Identity 2018

Identity ’18: “What They Call Him” by Annie Dawid

They call him “Hot Chocolate,” my mixed-race son whom everyone assumes is adopted. Unlike Barack Obama, for example, Elijah does not look biracial; the crowd assumes he plays basketball—and very well at that—due to his African-American heritage. He never disappoints. In the 99% white Christian middle school from which he has just graduated, he was the fastest runner, highest scoring shooter, most charismatic boy there.

My son has no African-American background, however; his father is French, of Haitian, Congolese, Moroccan, and Cambodian descent. On my side, he is Jewish—Eastern and Western European all the way back—including a Holocaust survivor. My father was born in Berlin, 1913, fled to Shanghai in 1939, then left Mao’s Red Chinese government in 1949 for the United States. This pointedly detailed biography pinpoints the lack of any genetic basketball forebears whatsoever.

Elijah’s skill is all his own, his drive–the same. His absent father did not play sports, not even soccer in Marseilles, due to childhood asthma. From me, Elijah inherited intellect and good humor, but zero by way of athletics. My physical activity focused on ballet, then jazz, then Afro-Haitian dance classes in college, though I was never very good at any of them. A worker, a “tiller in the field,” as one teacher labeled me by way of compliment, but not gifted at dance. A chubby girl, I was the proverbial last-picked for kickball in elementary school, and team sports, as in junior or high school, never even crossed my teenage radar. I did not know what “varsity” meant until my son began his life as an athlete.

This trajectory into the world of highly competitive basketball has educated me in every possible way, predictable as well as unimaginable. I never attended a sports event of any kind until Elijah wanted to see the high school boys play our 2A season opener a few years back. Born in 1960 in New York City, a girl nurtured on “Hair,” Woodstock and “Fiddler on the Roof,” I never realized how much of America’s energy, money and time is invested in the various ways balls can enter baskets and goals, fly over nets, and slide across ice or fields in the form of pucks. Though I formerly saw myself as a sophisticated New Yorker, I now know how very little I knew.

Where was I, these 50 years and more, that I failed to recognize the greatest obsession of the American public? Overseas, you might ask? Mining ore underground? No. I resided in academia for much of my adult life, where the crowd I hung with—English Department-types, primarily—did not talk about buzzer beaters, ally-oops, double-triples, or like vocabulary.

Hot Chocolate liked his nickname, though it made me uneasy. As we have just moved to a more cosmopolitan world, where he won’t be the only person of color in school, nor the only Jew, this queasiness on my part might abate. Fulfilling stereotypes makes me uncomfortable. As a New York Jew who’s spent her adult life in very Gentile parts of the West, I know what it means when strangers make assumptions about me based on my religion, my birthplace, my nose.

In Spain, once, a museum guard pointed at me, not unkindly, saying, “¡Judia?” When I nodded, he did the same. “La nariz,” he said, indicating his own nose. This in a town that formerly housed 10,000 Jews, none since the Inquisition.

People see me, my olive skin, my generous proboscis, and make assumptions. Likewise, they observe my son — his long strong legs, his afro, his easy grace — and say, Basketball Player.

They don’t say orthodontist or statistician or another career that might follow from his decidedly scientific and mathematical bent in the classroom—again so unlike my own proclivities.

At night, Elijah watches videos on YouTube of young brown boys actively scouted by basketball professionals. Not just high schoolers, but some in middle school, and lately, even elementary. The wunderkinds on the court are always dark-skinned, though not every boy is from the traditional inner-city background, nor the product of a single mother, like Elijah.

I don’t belong in that group of single-mothers-of-Black-basketball prodigies and could never claim that pride of place exemplified in women like LeBron James’s mother, Gloria, who was 16 when she bore her son, a child who would defy every statistic of the demographic category into which he was born. Elijah’s demography is faculty brat, only—and spoiled—child, the youngest of his Jewish grandparents’ progeny, equipped with a prodigious college fund for post-graduate education, a direction all in my family expect him to take.

All invisible to the fan in the stands.

But will he follow his future there? At 14, of course he doesn’t know. At his first practice, the new coach matched him with the older brown boy on the JV for defense. I wondered about this—why, with only two brown boys in the combined JV and C teams with 22 kids all together, does a young white man with an Irish surname match Elijah with a boy I’ll call Jaden? Are they the best two players there? Or does he assume the boys will be comfortable together because they share a similar complexion? Alternatively, could he be shielding the other boys, mostly white but also Chinese, Indian-from-India, and a few of mixed race (a category in which Elijah officially belongs but is never recognized as such due to his appearance) from being guarded by a zealous black boy?

Assuming such blinkered race consciousness in the second decade of the 21st century may sound paranoid, but, as the daughter of a man who fled for his life from his native country solely because he was born a Jew, I judge with caution; others must prove themselves worthy of my trust.

My father, 5 feet tall and fragile by the end of his 87th year, divided human beings into “he who works with his head and he who works with his hands”—the latter category obviously inferior to the former. Handymen were respected and well paid but not admired. Not aspired to. He never opined specifically on professional athletes, though he did adore Jack Nicklaus. If Heinz were still alive, would he be disappointed in his youngest grandson, whose prenatally announced existence so thrilled him?

“A grandfather at 86!” he crowed, as if my late pregnancy, at 39, somehow attested to his own virility. “A child of the twenty-first century,” he called my son or daughter, celebrating such mixed-race status prior to Elijah’s birth.

A young man in Tientsin during the 1940s, Heinz had fallen in love with a Chinese woman, but both concluded it out of the question to marry, as they wanted children, and in that time and place, children of mixed race suffered, looked down upon by both groups who saw in the mélange evidence of traitorous behavior on the part of each parent. Eventually, Heinz came to America in 1949, where a child like Elijah was not only possible, but, on the cusp of the new millennium, fifty years later, longed for. Beloved.

My mother also bequeathed a college fund for my son. Elijah need not worry about affording the university of his choice. Yet adults felt free to say to me, “He’ll be able to get in on affirmative action!”

Basketball scholarships are what Elijah wants. This way he can stand with the other brown boys, ravenous for recognition, eager to earn it. The more I learn about basketball, the more complex it seems; the 32-page book of plays he is required to memorize before his first game, complete with notations and abbreviations on the margins, seemed to me similar to sheet music, a language I never learned, unable to master the time signature or play an instrument. Elijah possesses that gift too and might have mastered his horn had he chosen music, but he scorns band, labels it “girly,” in favor of sports.

In his new world of multihued teammates and competition, he can’t be Hot Chocolate anymore. The other teams have boys darker chocolate than he, offering the obvious lesson of context. Nor is he the best anymore—not the most talented, best looking, most able, most dedicated. On the opposing teams are hungry boys, for whom the basketball scholarship is the proverbial ticket out of poverty, a chance for mothers like Gloria James to prosper. LeBron’s story is not Elijah’s story though it is that narrative strangers conjure when they observe him playing.

Today, he said he was glad to be relieved of that possibility. “Everyone plays so hard here, Mom.” This afternoon, his team gained their first victory and suffered their first defeat, pre-season. In the huge city gym, parents black and white and of all intermediate shades and hues commingled, their common focus the every-colored boys on the paint, vying for the ball.

Annie Dawid teaches creative writing at the University College, University of Denver. She was professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, 1990-2006.
Annie won the 2016 International Rubery Award in fiction for her first book and the Music Prize from Knuthouse Press in Fiction. Other awards include the Dana Award in the Essay, the Orlando Flash Fiction Award, The New Rocky Mountain VoicesAward (drama) and the Northern Colorado Award in Creative Non-Fiction.
Most recent publications: Brilliant Flash Fiction, Tikkun, Windmill, and “Jonestown, Japantown,” in Joyland: San Francisco, and a poetry chapbook, Anatomie of the World, Finishing Line Press, 2017.
Forthcoming poems in Ache magazine, UK, print & online, fiction in Fictive Dream (UK) and Casket of Fictional Delights (UK).
Multiple websites feature her short works, including TubeFlash, RetreatWest,
Spelk, Octavius, Nowhere, WeSaidGoTravel, Structo, Fiction Attic Press and others.
Her three published volumes of fiction are:
York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing
Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009

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