I had alopecia areata when I was 12. At the time, our family was living in Del City, Oklahoma. It was the late 1970s. My father was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base but we lived off-base, in the Del Rancho neighborhood. The affliction was pretty obscure back then, but now of course it has reached a state of global recognition with the slap heard round the world at this year’s Oscars.
I can remember feeling the smooth, bald spots on the left side of my head and in the back, the area black folks call the kitchen. I don’t remember being embarrassed or self conscious about it, I had a 2 or 3 inch afro at the time and so doubt if it was something that was noticeable by a lot of people, but of course I could be wrong and that small sign of infirmity could have intensified what I was experiencing at the time.
I was stressed. I was experiencing intense bullying in my neighborhood and at school on a number of fronts. Home wasn’t the happiest at the time, either. Being an integration kid, a black kid immersed in white environments from the youngest ages was a constant tour de force of alienation and othering, of exclusion and direct, hateful confrontation.
I used to sell a newspaper called Grit in my neighborhood. According to Wikipedia, “During the first three-quarters of the 20th century, Grit was sold across the country by children and teenagers, many recruited by ads in comic books from the 1940s to the 1970s.” I was one of those comic reading children. I had a pretty good route, about 30 to 50 people and I ranged out in this suburban Oklahoma neighborhood every weekend, going door to door selling to my white customers and breaking new ground to find others.
At one point, one of my tormentors, Mike Clark, who I’d gone to school with from 5th through 7th Grade — and who was racist as hell, as were many of my classmates — discovered my route and proceeded to make it his job to harass me. One day he and a couple of his friends, proceeded to chase me through the neighborhood home, screaming obscenities, ending with the worst of insults to my mother. My next door neighbor, a kid named Jeff McDaniels, whom I considered my best friend, asked me, his eyes gleaming with knowing, why Mike had just called my mother that name. Profoundly disappointed, I registered his disingenuous question and died inside just a little bit, in despair at what white supremacy — which I could not name then — had wrought in my life.