by Malcolm Hansen
My big brother was born the day Malcolm X was assassinated. Dad watched the breaking news in an Atlanta hospital waiting room while Mom was off in the maternity ward giving birth. Like married couples did in those days, even if they’d had to go to Ohio to get married.
Our Mom was a beautiful black woman who got her bachelor’s degree in 1966 from the University of Arkansas. Dad was a tall, gawky white guy who had put college on hold for Freedom Summer, then the Albany Movement, and later years spent as Arkansas Project Director for SNCC.
After some trying years spent hopping around Europe, Mom and Dad split up in 1976. Soon after, Billy and I returned to the US with Mom. We lived in Norfolk, Virginia and what I remember most about those days, besides the absence of Dad, was Mom and Billy getting up while it was still dark out to sit in front of Mom’s vanity mirror picking out their matching afros, while I fumbled behind them getting dressed.
Mom left for work early, so Billy and I had to feed ourselves before heading off to school. Five years older than me, that responsibility fell squarely on Billy, who always poured the heavy carton of milk for me. Afterward, we’d cut through the apartment complex parking lot, head off down a side road, duck through a hole in a fence, and cut through a field with a narrow foot path straddled on both sides with arching cat-o-nine-tails tall enough to tickle my forearm. I’d trail so closely behind Billy I gave him flat tires. I would have followed that enormous, ginger-colored ‘fro anywhere.
During the beginning of that first year of school in Norfolk, Billy and I would hang around after school to watch the kids who made a daily ritual of throwing rocks at the school buses parked curbside. It never occurred to me why they did that. I was too caught up in the excitement, standing there alongside Billy, half-hidden among the crowd of onlookers gathered off to the side, wide-eyed.
One day a few weeks in, Billy and I were lingering about after school, waiting for something to happen. It was the usual scene with groups of kids milling about out front watching the black kids file onto the buses and school officials imploring us all to go home. Of course, none of us did. Then I felt a jerk. Billy had been knocked to the ground and was grabbing onto me. We scrambled and ran, but as the kids closed in on us, Billy cut left and for some inexplicable reason, I cut right. I hopped a nearby fence and hid in some shrubs.
The back door creaked open and a man appeared in the doorway checking to see what was going on in his back yard. He said something to the kids just now coming over his fence, after me, and they fled.
The man headed down his back stoop. He stopped, stooped down in front of me, and peered into the thick, dark, bushes. He pushed a branch aside and announced in a voice kind enough for me to half-trust, that it was safe for me to come out. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know exactly where I was. And I had no idea where Billy was. But the hoarse old man looked like Mister Rogers himself, so I gave myself up.
When Billy and I met up back home, we didn’t swap stories. In fact, we never spoke of that incident at all. I don’t know about Billy, but I buried it away in some shame filled corner of my soul. That night, Billy demanded that Mom give him a haircut. Said he wanted something close-cropped, like a Marine.
I asked if I could have a haircut, too. Imagining of our matching haircuts as thick chunks of red hair descended into the bathtub, Billy took a tender swipe at my soft curls and said that I didn’t need one. Still, we never lingered about in the school yard again.
As far as I know, Mom never asked why Billy had had the sudden change of heart. He kept his hair short until his death in 1985. I can’t help but wonder if, had he lived, would he ever have grown his glorious head of hair out again?