“CAPTAIN . . . ZIMBABWE!” was what “A” spontaneously yelled out loud to me one day in Doris Mann’s art class. It was late in the school year that was seventh grade, sometime in the middle of May ’82. I didn’t know where A got the idea for his new nickname for me. All I can remember was that I was wearing the same white shirt I’d worn on the first day of school, only that after about fifteen washes it probably wasn’t as white anymore. Of course I had my white kufi on. I’m sure it needed some washing. I probably needed a haircut, and being the tweener I was, I didn’t exactly wash, clean, grease up and comb out my knotty roots the way I needed to. My best guess was that A took a look at me in class and decided I looked like some primitive African attempting to wear Western-style clothing for the first time, as if I were in some Tarzan film or some other movie with Whites on safari.
It pissed me off to no end that A would say such a thing. What made it worse was that the “Captain Zimbabwe” moniker stuck in the minds of several of my other 7S classmates. A.N., A.Z., A.C., and others from the “Italian Club” picked up on A’s cue and took turns calling me “Captain Zimbabwe” for the rest of the year. I protested as much as I could. I said that they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly didn’t like being called it. Among other classmates, my eventual crush #2 and even crush #1 protested on my behalf. But to no avail. Even if they didn’t call me “Captain Zimbabwe” in homeroom or in English or in art class, we all had Italian together, and there weren’t any other non-Italian classmates around who’d step in on my behalf. So for the last month of the year, I’d occasionally have to hear this weird chant of “Captain Zimbabwe” from the Italian Club in Italian class. It was probably the closest, wittiest term they could come up with without calling me a nigger.
What struck me as odd during this latest episode of “Making Fun of Donald” was that it was contained to a specific group of boys in Italian class and that it didn’t spill over into all of 7S. I never understood “Captain Zimbabwe” as anything other than a racial slur. Something that A and company thought that they could get away with because it wasn’t obviously racist, at least to them. They assumed that others in 7S would have their back. Once they realized that other classmates weren’t all that cool with calling me “Captain Zimbabwe,” they were smart enough to just do it in Italian before our teacher—who was usually late—showed up.
Besides the looks of meanness and glee that appeared on A’s and others faces during these rounds of calling out “Captain Zimbabwe,” something else struck me as weird. Of all the folks in our class, I was surprised that A.Z. was involved in this. Not that A.Z. wouldn’t have participated. But given the fact that he was part Black as well as part Italian, it would’ve made sense for him to have sat this one out. That he didn’t was interesting only in understanding how much more he identified more as Italian in Italian class versus how he may have seen himself outside of Italian. He certainly didn’t identify himself as similar to me. I was too weird, too different to be considered “Black” by him. He let me know as much on any number of occasions. That ability to establish different parts of his identity in different settings may have justified A.Z.’s participation in the “Captain Zimbabwe” teases, but I saw it as a betrayal anyway.
A was by far the leader and the most interesting contradiction-of-a-person in what I called the “Italian Club” even before we had an Italian Club in high school. His was a world of cool, at least an updated ’80s Italian version of it. He acted like he was a twelve-year-old John Travolta with blond hair and blue eyes. Or like a younger version of “The Fonz,” Arthur Fonzerelli as played by Henry Winkler on Happy Days, still a hit TV show on ABC by the time we started seventh grade. The way the A.N., A.Z., A.C., J.S. and D.M. spent time with him, you would’ve thought so. The way some of the Italian girls would seem to swoon over him and laugh at his constant banter in class, you would’ve thought A was a future rock star, Billy Idol or something.
But A wasn’t cool, at least not to the rest of us, and certainly not to me. He was a smart ass who didn’t know when to stop making light of folks and their faults. Like the times he’d just go after Brandie Weston about being fat. I don’t remember his multitude of comments, just the fact that he made them. It wasn’t that Brandie didn’t respond. But how often would anyone want to get into a war of words with A, especially since the more you said the more excited he was about saying something even more outrageous or offensive in response? After a few months, I learned to just lodge my own protests but otherwise ignore him. It wasn’t worth the time and effort to yell, complain, plead and threaten A when he went into his Rodney Dangerfield mode. To be a good class comedian, it’s as important to know when to stop as it is to deliver a good joke.
Only A never knew when to stop. A couldn’t just stop with touching a nerve by joking about any fault he noticed about you. Your identity was often a topic to poke fun at, especially if you seemed uncomfortable with it or if you were more than a little different. It wasn’t just me that A went after. The Jewish students got to hear A’s rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” where he’d sing “Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah-nah-nah-nah, Nah-nah-nah-nah, Hey Jew. . . .” One girl in my eighth grade homeroom was a “monkey” and a “baboon,” two references to her West Indian heritage and her au naturale. Although he never said it to the biracial (or at least, allegedly so) in our classes directly, the terms “mixed” and “mutt” were ones that he’d use if they peeved him in any way. It was usually meant for only A.N. to hear, though.
A must’ve fallen in love with the Eddie Murphy film 48 Hours, because every chance he got he sang The Police’s “Roxanne” refrain the same annoying way Eddie Murphy did in the film. I can still remember his “Roooooxxxxanne” yelp as A walked into class on many a morning. A also loved to belt out Devo’s “Whip It” as a subliminal message to some of our Italian female classmates on occasion. In eighth grade, A and A.N. came up with the brilliant “kufis-on-the-half-shell” joke to make fun of my multi-holed hat.
A wasn’t all bad. Whenever students outside of Humanities picked on me and he was around, he came to my defense. There was an incident in eighth grade in which a Black kid snatched my kufi from my head and started to run up the hall with it. The incident occurred as me, A, and D.M. were in the middle of an errand for a teacher. I immediately ran the boy down, knocked him to the floor, dusted off my kufi, and put it back on my head. The boy got up and threatened to beat me up. It was at this point that A intervened, saying that he would “have to take on all of us” if he wanted to fight me.
It could be that by then that A had matured. But that wouldn’t be the whole truth. I think that despite all of his search-and-destroy efforts that A never got over the fact that there were other students—Jewish, Black, Afro-Caribbean, affluent White, Latino, Biracial and female—whom were at least as smart and as witty as he was. Not only wasn’t he the smartest kid in class, he wasn’t the coolest either, certainly not outside his cloistered Italian Club.
A didn’t seem comfortable with the reality of an academically-gifted multicultural classroom until we were in tenth grade. By then, for so many of us, A was an academic afterthought, someone who could be a pain in the ass, but otherwise was somewhat harmless, like a gnat in the summertime heat. I learned to like A only because I saw him more and more as a class clown that likely had larger issues at home than any one of us would ever want to know. I could see it because I could look at my life at 616 and see how little anyone really knew about me as well.
Why didn’t folks come to each other’s defense when A was on the prowl? My best guess was that it was the fear of competition, of giving anyone in Humanities an added advantage. It was a fear, a worry, an anguish that was with most of us every day regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or level of affluence. Perhaps A and his lot could get away with their brand of verbal harassment because the alternative meant sticking your neck out for someone whom you might prefer not to be in competition with in the future. If you were weak enough to knuckle under because A called you a “monkey” or a “brainiac” for a month, then you didn’t deserve to be in Humanities. A program where the ultimate show of strength was your grades. Not to mention your ability to negotiate the social terrain of the in-crowd, the folks from Grimes and Pennington who’d been taking courses together since at least second or fourth grade. If you failed in one, you had a chance to redeem yourself with the other. If you failed at both, you’d likely either drop out of Humanities or fade into the background.
I interviewed A for Boy At The Window in March ’07. Sometimes it’s amazing how much a person can change in two decades. This wasn’t the same person I met in 7S or by the time we graduated high school in ’87. He seemed more humble, more truthful, more accepting of people not like him than the person who spent a month calling me “Captain Zimbabwe” so long ago.
So I asked him about the Captain Zimbabwe taunt and where that came from. “I never called you that!,” A said, likely realizing that he actually did. He’d borrowed the title from one of his older neighborhood friends. That friend had called a mutual friend of theirs “Captain Zimbabwe” because of his dark brown dot in the middle of his Italian forehead, “like the red dot Hindus have,” A explained. “That’s where Captain Zimbabwe came from.” His explanation made me chuckle. It was the first time I admitted to myself how goofy the bigoted joke was. How many kids even knew about Zimbabwe (known as Southern Rhodesia until ’80) when we were growing up, or know about the nation now? I think we both knew how racist the “Captain Zimbabwe” label was, but it still required some level of nerdy wit to coin the title in the first place.
A’s identity issue revolved around being cool, not cool and White or cool and Italian, just cool. That our other Italian classmates gravitated to A because of his coolness reflected as much their insecurities in Humanities as it did A’s. Because he was younger that most of the kids he grew up with in his Mount Vernon enclave near Davis, he was motivated to attract their attention, to be the best jokester and athlete he could be. “The only thing I could do get acceptance was to play baseball,” A said. He learned by seventh grade that “it wasn’t cool to be smart,” especially around Davis’ majority African American student body. Davis’ Black students were “different . . . they were older, bigger, bully types.” With all of us grouped together in Humanities, A thought that it was his obligation to fight the nerd tag. “Back then, of course I thought I was cool” and “a freakin’ know-it-all . . . when I met you in 7S, I knew I could push you around,” he said.
I’m in no way condoning A’s use of “Captain Zimbabwe” toward me, or any of his other Rush Limbaugh-like comments towards my other former classmates for that matter. I’m merely empathizing, if only to understand how different folks from different backgrounds approach a weird and nerdy multicultural environment. The irony is, A’s married to a Puerto Rican (or Nuyorican, I guess) woman and has two kids, and seems to be generally comfortable with other people now. Maybe Humanities contributed to that, maybe it didn’t. The important lesson here is that people can and do change, even if it takes years for them to do so. The “Captain Zimbabwe” episode made me tougher in school, and five years of Humanities may well have made A more sensitive to his own bigotry. Perhaps there’s hope for us all.