I stared at the Ku Klux Klan robe and the burnt cross behind it for fifteen minutes before Brandon saw me. The room was pitch black with the exception of a spotlight that illuminated the display. The robe was larger than I would’ve thought, with a faint brown stain on the right sleeve. We were in Birmingham and the inscription on the museum case read, “The burnt cross was left on the lawn of a mixed-race couple in the nineties.” I was born in ninety-four. I felt goose bumps rise on my skin. The speakers played voice mails left by Klansmen to civil rights activists; their slurs were on a continuous loop for the visitors. We’ll burn your house down you nigger lover. I licked my lips and closed my eyes. I couldn’t remember if the stain was brown or red and I didn’t want to look again to find out.
“Brittany, are you okay?” Brandon asked. “Britt?”
When I was four, my white mother was convinced I had been kidnapped. She arrived at my school twenty minutes later than she meant to, and the principal assumed I wasn’t her daughter.
“Everyone from room two has been picked up,” she said. “I’m sure she went home with a friend.”
My mother walked the halls of the school with the principal looking for me. I don’t remember that, but I do remember sitting in my classroom with Ms. Lucy. I was wearing my favorite yellow dress and my hair was braided too tightly. When I saw my mother rush past the open classroom door I called, “Hi, Mama!” I pushed my thick hands into the ground to stand up.
“Brittany Lee, where have you been?” She pulled me up onto her hip.
“I was waiting for you.” I bunched up her jacket with my fingers.
The principal looked from my mother to me and the truth dawned on her. With tight lips she apologized for the confusion. My mother used the forbidden words that my brother and I couldn’t say and pivoted towards the door. She held me closer and took long strides, forgetting my lunchbox in its cubby. The principal called out for Mrs. Frederick and her voice echoed down the empty hall. Mama’s teardrops spotted my yellow dress.
“It’s okay, Mama,” I said. “I was having fun. Promise!”
But she was still crying when we pulled into our driveway.
I had just turned fifteen and my parents told me I was old enough to go downtown by myself. I sat down at the bus stop across from some other teenagers. A white guy wearing a college hoodie nudged his friend and pointed my way. I turned the music up on my iPod and averted my eyes. I snuck a peek, he was cute, but too old for me.
“Hey Beyoncé! You’re beautiful!”
I crossed my arms over my chest and stood to walk the few blocks instead. I was growing into new curves I hadn’t known were dangerous and my skin was sun-kissed dark brown.
“Are you going to ignore me?” He asked. “You think you’re too good? You’re pretty but you’re still just a black girl,” he called.
Despite myself, I started to run down the block. When I found my friends, they asked what was wrong and I lied. We browsed through the makeup section of the pharmacy, and I searched the advertisements for models like me and didn’t see any.
I opened my glove box and searched for my registration with shaking hands. In the rearview mirror, I could see the cop getting out of his car. I was nauseous and fumbling with the paperwork. In my panic I tipped my open purse.
I ruffled through spare napkins from Starbucks, a couple boxes of mints, and a tube of hand sanitizer before I found the registration. I sat back up in time for the cop to reach my door. I turned off my radio and rolled my window down. I wished he had pulled me over on a more public road. There were no other cars and the sun was setting behind us. “Hello officer,” I said.
“License and registration.”
“Yes sir.” I passed them over and then kept my hands flat on the dashboard.
“Girl, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No officer.” I ran through the mental list my dad had given me for a stop. Speak only when spoken to, eye contact but not too much, hands flat, –-
“Step out of the car.” He moved back so there was room for me to open the door.
I hesitated. I couldn’t remember if I had to get out of the car. He cleared his throat.
“I said to step out of the vehicle.”
I figured it’d be better to just to do what he said. I slowly undid my seatbelt and stepped out out. With his palms flat to my chest he pushed me to the side. Surprised, I stumbled but held my breath. Even as he climbed into my car, I could feel the shadow of the weight of his hands over my heart. I heard him rummaging through my stuff and squeezed my hands until my knuckles were white. Almost as quickly as he’d come he left me with a warning but not an explanation. It was dark when he got in his cruiser and sped down the road. I got in my car and rested my head on the wheel. After the music stopped and the commercials started, I put it in drive, turned on my blinker and drove home. I drove carefully but without looking at my mirrors. I didn’t want to see my face.
I heard someone saying, “Britt?” over and over.
Brandon was trying to get my attention. We were still in the museum. The room was quiet, and I had no idea if I had been there for minutes or hours. I crossed my arms around my ribs and took a shuddering breath. Brandon moved closer and put an arm around my back. If I took another step, I would fall apart, so I decided to stay where I was. I turned to look at my friend. His eyes were watery and blue. Neither of us had anything to say. I surprised myself when I threw my arms around him. I dissolved, a sobbing and snotty mess, into my own tears. He didn’t say everything was okay. He didn’t cringe when I grabbed fistfuls of his shirt. I let him support my weight.
Brittany Frederick studied English at Stonehill College where she earned top honors for short fiction writing and studied African-American literature. Currently, Brittany is pursuing a PhD in Sociology with a focus on race and inequality at Boston University.