'Growing Up King,' By Dexter King

Bernice was lying with lips chapped, eyelids closed, then fluttering. She was pleased to be Sleeping Beauty. Usually her role was Yoki's handmaiden, subject to taunting. Yoki was a stern taskmaster, particularly for Bunny. We often teased Bernice, saying she'd been left on our doorstep by mistake, or was adopted. Now I was in Yoki's sights, subject to her derision, but it wasn't enough to make me kiss a girl, particularly my little sister, for no good reason at all.

"Why do you want me?" I whined.

"Why?" Yoki repeated. "Why do you always ask why? Because I said so, that's why. Because that's the way the play goes. You're supposed to kiss Sleeping Beauty; that will break the spell cast by an evil witch and everyone will live happily ever after. Don't you want to live happily ever afterward, you stupid boy? Don't you know anything?"

"But she isn't Sleeping Beauty. She's Bunny."

"Not right now. She's Sleeping Beauty right now," Yoki countered.

"Well . . . why can't Martin kiss her? Why does it have to be me?"

Yoki's voice dripped with venom. "Because I said so."

". . . But it don't make no sense," I whispered.

"Don't make any sense," Martin said. He was trying to get back to playing. If we were lucky, once Dad got home he might take us over to the Ollie Street Y. If we were really lucky, Uncle Ralph and Aunt Jean's children would go with us too. But we had to get past Yoki first.

"Go on, get it over with," Martin whispered, smiling at Yoki when she looked daggers at him. So I leaned over and kissed Bernice. On the cheek. I still feel her tiny cheekbone rise beneath my lips. "Don't smile too quick, Bunny," Yoki chided. "Let the kiss take effect."

Martin and I made our escape into the alley and whatever devilment we were up to. As we ran, the scent of honeysuckle mixed with the occasional open garbage can to sweeten and make pungent the late summer air; gravel secured our feet to the red clay; we raced by kudzu-choked fences in varying states of repair.

Yoki didn't bother calling after us. The play was given the following evening at home for our parents and a few of our aunts and uncles; so it was, and always has been. But even long after we grew up, we kept doing plays under her direction, the last time when she turned forty. She wanted to do what she loved, what was in her blood, and to make Daddy proud of her. We all wanted that.

I was born worried. I was born anxious. I was born on January 30, 1961, in the Hughes-Spaulding Hospital, a private hospital for "Negroes" in Atlanta. My father was in Chicago at the time, but rushed home as soon as he got the word. "Negroes" was then the term for Americans of discernible African descent. What to call us, what to do with us — these questions were not for children but rather for their parents who wanted the best for them one day. "Negro" households in Atlanta not on public assistance utilized that one hospital, Hughes-Spaulding.

Atlanta has always held a special spot. At one time it was called Terminus; railways began and ended here and ran throughout the South, so it's always had a pivotal position. But it was basically a big old landlocked town, and still is. It's also a cliquish, insular town, and it can be hard for outsiders coming in. It can be difficult for insiders who don't conform.

Atlanta remains a difficult town to crack the code on.

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