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FICTION / How to Be A House Negro at Columbia University: A Guide By Asha Futterman / Asha Futterman

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Includes Practice Tests
2019 Edition 


Part One: How To Perform


As a House Negro, performing should come naturally to you. Forget about code-switching bullshit. It is more than a code. It’s an inhabitance.


Take careful notes on this scene. Look out for this house negro in training’s mistakes and successes. 


House Negro In Training (HNIT) arrives in her Blackness to a jagged catastrophe of time. It is opening night. While Julia and Diego have loud fake sex on stage, Clyde slaps HNIT hard in the face. Slapping is part of their pre-scene ritual.


They will go on stage when the fake sex is over, and HNIT will tell him in a three minute monologue that she doesn’t want to marry. HNIT feels weird today because she hasn’t slept in a while and Clyde told her about his aunt’s plantation wedding last week and she’s thinking about it when she looks at him now. He hasn’t washed his hair in a week but smells like laundry detergent. They go off into a dark corner and run lines. HNIT slaps him.


They run through all of the lines but Clyde doesn’t want the scene to end. They are both wired on Red Bull and Nos and are enjoying their tense energy.

 

Where did you expect this relationship to go? We’re 27 years old!

They’re not actually 27 but in the play they are 27.

I don’t know. I just thought. I don’t know.

HNIT is not doing a great job at improvising.

Is it because I’m white?

Clyde regrets this strong utterance, but it seems like he’s been waiting to ask HNIT that for a while.

Uh, a bit.

She laughs. His fingers fall clumsily on her shoulder. She pushes the improvisation forward.

Do you actually think you can raise a Black child? What if it wanted to talk to you about racism or something?

His hand tenses. He’s getting worse at improvising too.

I don’t know. I could try.

We’ve been dating for 3 years and you’ve never tried!

What do you mean I never tried? I love you.

Clyde realizes he can’t raise a Black child real or fake.  Their conversation shifts to candles.

I put out all these candles and flowers, I thought you would be normal.

 

This is a fascinating and horrifying study. One white boy’s fantasy. HNIT is burning slow, slow, slow.

 

This is nice, sweetheart. I’m just not ready.

She pauses then say. Can we still be together?

I don’t know. I think I need some time.

The improvisation is over. HNIT wraps herself around him. When her head smashes against his chest she thinks. He could be an Andrew Jackson impersonator.

 

The next part of their pre-scene ritual is that they get really sad and don’t look at each other and make themselves cry. When Julia is about to fake orgasm, HNIT squeezes out a tear and breathes hard so that Clyde knows she is crying. She always knows he is crying because he is always actually crying.

 

Julia orgasms. Clyde walks on stage, shutting everyone up with his sad, sad face. HNIT begins to act.

 

It’s not the sort of thing—sweetheart—it’s not the sort of thing you expect. Or look out for. Or think about. Ever. We never talked about it! Ever.

 

Quiz

1. What is HNIT’s biggest mistake?

a.      Slapping Clyde

b.      Challenging Clyde’s ability to raise a Black child

c.      Hugging Clyde

 

2. List one place where HNIT remembered her blackness. List one place where Clyde remembered his whiteness.

 

 

3. Now, list four ways HNIT attempted to stop Clyde’s remembering of his whiteness. List four tactics she could have used to forget her blackness.                                                                    

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Part Two: How to Engage With White Men

 

As a House Negro, you must be sexually appealing to white men. In this scene, I will direct you through an encounter with a desirable white man.

 

You see James arrive at the college bar. He graduated

college a year ago. He sits with a beer talking

to the bartender who knows that James’s name is James.

Open the door. It is a Monday night. Your eyes are wide.

You are worried someone will ask you for an ID. Your neck

smells nice and part of your stomach is bare. You are

delighted to see James. His blondness, his accent, his beer.

He asks you what you would like.

Say a Stellas. Watch the bar TV.

 There is a dinosaur movie on that is not Jurassic Park.

James and you make up words to go into the mouths

of the dinosaurs and skinny white people who handle them. Laugh

At whatever he says. You see James finish

his second beer. finish yours too. You

Are about to walk back to his. He will tell you

that your like a girl in the movies.

 You will feel like The Young Girls of Rochefort

and do a tap dance you remember from childhood

lessons. Don’t see

this as a part of a wider problem. Ignore

the women in your bones pulling you towards your own bed.

Don’t feel them put your one hand firmly in the other.

Hold on to his. You look at the brown

leather bracelets arounds his wrists.

Walk up the stairs to his mother’s house.

Don’t stare at the African art on the wall. Don’t

ask him why he likes you.     

He tells you he’s never been with a black girl before. You want

to hate his bloody

blood. (This will hurt

more later.) You want to live. You want to untouch and untouch.

Twist your body

around his bedsheets. (You may want to close

Your laptop now. You may want six of Beyonce’s back up dancers

To help you home) Give James

 a meaty kiss.

 

Quiz

4. How can you ensure your relationship with James continues?

 

5. How can you help James become more comfortable with your blackness?

 

6. What parts of you are desirable?

 

 

Part Three: How To Party

 

One of the many benefits of being a House Negro at Columbia University is that you get to go to the most exclusive parties on campus. You may exist among the richest of the rich! The whitest of the white!

 

But don’t get too excited yet. You must stay on your toes at these events, for they can make or break your house negro status. If you do well at parties, then you may indulge in a life of white validation. If you don’t, then you’re left with alone. No social life. No status. No affirmation from the blacks or whites.

 

Be. Careful.

 

Watch as this poor House Negro breaks. Underline sections where she is on the right track. Highlight sections where she cracks.

 

11 PM

 

You are in a wood lined, buzz filled room. Settle under a moose head. Wonder what the society boys did with the insides. Maybe rich people eat moose brains for breakfast and don’t tell anyone, maybe the neck fat is hidden somewhere in the house. Try and find it. What a fun game.

 

Hey, um. What are you doing?

Sorry! Just looking for a bathroom. I’m House Negro (HN).

 

He is white, blonde, and greasy. He’s got a posh accent but is not so proud of his wealth. He really likes that you’re Black. He wants you to tell a witty joke about racism so he can laugh along. He may want to kiss you.

 

It’s downstairs. I’m Samuel. What are you thinking about studying, House Negro?

Oh probably English.

 

You’re actually studying both English and Africana Studies. But Samuel might prefer you to study English with perhaps an emphasis in Race and Ethnic studies. Can’t be too down. (Rich white boys keep you around because being attracted to you means they’re not as racist as they thought. You keep them around because some rudimentary part of your being longs to be a skinny white girl.)

 

What about you?

Cool. Theatre. Or archeology. I can’t decide.

 

He’s getting bored of the conversation. Look at the moose.

 

Wouldn’t it be hard to scoop out all the moose’s brains and neck fat without damaging the structure of the face? Do they still keep bones in it or something?

What? Oh, hahahaha. I think they fill it with cotton.

 

12:45 AM

 

You know, the last time I came here I cried all night.

Samuel’s huge eyes get huger.

What? Why! I can’t imagine you crying.

Black women don’t emote, do they Samuel?

Ha ha. Who was it?

Nothing. it was just a really bad night.

Give me a name. I’ll kill him. Give me a name         I’ll actually kill him.

 

You are flattered by the chivalry, so you don’t explain what really happened. It wasn’t a him, you weren’t assaulted. No one yelled the n-word in your face. But he thinks so. It feels validating. You wish what happened was whatever made this careless boy care.

 

It it something they said or just how they acted?

Uh…

 

What really happened was you were alone.  You were the only black girl at the party
                   you still thought you looked nice                   and you wanted someone  to look at you
                        or something               when too many drunk and white bodies shoved you
             you fell over      searched for an open fist        there wasn’t one                                 it’s the scariest halloween party you’ve ever been to             by the end of the night      you became
the ghost   in
the  sexy cat costume             

 

A few months before, you saw a black woman fall on the train tracks. There wasn’t a train coming or anything, no one died.  But when she was on the tracks, she reached out her hands  no one would grab them        maybe      they wouldn’t touch her because she smelt          dirty or drunk  or maybe she looked too    black to survive another day                                   the train came three minutes later      it took you one           and a half minutes           to get her up   

 

Come on, House Negro. What did the guy say?

 

Give your head an ambiguous shake. Let him care. (Who could Samuel kill to avenge our living deaths? if you had three minutes                     left to spare           the music would          just     get       louder)

 

 

 

 

1:50 AM

 

Samuel watches you dance. He says to his friend.

 

She’s a good dancer isn’t she.

Yeah she’s good.

 

They keep talking about you as if you’re not there. You’ve always wondered how these types of people speak when no one like you is around. The moose’s eyes meet yours. You and him are buddies. Both of you life-like decorations.    Listen back into their conversation. They called you funny and weird. They like your boots. They flail their lanky limbs. They bump into grateful shoulders.             Follow the moose’s eyes        Take a few slow steps away from your white friends       towards your big hairy one     what a welcoming face           what round eyes          keep walking            where are you going house negro      

 

don’t answer                           greet the moose          

 

            hello moose                 hello house negro        you begin conversing about the night,  how he came to be in this house with you.  ah, well.            its’ been years and years     you’re the first person to have a real conversation with me     he tells you.      that’s a shame!  You’re quite the charmer.

 

I have an inclination that the people here don’t value my opinion.  

                                                                                                I feel the same.

 

Tell me if this is too personal, but I’ve been dying to know.                         what is inside you?                 Oh, well since you asked.       Maggots                                     mostly. Maggots and empty space.

    The moose says sadly.

 

Taxidermy is a disgusting subject. I’m afraid that’s as much as I'll tell you about that.

 

That’s incredible.                    You say. Unsure of the appropriate response.

The moose performs the equivalence of a shrug with his neck.       

 

Are you lonely.                       No.      But I haven’t moved in a while.         I used to move all day.

 

                        I can move you.         

 

Would they get mad?             

 

                                                                  I’m not sure if they see me.         

 

Find a chair to stand on, the moose is high above you. Pull the moose off the wall.

 

Some people cheer. A tall man tells you  not.   cool. you’re going to have to pay for that  Stop it.             

 

Block out their voices, the moose is almost free.      

 

Hey! Hey! We’re getting security.  You hear footsteps and heavy voices behind you. The moose.   is     free.

 

Maggots spill and spill.          You are quiet.

 

 

Samuel grabs your arms.  The moose falls

 

The maggots keep       spilling

  

                                                                        Who the fuck invited you here?



You return home. it’s a

                           long walk  back                       by

 

 

 

2:17 AM

 your  air mattress greets you  hello

broke fan says hello    

sweaters in the corner

stained and not to be washed say   hi.

You lay down on your sheetless mattress.     how many times have you said you’re getting old for this Samuel shit     and you still can’t get a follow back

     and your hands      still empty              except this laptop                   chocolate milk black tank tops 

 

 

 

10 AM

 

You wake up feeling dirty.

 

 (because

            maybe more women will fall on the tracks     the blueberries in Michigan will stop growing          your dog won’t remember you when you  come back from school

            you’ll see your mom cry         the old bones inside the moose head will shatter)

 

But soon, you won’t.

 

(until then       do the breathing exercises you found online or

Remember when Samuel’s knee touched yours         in a dark corner of the scary house

How he may kill someone      for you)

                                                           

 

 

 

 

Answer Key

1. B

2. Guilt is too simple a word for what a girl like me in a world like this feels

3.

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4. Do you remember what happened this morning?

5. I overcompensate for the part of myself that I hate

6.         When I want to walk home

            with a little frown

            My toes a little cold

            My head a little down

 

            I go to the bank

            And cash in my check

            Then walk to the store

            Where weather is kept

 

            I’d like some rain please

            Is there any today?

            Yes, Ms. Futterman

            Whatever you say.

 

            She walks to the back

            Looks through the selection

            Not sunny, not windy, not

            Close to perfection

 

            Ah, here’s some rain

            And a purple grey sky

            Is this what you wanted?

            I’ll take it! I cry.

 

            I open the package

            And smile with delight

            As dark chatty clouds

            Block out the sunlight

 

            The rain starts to fall

            And my face does too

            What a wonderful day

            To be in a sad mood

 

You’ve got to go home

You’ve got to go home


Asha Futterman is a writer from Chicago and student at Barnard College. She is also an investigative researcher at the Invisible Institute. This is the first time she's published a story!