Whenever we went to look at a house, my mother and father talked with the real estate agent or rapped the walls to check for soundness or discussed termite reports while I—5 years old at the time—was bored out of my mind. My parents had moved my 7-month-old sister and me from Chicago to Atlanta, and usually when we went house hunting, the owner had moved long before, leaving nothing behind but Comet cleaning powder in the tub and dusty cans of soup in the cupboards.

One house was different. Its owner was an elderly white woman, and apparently she was too old, too frail, too settled in her stuffed brocaded armchair in the center of the living room to clear out when any prospective buyers came around. She sat there, stroking what seemed at first to be luxurious black fur cuffs but turned out to be a poodle so sedentary it could have been dead and stuffed for all I knew.

Her place was the best by far. It was spacious, with young dogwood trees blooming all over the yard, the wraparound porch sporting a swing just outside the front window boxes, which were full of geraniums. Inside, Oriental rugs lay under every constellation of furniture in the living room, and the old white woman sat in the center of the furniture galaxy, breathing her shallow, steady breaths with a look of annoyed patience, as if she'd been forced to sit in her chair while some portraitist finished up the final brushstrokes of his painting.

Strangely enough, I liked this about her, and when my parents wanted to tour the upstairs, I said I wanted to pet the dog, and stayed downstairs with the woman.

"Where are your kids?" I asked when we were alone.

"Grown," she said, the first in a series of single-word sentences, spoken as if she were aware her remaining words were finite, as though she didn't want to waste them on strangers.

"Do you have any grandkids?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"How many?" I asked.

She looked as if she were about to shrug but then seemed as if she'd decided that shrugging might be more physically taxing than just answering the question.

"Nine," she finally said, but said it as if she'd been asked to pick a number between one and ten.

"If my mama and daddy get this place, can I play with them?" I asked.

"What?" she asked.

Perhaps she was deaf. So I yelled, sparing neither my lungs nor her ears, "CAN I PLAY WITH THEM?!"

A moment passed, as if she'd had to translate this, then, with startling finality, she said, "No." She didn't shake her head, but something in her eyes looked as if she had.

"Why not?" I said.

She looked annoyed, as if she'd explained this all to me before.

"Well," she said, "you're a colored girl."

Next: Understanding racism for the first time


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