Friday, October 06, 2006
ON NOT BEING "BLACK" ENOUGH
One thing that has really gotten up my ass over my whole life is being told at least twice a year by fellow highly rhythmic individuals that I am “not black enough.” It happened again while I was in Westport, an observation voiced by a guy on line behind me at the place where I get the chili dogs that I love, inspired by hearing me place my order. “Nigga,” he said, “You sho’ ain’t black, talkin’ like you do!” I ignored him, sat down in one of the booths and began reading a magazine, all the while contemplating his assholism.
I’m the child of two people who educated the hell out of themselves in order to escape an oppressive Deep South that was (and in some places, sadly, still is) a dead end of poverty and ignorance for those blacks who didn’t elude its insidious cycle of making flesh of all the negative, old school stereotypes I can think of, and since they were the two people who brought me up for most of my first ten years, I speak like them.
I find it utterly baffling how many in the American black populace — and I don't care what anyone says, we are American blacks, not "African-Americans" — equate good grammar and not speaking “neighborhood/ghetto” (common terms, not mine) as being White or sucking up to White society and its goals/values. What is clearly not taken into account is where the speaker was raised, and how the local society in which they live works; when I was growing up there were a handful of black people in the area, some of whom were families established by “Buppies” before that term existed, and then there were the domestics and nannies who had long been a mainstay in that affluent community. That was it. The affluent blacks had more or less assimilated into Westport’s ranks, their melanin being the only obvious marker of difference, and the domestics would always be outsiders despite their place as “loyal retainers” and nurturers of the blue blood spawn thanks to their perceived inferiority and, in many cases, speech patterns that were reminiscent of the Mantan Moreland and Hattie McDaniel types indelibly burned into the public consciousness by Hollywood in less enlightened times.
My own first exposure to the clear demarcation between Black and White came when I was seven years old, fresh to the totally alien Westport culture — distinctly Westport, as opposed to all of Connecticut; well maybe also Greenwich — after having spent my earlier years in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in California, never once having encountered racism. I was waiting to take the school bus home one afternoon, when the father of one of my classmates came over and asked me, having no idea whatsoever as to who I was, if my mother was available to “do” his house. I had no idea what he was talking about, and when I later mentioned it to my mother she grew livid and erupted into a litany of curses, a condition I had never seen before. Unfortunately, this was but the first of many such scenes.
Shortly thereafter, the kids in my elementary school finally began to talk to me since it was clear that I wasn’t going to go away (I found out later that several of my classmates had been told by their parents not to interact with me because I was one of the “chocolate people”), but that breakthrough was marred by many of these kids addressing me in the exaggerated malapropisms found on the old AMOS ‘N’ ANDY radio and TV series, neither of which had been on the airwaves since the early 1960’s thanks to the protests of many black interest groups, so these children could not possibly have seen or heard any of this firsthand since VCRs did not yet exist, and recordings of the old radio entries were hard to get hold of. In other words, their relatives had taught them that this was the way blacks communicated.
As the song says, “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” right?
When I finally figured out what was going on, I was thoroughly disgusted, not merely by the obvious condescension, but also because I equated such speech with many of my woefully hillbillyish relatives in rural Alabama, a side of the family that I did not enjoy being around because I literally felt my IQ erode when in their presence, but those are stories for another post. I could now understand why my parents had divorced themselves from that “culture,” and aggressively asserted their intelligence, and from that moment on I did much the same.
Growing up in a mostly white, affluent suburban culture also severely limited my interaction with black kids from outside of that sphere, and my way was as alien to them as theirs was to mine. I had been raised with rock ‘n’ roll as the music of choice — that’s what I listened to on the radio, and my dad was a big fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blood, Sweat and Tears — and my favorite pastimes were reading, sculpting and drawing, while my out-of-community contemporaries were exposed to funk, games played out in the streets and, needless to say, lots of other black people.
At one point, during the years when I was forced to go to church — my mother favored an all-black church in Bridgeport — one of the kids who was the Episcopalian equivalent to an altar boy found out that I listened to and, unthinkably, enjoyed Devo, prompting him to tell me that I “done been white-a-tized.”
And forget about what black women had to say to me. With three exceptions, all the black women I’ve tried to get with flat out told me I’m too white in both interests and speech to ever have a chance with them, so I’d better just forget it. In fact, a black woman who was a corporate professional and just as “well spoken” as myself once told me that I spoke like a school teacher. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black…
After years of hearing such sentiments from my contemporaries and even some relatives — whose cousin-humping opinions didn’t matter to me anyway — I gave up even attempting to care about my so-called blackness at the age of fifteen and have never looked back, choosing instead to define myself as a man who happens to be black, rather than as a black man according to the American standard.
And just what does that American standard mean, anyway? During the 1960’s and the true flowering of American black empowerment, many of us turned to an imaginary perception of Africa as a paradise of beautiful Nubian men and women who wore dashikis and leopard skins and sported Afros so huge that they had their own gravitational fields. Or at least that’s how the Motherland was depicted in those black light posters that I remember, but what the hell did we know? Had most of us even met an actual African? I have and not one of them resembles a nobler version of someone out of a Tarzan movie. Africa is just too fucking hot for people to wear big-assed Afros and forget about sporting endangered animal skin couture unless you want to spend the rest of your days in some god-forsaken prison, so you can cross off the visions found in those posters.
Then came Shaft, the new ideal for American male Blackness, but that figure was just an updating of the “bad nigger” stock character found in American black folklore from day one, only now working on the side of the law, so his over-the-top macho antics could no longer offend white folks or be pointed to by parents as something not to aspire to.
Decked out in sharp black leather clothes, cooler than the Abominable Snowman's dick, able to fuck all the women — Black and White — who fall down at his feet on an hourly basis, takin' no shit from "the Man" and a badass private eye who'll kick your ass just for looking at him the wrong way, it wouldn’t be unfair to describe John Shaft as a James Bond for black people and those who yearn to be black and cool. (My own father even went through an ill-considered SHAFT-inspired fashion phase that I still laugh about when I think about it some thirty-five years later.) And Shaft even managed to out-black himself in his third movie! I mean, get a load of the movie poster:
I swear to God that's just a stick!
And while I’m on the subject, admit it, white folks: You love us! White people can nowadays be seen wearing corn rows (hint: they look ridiculous on you!) and dreadlocks (also ridiculous), you guys merrily appropriated the blues, early rock ‘n’ roll and black slang, and the monolith that is hip hop and rap music is taking over the globe by leaps and bounds, an assault both lauded and led by millions of Caucasian youth, to say nothing of many of you seeking that aesthetic Holy Grail that is the perfect tan. Face it: you done been black-a-tized!
But I digress.
My perceived failure at “blackness” has much to do with my non-interest in defining myself by the image of black people put forth by the media, both Black and White. I eschew most of the buffoonish “comedy” about us that only reinforces stereotypes both in the eyes of the black community and in the consciousness of the public in general (though I have to admit that SOUL PLANE was so far over-the-top as to become a live action cartoon, and I loved it), have zero interest in what is allegedly our taste in fashion (I have no fashion sense and tend to dress mostly in black from head to toe), couldn’t possibly care less about sports (which also makes me a failure as a heterosexual male, I suppose), and have actively hated the bulk of rap and hip hop since1990. And aside from those items, I am also rather light-skinned, something that I get shit for from those who denigrate me for my lack of blackness, a state that has to do with the genetic luck of the draw rather than any sort of choice. (That and an ancestor's documented rape and impregnation by a former slave-owner, along with some voluntary genetic mixing over the generations.) In fact, if one had to grade my skin tone, I would fall into a range considered beige. So all I can say for myself is, “BEIGE POWER, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!”
But the whole thing's fucking ridiculous because when you get right down to it, were all just PEOPLE, for fuck's sake, and we'd all do well to remember that.