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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Naturalization: becoming established as if native

[Emphasis mine]
~ Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition

It would have made sense for me to feel angry or, at the very least, annoyed. Instead, my stomach flipped and my throat tightened. The anxiety was momentary, but it had made itself known. The rest of my class had gotten there on time, and I had given them the day's assignment. Now I had to give it all over again for one student. One chronically late student. Tineesha. She found an empty desk, nonchalantly pulled off her puffy pink nylon jacket and deposited her book bag on the floor. Then she looked expectantly toward my desk.

With two fingers, I motioned for her to come up, gave her the handout, explained the assignment, and asked her to join one of the smaller critique groups. "Oh, I haven't finished my essay yet," she said.

I swallowed past the constriction again and said, "Why don't you go ahead and join a group anyway? You can give the others feedback. Part of your grade is based on you giving feedback. And maybe they can help you move forward with your essay, give you some suggestions."
"Actually, I didn't start it yet. Oh, except for that free-write we did in class last time."

"Okay. Well then, you can decide how to best use your time, whether to draft your essay or give feedback. If you don't give feedback, though, you will lose some points, so you might want to draft later. Plus, your group may have some good ideas for you. And remember, the essay still has to be turned in on time." Tineesha nodded and went back to the desk where she'd left her jacket, took out her notebook and a pen and began writing.

I circulated among the groups, listening to their comments, making a few suggestions, recording points for peer feedback. When class was over, I went up to my office in the English department. I stared out the window at the skeletal trees and gray sky. As I pondered my earlier reaction to Tineesha's work habits, storm clouds gathered on the horizon. Tineesha's way of doing Freshman Composition represented the extreme in my class, but the other two African American students were also more often late and asked more frequently for extensions on assignments than anyone else did.

As I watched the steely clouds roll in, however, I was less preoccupied with my students than with my feelings about their performance. Something shriveled inside me when I saw them appear to sabotage their success. My first inclination was to examine myself for racism, but it didn't take long for my thoughts to shift to Neale and the world I came to know intimately through her.


My naturalization process had begun at the door of a motel on Old Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, thirty years earlier. Neale and I were friends then, but it wouldn't be long before we became lovers. We'd gone to Albuquerque for the weekend, and around midnight, after seeing a late movie, we decided it was time to look for a place to stay. Old 66 is lined with one-story, courtyard-style motels from the Mother Road's heyday. Today the seamy side of life—prostitution, drug deals and transient stopovers—takes place in them. But in 1973, while tourists stayed in multi-storied chain establishments just off the new Interstate, we New Mexicans found comfortable, cheap lodging in the old, low-slung motels there.

The vacancy sign at our first pick was still lit that night, but the office was dark, so we rang the buzzer. A frowsy, middle-aged White woman came to the door in her housecoat and looked us up and down and back and forth, when we said we wanted a room. I'm a medium-height White woman, in my early twenties then. Neale is Black, almost six-foot-four with her Afro, my age. She was solidly built but not fat; in the dark she could easily have been mistaken for a man.

"We're full," the woman said abruptly.

"But the sign…" I said.

"I forgot to turn it out."

"Come on," Neale said. "We'll go someplace else." Back in the car, her voice turned hot. She said, "It's because I'm Black. They had rooms."

"But she said she forgot…"

"She didn't forget. They don't forget to turn out the sign when leaving it on is going to get them out of bed in the middle of the night. You go to the window alone at the next place, and I guarantee we'll get in."

She was right. After that, whenever we needed a motel, I went to the window, and we were never again turned away. That experience on Old 66 was like a needle shoved under my skin, inoculating me with a sample of the disease, creating the antibodies that would make me see things through Neale's eyes, sometimes even experience them the same way, the way generations of her family had.

As we became family, Neale tutored me in a new language. Nappy hair was too curly, unkempt. Of interest is the fact that this meaning of nappy does not appear in Webster's Eleventh Edition Collegiate Dictionary, although the British variant, meaning diaper, does. Now, at the opening of the twenty-first century, despite its absence from the dictionary, nappy is a word that many Whites are familiar with from movies and television; in the early seventies, learning this and other words was part of my naturalization. Good hair in African American English is hair that's not so curly—the less curly, the better. A conk is what a man gets when he wants straight hair. Ashy skin is just dry skin, but on a Black person it's gray, ashy looking. An Oreo is a black person who's Black on the outside, White on the inside, lacking in self-pride. High yellow refers to someone whose skin is very light.

CP time means Colored People's time, and it's not much different from what I grew up with in Dinétah—Indian Time. It's a kind of time that flows with the larger rhythms of life—the seasons, the tides, the changing from sun to moon, rather than with the sweep of a second hand. When people are attending to these bigger increments of time, there is no such thing as being a few minutes or even a few hours late. I never internalized Indian Time. My mother shouted at us every day except Saturday as she propelled us toward the door on our way to church or school, "Would it kill you to be a few minutes early for a change?" That's what I internalized, and it's helped me fit into the world of clocks and day planners with ease. So much was against Neale's and my partnership that it was fortunate for me and for the relationship that she didn't operate on CP time any more than I did.


In my university office, rain began slapping the windows, and the dark tree limbs swayed like small twigs about to break. I figured Tineesha was operating on CP time, and I thought of other possible reasons for her actions. She's a freshman, I thought, maybe overwhelmed by being away from home and being on a large university campus with all that entails. She could be afraid of success. Maybe she just hasn't learned yet how to prioritize—not unusual in freshmen.

But what about me? I didn't have to dig very deep to know that my anxiety came from wanting my Black students to do well, to not be laid bare to any criticism from their White peers. I didn't want anyone to be able to lump them into a stereotype, and I knew stereotypes abounded. I wanted success for them, but I didn't know if there was anything I could or should be doing differently to help them achieve it. And I was painfully aware of my own Whiteness.




© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To Be continued.

"Naturalization" was first published in Clockhouse.

It was notable in Best American Essays 2014.


If you are just joining this serialization of Fissure: A Life Between Cultures, you can use the Table of Contents to help you navigate.

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