Afterwards, my mother said that my brother could have been someone else, maybe Michael Jordan. She said he was a much better role model, exemplifying all of the project’s requirements. He could have worn Jordan’s jersey—Chicago Bulls, # 95. She was sure he owned one. Jordan was everyone’s hero, especially Black boys. And my brother was a Black boy. But my brother’s teacher, who did not look like him, told him to portray O.J. Simpson instead, in the Eighth-Grade Wax Museum.
In eighth grade, the social studies annual project was called the Wax Museum. Students chose a person or persons from current events, and created a scene with a set, props, wardrobe, and a caption with a three-page summary. The sets, once finished, would be on display in the school cafeteria for parents and families to observe and vote on. Students spent weeks working on the project every year.
It was 1995, and there was a lot happening in America. There were space shuttles, computers, anthropologic discoveries, NAFTA, but there were also bombings, killings, and murders. These were eight-graders, though, thirteen and fourteen-year-olds, not adults, not the Nightly-News watchers, but children, who could barely stand long enough to be like wax.
My brother could have chosen to be Bill Gates. He always liked computers. We even had an IBM. He spent hours trying to take that computer apart and put it back together. Maybe Bill Gates was already taken? Maybe not. Windows 95 had just been released. That was a current event. But would he have to paint his skin, part his hair, change the inflection of his voice? Would it be too unbelievable?
It was all make-believe anyway. When we tell kids to make-believe do we want them to imagine, explore the possibilities, or do we really mean, be exactly who you are, what you are? Is that why we tell little Black boys that they must be little Black boys—that my brother could be Bill Cosby, but not Bill Gates? Maybe you should pick someone else, we say, who looks like you.
My brother could have said no. He could have gone home and told our mother that he felt uncomfortable portraying O.J.. Maybe he really knew who O.J. Simpson was, and what he stood for. Maybe the backlash with the news cameras would have been easily avoided. He could have spoken up for himself, the thirteen-year-old boy. He could have put his foot down and demanded fair treatment and equality.
O.J. Simpson had once been a quality role model. Over the course of his career he had won the Heisman Trophy, and was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player of the Year. He rushed for over two thousand yards and broke countless other records. He starred in films, and was on the cover of magazines. He was an obvious example of Black excellence for Black boys. But it was 1995, and O.J. was now on trial for murder.
The assignment required students to work in groups of three or four. After agreeing to portray O.J., my brother was joined by three other students, each as unsure about what to present as my brother was. The news outlets spent every minute covering the story. The trial was inescapable. It was good American television. But what did these kids really know? What did anyone really know? Everything was speculative. But everyone knew about the grisly crime itself—who was murdered, where they were murdered, how they were murdered—all the details. So, when my brother and his group met to discuss their showcase, they unanimously agreed to recreate the crime scene.
The Wax Museum was the chatter of the entire school. Eager sixth and seventh graders hypothesized who they would pick, what they would do, when they were in the eighth grade. The eighth graders, as excited as they were, tried to keep their projects secret. The students planned their projects in class but could only work on the sets and costumes at home. My brother and his group planned very little until the final days leading up to the showcase, maybe because they were reluctant, or lazy, or because they didn’t know how to recreate a murder scene. So, they had to be resourceful, while the other groups reportedly spent hundreds of dollars of their parents’ money at the local arts and craft store. Instead, his group made a list of clothing and props they could utilize from each other’s houses. The list read something like: suit, sheet, briefcase, shorts, sandals, tank top, gloves, and something to use for the blood.
* * *
When the big day finally came, the first showing was held during school. Students and teachers studied each exhibit, judging them according to category: Most Creative, Most Realistic, Most Wax-like, Best Set Design, and Best Costumes. For the audience, there were rules: no touching the exhibits, no touching the students, no talking or making faces; rather to be quiet and walk in a line. The students from the different grade levels channeled in, snaking in long lines, their awes all sounding the same. As the teachers viewed the exhibits they stared silently, judging and evaluating, marking things down on paper. The students who were presenting stood stoic, behind stanchions, next to their projects, each one trying their best to be wax-like—gritted teeth, squinting eyes, muscles tensed—some standing, some sitting, each of them holding their breath, posing, hoping to win. There was a group dressed in puffy sweatpants and sweatshirts with hand-written logos that said NASA. (Rumor was they used five entire boxes of aluminum foil to make their costumes.) Another group brought in a desktop computer and sat around it, pointing with pencils and pretending to script notes on memo pads. They wore glasses, pocket-protectors, and hung a handmade poster-sized Microsoft logo. On a makeshift football field, four boys, two in San Francisco 49ers jerseys, the other two representing the San Diego Chargers, created a pile-up for an iconic touchdown. Other groups were scattered along the perimeter of the cafeteria, all reenacting something important, something museum-like.
In the middle of the room was my brother’s group. A boy in a brown suit stood, carrying a suitcase and a pair of leather gloves while walking away from two other boys lying on the floor, their bodies concealed under a bloody bed sheet. A little further back, another boy stood watching the scene from a distance. The caption read, O.J. Simpson murders ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her boyfriend Ron Goldman, leaving behind one suspected witness, O.J.’s houseguest, Kato Kaelin.
If anyone was appalled, it wasn’t noted at the principal’s office. Instead, my brother’s group received praise for the depiction—for its graphic but faithful rendition of the crime scene. Teachers voted anonymously. Rumor was that his group had racked up plenty of votes to win Most Realistic. But winners wouldn’t be announced until the next day, because after the Wax Museum was staged in school for students and teachers during the day, the student’s families returned for a second showing later that night. Students came back to school at 5:30 to set up for the second showing, and at 6:30 the show would begin.
When my brother got home after the first show, he knew he finally had to tell our mother. He knew that his mistake was not just in portraying O.J. Simpson, but not telling our mother he was portraying O.J. Simpson. All he said was something like, I’m playing a football player Mom, and I need a brown suit.
My brother waited until that night to tell her the truth. He waited, maybe because he was shy or scared, or because he knew she would not have allowed him otherwise. She would have said no from day one. She would have been furious that he hadn’t stood up for himself. She would have been ashamed, called the school, embarrassed him. Then, he wouldn’t have a group to work with. He would have let his friends down and they wouldn’t want to be his friends anymore. Everyone at school would know. So, when my brother finally told her that he was going to be O.J. Simpson, she responded just how he expected her to. She also contacted Action News, our local news station.
* * *
He begged her not to go back. He said he’d just take the failing grade. Mom please, he said, with puddling eyes. But her mind was made up. She, my brother, and the Action News channel would meet at the school, where she would confront his teacher and principal. She dragged him by the arm, and they got in the car and drove to the school, where the white news van was waiting. Families arrived, chatting eagerly, while my mother and my brother and the people from Action News trotted and high-stepped into the school with fire on their feet. My mother muttered lots of things under her breath, about her son, and how dare they, and they won’t get away with this, and when she finally got to the door of the school, she stopped, took one deep breath, as if to compose herself and turned to face the camera.