled in unison.
Tallulah’s eyes filled with tears as she turned and crossed the street. When she got home, she told her grandmother what had happened.
Her grandmother said, “Lula, there will always be people who hate and judge you for your beautiful color, full lips, and beautiful hair. I know the word is hateful, but remember what I said about your light? Your shine?” Tallulah shook her head yes, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Well, this is one of those times where they tried to steal it. It can be a little painful to hold on to your light, but it only makes it stronger and brighter.” She hugged Tallulah. “I love you, baby. Those girls don’t matter. But if one of them puts their hands on you, you kick their ass. Now don’t tell your mom or dad I said so, okay baby?”
Tallulah hugged her grandmother tight. She could always make her feel better.
Her parents worked hard to provide for the family. Her father was an accountant, and he’d often give her math story problems to solve, telling her math is the universal language. She didn’t really like math, but she loved sitting and solving problems with him. By the time she was 6, she could do 9th-grade algebra. Her dad wanted her to follow in his footsteps and become an accountant or controller, but she loved stories and books.
Her mother was a librarian. Tallulah always loved going to work with her. She’d get lost in the stories she’d read, imagining being somewhere else. She could see the world from the library. She didn’t have to be here; she could be someone else and go on great adventures. Eventually, she started writing stories and poems. Words came easy for her.
When she was older, her mother took her to the Black history section of the library. The section wasn’t very big, but her mother had worked hard to get the library to recognize Black history. “Lula, in this section you can learn about people of color, our people. We didn’t start out as slaves; we were teachers, musicians, builders, craftsmen, leaders. We were more than just slaves. We were rulers, kings, and queens,” her mother said with a smile.
Tallulah smiled back and looked around the small section of the library. “All these books are about people who look like me?”
Her mother nodded her head.
Tallulah would often spend hours in the Black history section. It was there she learned about Madam C.J. Walker, the first black self-made millionaire, and John Mercer Langston, the first black attorney.
When she was in the 6th grade, her social studies teacher, Ms. Beal, gave the class an assignment to write an essay on a famous American. Tallulah was excited about the assignment. She’d read so many stories about Black Americans and the many things they’d accomplished, but she was having trouble figuring out just whom to write about.
After school, she ran to the library to tell her mother about the assignment. “Mama, we can write about any famous American we want!” she said, proudly holding up the paper with the instructions.
Her mother smiled and said, “Well, you’re in the right place. Who are you gonna write about? George Washington?”
Tallulah shook her head no. “I’m gonna write about Colonel Allen Allensworth.”
Her mother looked at her and smiled. “And who is he?”
Tallulah sat down next to her mother behind the big reception desk at the library. “He was a colonel who founded a Black town in California in 1908. The town is the only town that was founded and fi...fi…”
“Financed,” her mother said.
“Yeah, financed and run by black people. The town did real good for a little while, but then something happened to the water.” She frowned a little. “But he was a good American, so I’m gonna write about him.”
Her mother smiled and said, “Well, he sounds like a real smart man. He started a whole town. That’s something. I can’t wait to read your story, baby.”
Tallulah smiled and took off for the Black history section of the library.
When she turned in her report weeks later, she was excited. She was sure everyone would do their paper on George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. She was positive no one would write about Colonel Allensworth. When Ms. Beal graded and returned the papers, Tallulah knew she’d get an A. She sat at her desk smiling as she watched Ms. Beal walk down the rows of desks, handing back the graded papers. Ms. Beal was a tall, thin white lady with gray hair. She didn’t really pay much attention to Tallulah like she did the other kids, but Tallulah didn’t mind.
She listened as Ms. Beal said things like, “Great job, Tommy” or “Very nice work, Tina.”
Finally, Ms. Beal stopped at her desk, and Tallulah looked up to see her frowning. She handed Tallulah the paper. “I will need to see you after class, Tallulah. You didn’t do the assignment correctly.”
Tallulah turned over her paper to see a giant ‘F’ in red ink. She frowned, then looked up at Ms. Beal and said, “I did it right. I wrote about a great American.”
Ms. Beal looked at Tallulah disapprovingly. “Well, I don’t think he is, and we’ll discuss it after class.”
Her voice was slightly raised, and the other children could hear her. They started to snicker and laugh. Tallulah looked around the room and saw the kids laughing and staring. She didn’t want to make a scene, but she’d done the assignment. She stared at the F. She wanted to get up and run from the classroom, but she didn’t. Her grandmother told her there would be certain situations in life where you want to run and others where you stay and fight; she decided she’d do the latter.
When the bell rang, Tallulah stayed seated at her desk. Ms. Beal looked up from her notebook and said, “Okay Tallulah, we can talk now.”
Tallulah grabbed her bookbag and paper, went to the front of the room, and stood next to Ms.
“Now, Tallulah, I’m very disappointed. You’re always such a good student, but this paper, well…this colonel sounds made up. I don’t want to fail you, but I don’t think he exists. He isn’t in any of the books we have in class. The assignment was to do an essay on a famous American. If I’ve never heard of him…well, then, dear, he isn’t famous,” Ms. Beal said with a scowl.
Tallulah pulled the library book out of her bookbag. The title was Famous Black Americans. She held up the book and said, “Colonel Allensworth is in this book. It’s called Famous Black Americans. He’s in the book, so he’s famous.” She held up the book so Ms. Beal could read it.
Ms. Beal was silent for a few moments, then shook her head and said, “Now Tallulah, you didn’t follow the assignment.”
Tallulah put the book down and said, “Yes, I did. He is famous. He’s in a book titled Famous Black Americans. He started a town in California.”
Ms. Beal stood up. “Now listen, young lady, I won’t have you sassing me. I don’t like your tone, young lady! Now I’m calling your parents about this.”
Tallulah put the book back in her bag. She didn’t speak; she just stared at Ms. Beal. She really didn’t understand why she was so angry. After a few moments, Tallulah slowly turned and left the classroom.
Later that evening, while having dinner with her parents and grandmother, she didn’t mention the situation with Ms. Beal or her paper. She just sat at the table, moving the food around on her plate. She didn’t feel like eating. She was sad and angry at the same time. She’d worked hard on her paper. She even wrote it twice and doubled checked all her spelling.
Her mother spoke first. “Well, Lula, did you get the grade on your paper about the famous American?”
Tallulah looked up from her plate. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, not moving.
Her mother waited, then said, “Can I see the paper?”
Tallulah frowned. “It’s in my bookbag.”
“Well, go get it, honey. We want to see it,” her father said.
Tallulah sat for a moment. She’d never brought home a bad grade before. She slid from her seat and retrieved her bookbag, then slowly took out her graded paper and looked at the red F. She turned, walked back to the table, and handed the paper to her mother, who took the paper and frowned. She didn’t speak; she just passed the paper to Tallulah’s father, who fixed his glasses and read it.
After a few moments of silence, he said, “Well, this Colonel Allensworth sounds a like a real smart man.”
“He was,” Tallulah said. Her voice was low. “He started a whole town in 1908, a town-owned by Black people. If you have a town named after you, doesn’t that make you famous? She asked, trying not to cry.
Tallulah’s father passed the graded paper back to her mother, who looked at it again, then said very softly to Tallulah, “I got a call today from Ms. Beal. She said you didn’t do the assignment. She said you sassed her.”
Tallulah’s eyes widened. She was always taught to respect her elders. She wanted to call Ms. Beal a liar, but she didn’t; instead, she said, “Can grownups be wrong?”
Of course, they can, baby,” her grandmother said.
“Then Ms. Beal is wrong,” Tallulah said.
“Let me see the paper,” her grandmother said. Tallulah’s mother passed it to her, and she held it up. “Hmmm. Looks like you did real good on your spelling, Lula. Did you use the thesaurus like I taught you?” Tallulah shook her head yes, then walked over to her. Her grandmother smiled at her. “It’s a good story, Lula. This man did things most of us never will. He was smart and courageous, like you. Don’t ever let anyone dim your light.”
* * *
The next day, Tallulah, her mother and grandmother went to Ms. Beal’s classroom after school.
After they were all seated, Ms. Beal began.
“As you can see, Tallulah simply didn’t do the assignment. Now, I never have any problems with Tallulah, but this colonel sounds made up. Besides, I can’t find him in any of my textbooks.”
Tallulah’s mother spoke softly and slowly. “Ms. Beal, as I understand it, the assignment was to write about a famous American. Did you mean white American?”
Ms. Beal had a look of shock on her face. “Well...no. I had one student write about Christopher Columbus,” she said, defending herself.
“Well,” said Tallulah’s mother, “did that student get a passing grade?”
“Of course,” Ms. Beal said proudly.
“Well, then,” Tallulah’s mother continued, her tone soft and steady, “how could that student pass? Columbus wasn’t American. He was Italian.”
Tallulah’s grandmother stood up and said, “I think you owe this young lady an apology and passing grade. Ms. Beal, there are many famous Americans who aren’t white. Many of those famous Americans wouldn’t be in your textbooks, and their contributions to America aren’t considered to be important, but they are.”
Ms. Beal didn’t speak for a few moments, just staring at Tallulah’s mother and grandmother. “Well, I…” she started to say but was interrupted when Tallulah’s mother stood up next to her grandmother.
“I’ll be expecting to see Tallulah’s grade changed. Lula, give Ms. Beal back your paper.”
Tallulah nodded her head and dug the paper out of her bookbag. She then handed it to Ms. Beal, who reluctantly took it. “Before I can change her grade, I’ll need to verify that this colonel was a real man.”
As she fixed her glasses and shifted in her chair, Tallulah took out the book entitled Famous Black Americans. “You can read my book, Ms. Beal. He’s in here.”
She smiled and held out the book for Ms. Beal, who looked at Tallulah, hesitated a moment, then took the book from her hands.
The room was silent for a moment, then Tallulah’s mother said, “Lula, please wait outside for me and Grandma. We want to speak with Ms. Beal.”
Tallulah gathered her bookbag and went outside into the hall. When she was gone, Tallulah’s mother looked at Ms. Beal and said in a harsh and steady tone, “Don’t you ever fail my child again because of your ignorance. She did your assignment. Your ignorance regarding Black history shouldn’t be reflected in Lula’s failing grade. As a teacher, you failed her. I know she’s the only child of color in your classroom, and that makes her special.”
Ms. Beal didn’t speak she had no words to defend herself. Tallulah’s mother continued.
“Luckily, Lula has access to knowledge far beyond the reach of this classroom. She’s a bright girl with a bright future, and I will not let you dim her light. Are you understanding me?” Ms. Beal nodded her head. “Good. Good day, Ms. Beal. Let’s go, Mama.”
Tallulah’s grandmother said, “I marched with Dr. King. That’s history. Teach that.”
They both walked out of the classroom. Tallulah’s mother walked up to her. “Lula,” she said, “don’t let anyone dim your light.”
Tallulah nodded, then grabbed her mother’s hand and skipped out of the school.
* * *
Tallulah spent most of her time at school alone. When she reached high school, she tried harder to fit in with the white girls in her class, but they would always laugh at her hair, ridicule her curves and round ass. They told her boys don’t like girls with giant asses or large, big lips. So, she would wear long shirts or tie a jacket around her waist to try and hide her figure, then sit out from gym class or skip the class altogether.
She knew she was different from the other girls. They never let her forget it. They always came at her with questions, and she always hated them: How do you wash your hair? Can I touch it? You can dance, right? You can sing, right? Do Black people tan? Do Black guys really have bigger dicks? What are chitlins? Do you speak Ebonics? It was exhausting.
I’m not the authority on all things Black, she thought to herself.
Her teachers would say, “Tallulah, you are so well-spoken” or “You pronounce your words so well,” as if she were from a foreign country and English wasn’t her first language.
When her English class read Tom Sawyer, she was allowed to leave the class. The first time the teacher, Mrs. Moore, said, “Nigger Jim,” the entire class turned and looked at Tallulah. The words hung in the air like a thick fog. The other kids murmured, snickered, and laughed. She looked up to see the entire class staring at her. Mrs. Moore turned bright red and seemed hesitant to go on with the class reading.
After class, Mrs. Moore asked Tallulah to stay. She waited until the room was empty. “Now Tallulah, I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. So, I’ll excuse you from reading Tom Sawyer.
Please know that I don’t agree with the use of the n-word. I can give you an alternate book to read. You can go to the library during class.”
Tallulah wanted to ask her if they would keep saying “Nigger Jim” after she left the room, but she knew the answer. It would be okay for the class to use the word nigger since it was a school approved book and she wasn’t in the room.
“Okay,” she said. She’d already read Tom Sawyer, and the idea of spending time in the library sounded better than sitting in class.
Mrs. Moore wrote out a pass and handed it to her. “Just check-in at the library desk. You can choose from this list.” She handed Tallulah a list of books.
The next day, during English, she went to the school library. When she walked in, it was empty with the exception of the library aide, Michael Chang. Michael was the only Asian student in the school. She’d seen him around, and they had the same creative writing class. She’d heard he was supposed to be some kind of omethin and have a black belt or something like that.
She handed Michael her pass. He looked up at her and grinned. “Seriously? Tom Sawyer?”
“Can I help it if Mrs. Moore has an issue with the word ‘nigger’? I’ve read it anyway,” she said, holding out her hand to receive her pass.
Michael passed it back and said, “Well, it’s just you and me during this period.”
She looked around the room, then walked over to a nearby table and sat down. On the table next to her was a chessboard. The pieces were set up as if someone was playing.
She turned toward Michael. “Do you play chess?”
He looked up and shook his head yes. “Why?” he said.
“Teach me?” she replied.
Michael smiled. “Don’t you have a book to read?”
“I’ve read it. I’ve got 6 weeks of library time. I’m gonna be here every day. Don’t you want someone to play chess with?”
Michael paused for a moment and walked toward the chessboard. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll teach you. I’m Michael.”
She smiled. “I know who you are. We have creative writing. I’m Tallulah.”
“I know who you are,” he said.
Every day during English, Tallulah would go to the library. She looked forward to seeing Michael. Her chess skills were improving. She also learned that he shared her love of books and writing. He was going to college right after graduation. He had dreams of having his own newspaper. She was impressed. He was focused and seemed so sure of what he wanted to do with his life.
Michael was about her height, with short black hair and dark eyes. He wore John Lennon-style glasses and shiny silver braces. He was a nerd, but she didn’t mind. He was probably one of the smartest people she’d ever met. He knew every inch of the library. He told her he spent most of his off periods in the library.
“I like sports,” he said, “I’m just not good at them. So now I write about sports,” he said, moving his queen into checkmate position.
Michael was the editor of the school paper. He had a great eye for editing and detail. He eventually talked Tallulah into joining the paper. He convinced her by telling her it would look great on a college application if she was serious about becoming a writer. Over the next 6 weeks, Michael became her best friend and confidant. He also convinced her to take AP English.
“It’ll look good on your college application,” he would say. Michael was always talking about college, and he told Tallulah she needed to get serious about going to apply herself.
When she was admitted into AP English, she discovered Michael wouldn’t be in the same class. “The reason I signed up is because you said we’d have the class together,” she protested over a game of chess.
“Sorry, I don’t make the schedule,” he said as he studied the chessboard.
She impatiently tapped her foot. “I’ve got you – checkmate,” she said.
Michael looked up at her and frowned. She’d beat him again.
* * *
Tallulah walked into her AP English class. She went directly to the seats in the back row and sat down. A syllabus was sitting on every desk in the room. She’d always been great at English, and she was even more pleased when she read the list of books they’d be reading during the year. She quickly scanned the list and realized she’d read almost every book. The classroom filled up quickly, and the morning bell rung.
The teacher, Mr. Simon, was writing on the board. He turned around and said, “Okay class, settle down. The first book we’ll be reading is Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer. Is anyone familiar with this book?” No one in the class moved. Tallulah slowly raised her hand. “Ah, a scholar in the back row.” Mr. Simon looked pleased. “Can you please stand up and tell us about this literary gem?”
Tallulah looked around and saw everyone staring at her.
Damn, she thought to herself, why the hell did I raise my hand? What the hell was I thinking?
She slowly stood up. Her palms were sweating, and she felt flushed. She cleared her throat and said, “Well, it’s a collection of 24 stories written from 1387 to 1400. I think it has something like 17,000 lines.” The kids in the classroom snickered and laughed.
“Very good, Ms…” Mr. Simon trailed off.
“Brock,” said Tallulah. “Well, Ms. Brock, you are 100% correct. Very good. Please be seated.”
Tallulah sat down. She felt as if the entire class was staring at her.
One of the girls sitting beside her leaned over and whispered, “Quit tryin’ to sound like a white girl.”
Tallulah looked at her and opened her mouth to speak but decided to stay quiet.
After class, Tallulah went directly to the library, where she found Michael staring at the chessboard. He was deep in concentration. He didn’t even notice her sit down.
“Do I sound white?” she asked.
He looked at her. “What?” he said, briefly looking up, then returning his eyes to the chessboard.
She pushed the chessboard out of the way. “Do I sound white!?” Her voice was cracking and raised.
“Hey!” he said. He looked at her and saw tears forming in her eyes. “What happened? What are you talking about?”
Tallulah was shaking and visibly upset. “A girl in my AP English class told me I was trying to sound white. Do I sound white? What does that mean?” Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she wiped them as quickly as they rolled down her face.
“Sound white?” he said, not knowing exactly what to say.
“I’m so sick of this bullshit. I mean, what the hell do I have to do, Michael? I work hard, I’m basically a straight-A student. I’m tired of people judging me by what I look like or what I sound like.” Her voice cracked.
He sat in silence for a moment. “I know, Tallulah,” he said quietly. “I’m not sure what it means either. It’s a stereotype.”
She was sitting across from him, wiping her tears. He understood how she felt. He knew about racism and stereotypes. He knew how hard it was to fit in, especially when you looked different from everyone else and they never let you forget it. Until he met Tallulah, he really thought he was the only one who felt this way.
With a look of defeat on her face, she wiped the last of her tears, then looked up at Michael. He’d been such a good friend to her. “Well, Michael,” she said softly, “I don’t care if it’s a stereotype, it’s bullshit and I’ old. You know what I mean?”
He nodded his head. “I do,” he said. “High school isn’t real anyway. That’s why you need to focus on college.”
Tallulah shook her head. “Good ol’ logical Michael.” She smiled. “I guess I had a little breakdown.” She looked at the knocked over chess pieces.
“Maybe just a little one,” Michael said, grinning, showing off his braces.
She started picking up the chess pieces. “So, college is my window?” she said in a questioning tone.
Michael nodded his head. “Yep. Everything will change in college. Trust me.”
* * *
Tallulah smiled as the memory faded away, then looked around at all the scattered papers. As she sighed and began to gather them up, her email chimed again. She quickly grabbed the laptop and checked it, holding her breath for a moment, then said, “Please let it be good news. Please…please…please…”
She put the cursor on the message and clicked. She read the two sentences.
Thank you for interest in Destination Magazine. We have reviewed your samples and have chosen candidates who are better suited for the position…
Tallulah stopped reading and closed the laptop.