The Question Mark
Maria Williams-Hawking’s story written by Lizz Alezetes.
Maria is 63 years old.
Question marks fill the space between us.
What separates us: Black . . .White . . .Yellow . . .Brown?
Are you for me? Are you against me?
When I was young, I asked to understand:
“Daddy, why do White men have to stay on the front porch when they come by?”
“Daughter, why do Black men have to enter through the back doors of White houses?”
Question marks separate us.
“Daddy, why do they want you to call White men Mister?”
“Daughter, for the same reason White men call me Boy.”
The question marks, indeed, separate us.
When Daddy explained that the world is Black and White, I saw the question mark as a Shepherd’s crook, keeping me safe.
In high school a White college girl offered to help me research my homework. When she came to pick me up, the question mark hooked my jacket, pulling me back.
“Where do I sit?
In the front, like her friend?
In the back, like her maid?”
The question mark became the hook upon which I hung all interactions.
In college I walked home alone after my night class.
A White boy said it was dangerous for me to walk alone and offered to walk me home.
The question mark appeared.
“Am I safer with him or alone against what lurks in the dark?
Isn’t he what lurks in the dark?”
The darkness seemed a safer option. Daddy’s Shepherd’s crook continued to guide me, to separate us: Black. White. Yellow. Brown.
Sometimes the question mark of racism is pulled taut,
forming a line as straight as a mouth full of contempt.
The exclamation points form rows,
The rows form columns,
The columns form a wall:
“You don’t belong!”
It’s easier, safer to let that hook hold onto us.
After time, our skin just grows over it,
The question mark becomes part of us—
It’s in our doubtful looks, raised eyebrows, lowered voices.
Ripping that hook out—it’s painful, risky.
In college I ran for a short-term student government office.
The first quarter I lost by eight votes—
and I met ten Black students who didn’t vote.
They didn’t see the question mark; they knew the answer.
“Can a Black student win?”
Of course not.
The next quarter I ran for a full term office.
A Black guy asked,
“Why waste your time?”
But I wouldn’t let the hook catch me again;
I became the first Black elected Student Government officer.
Time passed. My Daddy passed. Laws passed. But the question mark lingered.
That barbed hook must be pulled out, tossed aside,
So that we have the freedom to step forward and connect.