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When I First Realized I was not Black

by John Omaha

© 2018. All Rights Reserved.

I had always loved the movie theater. Going to the movies for the Saturday matinee was the high point of my 9 year old week. It meant freedom from the emotional oppression at home, from the burden of my parents’ expectation that I would become a doctor like my father. I had a routine. I walked alone to the theater 2 miles from my home in Seattle’s Madrona District. My allowance, for which I had picked up dog shit in the backyard and house where my father’s Boxers relieved themselves, would buy me a cheeseburger and malt and entrance to the theater. After the lunch the movie. The wonderful, glorious movie. The experience commenced with six cartoons. Animated wonders. Then Warner-Pathe newsreel. Next came a segment of a serial, a cowboy or adventure story or a Captain Marvel episode running 10 minutes. The first of two feature films followed. Sometimes there was a stage act between the two features, like the time a Philippine man demonstrated yo-yo tricks.

I cannot remember the movie that was showing when I first realized I was not Black. I seem to recall that it was a black and white adventure film. I was engrossed. Captivated. I sank into the movie, inhabited it. Sometimes I suddenly became aware I was acting out the movie, like the time the movie character was stretched out on a ledge of a high building and I had stretched myself across the two seats adjacent to mine. When I realized what I was doing, I quickly sat up.

Half way through the second feature I felt something push against the back of my head. I felt my scalp. A sticky gooey blob of used chewing gum had been pressed into my hair. I could not pull it out. I turned around, and five Black boys howled in laughter. I got up and left the theater hunched in shame and never returned My Saturday reprieve was ruined along with my innocence. I knew in that moment that I was not Black.