Practical Magic

The first time a White woman called the police on me was when I threatened to kill her 14-year-old daughter. I made the threat only after the girl first threatened to kill me. After all, if you kill me, aren’t I within my rights to turn around and kill you? When the police showed up at my door, I threatened to kill him, too, as he was being quite nasty to me for no apparent reason. He asked me if I wanted to go to jail.  I knew he was bluffing. Who’s ever heard of taking a seven-year-old to jail? “You’ll never catch me!” I said dismissively. “I run faster than everyone on this block,” which was true. Then my mother, who was looking at me in a way that I’ll never forget, drew her hand back to slap me. Her reaction stunned me for two reasons: one, even as mouthy as I was – and believe me, I had an abundance of unchecked flippancy – my mother had never struck me; and two, she knew full well that the neighbors were the ones who were terrorizing me and not the other way around.

Why was she now taking the policeman’s side? Why not tell him about all the things they and their parents had done to me, the threats they’d made good on? What I was too young and innocent to nuance from my mother’s behavior was this: She was willing to hurt me if it meant getting this policeman off our porch because as bad as the neighbors were, the police could make things infinitely worse. Besides, how could she explain to me that the police were there for the White neighbors, no matter what evils they’d done, and not for us, the White mother and her “little mongrel.”

There was always the threat of the police. If I stepped on their grass, they threatened to call the police. If I stared too long in their direction, they threatened to call the police. If I played my records too loudly, they threatened to call the police. Yet they were guilty of all of these things and much more, but my mother knew she could not call the police. The police was their resource, not ours.

Then one day as I sat on the front steps, the group of neighborhood girls who terrorized me at the behest of their parents approached my yard, which usually meant they were plotting an assault. “Can we come in?” They asked.


“We want to be friends.”

“You’re lying! You want to throw rocks at me.”

They showed me their hands. No rocks. They crept up the sidewalk and stopped in front of me. They apologized for their brutality and then helped themselves to a seat next to me on the steps. We sat in the prickly silence of this new reality until one of them said, “Hey, you guys wanna go play in my yard?” And everyone said yes, including me.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Silly girl, you’re walking into an ambush.” But guess what… you’re wrong. From that day, those girls and I became inseparable even though the bad blood among our parents was not so easily assuaged, and a year later when my mother and I moved away, we children thought we would drop dead from grief. How could we possibly live without each other? One of the girls and I had good intentions to become blood sisters so that we would always be connected, but we were both too chickenshit to prick our fingers. Nonetheless, we promised to keep in touch. That was nearly 50 years ago. I never saw those girls again.

I often wonder what kind of magic took place that caused them to change so suddenly while their parents still seemed to hate me. Did one of them see through the camouflage and say to the others, “This isn’t right, we have to stop!”? Children possess that kind of magic, you know, but their practical magic is often dismissed as naïveté. You can’t just start loving people and treating them kindly. It’s more complicated than that, an adult would say, but imagine what this country would be like if adults had practical magic instead of their seemingly endless supply of hate and bloodlust.

Why am I telling you this layered story? The reasons are yours to divine.