Kiana, my girlfriend was up in arms about black unity. Kiana had come from a family full of black pride and felt she had an obligation to speak truth to power.
The blunt had circled us twice and I was feeling it. The rooftop cookout in Brooklyn had dwindled to five: Kiana, Abbigail, Khalil, Jeremy and me. Normally, two couples and a single guy would be odd numbers. But Jeremy was the plug—he brought the weed.
We were playing Spades, a card game where the objective is to win at least the number of books that were bid before play of the hand. The cards had been dealt on the laminate folding table when my partner, Khalil said, “We’re going for a Blind Boston.” An all or nothing move. He didn’t like to lose anything, not since winning the Little League Championship in Latin Soul Baseball twenty years ago.
Abbigail, Kiana’s partner for the game, blew smoke out her nose. Her caramel face twisted at the audacity. It was the only expression she showed the whole game. No surprise that she was able to put her Howard Law degree to good use as a successful trial lawyer.
“You’re better off trying to unify black people,” Jeremy joked. He was the only one who hadn’t gone to a real college—Kingsborough Community, didn’t count.
Kiana had not counted her books yet and Abbigail needed to know to bid their hand. But when I passed the blunt to Kiana, she pressed Jeremy instead, “Your ignorance is showing.”
Jeremy didn’t know he’d triggered her. He couldn’t see her face lying beside us on the beach chair. At this point, there was still time to hit rewind. Working with high school students every day, I knew a thing or two about conflict resolution. “What y’all going for?” I said.
Kiana begrudgingly leaned over the table to pass Jeremy the blunt. Her hand-off was a no-look pass. The tip of the blunt was blackened by her lipstick which matched her nails.
“Isn’t it obvious,” Abbigail said, “We only need a board to win.”
Khalil sat up to take his back up off against the wall. He took his fraternity pen out of his pocket and wrote, “40 under GDIs and 500 under Que Dogs.” The score was currently 460 to 0.
But Jeremy didn’t let the comment go. He took his two pulls in a hurry this time. Passing the blunt to Khalil without being told. “I speak the truth,” Jeremy said while he blew smoke out his mouth, “show me black unity and I’ll show you a sports team.”
“This nigga is wildin’,” Khalil said. He threw down an ace of hearts. Abbigail and Kiana flicked down two low numbered hearts on the table and my three of clubs closed the book. Khalil looked at me with a grin that failed to hide his teeth.
Kiana shoved the cards my way without giving Khalil or me the chance to decide who would be the book collector. Next hand, Kiana threw out the little joker to cut Khalil’s king of hearts. But my big joker won the hand. What Abbigail threw out was irrelevant. It was what she said that had Kiana’s upper eyelids raised in a stare.
“Black people unifying is a Black-American problem,” Abbigail said. She saw herself as a first-generation Nigerian-American, her parents had sent her to Lagos every summer since she was twelve years old. “At my firm, a senior lawyer who’s a Ghanaian woman took me under her wing my first day. She’s been my second mother ever since.”
“But my frat bros are like that too,” Khalil said, not taking his focus off the game.
The queen of diamonds was my leadoff card. Khalil’s puzzled look resolved when Abbigail and Kiana’s diamond cards could not dethrone the Queen. But Khalil mistakenly passed the blunt to Kiana, who refused to remain silent.
“My 2nd great-grandfather was lynched for being black and successful,” she said while talking with her hands, “Imagine losing everything your family struggled for down south to head up north with nothing.”
“Wait, what happened?” Khalil said. He looked visibly shaken by Kiana’s story. It might have been the reason he threw out a spade to cut my king of diamonds. The book was still ours’ but he undermined our momentum. “I’m Bajan, but I don’t know my father, let alone my family’s history.”
“That’s why I get so freakin’ fed up with black people sometimes,” Kiana said, “We don’t connect the issues we faced yesterday to better understand tomorrow.” Kiana didn’t even breathe in deeply that pull instead she quickly passed the blunt to Khalil.
“This is the ongoing argument I’ve been having with Clayton,” she said, when she looked at me.
“Babe, let’s not bring us into this conversation,” I said, “don’t want you to harbor these feelings into the night.” Kiana had always been stubborn. Her fiery spirit is what made me fall for her. But I could do without her bullheadedness.
“He agrees with me that black people got work to do. You know buy black and be an advocate where you are. But then he refuses to step up to put the work in,” Kiana said.
Jeremy sat up in the beach chair looking to correct the situation. “Guys, I’m loving this conversation but the blunt just skipped me.”
The blunt was now the size of a roach, “You know that means it’s time to roll up again,” Khalil smirked.
“Only cause I’m loving the level we on,” Jeremy chuckled. He cracked a Dutch cigar from out of his pocket, poured out the tobacco in a plastic bag, split the cancer paper off and passed Khalil the weed to break up the buds on a fifty-dollar bill.
“I don’t deal with small nothing,” Khalil said.
“The game over?” I said.
Khalil and I had now won six books straight. But Khalil had led off with a spade that was left uncontested. Abbigail realized it was her turn and threw down a four of spades. She stared at me and said, “We gotta keep playing I want to know what y’all argue about.”
Kiana blew a kiss at me, “He told me the faculty at his school are all white with the exception of him and the Americorp volunteers. He’s been made the recruitment committee chair but refuses to bring up a proposal to push for diversity.”
Jeremy had finished licking the blunt and took a lighter to bond the weed and Dutch cigar tighter together. “That’s cool and all but what happened with your 2nd great-grandfather. That’s way more interesting than y’all argument,” Jeremy said.
Khalil put his fifty-dollar bill back in his pocket and passed me the book we won. “Not gonna lie that had me open like this kush got me high.”
Kiana was ushered by Abbigail’s hands to continue. “Clayton doesn’t realize it’s not about him,” Kiana said.
“How you talking about me and say it’s not about me,” I said, pissed that my issues had become a trial for Abbigail to relish over. “You’re talking about diversity at my job when this convo started over black unity.”
Kiana placed her hands on her hips. “Isn’t your school a predominately black high school?”
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“Aren’t the parents of these students’ black?” she continued.
“Yeah, but beyond bullying, half of them are barely involved in their children’s education,” I said.
“That’s not the point. What would happen if you brought up you wanted the faculty to be more representative of the student body to the parents. What. Would. Happen?” Kiana said.
“Maybe one or two them would bite and let the principal know about their concern,” I said.
“Exactly and that would bring a unified front to your cause,” Kiana said.
“I just don’t think they’re that motivated,” I said.
“And that’s the problem. You stop without trying,” Kiana said, while shaking her afro head.
Without feeding into Kiana anymore, I led off with a two diamonds, the highest spade left in play.
“That’s ten books,” Khalil shouted so loud his dog tag shook like a pendulum. He collected the book and passed the blunt to Abbigail.
Abbigail choked from the pull of the second blunt. “But I’m confused what does that have to do with your 2nd great-grandfather?” Abbigail said.
Kiana stared across at Abbigail. I’m not sure if she was upset that Khalil and I were three books away from a Blind Boston or pissed Abbigail couldn’t make up her mind which story she wanted to hear.
“My 2nd great-grandfather’s community failed him,” Kiana said, “When a local group of whites in Wilmington, North Carolina put pressure on the black community to close down the Wilmington Daily Record for denouncing that black men were raping white women. He was willing to sacrifice a house he was working to buy on his father’s stolen land to stop it. Only his wife backed him. The whole damn town knew it was the first step in voter retaliation to overthrow the local government in a coup d’état.
“That’s crazy!” Khalil interrupted.
“Wilmington Riots of 1898 happened a day later. Most of the people killed – the ones who didn’t stand with him – were thrown in the river and are still not accounted for to this day. My 2nd great-grandmother made it up north to D.C. with their only daughter and one suitcase. He was hung from a tree and stripped naked of what he accomplished.”
By this time the sun had left us for the allure of the moon. I passed Kiana the blunt in a way that acknowledged her struggle. She took a long pull and paused.
“Cool story, bro,” Jeremy said. His sensitivity was turned off. Maybe that’s why he was single.
Abbigail gazed at Khalil and said, “If you ever go through a loss like that I’ll be by your side, like Kiana’s 2nd great-grandma.”
Khalil had put his remaining two cards in his hand down. “You ever think about the exhaustion that comes with fighting all the time?” he said to Kiana just before he kissed Abbigail on the lips. “When I’d ask my mom to tell me about my Pops, she always says, ‘Just be glad you don’t look like ‘em, talk like ‘em and damn sure ain’t no deadbeat like ‘em.’ Just before I got to college I stopped asking her.”
“You can’t ever give up,” Kiana said, maybe more for herself than for Khalil, when she passed the blunt to Jeremy.
“It’s levels to this shit,” Jeremy said. He blew smoke out his mouth making three oval-shaped clouds of smoke.
“Abbigail throw out your card,” I said. It was the last book in the game. If my count of the cards was correct there were only two spades left. The seven of spades in my hand, and a lower number.
Abbigail looked at her card. She took a deep breath and said, “Do you guys just want to call it a tie. We don’t have to pick a winner and just could continue talking.”
“Hell no,” I said. The satisfaction of winning was too close.
“You sure?” Abbigail said, “This could be the first step in building unity across black cultures. Clayton, you Black-Americans can appreciate this sort of Affirmative Action.”
Kiana distracted me by playing footsie under the table—her hint to go home and cuddle. I end up placing my card out of turn. My seven of spades was followed by Kiana’s heart, and Khalil’s club – neither had spades left and Abbigail threw out an eight of spades.
“Boom,” Abbigail yelled then the blunt went out in my hand.
Khalil pragmatically said, “It’s just a game, nothing’s at stake.”
Kiana said, “What if this wasn’t just a game of spades. And y’all had the chance to make a decision that wasn’t in your best interest, but would’ve helped the group. Would you have still played the same way?”
“Wait and see. It’s not like the game is over. The score is -100 to 400. Let’s play a couple more rounds,” Khalil said.
“Would you have still played the same way?” Kiana repeated.
Kiana didn’t wait for the cards to be handed out after Khalil shuffled. She stood up I thought to go to the bathroom. But then she said, “It’s up to me.” She threw the blunt on top of some of the cards, and grabbed her purse on her way down the steps.
I didn’t think a game of spades was that serious. But to Kiana the game was the only time we had to get ourselves together. Any further discussion proved we were in an impasse.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review and is forthcoming in The Tishman Review. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com.