Cam and Jason explained, in separate instances, how they got their White-boy cornrows. Older brother Jason, always high on some shit, a salesman of ill-gotten goods, peeking in the window, hopping the gate, made me nervous. His first cornrows were styled in the mid-’90s by Trisha, the Goose Creek varsity point guard’s girlfriend. My nigga was the definition of skittish, and he conceived two jumpy kids, never looked after them. I liked strong blunts, mind you, so I understood my habit funded his, but even his eighths of sour diesel were a cheat. He needed more money than retailers usually did, because his opiate addiction required it. Anything I bought from Jason included his Klonopin and Suboxone markup.
Younger brother Cam, also known as Juicebox, hadn’t tried to scam me out of $20 every time he could, which made him the most my nigga of all the bizarro White boys I met in The Ville. The “steely blue” or “ocean blue” eyes grocery store writers are so fond of describing, Cam had. He was redneck everything else, wiry strong, constantly scanning for women, often fixing on one trait.
I was beginning to understand the mythology of niggas in the South, and it leaked in directions and through cracks I hadn’t known.
“Yo, look at the sexy mom over there pushing the cart,” he would urge at Walmart. “I’d grab me some of them long nipples,” and then pantomime twiddling them with his thumb and pointer. Nasty shit, but worth a laugh.
When we first met, my nigga Cam told me that he had caught two felony charges by 22 and his third at 23 — a mere year before we were standing there, on his porch, smoking a loosie. I can’t front: It spooked me. This sweet kid who called our weed cigarettes “blunt-ski-doodles,” drove drunk against traffic, and shoplifted replacement jackets from the same store he bought the first one from was a thrice-convicted felon.
The kid who would nudge me and grin when he saw his pop’s plumber’s crack crown over the jeans horizon while tweaking the White ’98 Corvette in their driveway. Who would plead with me to join $3 Beer Night as his wingman so he could holler at the same $10 whores stationed there every Tuesday. And if we didn’t have Mr. Hamilton’s prestige in pocket, a clean mattress and a 24-pack of Miller Genuine would do just fine for their company.
To Cam, everyone from Sangaree to Monck’s Corner was a nigga. Maybe later in conversations he’d mention the race of the nigga he was talking about.
He barreled in one November afternoon, the same afternoon I realized might be too scared to intercede every twinkling “nigga” out of his mouth. “Drewmyniggawhatup,” he bellowed. “You gotta see these pictures, dog.”
I thought I would have to stand there nodding while he scrolled through an old phone for some sweetheart’s compromising photo. Instead, it was one of him a few years back, sitting aground between a Black girl’s legs, one half of his hair puffed out and blossoming, the other in plaited ropes. This White nigga had legit fried his scalp into a perm that he was braiding to look like my nappy hair.
Beyond being astounded, I felt weirdly flattered that he would go to these lengths to try to be Black. I was beginning to understand the mythology of niggas in the South, and it leaked in directions and through cracks I hadn’t known.
For real, I need to explain how I met these White niggas, how I’d left Brooklyn for South Carolina because I had no money and no job and my friends would not, could not, house me anymore. How a former co-worker had agreed to let me look after her dad’s first house while it was being renovated; she’d told me I could squat there until the roof was done and the stove delivered.
I need to explain how I met these White niggas not because their Whiteness was important to our forming friendships, or that their earning the title “my niggas” was that special. I have plenty of friends with White skin who are not my niggas. Lord knows, a lot of my niggas also exist in the abstract: niggas-I-fuck-wit, niggas-in-the-struggle, niggas-out-here, niggas-making-babies-and-dealing-drugs. But no, these were White niggas in the same way that when I spoke to bourgeois party guests I was “articulate.” Less of a nigger, and more exceptional, distinguished, bred, domesticated.
With Juicebox and Jason, there was no more master’s house, no breeding fear, no anxious genetic theories. We just guffawed and said “nigga” and listened to Top 40 rap music and made sex jokes. We were living nigger lives, though — them more than me — unable to hold steady employment, overdosing on pills in the driveway with the Firebird still running. They wouldn’t fit in elsewhere with me, talking about the spiritual implications of Iverson’s “practice” speech, or rummaging for the gentry’s leftover books at the Henry Hudson Hilltop Café in the West Bronx. That didn’t factor in the pussy-money-weed equation.
At first, I was angry at myself for “allowing” them to use a word that I’d heard no one should advance, to keep with good taste and to reset propriety. Then I realized I was more pissed that they had amused me with their wordplay and rapped with me so capably. Who were the niggas, then? It felt like the machines had taken over; I was seeing niggas pop up inside of White people, doing the jive gestures, body rolling and carrying on. It was like seeing myself in the future but knowing I was no longer alive.
Driving to Best Buy one summer afternoon in South Carolina in Juicebox’s rusty GMC pickup, I watched the expansive four-lane from the passenger side while he rattled on, cigarette flapping on his lip, about his local conquests.
“Goddamn, when we was over here still popping off an ass of loud, like not the lil’ bullshit these boys have now… whoooo. I’m talking fuckin’ pounds of the shit, bruh.”
This is common. Young poor men in America have been selling prohibited substances since potatoes rotted in Virginia. Juicebox and his brother, Jason, who also lived across the street, were once pot moguls in Summerville (population 30,000), where police have a low-level workload. Juicebox and Jason were destined for career failure as bootleggers and traffickers. The police had a better team, and the wild-ass White boys in Summerville only cared about one thing consistently: getting stupid high.
“And the stupid shit about all of it,” he went on, “is niggas keep snitching. I told them niggas, off dick, that we could have all what we wanted an’ not have to worry ’bout no cops. But you can’t tell niggas shit anyway, you know.”
Here was Juicebox, telling me a story I’d heard and even written for myself at one time: young, dealing drugs for pocket money, still unsettled. Here I was watching him mouth the word “nigga” in every way I’d used it before: jokingly, endearingly, harshly, calmly. It snapped off his tongue and stung me a few times. It danced with my anxiety about being a young Black writer in a truck with a young White boy in a state carved from Confederate nostalgia.
It compelled me to study him and to read his moves more intently so I could tell his story in a way that honored the pain I felt in him telling it and me hearing it.
I was and I am from a city of strangers. I rode the train with night-school nurse’s assistants and white-knuckled court clerks, earbuds dangling on their collars. Dominican kids, starved for any attention, cursed loudly, danced, and defiled public space, and everyone tried not to notice how funny this was. Maple-bark Black women wrapped in a thousand soiled coats dithered anonymous complaints, fumbling with orange bottles and cardboard comforters. No one was even able to give a shit. I thought this existence urbane, but that was a euphemism for three-quarters dead.
Once I moved south, my remaining connection to friends from Brooklyn lingered in a loose string of texts and emails, through which I’d tell these stories about the kids I met. I’d craft messages to Melissa, interpreting the South Carolina slang, because she’s from the North and didn’t know that “bo” was the handle of choice for my White niggas. “Wyd bo” made up about 70% of my texts. Or I’d tell her over the phone, peering up at the half-mirror in the flophouse I’d inherited, that I was experimenting with inflections for “nigga” that I’d long left on the shelf. The word is infinitely versatile, and I had let my Yankee politeness consume all the fun of saying it.
There was the incredulous “Nigga!” As in, “Nigga! We sent you to the store for ’gars two hours ago. You ain’t come back with shit?”
This from Juicebox, who would say this to Jet, always forgetful and delicately boyish for 19. Jet would retort, using the combative form: “Nigga, just who the fuck are you talkin’ to? Calm down. I bought a ass of Bud Lights last night and ain’t seen a dime from you in a week. You think cigarillos fall out the fuckin’ sky?”
Their language was a small part of how they performed newness. They called themselves nigga way more than they’d dare call me that, because their insularity imprisoned and comforted them, and their companionship softened the pain of being voiceless with vulgarities and pills. Juicebox was losing his brother to addiction, for example, and I know I was one of the few people with whom he talked about that slow, sickening fall.
Society had told us each in a million small ways, respectively, that I was fit for scorn and that Juicebox and Jason deserved protection from diseases like addiction. But really, society didn’t give a shit about any of us. It just kept moving whether or not we were sick or dying.
Talk about a heartbreak: Cam was near tears explaining to me the shame and pity he held for his pill-addict brother. “I’m tired of the bullshit, man,” he said. “He steals everybody’s shit. And motherfuckers start to see me like I’m him! I’m not him!”
This as we hunched over Jason’s safe, about to wrench it open with a rusty hacksaw.
He’d stolen my phone one night at the hillbillies’ impromptu backyard campfire — caught me slipping when I went to buy an air mattress in case I might have the chance to break my sexless streak with an exhibitionist 23-year-old I’d met online. Cam drove me out to the superstore while Jason swiped my favorite toy. If that heist wasn’t some low-down ignorant opiate-addict nigga shit, then I don’t know what.
Somehow, the karma of us stealing his remaining stash would pay back, in part, the cost of my stolen phone. Cam would call his ex Kristen’s gay best friend, who was also addicted to pills, and resell him the 30-pack of Klonopin strips at $8 per, making all profit. Two hundred would go to me for a new phone. The other 40 went to blunts, weed, and probably some all-purpose spray for the grimy wooden counters in the kitchen.
The light-brown hairs on Cam’s neck stood up. His cable arms bashed away at the cheap safe lock, and I could swear his hat was only turned forward this once to hide blue-eyed tears. Had his daddy hauled those sheets of plastic and metal rods at AGFA Polymers for this betrayal to unfold in front of me, a Flatbush, Brooklyn, nigger? A Kingston Jamaican Haile Selassie Live It Every Time reggae dancehall boop-boop-buss-a-shot nigger?
I was shaking. Not only did I not like committing crime — what category was this? Larceny? Misdemeanor? — but I also feared Cam would realize I was a stranger. So I just stood there in my beatdown Dunks, crossing my arms back and forth, pacing around the stucco scrap piles in the garage. A few times, I slipped out the back door to peek over the fence across the way, reassure myself that his dad was not coming home, or that he had grown tired of pulling addict son and indigent son apart, and that… it was my problem now.
Before his third felony conviction, Cam got robbed in a case of mistaken identity. As in, the boys who came to turn over his trailer, where he was housing two women who helped him move packs, they had the wrong lot and the wrong drug-dealer White niggas. The assailants were looking for Garfield, a tatted-up fat White nigga on the far side of the trailer lot, down Branch Road. He also had two women staying with him and was also moving steady packs. After smoking a synthetic marijuana called Spice in a bong, Cam had passed out on his couch. The blood-blind beatdown in his detached home awakened him to nigger nightmares from sound White sleep. The clip end of an MK-47 slapped at his face until he could only taste the sour, salty gurgle of his mouth opening all the way up from hurt.
Just as he felt the wooziness brimming, they let up. “Oh shit!” they exclaimed, and ran off to their cars, but Cam couldn’t see because of the blood blurring his view.
“Just WAIT! WAIT! I’ma find you niggas!” Retelling the story now, hopping up from the recliner, he laughed that part. “And when I do, it’s ON!”
“That’s when I started looking for signs of them niggas,” he said. “The one dude, Chucky, who was fucking the Arby’s assistant manager girl, I used to check for his plate, off in the lot, and then track that nigga home.”
I didn’t want more details on how he caught the third felony charge. The allusion to kidnapping and extortion was enough. If I wanted to stay alive, I couldn’t keep hanging around Cam, or any of these White niggas.
So, instead of falling in love with the idea of our harmony, I left them behind.
I returned to New York in 2014 and resumed what I can’t help but think of as a lucky life. The written word feeds me, and I’m grateful for that. I think about Cam and Jason a lot. I wonder whether they’re listening to the new 2Chainz. I wonder if Cam kept steady work, whether Jason got clean for his two babies.
I haven’t spoken either of them since; I darted out of there too fast to tie up loose ends, and I’m afraid to try. I know we don’t have much in common, that they might feel hurt I vanished without explaining. I know we were all niggas together, in a time and place, but I also know I can’t be that now. Whatever happens—with them, with me—I want to believe that the niggas we were supposed to be escaped, and became men.