The Other Girlfriend  
The Other Side of the River (Alex Kotlowitz)

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  They called themselves wiggers.

Their classmates called them nigger lovers.

Around the time Eric died, there was a group of St. Joseph High School girls, a loose-knit collection of friends, who in their adolescent rebelliousness dated only black guys. It was a source of great pride to them and of great shame to their friends and parents. One girl told me that her parents grounded her for six weeks when they learned she had hitched a ride home from the Pebblewood dance club with some blacks. A black teen, after dropping off his white date, was followed into Benton Harbor by the girl's uncle and told to keep away.

"Once the white girls dated black guys, the white guys wanted to have nothing to do with them," says one St. Joseph teenage boy who attended the Club. "That's one thing not accepted around here. I've seen fights break out over that." Says another, "The Bible says your own kind should stay with your own kind."

These same boys saw Benton Harbor as a challenge, and on Friday or Saturday nights would drive across the river and play a version of the game of chicken. Their car packed, they'd slowly motor past the high school to the corner of Empire and Broadway, a bustling spot where teens hang out by Roy's Party Store and the Rib Shack. A block from where Marv Fiedler killed Norris Maben, this notorious intersection is the site of fistfights, knifings, and shootings. An elderly woman who lives in a neighboring house has seen three killings: one in front, one in back, and one on the side of her home. These white teens, perspiring and chattering nervously, would lean out their windows and holler, "Hey, nigger," or "Booty lips," and then, just as heads turned, would squeal their tires and squeal in triumph as they headed for the bridge. One woman, now in her thirties, told me that her male St. Joseph High School classmates would not only taunt the black residents but would throw bricks, getting scores for hitting either cars or people. The kicker for this game called "brick" was that if you missed your target, you had to retrieve the brick.

The daring white girls incurred the wrath of the daring white boys not only for dating boys from across the river, but also for imitating their ways. They dressed in the hip-hop fashion made popular by MC Hammer and other rap artists, wearing blue jeans big enough for two, the crotch down to their knees. They hung braided gold necklaces around their necks and styled their hair with finger waves or braids. A few guys, too, fashioned themselves after their counterparts in Benton Harbor, dressing "wiggerish," wearing the same sagging jeans.

"The whites tried to be cool with us, but we stuck to ourselves," recalls Mark Miller, a friend of Eric's. "There were a lot of stereotypes, you know, mimicking our speech," says David Jones. "Real high-pitched greetings. There was this one dude who'd try to act black. He'd say things like 'I'm hanging out with my homies.'" A few white teens even identified themselves with one of the Benton Harbor gangs, and one small band was caught carrying out hold-ups with a BB gun. At St. Joseph High School, the wiggers greet each other in the hallways with a high-five or a twitch of the head. "Hey, nigger, whas up?" they'd inquire. "Man, jus chillin'."

Reeves laughingly called them wannabes.

The Club and Pebblewood were the only places where black and white teens socialized, though a few met while working at the St. Joseph Burger King. But it was a group of Benton Harbor boys who loved to dance that made the white girls swoon. The group included Eric. They called themselves the Untouchables, and attended the Club on Friday and Saturday nights, often dressed in matching outfits: silk pants that billowed between the tight fit at the waist and at the ankles, black and polka-dot silk shirts, polished patent leather shoes ("tux shoes," the girls called them), and haircuts styled in a fade. Under the Club's strobe lights, the four or five boys would run through their routines, their legs and arms splaying about in sync with the accompanying rap. They admired themselves in the full-length mirrors. The girls admired them from the edge of the dance floor.

"We'd just sit there and drool," recalls Colleen Milnikel. "They'd tell us they danced with MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. We didn't believe them, but we wanted to." Why the lure of black guys? "I respect black people," says Colleen, now in her early twenties. She sits on a picnic table by her house with her current boyfriend, a truck driver who is black. "White people, you know, they try to put on a front for everybody. Black people, everybody's family. You walk down the street and they say, 'Whas up, bro? Whas up, cous?...All my friends don't look at me as white. They consider I'm black... I don't know what it is. In high school the white guys wouldn't give us the time of day. This is how I see it: black guys, one thing about them, a lot of them will use people but they don't let their girlfriends walk over them. They don't take no shit from no one. You can get a white guy, and girls can treat them like crap. Look, it's this way. My white friends who date white guys, they could talk to them like they want, disrespect them. But you see black men with women, they don't let their women disrespect them or cheat on them. My mom thinks the reason I go with people who disrespect me, the man who raised me was an alcoholic and he verbally abused me, so she thinks I'm attracted to men like him. I've had some boyfriends who treat me real rudely, but I've had some who treat me real nice... Oh, I just think they're sexy. Their voice, their body, the way they dance. It might be a phase I'm going through That's what I often think. My aunt has a theory, though, that in my past life I must have been Harriet Tubman or Aunt Jemima."

Donnie Allen, who briefly dated Colleen, says, "I was surprised that all those white girls wanted to date black guys, I think 'cause of the dancing. We came clean all the time. We'd tear up the floor. I think they liked it. White girls were different from the black girls. The black girls were so bossy. 'Oh, you can't do this or can't do that.' Not the white girls."

But to hear Colleen and her peers talk, interracial dating was, for at least a while, simply a fad, made more acceptable when it became publicly known that one of the more popular girls in the school, a pretty, pony-tailed blonde, was seeing a black. "All of a sudden one .year everyone had to date a black guy," recalls Jennifer Bowerfind. "Suddenly rap music got popular. The girls our age didn't see anything wrong with it."

One of these girls was Lisa Liedke. Her yearbook photo for that year shows a slim eleventh-grader with shoulder-length light brown hair teased into a cascade of curls. Her silver-dollar-size glasses and buttoned-at-the-neck blouse made her look prissy, like a budding librarian. Unlike the other students on the yearbook page, all of whom seem genuinely happy, a few caught in midlaughter, Lisa looks subdued, her smile almost forced. She was, by most accounts, not a happy kid. According to the book's index, that is the only picture of Lisa; she did not have a senior portrait in the next year's yearbook.

During her junior year Lisa began to change. Still softspoken and sweet-natured, she cut her hair short and first dyed it auburn (though it looked more rust-colored or orange), and then jet black, a color she quickly adopted. Black fingernails. Black jeans and shirts. Black shoes. She also, like some of the others, began talking jive and using idioms like "I be . . ." all in an effort to sound black. "If she was just with me, she wouldn't talk like that," says Bowerfind, who had been a friend of Lisa's since fifth grade. "But if she was around other people, she would. She did it for attention. She just wanted to pretend she was someone else. A while later she acted like she was a punk. Lisa needed attention from somewhere... She always had to do things to impress people. If I went to buy new pants, she'd go out and buy new pants and a new shirt. She always had to outdo you. I don't think she felt very good about herself... I never thought of her as wild, but she did things to get attention."

She got attention from Eric. The two dated for maybe a month or two -- the length of time is unclear -- shortly after he broke up with Larina, though their relationship, like that of many teens, was ambiguous and hardly emotionally intimate. Friends say the two met at the Club, where they could always be found dancing together, Lisa often smothering Eric's face and neck with kisses. "That's all Eric did was talk about Lisa," says Donnie Allen, one of the Untouchables. "He'd say, 'I don't know what I'm going to do with this girl, she's too wild.' They were kicking it in the bathroom. People'd be walking by. They were becoming really obsessed with each other." Apparently, Lisa and Eric saw each other only at the Club, though they regularly talked by phone. And when Eric called her house and her parents answered, Lisa later told Reeves, "He'd change his voice so he'd sound white."

Why did Eric date white girls? I posed the question to a number of his friends. "'Cause he liked it," one told me with a slight roll of his shoulder, as if to say, "Man, why are you asking such a silly question?" But a number of girls I spoke with had clearly given it some thought. They suggested that Eric was not all that popular among the girls at Benton Harbor High School. Not that he wasn't well liked. It was hard not to like him. Always joking. Always playing. Always clowning. But he lacked self-confidence. "He couldn't get any play at the high school, so I knew he had to go somewhere," says Gia Graves. "I asked him why did he date white girls," recalls Leona Gonzales, who knew Eric from church. "And he said, 'Girls are girls,' and that was the end of the conversation. You had to know Eric in order to like him. He wasn't real mature. He wasn't one of these guys all the girls wanted. He was fun to be around, but he could be annoying at times. Maybe white girls liked him better."

His self-doubt ultimately got him into trouble with Lisa. She found out that he boasted to friends about their bathroom exploits. Lisa met another boy, a white boy, and stopped seeing Eric shortly before his death. She told Reeves, "People were telling me that he was telling people stuff that we did, and it upset me so I just told him to leave me alone...I was kind of mad. I told him what they were saying, and he said that he wasn't saying nothing. He goes, 'You can believe them or you can believe me,' and I said, 'Bye.' That's the last time I saw him."

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Excerpted from The Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz. Copyright © 1998 by Alex Kotlowitz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.