In our new column One Word, writers expound on a single word.
I’ve worked a lot of jobs where I’ve dealt with boys. Lately, I’ve been teaching conjugation and sentence structure to junior high kids, swaths of whom are just flexing the boundaries of their boyhood. They ask a lot of questions.
One little dude, from Puerto Rico, wonders how many light bulbs there are in the building. One boy, another brown kid, asks me whether Houston will survive the inevitable floods brought about by global warming. And another boy, a little older, during an SAT excerpt featuring Anna Karenina, asks about the legality of queer marriage in Russia, before also asking whether I think he can hack into the building’s Wi-Fi, did I know that he can floss, do I listen to Gucci Mane, can I loan him some money for Fortnite.
They’re just boys. And that word—boy—is pretty interesting in itself: it embodies a phase of life and a physical state and a way of being. Boy is garçon. Boy is chico y niño. The distance between boy and man is elastic, and the word itself is just as flexible. Nearly every culture has some sort of ritual transition out of boyhood: bar mitzvahs for Jewish folks, cow jumping among the Hamar in Ethiopia, Seijin-no-Hi in Japan. A first gig. A first kiss. A first beer.
And the word’s weight adopts fluidity as it drifts from mouth to mouth: when my aunt calls me boy, in a sprawling patois, it’s not the same boy I’ve heard on fuck knows how many crowded street corners, at whatever ungodly hour. That boy comes after I’ve said something dumb or needlessly contentious or unspeakably obvious. Boy like, Really nigga? Boy like, Slow your roll. Boy like, Bruh; like, Fuck outta here; like, Your assertion is wildly improbable, but my acquiescence to your instigations are an integral part of our friendship’s contract.
Those are intimate boys. Boy as a pact. Boy as a secret. Shared by a boy among boys. Like, you’re my boy—comrade. Our grievances are shared. Our interests are linked. Our existence, in the supposedly liberal oasis of this bayou state, is fraught.
And then there’s the other boy I get. Not too often, but way too often. At the gas station, some rickety old fucker will let it come from his lips. Or a cop, once, after I’d blown a taillight in the Museum District. The first time I heard it, way back when, too young, it came from the mouth of some whiteboy, in a sandbox at school. We were both only boys, but it was the beginning of my realization that not all boys are alike.
How long your boyhood lasts varies wildly in this country. If you are even a little bit black or brown, then your segue from boy to man to monster is accelerated. The cis whiteboys here get to stay boys for a lifetime, extending those boy badges well through college, into the seats of professorships and CEO-dom and widespread governance, chalking mishaps and fuckups and pillages and murders to boyhood well into their thirties, forties, seventies, and afterlives.
The racist implications surrounding boy run deep—the roots of that word are more akin to servant, knave, and urchin than to our contemporary conception of what a preadolescent child is supposed to be. The very concept of childhood is recent—like, eighteenth century–ish. But in an entirely predictable linguistic twist of fate, while the aforementioned cis whiteboys are granted all the freedom of youthful error, it’s their brown and black neighbors who get the slight, the boy that comes with none of the innocence.
So: Boy as slur. Boy as cliché. Boy as nonfamilial brother who has your back.
And then there’s boy like the boys I’ve loved. Even the boy that comes out of a boyfriend’s mouth changes shape. There’s, Boy! (Your stamina is crippling and I am deeply out of shape!) And, Boy! (How are you so handsome! Your beauty is draining me!) And, Boy. (You are really fucking pissing me off but this is part of the deal.) And, Boy? (Aren’t we lucky to have found each other?)
And then those boys see their way out, only for me to end up with the boy I love the most, the boyfriend I eat banh mi with at all hours, cartwheeling across the whole of Harris County. And those other boys become just that—the other boys—the boys I talk about with my boy because he’s curious, because he wants to learn more about the contours of my life, about the boys who are absent until I hit them up for the details of some forgotten recipe, and their response is just the one word: boy.
The young boys I work with don’t give a shit about those boys. They ask about literally everything else, threatening to self-destruct when I take too long with an answer. One of them, a kid from Karachi, speeds through his reading comprehension in ten minutes before starting in with the questions: What is the largest number in the world? How many tigers are left on this planet? If we both took a boat from Galveston to China, who would make it there first if we raced? What about Taiwan? What about Hawaii? And I start to answer, Look kid, or, Who knows, or, Ugh, but the thing about boys—actual boys—is that they should be allowed to dream, at the very least, at least for a little while.
Bryan Washington lives in Houston. His first book, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead in March.