The year was 2005 and I was sat in the back row of Mr Colgan’s English class. We were studying ‘’Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry” in preparation for our upcoming Junior Cert.
It was your typical classroom scenario. Uninterested students combatted by a teacher picking victims to read at random, in the hope of preserving their attention for an extra five minutes.
I wasn’t a big fan of English. It just wasn’t for me. My views were too subjective for the education system it seemed. So as my classmates continued to suffer through the readings, my mind began to wander – sports, girls, lunch, who could I get to buy me a few cans of Druids for the weekend. You know, your usual fifteen-year-old boy stuff.
It had been tough participating in the classroom readings. I was the only black kid in a room of thirty and the book was about the struggle of blacks against whites in Mississippi during the 1930’s. It spared no details, giving vivid accounts of lynching’s, rapes and people being tarred and feathered. It portrayed white people being abused for associating with black people and discussed the most heinous of all acts, interracial relationships and children – a.k.a me!
Every time someone had to read the word nigger or some terrible act was performed, heads in the classroom would turn in my direction. You could feel the sideways glances roll onto your skin, treating me like some type of ethnic barometer. It was never said, but it was clear. I was the nigger in the room.
One day, as I was deep in one of my daydreams, I heard my name mentioned. ‘’Bollix’’ I thought. I had just been picked to read and I didn’t have a clue where we were in the text. I lifted my eyes from my desk to see the whole class and teacher staring at me.
‘’Eoin’s a half-caste’’, the teacher repeated as he pointed in my direction.
This was the first time in my life I had heard of ‘’a half-caste” and now apparently, I was one.
“He must be talking about a different Eoin”, I naively thought to myself.
‘’I’m mixed race Sir’’, I rebutted.
“Half caste, mixed race, same thing”, he replied.
‘It’s not!’, I snared in response. ‘’I’m not half anything!’
I was on the verge of tears. I had to muster every ounce of strength to fight back the emotion. Why was I getting so upset? It was bad enough being the nigger in the room, I certainly didn’t want to be the crying nigger in the room.
The bell rang to signal the end of class and I was already out the door. Some of my friends knew I wasn’t happy but I didn’t want to talk to them. I knew I would just get upset, which we all know is social suicide for any 15-year-old boy. So, I ran, I ran out of the school, scaled the gate and scurried across the bridge before anyone could notice.
The whole walk home I mulled over the incident in my head. Asking myself question after question. Had I over reacted? Was I in the wrong? What was it about that word that caused this reaction, these feelings? Where did this word even come from? I’d never experienced anything like it before in my life.
When I arrived home, I met my mother in the kitchen. Her initial shock at seeing me home two hours early soon wore off as she saw my sullen face. She knew something was up. I stood there and began to vent. I’m pretty sure I told the story from start to finish without pausing for a breath.
I instantly felt better. She was mixed race herself and understood my struggle. She knew where I was coming from and agreed that being referred to as ‘half’ of anything was rather dehumanizing. See, when people said I was half caste, all I really focused on was the word ‘half’. To me it implied I was lesser, I wasn’t full, I was subhuman.
She consoled me for the next hour explaining how, when she was growing up, that’s how people would refer to her and that she hated it too but……..
Hold on why is there a ‘but’? She was meant to be on my side.
She went upstairs and returned a few minutes later with one of those giant Oxford English Dictionaries. She sat down beside me and rolled through the pages until eventually stopping at the word in question:
“Half-Caste – a person having parents of different races.”
There you had it. In writing. I was a half-caste. Quite a harsh reality to take. I had just spent the past hour fighting against this label but here it was in a book and I was the exact definition.
The warnings offered in the dictionary about the phrase being ‘contemptuous’ offered me little solace. I felt like I was back to square one. I missed being the nigger in the room. Being the half caste was definitely worse.