The Mute World (Politics & Society)

Way Black When: A Remembrance

As you may know, February is Black History Month. I’ve decided to devote my posts this month to telling stories about race and race relations in the U.S. from the perspective of millennials (that’s what people seem to like to call me and other people in my age group.) Last week’s post sparked an idea, and I’d just like to develop it more and see where it goes.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I remember the first day I realized that I was Black. I was six years old, and I was reading a children’s book about Dr. Martin Luther King. I don’t remember if I was in school or if it was a book that I was reading at home. I don’t remember the name of the book or the name of the author. I just remember getting to a part in the story where a young Dr. King is heartbroken after his childhood friend tells him that they can no longer play together because the friend is white and Dr. King is Black. (I have no idea whether this actually happened to Dr. King, but I remember this part of the story in that particular book.) The book described the confusion that Dr. King felt after being told this because he didn’t understand why the color of his skin should keep him from playing with his friend.

In that moment, I looked at my hand. It was closer to the color of the young Dr. King than it was to his white friend in the picture.

Initially, I was confused too. I knew my colors and I couldn’t help but notice that the shade of my skin did not match the color of my grandmother’s big leather Bible, the turf at recess, the crayon in my 64-box set, or any of the other things that I had come to identify as “black.”

“Black?” I thought. “Brown, definitely, but not Black.”

My distinction wasn’t coming from a place of self-hatred or disdain, as so many people have come to identify associations of shades of “blackness” and complexion. It was rooted in the innocence of childhood literalism and curiosity. That’s why it always amazes me when people say things like, “kids don’t see color.”

“What do you mean kids don’t see color?” I always think. “We teach kids colors! Most kids even have a favorite color.” The identification of colors is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. We teach kids to group, categorize, and label things all the time.

Kids may not instantaneously know the socio-political significance of race, but experiments like the 1947 doll study (replicated  in 2010 on CNN with the same results) show that many kids figure that out at an early age–even when they don’t realize what they’ve internalized or why. So, with that in mind, many people should actually be surprised that I was as old as six when I realized that I was Black.

This doesn’t mean that that was the first time I’d been told that I was Black, it just means that it was the first time that I realized it. It was the first time that I understood that, to some people, and often structurally in society, my “Blackness” was a bad thing.

I was raised in a very “Afrocentric” household. I had black dolls. I read children’s books by Jamaica Kincaid with little black girl protagonists. Names like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Wilma Rudolph, Garrett A. Morgan, and Charles Drew, with heroic stories of achievement to match, floated around constantly. I understood that people like me had done great things.

If anything, Dr. King’s childhood rejection didn’t comport with what I had been raised to believe about Blackness up until that point. I knew that Harriet Tubman had been a slave and I understood that that was a horrible thing (and even that many other people who looked like me had suffered the same fate). However, the emphasis of those stories had always been on the magnitude of our triumph in spite of this, and not on the struggle.

So, if anything, that realization while reading the book about Dr. King was more like an “oh-that’s-what-they-meant-by-Black” rather than an “oh- snap-I’m-Black? (as in, you mean I’m not white?)” moment. Even in the melting pot, which many people view as New York City, neighborhood class lines are often organized along racial lines. So, everyone in my neighborhood was Black. At the time, pretty much everyone I went to school with was Black too. So, Black wasn’t a revelation; it was my reality.

Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the presence of people of other races. My teachers, in particular, were all white. I subconsciously associated whiteness with authority. White people were my teachers, principals, police officers (except for the few Black ones my mother knew), doctors, politicians, and most people who reported the news. I didn’t quite understand why they tended to be in these positions and I didn’t necessarily think about why many of the Black people I knew weren’t. It was just the way it was. We were just different. I couldn’t understand the appeal of Friends (which, thanks to reruns, is actually now one of my favorite shows), but I loved Living Single. It was that simple.

Ironically, within the next several years, I quickly started to wonder about the reasons for the apparent discrepancy–not so much because of what I was being told, but because of things that were happening and what I was seeing. We all know that the world gets realer as you get older. Little by little, I began to lose my security blanket of childhood innocence, as if I had been wriggling too much in my sleep.

For me, one such incident that snatched at that blanket was the NYPD attack on Abner Louima. At seven years old, I had no idea what sodomy was, but I understood: black man, white cops, severe beating, Brooklyn. I saw the pictures, the protests, the news reports and could feel the anger of the adults around me.

A few years after that, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD. By that time, I was older and I still understood: black man, white cops, 41 shots (wow, that’s a lot), unarmed, “a wallet is not a gun,” and acquittal. And again I saw the rallies and the news reports, and again I could feel the anger of the people around me. Later on, the pattern, which by that time I had learned was not a new one, continued: Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, the list goes on…

Around the same time, but possibly before that, I got the universal “you’re-Black-so-you-have-to-be-twice-as-good” speech. I honestly don’t remember the reason for or the context of my being given that speech at the time because I had had the “twice as good” mentality for as long as I could remember, and it had nothing to do with my being Black. I was just ambitious. But the mentality became different when it was put in a historical context. Suddenly, I had the ancestors on my back and I could not let them down. Now I understand that they are actually the ones who carry me.

By the time I took my first ride from lower Manhattan all the way Uptown and watched as the neighborhoods gradually changed outside of my window, I was curious. I could no longer just accept things as just the way things were. I wanted to know why they were that way. I visited a school on the Upper East Side–not a college or a graduate school, just a school–that had a fireplace in the classroom and a spiraling staircase. I understood that I was still in New York City, but I felt that I was literally and figuratively a long way from home. I understood that very few of the people who went to this school looked like me and that if I wanted to come to this school, I would need to get a scholarship. And I started to understand that we lived in different worlds that were deeper than Friends v. Living Single.

A friend of mine who comes from a multi-racial family told me that growing up his “Black side” of the family would talk about numerous injustices committed against them by whites and that it was in stark contrast to the way his “white side” of the family was. He said that that dichotomy was a big help to him in terms of learning that one can’t fully be judged by the color of his skin. For me, it has never really been about judgment or skin color as much as it has been about access and self-determination.

Of course, now I understand that white does not necessarily equal rich and powerful, but I didn’t always understand that. I did understand that Black seemed to mean less likely to be rich and powerful and more likely to be poor, uneducated, criminalized, and even killed. It was a realization that didn’t fit in with the stories and feelings of pride and greatness that had been instilled in me. It still doesn’t. It hopefully never will.

But I also know that Black history, present, and future are all bigger and better than that. So, this month especially, as we used to say in my spoken word circles, I hope to “go in and get free,” to pay homage to those stories by telling our stories and working to create new ones.

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Mutations (Reflections on Life)

What If There Is No Love Story?

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Image Courtesy of Dreamstime.com

“Be careful. Trust, but verify.”

Those were my mother’s words of advice when I asked her about dating and how to go about choosing a husband. (In the future. No one have a coronary.) We were sitting in the kitchen discussing Wendy Williams’ opinions on celebrity relationship gossip (and laughing about how she’s made a huge living doing it) when the conversation turned to more relatable relationships.

“That’s it?” I asked. I was somewhat disappointed. We didn’t really do this girl talk thing very often and I was excited to see where this road might lead. Neither one of us is particularly known for having a lack of strong opinions on an array of subjects, and I was expecting something more along the lines of her typical matter-of-fact mixture of brutal honesty, comedy, and wisdom.

“Yeah,” she said, continuing to face the counter, with her back turned away from me, slicing away at raw chicken cutlets.

I decided to fish some more.

“How did you and daddy start dating?” I asked.

My parents got divorced when I was about 7 or 8. So, I remember how it ended, but I was curious about how it had begun. I knew that my parents had met at work and had gotten married the year before I was born, but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. My mother basically repeated that refrain.

“Yeah, I know that,” I said. “But how did you start dating? Did he ask you out? Were you friends for a while? Did you talk at work?”

“I guess so. Honestly, I don’t really remember. That was more than 20 years ago at this point,” was all I got in return.

It was like rushing down to open your gifts on Christmas morning as a kid and unwrapping a handkerchief.

“You don’t remember how you began dating the man you married? The father of your only child?” I thought.

You might remember that I’ve told you about a fellow writer friend of mine whose blog I admire. Well, right now she’s in the middle of writing this amazing dating series in which she recounts many of her relationships and dating experiences and the lessons she’s learned from them along the way. (After you finish reading this, go check her series out. You won’t be sorry.) In these recollections, she describes everything from the first words the guy spoke to her to the melody her heart played when he walked away.

Granted, she is much younger than my mother and her encounters did not take place as long ago. My mom is also not a writer so she may not capture and catalog events and emotions in quite the same way that we do. Still, she was a woman with a catalog of her own and I was having a hard time believing that these were the extent of her memories and impressions of her early relationship with my father.

So I continued. “Well, what did you like about him? Did you think he was cute?”

“Yeah, I thought he was a pretty good-looking guy,” she offered, with the nonchalance of a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese added to a plate of fettuccine alfredo. “He had gone to school, was working, building a career, wasn’t running the streets, didn’t smoke or drink or anything like that.”

I remember when I used to try to get my mom’s permission to let me go somewhere or do something, particularly as a teenager. “Please?” I would beg. “I’m an excellent student. I do my chores, I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. I don’t have any children. I’m a good kid.”

She would give me a complex look mixed with amusement (at my sad attempt at negotiation) and indifference. “And?” she would say. “You want a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do? For not doing what you’re not supposed to do anyway?”

That is exactly the look I gave her as she listed her reasons for deciding to date my father. On the surface, it was a good list: education (check), job (check), no addictions (check), a lack of a criminal record (check), and kinda cute (maybe a check plus). I’m grateful that she managed to check those things off her list because I know that not everyone manages to do even that much. But I was concerned with more than just the surface.

Because I’m not entirely obtuse, it occurred to me that this might have been a sore subject for her. After all, how many people like talking about their former feelings for their ex-husband? But I didn’t get the feeling that she was holding back or being sensitive. As I thought back on her advice about how I should conduct my own search for a husband (“Be careful. Trust, but verify.”), I realized that that just might be her approach to relationships: practical. And in a world where so much of the information that we’re fed about relationships isn’t wise or practical, I think that practicality is absolutely necessary.

But I wanted to know if he had used a corny pick-up line. I wanted to know if she’d immediately liked his accent or was intrigued by his thoughts about Kant when he told her he’d studied philosophy. I wanted to know if he’d called when he said he would when she gave him her number or if she’d waited by the phone in anticipation (but knowing my mother,  it probably wasn’t the latter).  I wanted to know if she’d loved him. If she’d felt that he loved her.

I didn’t react the way that I’ve seen and heard that most children react to the news of their parents getting divorced. I wasn’t devastated. I remember getting a speech about them splitting up but that I should be sure to note that that didn’t affect their love for me (like something straight out of a TV movie). I wasn’t really fazed at the time. “Okay, okay,” I remember thinking. “Can I go watch Arthur now?” As you can probably tell from this post, I didn’t have any grand images or visions about my parents’ great love for one another that was suddenly ending. My mom had always been my main caregiver, and well, parent, and my main concern was that I’d be staying with her. For some reason, I had been aware of what custody battles were from watching TV. As soon as I was assured that there wasn’t going to be one of those, I was good. Honestly.

And right now, today, in my early twenties, I’m still not devastated. I realize that, in many cases, divorce is necessary and it was necessary for my parents. Yet, right now, today, and sitting at that kitchen table in my early twenties, I wanted to know that I had been the product of love. Because I remember how it ended, and even how it was, but I don’t know how it began.

Maybe it was never butterflies and horse-and-carriage rides through Central Park. I’m not that naive. Maybe nothing is.

Or maybe it was just what she said it was. And nothing more. And maybe that was love. Maybe it wasn’t.

I think of all the children who are products of affairs, one-night stands, broken condoms, or rape, and I wonder if it really matters. I wonder if I’m asking for too much. I wonder how I’ll know what to ask for if I don’t know what it looks like.

What if there is no love story? What if just we, as the children of our parents, as mere vessels of existence, are the stories, and that’s it? What if it’s up to us to write whatever other stories we’d like to read, even if it’s just from our imaginations?

I guess all we can really do is to be careful. Trust, but verify.

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