“Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the grave.”
Seven-year-old Alicia Washe, dressed in an all-black uniform, hair tied back into a fierce bun, gazed out of her principal’s office window into the smog-filled street. She was seated with her parents in a meeting with the headmistress, a woman with salt and pepper braided hair.
“This is a video taken of Alicia during Show and Tell two days ago,” said the principal. “As you can see this is very concerning behaviour.”
“Why would you say such terrible things, Alicia?” said her mum.
Alicia shrugged, and then wiped an eye with her fist.
“I’m sure it’s a one off,” said her dad, “clearly she’s harmless. Maybe it’s something she’s seen online; we’ll adjust the safety settings.”
“Fine,” said the principal, “but these words are toxic, they won’t be tolerated in this school.”
At dinner Mrs Washe served chicken drum sticks and a romaine salad drenched in vinaigrette. “You indulge her too much,” she told her husband.
He said, “I actually think what she said was quite brave. Although, I grant you, pretty strange.”
“That’s stating the bloody obvious.”
“Let’s not get into this now, ok?” Alicia’s dad said, dabbing his mouth with a kitchen towel.
But Mrs Washe laid into her husband anyway – his drinking, and extramarital affairs. He raged about her addiction to pills.
Alicia stabbed a piece of lettuce with her fork and watched as the fight reached a crescendo. Finally, she stood on her chair and yelled, “We’re not Americans, we’re Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – that rock landed on us.”
Alicia sat back down, looking serene, then dipped a piece of warm pitta bread into some hummus and continued eating.
Her parents were stunned, mouths hanging wide open.
Her dad said, “Where did you learn that?”
“What does it matter?” said Mrs Washe. “She’s spouting nonsense again. Young lady, go to your room immediately.”
“No, wait, Alicia, say that again. It reminds me of something.”
Alicia shunted her empty plate from under her nose, and her knife toppled to the dining room floor.
“Go to bed,” her mum insisted.
That night Mr Washe repeated Alicia’s words over and over. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – that rock landed on us.”
He climbed into bed and watched as car headlights filtered through the curtains creating fleeting impressions on the wall. Finally, the memory he was searching for popped into his mind.
He rushed down to the living room and in a drawer of DVDs he found a case labelled, “Our Wedding”. As he slid the disc in the player, it whirred and juddered until a blurred image appeared of him and his wife, standing on a beachfront, exchanging vows before a priest. He scrolled back and forth with the remote until he found a Hollywood movie taped over his wedding ceremony.
“That’s it,” Alicia’s dad said, stunned, “of course. It’s Malcolm X.”
In Alicia’s room, her father stood at the foot of her bed, watching her eyelids flicker as she floated through a mysterious dreamworld.
He grabbed hold of her ankle, and with alarming vigour shook her awake. Bleary-eyed Alicia sat up straight, her pale face cast in darkness.
“What is it daddy?” Alicia said full of fear.
“You’ve been watching this, the film Malcolm X,” her dad said lifting the DVD above his head and shaking it.
“Daddy, you’re hurting me.”
“Tell me why you’re quoting him?”
Alicia pulled herself free of her dad’s grasp and sat up straight in bed. She switched her side lamp on.
She said, “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”
“What is that? Is that another quote? You know you’re quoting an African American civil rights preacher from the sixties, right? I mean last thing I knew; you were a seven-year-old white girl.”
Just then Mr Washe received a text from Alicia’s principal.
In his bedroom Alicia’s dad took a seat on the padded wicker chair, beneath the framed Hopper print. He opened the WhatsApp text and played a video of Alicia in class standing on her desk speaking furiously, “Yes, I’m an extremist. The black race is in extremely bad condition. You show me a black man who isn’t an extremist and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric attention!” And then a cacophony of cheers from other classmates electrified the classroom.
A jaded voice cut through the darkness in the bedroom. “What’s going on?” said Mrs Washe.
Her husband replied, “More problems with Alicia. I’ve just got half a dozen more videos of her speaking at school. I think she’s going through some kind of mental breakdown.”
“I’m sure that’s my fault.”
“Well, these things are genetic, there’s no getting away from that.”
At that moment Alicia stepped out of the bright hallway and into the gloom of the bedroom.
She said, “I just wish someone would listen to me for once. I know I’m little but I see what’s going on, my friends listen to me, why won’t you?”
“Come here,” Mr Washe beckoned and Alicia pattered towards him, dragging her teddy in tow. “I’m older than you, of course, but that doesn’t mean I understand everything. But I will try and listen to whatever you have to say in the future, and mummy will too as well. Just guarantee me you’ll be yourself from now on, ok?”
Alicia hugged her dad, feeling his feathery breath on the nape of her neck. But she made no promises. Being heard was a thrilling experience.