I first applied in 1997 with an application filled out in chalk on the sidewalk of East 128th Street in East Cleveland. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote in my personal essay, but it involved a game with squares and a basketball.
I was a shoo-in. A legacy admission, I thought. Turns out most of my family hadn’t really attended. Well, some uncles, aunts, and cousins had. My parents had, back in the day, but times had changed. It wasn’t the same school anymore. Different courses were being taught.
I watched my older siblings winning pickup games at the basketball court down the street where all the boys in the neighborhood went to play with their shirts off and teenage girls stood court-side and marveled. I marveled. My siblings were pretty good, and eventually I learned to play from watching them.
I had a nice jumper. I could compete with the other boys my age, and I did, but when I played with them my heart would slam relentlessly against my ribs and my throat would try its best to strangle itself. Something would go terribly wrong with my hands. The shots stopped dropping so often I’d pass the ball away whenever I had the chance. This is your world. Take the ball from me. Take from me. Take me. It’s crazy how pressure can thieve your talents. When I was alone, it was nothing but net.
My older siblings hadn’t attended, though I always believed they had. They went to the sister school and knew everybody here. I didn’t know any better yet.
I later got my first rejection.
My qualifications were lacking. I was uppity. Had college-educated parents. High yellow. Sensitive. My dad was Muslim and my mother practiced a religion you couldn’t pronounce. Didn’t you know this was a Christian University?! Most damningly, when I looked into my best friend’s eyes I felt myself flying. But a boy’s eyes aren’t supposed to make another boy fly here.
Flying is a weird experience. If it has happened to you before, you know what it is. I just didn’t know that I wasn’t flying when I took her to prom and spent more time staring at him dancing, hand so perfectly placed at the curve of his date’s back. Or that I wasn’t flying when she tried to put me inside of her and I couldn’t.
I still didn’t know what to call flying.
Most rejections come in a simple, straightforward email, not long after you apply. Mine came from 50 different directions over the course of several years.
“Dear Hari, we’re sorry to inform you…” was, “nigga, you a lame!”
It was fists and boots. I sent those back though, like the entitled white girl rejected by her dream schools who writes back because she doesn’t understand why.
I wanted to know why.
It was learning that I talked white and was an oreo—white cream inside of me.
It was wanting white cream inside of me.
It was, “fucking faggot!”
The rejections didn’t sting so much as they rubbed raw like sandpaper. Rubbing and rubbing until somehow my skin, like flint, sparked, and a hatred for the school and everything it stood for engulfed me. I hated the students. I hated the administration. I hated the campus. Though I couldn’t see it before, I soon learned that most others hated this institution too.
By 1999, my family had moved to the suburbs. To this day, my little sister still says our shabby little piss-colored house we left on the corner of East 128th was her favorite place to live. She could never really articulate why.
In the Heights, I found community: oddballs and band geeks and choir boys could be adored here. We all got the same rejection letter but it didn’t matter as much. Degree not required.
I wore a crown and danced with a queen homecoming night. All kings danced with queens at the time. My kingdom wasn’t much—a gym room full of disco lights and hormone-laden boys and girls who weren’t supposed to drink, but when did that ever stop them? I don’t remember at which point “Knuck If You Buck” came on but a lot of people bucked. I sat on my throne and sneered.
I was better than those who were accepted. I wasn’t no nigga. A nigga. I had mastered this language that felt like rocks on the tongue and tasted worse.
The second time I applied was in 2009. This was a different kind of school.
I was accepted, scholarship and all.
I wasn’t a faggot here. I learned that in required classes.
In elective courses, I learned that not being a faggot doesn’t make you straight.
I also learned that the other school taught all that was bad in the world. I was lucky to escape. Most don’t. You special, magical Negro, you made it out. Now keep your hair short, your pants up, your clothes fitting, speak right, and just be glad you made it this far. Don’t ask for more.
“Dear Hari, we’re sorry to inform you that you didn’t…”
I found that old rejection letter, stuffed away under the memory of being touched when I was too young by a boy who didn’t like faggots.
I didn’t go looking for it. The new school said I needed to “open my mind” to receive their liberal education, so I did, and I saw it there, poking out at me—it was written on the same kind of paper and in the same handwriting as my acceptance letter to the new school.
I think black skin must have a smell. An aroma that follows you everywhere you go. I think it smells something like East 128th Street. You might hear that and think the hood smells like trash, but all I remember are the dandelions. There were dandelions everywhere, canary colored and bright as hell until they turned into tiny pieces of cotton, flowing into the wind.
Why is it that dandelions are considered weeds?
I spent a lot of time trying to scrub the smell away. Not because I don’t like the smell of dandelions, but because every spring all I saw were people weeding their yards. My parents weeding the yard.
“You are not a girl. Don’t say, ‘I am not no girl’. Don’t use double negatives,” my mother said, as she stripped the language of the community in which I grew up from my mouth. If you understand, what needs correcting? I wanted to say, why can’t I speak like them?
“Pull your pants up!” My father yelled as I left the house, and I begrudgingly covered my ass. I was really covering my friend’s ass. All my friends’ asses. I represented all of us.
“Hari, what do Black people think?” My professor inquired in every discussion that had a racial aspect. I was the only black kid among of sea of white students.
I knew the smell was gone. I just knew it. But white people have sensitive noses. To them, I reeked. Everywhere I went, I reeked of black and yellow and cotton. Reeked of East 128th Street, of the school that rejected me.
But we trusted their noses, so we listened.
“Dear Hari, we’re sorry to inform you that you didn’t have to apply. Ghetto University is free and open to the public.”
Have you ever sat in class and wandered off in your mind? Day dreaming about the things you want to do and the places you want to go? I did that for 17 years. East 128th Street was a classroom. But I was told these weren’t required courses. They weren’t important.
I was there. I was there but I was somewhere else in my head. I was missing the important things, or at least forgetting to remember where I learned them, like when you don’t got shit to eat and your neighbors next door give you the last of theirs. Like when you need a place to stay, your Auntie Gloria finds you a bed even though she doesn’t have a room. How line dancing in the park isn’t just about having fun, but building family. After all the moving to the right and left, you’re never really walking by yourself. How everybody still loves that drunk uncle who did them all wrong, because that’s what love is. You learn what love is. How to make do. How everybody makes do. How to have faith. How to survive.
And East 128th Street, East Cleveland, that’s home. Maybe that’s why the piss-colored house was my sister’s favorite. I hated it sometimes, but when did I forget how much I loved it too? How did I forget the cookouts? The family reunions? The line dancing? The loud kikis and not giving a fuck? That corner stores have everything you need? That a kid can make anything in the world with just two colors of chalk? How did I forget the sweetness of honey buns? Playing in fire hydrants? That you can do so much with no money? The beauty that is survival? When did I forget that this is where I started learning everything I know? That without it, I would be nothing?
Hari Ziyad is a writer with a passion for gender/queer/race issues. He runs the blog RaceBaitR, and his work has been featured on The Feminist Wire, Black Girl Dangerous, Young, Colored & Angry, and The Each Other Project. He lives in Brooklyn.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]