Prologue: Eyes of Hate PROLOGUE Eyes of Hate
All my attention was focused on his face. It’s what I remember most clearly more than two years after our encounter. That face that had raged red as soon as he saw me, and continued angry, indignant. His nostrils flared with his agitated breathing, which he unsuccessfully attempted to control. He responded quickly, hot, like a lit fuse, not letting anyone else talk. And then, suddenly, I heard it from his own lips, “We’re going to burn you out.”
We were in the middle of nowhere, in a remote area out in the countryside, and on a stranger’s property. Our cell phones couldn’t get a signal and the sun had begun to drop fast behind the towering trees surrounding us. Trees that seemed to remind us that it wouldn’t be easy to get out of that clearing if our hosts didn’t allow it. The smell of mosquito repellent on my arms fused with the whiskey and cigarettes on his breath as the conversation, at times, became more and more heated.
“Are you going to chase me out of here?” I asked, recalling the torches and the cross on the ground several feet from us.
“No, we’re going to burn you out,” he repeated, without hesitation, not blinking.
“You’re going to burn me out? How are you going to do it?” I said, cutting him off, somewhere between irate and terrified.
“It don’t matter, we killed six million Jews the last time,” he shot back, his gaze defiant as he registered his displeasure with each of my features.
My nose, my lips, my cheekbones, my hair. Although there are a thousand and one bloodlines running through my veins, everything in me screams “black,” and my African roots are undeniable.
There’s no doubt: I, Ilia Calderón Chamat, am black. Colombian, Latina, Hispanic, Afro-Colombian, mixed, and anything else people may want to call me or I choose to call myself, but I’m always black. I may bear Castilian Jewish and Syrian Arab last names, but I’m simply black in the eyes of the world. And he—my angry interlocutor in that remote and desolate place in North Carolina—was Chris Barker, the top leader of the Order of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Imperial Wizard of this new white supremacist branch that had proposed “to turn the United States into a white and Christian nation, founded on the word of God.”
“He’s not saying physically…” his wife said, trying to ease the tension.
“Yes, physically, we are,” he quickly corrected her, then returned his gaze and sharp words toward me. “You’re sitting in my property now.”
Sure enough, I was on his land, surrounded by his people, and engaged in an argument that had gone well past the point of no return. The sun had vanished completely. The night engulfed the space around us. The only lights came from our cameras, aimed at the man icily pronouncing each syllable to say they were “going to burn” me.
I was afraid, I won’t deny it. Afraid like I’ve never been before. Afraid my fate had been sealed. Afraid I wouldn’t see Anna, Gene, my family again. And afraid that so many questions I’d had for so long would remain unanswered.
I should just shut up, not ask him anything else so that his fury doesn’t escalate, I thought for a fraction of a second. Yes, the silence, stealth, mutism that makes us invisible… like we’ve done century after century to survive, a sure bet… Yes, just like I learned as a child, like we were taught at church and in school… to be quiet, to tiptoe… Or not. Maybe I shouldn’t shut up. My head spun at a dizzying speed. Maybe it’s better if I talk back, if I tell him he’s a monster, a madman, that he’s sick, that he’s wrong, and that no one threatens me like that. That I’m a human being like him and he has no right to talk to me in that way.
My mind shut down from so much emotion and confusion as I sat in front of hate personified, at the mercy of the very hate I’d always wanted to look in the eye with the hope of finding answers to the many questions I’d had since I was a child. Why do they reject us? Why does skin color define us? What is the source of such pure hatred? What binds us to other human beings and what is it that keeps us so separate, to the point of such scorn? And, the most pressing question: How had I come to be here, and how was I going to get out of this—remaining quiet, as always, or facing it head-on?
Silence has a price. And, even though I’d ignored it most of my life, silence—like hatred, love, fear, and courage—also has a color.