We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.
“There will be people who’ll cross the street to avoid you because you’re black,” my mother would tell me when I was younger, in every conversation or argument about race we ever had.
“Don’t be a nigger,” my older sister once told me, as she sat with a friend doing high school Sociology homework. If she was in high school then I must have been five at the youngest, nine at the oldest—I think I had asked her whether or not I should be wearing a du-rag.
“Nigger,” writes H.G. Bissinger in Friday Night Lights, a book about a high school football team in a small Texas town. “The word poured out in Odessa as easily as the torrents of rain that ran down the streets after an occasional storm, as common a part of the vernacular as ‘ol’ boy’ or ‘bless his ‘ittle’ biddy heart’ or ‘awl bidness’ or ‘I sure did enjoy visitin’ with you’ or ‘God dang.’”
Bissinger, having just left an editorial position at the Philadelphia Inquirer, decided he would follow alongside Permian High School’s Panthers throughout their 1988 season. We learn that the team goes undefeated, then loses the state championship. Bissinger gives the book the subtitle “A Town, A Team, and A Dream.”
On “nigger,” he later writes: “People who used the word didn’t seem troubled by it. They didn’t whisper it, or look chagrined after they said it. In their minds it didn’t imply anything, didn’t indicate they were racist, didn’t necessarily mean that they disliked blacks at all. Instead, as several in Odessa explained it, there were actually two races of blacks. There were the hardworking ones who were easy to get along with and didn’t try to cut corners and melded in quite nicely. They deserved the title black. They deserved the respect of fellow whites.
“And then there were the loud ones, the lazy ones, the ones who stole or lived off welfare or spent their whole lives trying to get by without a lick of work, who every time they were challenged to do something claimed that they were the helpless victims of white racism. They didn’t deserve to be called black, because they weren’t.”
Though Bissinger’s book takes place in Texas, 1988, I never saw much of a difference growing up in the eighties and nineties between Odessa and my hometown of Normal, Illinois. The word “nigger” wasn’t a part of the vernacular in Normal, but I could feel the difference between “the hardworking ones” and “the lazy ones,” “the quiet ones” and “the loud ones,” and the way that everyone saw them. I knew my sister and my parents didn’t want me to be one of the loud ones. And they surely didn’t want me to be lazy.
“One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer,” writes James Baldwin, “is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed.”
But Baldwin, much like my parents, couldn’t foresee the change in eras. I’ll never know what it’s like to fear bombings at my church or to be the parent of an Emmett Till. I’ll never have the exact same fears my parents projected because I am a baby of a post-whatever generation. And while Baldwin acquainted himself with the Negro “problem,” he never saw it evolve into an Oreo phenomenon.
When my parents met, in 1969, Blacks had only been allowed to live in Illinois State University’s dorms for twenty years.
I’ve asked my mother what it was like to be black, in Normal, in 1969. “Well,” she said, “when you went to the store they followed you around all the time thinking you were gonna steal something. And the police would follow you around. It was hard to get a job, but it was harder for men to get a job than it was women. And they wouldn’t want to rent an apartment to a man but they’d rent one to a woman. But, I mean, overall it wasn’t that bad.”
I interpret “it wasn’t that bad” as meaning it wasn’t Mississippi. Wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t Texas or even Louisiana, where my grandparents had come from. My mother herself wasn’t born and raised in the South—she was born in Waukegan, Illinois, to a family of stragglers from the Great Migration. She moved to Normal to study Physical Education at Illinois State University. There she met my father. Started a family. Raised the four of us in a town of 129,000 people. My father was studying Political Science and Communications, and when my oldest sister was born my parents decided not to finish college.
“Most black people at ISU,” my mother says, “their major was Communications. I think because. . . . Well, for the black men, if you were an athlete you took Communications—I don’t know if it was because it was easy or not. Almost all of them had Communications majors.”
“You had to carry a B-average to be a Communications major,” my father contends. “I thought most of them had Sociology majors. It was the most popular major for black people. Unwed mothers and stuff. I mean, that’s the culture we came from. That’s why most of them were Sociology majors.”
“The culture we came from” being one of unwed mothers does stir a curiosity in me, makes me wonder about my grandparents’ generation and the children they bore without present fathers. This is supposed to make sense to me, I think. That black fathers are not present. That they flee.
My mother eventually switched her major from P.E. to English. She said it was easier, that it required fewer credits to graduate. But after she and my father had my sister it didn’t matter anymore, because she just needed a job.
My parents met while pursuing their education, in a program for Blacks and Hispanics called the High Potential Students Program. My mother worked for the program, kept records and was a typist, and my father was a student.
They met at the same university on whose campus I spent my time growing up, riding my bike and rollerblading through the Quad as I got to know my town on my own throughout junior high and high school. Looking back, I understand it must have been strange for college students to see children on campus while walking from class to class, but this place was a part of my town, I thought, and they were only visitors. I had as much a right to this campus as they did, reinforced by my love for the environment. I’d fallen for the campus architecture—the music building built like a miniature castle, the enormous five or so story library—and for the professors with their ties and briefcases (so different from my parents wearing blouses and khakis and sweaters to work), and I know that a part of my development began right there, within an idyllic portrait of my childhood filled with patches of grass and students much older than myself.
This environment more than any other probably formed a worldview for me. Different from my father’s Chicago streets and my mother’s suburban parks, the college campus was a bubble, a place engineered for superficial equality. I would learn that the campus wasn’t like my junior high school, where too-cheap jeans meant pauperized parentage or where a faction of Hip-Hop fans, mostly black, sat at one lunch table while another table of students, myself included, talked about rock and Top 40 songs. I first observed a real division in my life in junior high, where two types of black children split themselves up in the lunchroom and I was clearly the type to sit with my white friends. There was no rap music for me, no after-school basketball. I was accused of being an Oreo.
The education of a Black American on how to be a Black American begins in the home, then spreads itself through experience and literature and misfortune and luck. Whether it was my parents’ intention or not, my home education left me without a sense of Black Pride and instead instilled only fear. Until my twenties I grew up thinking I didn’t want to be black—I just wanted to be a person, someone color-neutral. As a boy I understood that people were different but couldn’t understand why anyone made a big deal of it: I had found it strange, still find it strange the way race can be created simply by recognizing it.
My reluctance comes, I think, from the fact that I am black and that I’ll always be perceived as black. I can’t fight this with anyone, nor would I want to—the visible recognition of myself as a minority is already ever-present, and it would be a futile fight. But I suppose it’s also true that I’m an Oreo, harnessing a kind of white sentimentality within my black body; I used to wonder when I was younger if this was how I made friends—because I didn’t fit a stereotype I wondered if the other children fought or shed their own reluctance in befriending me. The children I grew up with were mostly white, a few of them some kind of Asian or Hispanic, and only the children of my parents’ friends black. And what of my friends’ parents, I wondered—how many of them cared that their daughter or son had a black friend? Why would people cross the street to avoid an identity that wasn’t my choice? Would someone sitting next to me on a bus move their seat because I’m black? As a child, was I supposed to cry when someone called me nigger (or sometimes Micah McNigger)? And if I didn’t cry, if I wasn’t upset, would that make me a bad black person? What does it mean to be a good black person? Is it the same as being a good Russian or a good American, loving vodka or baseball signs of loyalty? “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart; and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality” (Baldwin).
These questions and more were all I could think about as a child and as a teen, struggling to find something to define in myself in a town where the only clear definitions of race looked like a picture of 1988’s Odessa, where there were two very clear distinctions of Black people. Had I grown up somewhere other than Normal, or had I grown up poor, perhaps I would have come to understand in a much different manner the ways race and class work. But these things are sometimes subtle to a child, and though I knew how my town viewed and talked about class I was only just figuring out where to begin with race.
My education in the classroom has been a different story. The most seminal racial texts I can remember encountering are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, and both in college and in graduate school James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Baldwin called America a “country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Here I am, his paradox, my own American Psychology combining the politics, aspirations, and convictions of those whites around me as a child with this Black paranoia—a potential riff on Du Bois’s “two warring ideals in one dark body.” My ideals have been at war. Adulthood has had me concede, Tipping the King in my childhood and teenage ambition to be raceless.
I react, mostly, to Baldwin’s essays “Many Thousands Gone” and “The Harlem Ghetto.” His critical breakdown of the Negro in America in contrast to Richard Wright’s Native Son (in “Many Thousands Gone”) and to the New York Jew (in “The Harlem Ghetto”) helps explain some of the plights of those of us in marginalia; but overall, the pieces are temporal failures.
“Many Thousands Gone” itself, on the surface, is not a failure, as it was written with all the knowledge one can have of one’s own era; however the writing (the our and us and we presumably belonging to the white American) should have essayed to predict, from Baldwin’s Afro-American-European vantage the possible trajectories of the Black American. “He is a social and not a personal or human problem,” Baldwin writes, and our goal with social problems should be to anticipate their solutions throughout the hours.
If the Black American were a social problem, are people like me the solution? Because we—the blacks who’ve railed against stereotype—exist, I wonder if we’re looking at the end of Baldwin’s thesis:
“. . . the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest all over the darkening world.”
We are not solely talking here about the Educated Black, the presumed outlier of our history containing the faces of those like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but rather those more like Will Smith or Bill Cosby, trailblazers for what Baldwin seemed not to foresee: a new black whiteness.
In Grantland‘s 2011 article “The Rise of the NBA Nerd,” Wesley Morris writes that “21st-century blackness has lost its rigid center, and irony permeates the cultural membrane.” Families on television like the Bankses in the nineties’ The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Huxtables in the earlier The Cosby Show gave the country a new kind of Black American: educated, well-off, and far distanced from any inkling of culture-perceived niggerness, from the qualities of the Black American we’re mostly wary of confronting. These characters were almost everything I wanted to become when I was younger, their erasure from conventional blackness a beacon for those of us not fitting in with convention in the first place.
“The Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality.”
There is nothing in this world that I’m more afraid of being than a man who is testicular, aggressive, and black. And in fact, all of my performances are the result of either my Black or my masculinity-related paranoia, and my acquiescence isn’t so much a way of “passing” in America but rather in avoiding a fear of my potential self. “Black people are unnerving,” writes video essayist John Bresland, “because they’re paranoid. They see racism everywhere, even where it isn’t.” I’d like to raise my hand here, to own up to this paranoia, to worrying out of some infantile fear about where racism actually exists, even though I believe racism is sometimes much less about the process of othering than it is a compulsion to love those like ourselves—isn’t hatred, after all, usually in defense of something we love? And “although the two can be confused,” writes Bresland’s wife, the essayist Eula Biss, “our urge to love our own, or those we have come to understand as our own, is, it seems, much more powerful than our urge to segregate ourselves.”
But I haven’t even loved “my own.” Outside of my family I’ve managed to remain close to no other black people, and I have no excuse aside from my hometown being Normal, IL. Which is not to say that this is a real excuse: it’s more of a reason spurned by my discomfit towards the subtleties of race in my hometown.
I can’t confess to obliterating anything black about myself, either, because I never saw it as being there in the first place. Race wasn’t an issue in daycare, where I was the only black child in my class; nor in Kindergarten where I was the only black yet again and, I think, things remained this way until second grade or so. By the time I was meeting other black children in my classrooms, I had already come to understand that I was different. And that my parents and my sisters were different—we acted differently and spoke differently. I remember noting how the other black kids at school sounded when they spoke. I can remember asking my father once when I was about five how, when I answered the phone, I could tell whether or not the person on the other end was black. I wish I could remember his answer.
I wonder what he means when Baldwin uses a word as strong as “obliteration.” It implies a scale, implies that when there is a scale for whiteness it is only applied to minorities and that being less black or less Asian or less Hispanic means becoming more white and not option C or D. To obliterate seems, to me, as if it should mean getting rid of the -ness altogether, becoming instead something unidentifiable. Baldwin did write, later in “The Harlem Ghetto,” that “the American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.” And that Americanness rather than Blackness or Asianness or Whiteness means anonymity. But perhaps I come up short of understanding. If this is what it means to be an American, it doesn’t seem that Baldwin thinks this a bad thing.
“. . . the distortion and debasement of his own experience.”
In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin writes: “It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting. A Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and he produces it with disarming alertness.” He maintains consistency in his theses—he seems to believe, through and through, that the Black American can never really be himself if he wishes to get along in the white world, but shares no specifics of how he should “be himself,” as a part of a unified blackness. I don’t believe that I, myself, have so much performed anti-blackness as I have had to learn, from a young age, about the qualities of blackness from family, friends, and other schoolchildren, and then adapt to this learning. These things are socially learned, aren’t they? We’re natural in our actions and expressions until someone guides us in another direction, saying things like don’t be a nigger or discretion is the better part of valor.
Once, my younger sister, Morgan, and I were swimming at a Four Seasons and asked my father if we could stay longer. I was in the hallway next to my father, and I could see the pool from the other side of a looking glass while I pleaded with him to give us more time. He gave me the OK and I rushed through the hallway, through the locker room, and back out onto the pool deck to let Morgan know we could stay. Censoring my excitement and obeying the safety rules, I stopped running once I reached the pool deck. To make up for this I yelled across the entire pool to Morgan, who was floating in the shallow end of the water in perfect view of my father. We can stay! Dad says we can stay! And merely seconds later, before I could even jump back in, I saw my father motion with his index finger to come to him, out of the pool, immediately. A cold face had said all he’d needed to say.
After we dried off and grabbed our things we walked out to the truck, myself immensely sad and confused at my father’s seemingly mercurial decision-making. He remained silent until we began the drive back, and at this I quivered. I always quivered at his silence. He told us, shortly after the truck left the parking lot, that had I not let the entire pool know our business we would have been able to stay. That I needed to learn discretion.
Now, I can sometimes see the looks on people’s faces when black children are loud in public. It’s a sure look of disapproval, perhaps not toward the children themselves but toward the assumed negligence of the parent(s). Children yell, yes, and they play and scream and laugh gutturally, but it’s the heightened volume of children talking that gets adults’ ears perked. Where did he learn that? Why do they talk about such things?
When a child speaks loudly everyone in range listens, and one can only hope the child has something delightful to say.
The problem with the social decorum of black children playing is that their loudness comes off as a shortcoming—as a thing all right for only non-black children to display. Adults cringe, I cringe, at some of the things these children say and we probably therefore do degrade the image of this child (and on this point, Baldwin and I agree). Perhaps, in public, this was always on my father’s mind—perhaps he was always worried about playground talk of sex or money or the things we saw on television, a clear reflection of his sentiments as a parent.
“. . . surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity.”
What if I’ve desired anonymity? What if it wasn’t a forced thing? There’s been a lot said in history about the forced anonymity of women and the forced anonymity of gays, while the other side of the coin suggests a desired anonymity of peoples like Jews and Blacks and those of biracial ethnicity. And if Baldwin is right about America’s melting-potness, then I want to know more about this desired anonymity.
Desired anonymity, I think, is not necessarily a point of surrender. In October 2011, The Harvard Crimson ran Zoe Weinberg’s “Raceless Like Me,” an article laying out a spectrum for students at Harvard University who wish to push the boundaries of racial identity to do so. At one end: the raceless, at the other, the racially transcendent, and somewhere in the middle the aracial. The difference is that “racial transcendence,” coined by Harvard’s Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, comes off as both lofty and naïve, in danger of being confused with color-blindness, which “advocates ignoring race without confronting the inequality and discrimination it breeds. Color-blindness implies that racism can be solved passively.”
“Racelessness,” Weinberg writes, “is far more complex, because people who transcend race ‘are actually aware of how race negatively affects the daily existence of people of color. They have very likely experienced discrimination, yet they respond by understanding those situations as part of a broad societal problem: one in which they are deeply embedded, but not one that leads to their subscription to racial identity,’” according to Rockquemore.
If I see black as a description and not as an identity, then I believe I spoke aptly earlier when talking about my youthful wish to be raceless. Though aracial may fit for someone with more than one concretized heritage, raceless seems to be the word for those of us making thought-out decisions about our identities. But the potential roadblock with this is that I don’t have more than one concretized heritage: I could speak to you about the variety of my family names or my Creole great-grandfather or my half-German great-grandmother, but it’s not something I can grasp the way one can grasp having one black and one white parent. In essence, at the bottom of this issue is my jealousy toward the bi- and multiracial, as the status quo affords them the allowance of checking the raceless box.
A lot was unearthed in the Crimson‘s interviews with students, ranging from from biracial students literally checking the black box because they wanted to bring statistical awareness to inequalities, to those who check it because “it is so overwhelmingly in your favor to identify by race if you’re a minority,” as stated by student Anjali R. Itzkowitz. “You would be a fool to say you’re raceless if you’re black.”
The boldest question it poses: “if we know race is a social construct, at what point do we begin the process of deconstruction?” This is the question Baldwin didn’t ask and should have. My answer, at least at this point, is within our personal relationships. And I’m a hypocrite, because I let my friends talk about how “white” I am without correcting them—but if I did things right I would start with them. Just like talking about romantic attraction began with them and talks about our parents’ money began with them. In my social development and snowballing realizations, everyday talk, not haute scholarship, is where the deconstruction should have begun.
Writing about a subject like race is difficult not because the topic is hefty, but because I have so many biases toward it. I’d very much like not to be lumped in with writers considered to have made notable contributions to Black and African-American Literature because I’m not writing about a Black experience—I’m not writing as a black man. Please remove me from the discourse, because I don’t represent anyone but myself.
However, the other hurdle in representing myself within marginalia is that some readers, inevitably, will feel I represent them as well. It always seems a danger to write about the othered group without fear of misrepresentation, which makes me even further want to avoid labels. What I want is a slight inverse of one of James Baldwin’s own wishes: I want to be a good man and an honest writer.
Being an honest writer means to me that I cover all my bases, that I stick to the facts as I know them and, when necessary, scrutinize the little things. As writers it isn’t our job to worry about fact-checking our memories, but there are certainly other things that need to be corroborated—the clinically biographical facts I want to extract in my writing, the names of streets on which I’ve lived, the things that, without showing my research, would have me admit to laziness—here, I’m doing my damnedest to be sure I’ve checked up on the crucial bits.
It’s necessary for me to make sense of the ways I’ve read the world throughout my experiences, and to ensure that as I’ve moved through life I haven’t brushed the wrong experiences off. “An author is not to write all he can,” writes John Dryden, “but only all he ought.” And I ought—need—for the sake of my own sanity, to begin evaluating my decisions and my experiences.
One day at recess, Hermann, a boy with a dark mullet who licked his lips beet-red, called me a nigger. It was the first time I had ever been called a nigger. I told on him not because I was hurt or upset, but because I wanted to see what would happen to him. I enjoyed the eye-widening of the recess supervisor when I told him what had happened, and I knew he’d move quickly to find this boy and bring him to justice.
I don’t know, nor do I think I ever knew what happened to Hermann that day, as he was dragged away by the arm by one of our lead supervisors near the end of recess. But I discovered power in a word—power that, at seven or eight, I knew I was using the way he had wanted to. I had turned his dominance back onto him.
I still wonder about that power. I wonder whether, had I felt less racially neutral, I would’ve made far different decisions, far different observations. I wonder if, had I felt a little blacker, whatever that might mean, recess would have ended the same way.