Meeting Mr. X


Uncomfortable and awkward, I had wanted only to listen. But with Sara’s general apology, I began to feel words rising in my throat. Perhaps it had something to do with my Cherokee great-grandmother—her grandparents survivors of the Trail of Tears—or with my own parents’ struggle to get out of the cotton field of Oklahoma—it’s hard to say now, but when Sara finished, I said, “I’m sorry for what happened to you, Mr. X, but Sara doesn’t speak for me. I really do not think I’m any more responsible for your troubles as a black man than you’re at fault for mine as a white woman.” And pointing at my freckled arm I said quietly, “I didn’t choose this skin, but it’s the only one I have and I’m afraid we’ll both have to make do with it.”

Malcolm X looked steadily back at me for a long moment while I wished I were any place else on earth. And then I saw his mouth twitch, a quick pulling at the corners, less than a smile, but more—much more—than a smirk, and his eyes softened before they turned away.

Then the moment was gone. Azizah poured words like oil onto the awkwardness in the room, and soon the conversation was about Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca and his upcoming appearance at the university that night.

Later, I said good-bye and walked slowly and alone back to Bustani Hall through the campus, past the library and the chapel and the School of Pharmacy with the huge Chinese rose bushes in front.

Rowda was out; she had left a note on my desk telling me she would be out the rest of the day. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but I changed from my street clothes and boiled tea on the hot plate, and turned the radio on to the BBC in time to hear Big Ben’s deep chimes. After I listened to the news from London, I moved the dials until I heard Arabic music, and I stood with my glass of tea at the large window at the end of the room and watched the quiet sky over Beirut turn dusky to the tune of minor notes, wondering exactly what that oddly likeable man who did not like the color of my skin was all about.