The First Time I Found Out I Was Black & Checking the White Box

April 5, 2011 | Michael Rhynes and Juliana Kliest-Mendez

This duet from  Inside/Out is a composite of “The first time I found out I was black” and “Checking the white box”. It was woven together from two individual pieces written by Michael and Juli, a student participant who worked with PPTG for eight months in 2011.

{Michael and Juli enter the stage}

J: I love my grandmother. She is the strongest woman I know. She supported the family when they left Cuba for Kentucky. She worked two jobs so that my great-grandmother could die at home instead of in a nursing home. I never thought she would surprise me.

M: I love Fire. We had a black pot bellied stove. I would stare through the grate of that stove for what seemed like hours. On day I wanted to see the flames dance. So I took some kerosene and threw it on the wood

{light a match}


{Screams, falling to the floor calling for mama}

J: Senior year. I am filling out college applications at the dinner table after a great meal of arroz con frijoles, picadijo, and platanitos fritos. My mother and grandmother are drinking wine and chatting as a dutifully fill out blanks and check boxes. Name, social security number, race…? Mami what do check?  

M: The day comes when I have to go back to school with my face all white from the burns.

My first day back at school:

Joey: Now you look like one of us.

J: “White.”
“What grandma?”
nosotros somos blancos. No vinimos a este país para ser differente, vienimos para prosperar
We are white.
“But we didn’t just eat white food. Abuela aren’t we Hispanic?”
It hurt being told I wasn’t allowed to feel Latina. I was White.

M: That’s why you swallowed a nickel Joey.

M: Until that moment I thought I was just a kid. I was taught children were children, wherever you found one, you played. It hurt being told I wasn’t a kid, I was black.