A few years ago I took a trip to Michigan, selling ads for Boing Boing. While there a friend arranged a tour of revival Detroit; this was the first I'd met Oneita Jackson.
Oneita is a magical tour-guide, a fantastic journalist, and the best damn cab driver you'll ever meet. She knows absolutely everyone in Detroit worth knowing, and was so incredibly enthusiastic that I will never forget the experience.
When Oneita sent me a copy of Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome I knew I had to read it that very day. This collection chronicles the experiences of a highly educated black woman as she moves about the many circles in American culture. Her stories will make you laugh, and you will facepalm, and most of all you will THINK.
The following story is a wonderful introduction to Oneita's work. I think these are as much poetry as short story.
BLACK PEOPLE KNIT
by Oneita Jackson
I said I was a knitter, but that’s not what she heard.
We were at a loud party at my friend’s house in West Village and I was the only One.
It didn’t matter that we were having a polite and interesting conversation, one of those getting-to- know-you, how-do-you-know-so-and-so (read: Why are YOU here?) conversations, where my announcement would have been inappropriate, moreover, inappropriate, moreover, awkward, o -topic, out of context, strange.
“I’m a nigger.”
What dumb-ass nigger says that at a white- people’s party?
No HNIC knitter. No hood-rat knitter. No church-folk knitter. Weed-smokin’ knitter. Educated knitter. Politically correct knitter. Hip-hop knitter. White-people-loving knitter. Avant-garde knitter. President of the United Fucking States knitter.
I knew she thought I said that other word because she didn’t react. Usually, when I announce myself as a “knitter,” people say something.
“I’m a knitter, too.”
“My grandmother knits.”
“I learned to knit when I was a kid.” “My aunt knits my kids sweaters.” “We have a stitch-and-bitch.”
“What do you knit?”
“Do you knit hats?”
“Can you knit me a scarf?”
“How long have you been knitting?”
“Where do you buy your yarn?”
“What are you working on?”
“How many projects you got goin’?”
“Do you knit on straight needles or circulars?”
They say something.
She said nothing.It was her blank pale face that gave me pause. I was a few sentences in before I came to. No questions forthcoming, I looked at her askance. “Wait: Did you just think I said I was a nigger?”
“Yes.”Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s Golden Globe for BEST PORTRAYAL OF A POLITICALLY CORRECT WHITE WOMAN IN AN UNCOMFORTABLE SITUATION goes to the horrified little suburbanite at a house party in Detroit.
I placed my hand on her shoulder, amazed by her composure.
“Girl, you are good! That was so polite.”
“I said, ‘knitter,’ ” I said, and started air-knitting.
We laughed and laughed and laughed.
It’s not funny.
Cover: Brian McNamara. Photo: Emmy Perryman.