Part-Time Ronin, Full-Time Nigger by Jordan K. Thomas

In a city that’s almost entirely white, a black boy with an afro who no longer believes in God holds a Japanese sword in his hand as a white man fires off a flurry of shots.

Six of them—one in his back, one in his shoulder, two in his leg, one in his elbow, one in his hand—find their target in this black boy’s body. Three enter him before he begins to run while the other three come later, when he is fleeing with his back to the officers firing at him. When he has nothing left to give, he falls to the ground, his sword clatters against the pavement, and both he and the blade come to a rest in a Panda Express parking lot in Saratoga Springs, Utah. He is face up as he dies. He watches the blue sky, the scattered clouds wandering across the blue, and feels the cool air on his punctured black skin.

But in his ears, he can only hear the echo of the officer’s gun as he shoots, shoots, shoots.

*     *     *     *

I pause on a photo of Susan Hunt, Darrien Hunt’s mother, weary and red-faced with grief. On her right, a blonde woman is holding her arm. Susan’s right hand is clenched into a tight fist, the woman’s skirt bunched up in her hand. Kerahn, Susan’s still-living son, is on her left. He’s dressed the same way that Darrien was on the day of his murder—a red button-up shirt, a katana at his side, a fluffy and uneven afro—and I forget for a moment that Kerahn is not Darrien. For a second, I think that Darrien has somehow been brought back to life like a character in the animé he liked to watch or in the video games he liked to play, forgetting that he’s no longer a young black boy in Saratoga Springs, that he’s a dead black boy in the Utah dirt.

I click past other photos that friends of the Hunt family have posted to the Darrien Hunt Memorial page on Facebook, past the photos of mourners and protesters and their signs that read STOP KILLER COPS, past photographs of the Saratoga Springs officers that murdered him, past a picture of statements officers made in interviews after the shooting—In one: Schauerhamer has a lapel camera, but it is broken so he does not use it….Schauerhamer did not even think to record the incident in question and did not take any photos during or following the incident. In the other: Judson was issued personal audio and video recorder that is carried on his uniform pocket. He forgot to turn the personal audio/video recorder on—Then I come to a picture of Darrien’s dead body.

I engrave the image into my mind and file it away next to the photograph of Mike Brown’s body, the audio of Sandra Bland’s final words, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it video of Tamir Rice’s murder. I take in the photo until I can close my eyes and recreate from memory the body of this black boy, killed for being a black boy with a sheathed sword, for being a black boy dressed as an animé character, for being a black boy in a white city. I memorize the placement of the ECG electrodes on his body, the dried blood pooled around his nose, the red button-up shirt he’s wearing that makes it impossible to tell how bloodstained it is, the jeans that have fallen to his ankles, the Darth Vader boxers he had on underneath them. All that’s missing is the ornamental katana he was carrying, the dull blade that made two Saratoga Springs police officers fear for their lives enough to take his, to end the life of a black boy who was as much a nerd as I am.

*     *     *     *

I was ten when Dragon Ball Z first aired on Cartoon Network’s Toonami. Doreen, the Jamaican woman who taught me to read by the time I was eighteen months old, who made me feel like my black body was a blessing and not a curse, and who felt more like a mother to me than the woman who birthed me—so much so that I didn’t tell my mother I loved her until I was sixteen though I told Doreen I loved her every time I saw her—was not dead, not yet, though she would be a couple weeks after the show began. I remember that first episode with more clarity than any birthday, than my high school graduation: A blue-green streak enters the atmosphere, turns blood-red, and crashes into the earth, a ways away from a confused, frightened farmer. He goes to investigate, armed with a rifle, and finds what looks like an escape pod.  He watches as a well-muscled white man exits the escape pod. He has thick, spiky black hair the length of his entire body, and what looks like a tail wrapped around his waist. The visitor moves towards the farmer, threatens him, and the farmer fires his rifle but the visitor catches the bullet with ease. Then he flicks the bullet—much like how one might flick a cigarette—at the farmer, who is knocked backwards into his truck before collapsing to the ground.

DBZ was unlike any cartoon I had ever watched up to that point, so much so that even calling it a cartoon felt inadequate, inaccurate. This wasn’t Dexter’s Laboratory or The Simpsons where violence was inconsequential, a punchline, nothing more. Which is why I expected the farmer to get up, clutching his chest in pain but still alive. He didn’t, though. Instead, the episode continued on. The farmer was dead. And I was hooked. It wasn’t the violence that excited me, though I’m sure that was part of it. For me, it was more that they had created an entirely separate world, one that followed its own set of rules, its own systems of logic, one with enough substance that I could escape into. And, above all, they created a world that wasn’t white, that wasn’t western, that was divorced from the culture I was surrounded by. And after Doreen died, I hungered for any way to leave behind my reality and forget, if only for half an hour, the fact that I was just a helpless, sad, lonely, grieving black boy.

It wasn’t just Dragon Ball Z, either. My brother Stan’d bought Final Fantasy VII, a roleplaying game released by Squaresoft, around that same time. He wouldn’t let me play—though I would in secret after he fell asleep—but he’d let me watch. I was mesmerized, awestruck. It was one thing to watch an animé and to lose myself in the world they created. It was another thing entirely to control a character within another world, one filled with characters who had their own backstories, their own fears and desires. The game contained entire cities, distinct from one another, coherent in their design and detail, all underpinned by a (mostly) well-written central narrative with enough dialogue to constitute a book. The games I had played before, like Sonic the Hedgehog or Mortal Kombat, couldn’t even compare. It was as if I stepped into a book and became the protagonist. Or, put another way, it was as if I could become someone else, anyone else.

Both DBZ and FFVII came from Japan and it wasn’t long before I developed an intense obsession with the country and the parts of its culture that made the trip overseas. I wanted a full set of samurai armor. I wanted a katana. I wanted all the animé I could get my hands on. I bought books for learning the Japanese language, studied hiragana and katakana and kanji, read manga (Japanese comics, more or less). I stopped tracing and detailing Star Destroyers and X-Wings out of my book of Star Wars ships and instead began tracing and sketching characters that would’ve looked at home in an animé, in a video game. I was looking at porn at that point, too, but as my obsession with Japan deepened, I stopped hiding the Victoria’s Secret catalogues and I stopped looking at pictures of actual flesh-and-blood women, and jerked off instead to images of the animated characters I saw in my shows, in my video games.

I had no use for the real world. In reality, my father could beat me with a plank of wood and I would be helpless to stop him. But Gohan, the powerful son of Dragon Ball Z’s protagonist, could have stopped him. Cloud Strife, the main character in Final Fantasy VII, could have stopped him. That was the world I wanted to live in, one where power was more fluid, more attainable. I wanted to exist in a place in which I could level up and grow stronger, faster, more clever. I wanted to be able to power up, to focus my pain and my anger into a force of energy around me that would make me unstoppable.

But there was something that bothered me, a murmur of concern that only grew louder as I grew older until it crystallized into a single question: Where all the black folks at?

*     *     *     *

On September 4th, six days before Darrien was murdered, tens of thousands of nerds, geeks, and dorks converged on Salt Lake City for Salt Lake City Comic-Con 2014. The convention was held at the Salt Palace Convention Center (which I found fitting, since there sure as hell wouldn’t be a Pepper Palace in Salt Lake City, if you know what I mean), less than an hour away from Saratoga Springs. I wonder if Darrien was there, if he drove from UT-68 N to UT-154 S and onto I-15 N, if he took exit 306 onto 600 South, if he passed The Rabbit Hole—an art gallery with the name and appearance of a strip club—and the Guns, Gold, and Loans shop on the side of the road. I’ve tried to find out if he did in fact attend the convention. I asked convention organizers and officials, messaged his mother, looked through pictures of attendees for any black boy that looked like Darrien, someone tall and thin and black and so unlike everyone else around him, an errant speck of pepper in a salt shaker. But he was not in any of the photos, nor did I receive any response to the messages I sent.

Instead, I have to imagine: SLCCC2014 is months away and Darrien is on the fence on whether or not he’ll go, in large part because he doesn’t want to go unless he’s in costume but there are few black characters in the animé landscape for him to choose from. At best, they are constructed from the least offensive stereotypes. At worst, they’re like Mr. Popo, a servant in DBZ whose skin is jet black, whose lips are thick and cherry red, whose mouth contains a single tooth, and whose appearance resembles the pickaninny imagery from decades past.

And then it comes to him, an answer so obvious he’s surprised he didn’t think of it earlier.  He thinks back to 2005. Samurai Champloo is airing for the first time on Cartoon Network and Darrien, thirteen, is sitting in front of the TV, cross-legged and excited. The opening credits roll, his head starts to bob to the beat and Shing02’s voice comes in, smooth, lyrical, sounding so much like the music he bobs his head to when he’s wearing his headphones, when he’s walking through his neighborhood in Saratoga Springs and, amidst the hip-hop, Mugen appears. His skin is light but not white—that much is clear, there’s too much brown there. He’s in a red shirt, dark shorts that sag down, that stop between his knees and ankles. He is thin, gangly. His hair is wild, dark, fluffy. He fights with a mix of capoeira, breakdancing, and swordfighting. He stands in stark contrast to the other main characters, Jin, a much more traditional and white-looking samurai, and Fuu, an equally traditional, stereotypical, white-looking female animé character. This, Darrien thinks, is the first time he’s seen someone like him in the shows he likes to watch. This, Darrien thinks, is what he daydreams of being: a breakdancing, hip-hopping, badass samurai. And this is who Darrien chooses to become the week he’s killed.

*     *     *     *

In a city that’s almost entirely white, a black boy with an afro who no longer believes in God holds a Japanese sword in his hand as a white man fires off a flurry of shots.

Then he tells me to crouch and to hold the blade diagonally across my torso. He wants the steel blade to catch the sunlight. He wants the sword to shine bright against the grey button-up and black pants I’m wearing. He’s about to take more shots when a cloud drifts across the sky and in front of the sun, casting a shadow across the field he chose for the session. A soft breeze picks up the dead leaves around me and lifts them into the air with a raspy whisper. Then the sun reappears and bathes the clearing in light. The blade is glinting, dazzling. And the white man shoots, shoots, shoots.
 

Oreo. That’s what I was called, time and time again. Black on the outside, white on the inside. It wasn’t Standard Black Behavior to read fantasy novels and watch animé, to listen to Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails. I’d hear it in the hallways at my high school. Sometimes it was a whisper, an under-the-breath comment. Other times, it came as a shout, followed, always, by laughter. The white kids would say it to me but it was far more common for the insult to come out of a black mouth, my brother Stan’s included. When people weren’t calling me oreo, they went with faggot or fake-ass nigga. Or they’d call me Carlton, Urkel, or Theo, one of the trifecta of nerdy black TV characters in the 90s. Later, when one layer of white creme frosting wasn’t enough to describe just how non-black I was, they called me Double Stuf, which formed a nice full circle for them because, now, when they called me faggot, I was a double-stuffed faggot, a dick in my mouth, a dick in my ass. But it was safer to act white, to be an oreo, than to be anything else as far as my father and his rage was concerned. And I felt that the more I reached for whiteness, the safer I would be. I wouldn’t realize my mistake until it was too late, until after my self-hatred had taken root in my core.

All of my friends were white except for my Korean friend Steve. A white family adopted him when he was very young. I don’t know if he struggled with being Korean in the same that way I struggled with my blackness around white people and especially around black people. I’m sure he must have and that it was part of why we were so close. Sometimes, though, Steve would enter rages not unlike my brother’s for reasons I could never understand. He would hit me with bats, shoot darts at me from a blowgun, fire paintballs at me. 

I don’t know why I put up with it. I remember thinking that something was wrong with me. And I remember a thought crystallizing in my head that men were dangerous—based on my father, my brother, and Steve—and that men of color were particularly dangerous, even for me. Maybe especially for me. When white people would tell me they didn’t even see me as black, I’d say thank you. When they said I was the whitest black person they knew, I took it as a compliment. To be white was ideal but if being an oreo was the closest I could get, I’d take it. I still spent hours in front of the mirror practicing a new way to walk so my butt didn’t stick out so much but if being white meant being a nerd, then I’d be the nerdiest. I’d play my Japanese RPGs for days on end, I’d watch all the anime I could get my hands on, I’d jerk off to cartoon women, I’d wear my pants high and tight, I’d listen to Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead and Coldplay, I’d play Dungeons and Dragons, I’d hang out with the goth kids and the hacker kids, and I’d wield a Japanese sword in my senior pictures.

In the midst of writing this piece, I asked one of the few high school friends I still speak to if she had a copy of my senior pictures in which I’m holding the sword. I had destroyed all of my copies, though I can’t remember if I threw them away or if I burned them, if I held them, one by one, to the flame of one of the many scented candles I kept in the basement to turn them to ash and rid myself of the evidence of a nerdiness that embarrassed me, that I wanted to forget. Turns out she did.

I hadn’t seen the pictures in over a decade. My eyes were sad, my affect was flat, and I was transported back to when the pictures were taken. That was the year that my mother had an affair and the year my father hit her, though he’d had affairs of his own. That was the year that I was never home and the year my friends’ parents told me, often, that I always had a place to stay at their house. That was the year that I got drunk for the first time and walked three miles in below-freezing weather without shoes or a jacket.

I don’t know if that was the year that my father beat me with a 2x4 but I do know that it was the year that the anger between my brother and I reached a literal boiling point. Our father had pitted us against each other for years, celebrating my academic achievements while crushing my brother’s artistic inclinations. When my brother played hip-hop music in his room, my father would storm in, forcing his way through the locked door, to beat my brother and destroy his CDs. When he found a book on graffiti in my brother’s room, he ripped it up, and beat him for that too. He’d always taken the brunt of the beatings while my father took me on trips because I got an A, because I didn’t dress like a ‘hoodlum.’ And what my father inflicted on my brother, my brother inflicted on me. That was the year my brother poured boiling water on me. That was the year that I took my sword in both hands, its edge pointed upwards towards the ceiling, its tip pointed towards my brother, and told him, Don’t you ever touch me again. I’ll kill you if you touch me again.

I don’t know if Darrien and Kerahn fought like me and Stan, if Darrien ever locked Kerahn in a bathroom and cut the lights, leaving his little brother Kerahn alone in the dark with the centipedes and spiders and the other crawling insects that frightened him. I would like to think that he didn’t, that he never inflicted on Kerahn the kind of torment Stan put on me, because I would like to think that Darrien and I were kindred spirits, of a sort, separated, first, by a thousand miles of American landscape and, later, by death.

*     *     *     *

I imagine: Darrien and I are kicking it in his mom’s place. Kerahn’s out somewhere, or maybe he’s in the other room playing video games. I can hear the tap-tap-tap of his fingers on the PlayStation controller.

“He’s gettin his ass beat,” Darrien says to me. “He always starts mashin them buttons when he’s gettin his ass beat.”

“I’m not gettin my ass beat,” Kerahn shouts. But then I hear the loud thud of the controller hitting the wall as Kerahn talks to himself under his breath. “Fuck them niggas, they all cheat, fuck this game.” He storms out of his room, pouting, and we laugh.

Darrien and I, we’ve been watching Afro Samurai and The Boondocks all day, freezing on our favorite parts to rewind and rewatch. That day, we’re stuck on a scene in The Boondocks when Riley tells off a drug dealer with an English accent who’s threatening his life. We say the words with him: “Look, fuck you, fuck the plane you flew in on, fuck them shoes, fuck those socks with the belt on it,” and we pause here because neither of us care for the next line in his monologue and then we jump back in as Riley continues. “Fuck them cheap-ass cigars, fuck your yuck-mouth teeth, fuck your hairpiece, fuck your chocolate, fuck Guy Ritchie, fuck Prince William, fuck the Queen. This is America. My president is black and my Lambo is blue, nigga. Now, get the fuck out my hotel room and if I see you in the street, I'm slapping the shit out of you.” We’ve watched it ten, twelve times, and it’s still got us cracking up.

Darrien’s phone beeps, a text message. “Damn, it’s my moms, she been in on my ass this week.”

“Well, I mean, man you did burn all her Jesus pictures,” I tell him. “What’d you expect?”

“Nigga I was high!”

*     *     *     *

But I never met Darrien and never will. I wish we could have talked about the night a few weeks before his death when he rounded up all of his mom’s pictures of Jesus and burned them in the backyard while high on DMT. 

I’ve imagined this, as well: In church, as in the animé he watched, the games he played, he doesn’t see himself in any of the images, in the text. White faces look down on him from the stained glass windows. Jesus scrutinizes Darrien, holds him in judgment, from his crucifix. He’s tired of feeling unseen, of looking for blackness and belonging in white spaces, as he enters the house. Maybe he is tripping already. He is sad, angry, frustrated, as usual. He passes by one, two, three pictures of a white man that he’s supposed to believe in. But Michael Brown was shot dead and called a demon less than a month ago. And John Crawford III was shot dead less than a month ago too while holding a BB gun in a Wal-Mart. And a month before that, Eric Garner was choked to death for selling cigarettes. Maybe Darrien stops in front of one of these pictures and looks at the face of this man who he has tried to believe in for years but he can’t reconcile the similarity between the face of the man that’s supposed to be his Lord and Savior and the faces of the men killing black boys like him for being black boys living their lives. 

Maybe it’s in this moment that Darrien sees it all as a lie, that he remembers how the Mormon Church wouldn’t let black boys like him into the priesthood until 1978, and he decides that he’s tired of looking at this white face that doesn’t care about his black skin. He collects them while his mother tries to sleep and, though he tries to be quiet, his mother’s ear is trained—as mother’s ears often are—to hear even the slightest of her son’s movements. But she leaves him be. She leaves him be as he stacks the pictures in his arms, as he moves with purpose and fervor, until he has collected every picture in the house. He takes them to the fire pit in the backyard and, with a smile, he lights them on fire and turns Jesus’s white face into black ash.

*     *     *     *

I found out about Darrien’s incineration of his mother’s pictures from interviews and police reports. In the weeks after his murder, the Saratoga Springs Police Department engaged in American law enforcement’s standard operating procedures in response to shooting and killing a person of color. Which is to say, they began to dig. Even though there was nothing in Darrien’s post-mortem toxicology report, the officers told the media that Darrien smoked weed, experimented with DMT, and burned his mother’s pictures of Jesus. They needed him to be a troubled heathen thug so that their bullets were righteous, justified, necessary. As if there wasn’t enough proof that cops can shoot a black boy without reason and still be seen as righteous.

I wish that life was more like a video game, that all I had to do to bring Darrien back was to cast a spell or use a Phoenix Down and then he would be on his feet again, as if nothing ever happened.

Or I wish life were more like animé. That life happened in episodes that could be paused, rewound, rewatched, skipped. I could have skipped Doreen’s death. I could have fast forwarded through the beatings.

I can picture it: Bullets are all around me and Darrien. They fill the air. I hear sirens, shots, and nothing else. Darrien and I are crouched behind separate cars, twenty feet from each other. He looks at me, pulls his sword from its scabbard. I do the same. And then we rise up and charge.

We deflect their shots, sending some of them back at the squad cars or into the streetlights above them, showering them with sparks. Some of the bullets we simply cleave in half, the split casings falling to the ground with a clink. My arms have never moved this fast. I glance over at Darrien who’s moving through the gunfire with grace, spinning, flipping, breakdancing through the hail of bullets.

They are outmatched and they know it. As we near them, close enough to see their fear, they pile into their cars and race away. Darrien and I, panting, exhausted, we give each other the nod, the one black folks reserve for each other, and part, walking in opposite directions. The sun is setting behind us, turning us into black silhouettes against the sky, into black anybodies, into a black strength with no face, no name.

Instead, I spent most of my life wishing I was someone else, something else. I wonder if Darrien wished for that too.

I don’t know how it feels to be a black boy struggling with belief and belonging in the Mormon church. I don’t know what it’s like to be a biracial black boy trying to find his place in the world when the religion he’s been raised to believe has been and continues to be so discouraging of interracial relationships. But I do know what it’s like to be a black boy in a city that’s almost entirely white. I know what it’s like to be a black nerd who likes animé but never sees himself in it. I know what it’s like to be a black boy losing hope in the world. And I know what it’s like to be told that God has a plan, that prayer is the answer, that Jesus will save you, knowing those aren’t the answers to the questions you’re asking, knowing those answers aren’t going to help you, and feeling no one understands that.

I wonder how lonely he felt in the days before his death and if the world made him hate himself and his skin and his nose and his heart the way I used to hate mine. I wonder if he died with that hate.

*     *     *     *

Those swords are no longer in my possession. My mom took them away from me and sent them to my grandfather after I pulled one of them out and threatened to kill my brother if he tried to hurt me again. The blade trembled in my hand and tears were running down my face and I was screaming, I remember, and I meant it. We were in the kitchen, he was on the other side of the room, and I told him if he came near me I’d slash at his throat. The blades weren’t sharp but they could cut flesh, a fact I learned when Steve and I fought in his driveway, he with my katana while I used an aluminum broom handle like a quarterstaff, and walked away with a bunch of tiny cuts on my hands.

The swords sit in my grandfather’s basement with the rest of the Japanese and east Asian items he collected during World War II while serving in the Coast Guard.  I used to take a look at the blade when I’d visit him and my grandmother at their house in St. Louis. I’d unsheathe it and look at the nicks and chips on the blade from the fight with Steve. I wrap both of my hands around the cloth-wrapped leather pommel and feel its weight, admire its heft, and remember when I wanted to plunge all of that weight into my brother’s chest to feel strong, powerful. I wanted to cause pain.

*     *     *     *

I imagine: Darrien is walking, headphones in, listening to Spiritual State, the last studio album released by Nujabes, who also created the opening theme for Samurai Champloo. He’s coming off the high of Comic Con. Or he’s trying to forget how outcast he felt. In either case, the music puts him at ease, makes him feel like the black samurai he wants to be, the black Mugen. In one of the videos taken the day he was shot, you can see Darrien walking with a swagger, an ease of movement. It’s a walk I recognize—it’s the same one I worked to perfect in high school with the stomach pushed out, shoulders and back arched like a strung bow, with long strides and long swings of the arms. He’s relaxed, doesn’t pay any mind to the woman he sees exiting the convenience store with a bottle of water and two fountain drinks, one held between her arm and her chest. He just keeps walking, keeps nodding his head to the beat, until the cops roll up on him.

It starts to well up in him, the frustration, the anger. Maybe it’s that the high of Comic Con is shattered by his return to this reality where he cannot be a black Mugen, only a black man unwanted in a white world. Or maybe it’s the combination of feeling like an outcast at Comic Con and an outcast in Saratoga Springs and an outcast at home and he can’t hold it in anymore, he can’t keep that frustration under wraps. The anger boils over and he does what he’s tried not to do., he falls into the trap he’s tried to avoid, and, like me, he does what he’s been told men of color do and threatens to cause them pain. Or maybe not. Maybe he doesn’t take them seriously because he has a sword, because he’s playing around, because it’s Saratoga Springs, Utah, and he’s one of a hundred black folks in the entire town and he cracks a joke and they draw their gun and he does what any black man does when a cop grabs for a gun or a taser or a baton or a walkie or a phone and runs. The penalty for running is, of course, death.

You die if your hands are empty. You die if you’re black with a toy BB gun. You die if you’re black with a sword. You die if you’re black and you run. You die if you’re black and you don't. You die if you’re black and you talk back. You die if you’re black and you say ’Sir.’ You die if you’re black. You die, you die, you die.

*     *     *     *

Imagine with me, just once more: Darrien is dead and I am in Japan. I travel to the Ryukyu Islands, where the character of Mugen is from. There I take a moment to stand in silence amidst the incense, the trees, the running water, the chirps of songbirds, the caws of crows, before putting my headphones in and playing Nujabes. For just a moment, I become the black Mugen that Darrien wanted to be, that Darrien died being, and I say his name.


Contributor Notes

Jordan K. Thomas is a black prose writer in Minneapolis whose essays have appeared in The Toast, Entropy Magazine, and the Kenyon Review Online. He holds an MFA in Creative Nonfictin from the University of Minnesota and was a 2016 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He also received two summer research fellowships from the University of Minnesota in 2015 and 2016, and was a finalist for the 2015 Indiana Review Nonfiction Prize. Follow him on Twitter @JKTWrites