Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sometimes I forget.

"Where would you like to go today?" He says, referring to our plan to do some sightseeing in downtown Detroit with some relatives, "the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), the Historical Museum, or the African-American museum?"

The choice is easy. At DIA, there is an exhibit of Richard Avedon's fashion photography. At the Historical museum, Soupy Sales; and at the African American museum, of course, African Americans. I choose the African American museum. Of course. I want the people I'm with to experience a fraction of what I feel all the time. (Perhaps this is how I teach empathy?) I really want to go to DIA, or to see crusty old cream pies at the Soupy Sales exhibit, but I think I want more to be black in downtown Detroit with my white family.

We go to the museum. We experience the museum. We discuss the museum’s more difficult sections, like the section of the museum which looks like a slaveship. It's dark, has a complex sound design (complete with moans and screams), and statues of slaves, packed in on shelves. “That was brutal,” one of my young companions says. I say, “Imagine how it must have been to actually be on the slaveship,” capitalizing on his white guilt, giving myself a spiritual pat on the back.

What I ignore until after walking through the obligatory Civil Rights section were my own negative feelings of blackness in a white world. And I admitted, as I exited through the lobby with my companions, that - holy shit! - I already knew most of the history I learned at the museum. I was certainly familiar with my feelings of guilt, shame, and anger, though I had somehow forgotten them when I chose to attend the museum.

And I missed seeing the Richard Avedon fashion photographs. I’ve got to do better if I think I’ll ever post on “Holy Shit! I’m gay.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

im still here.

My most recent recordable Holy shit I'm black moment occurred while visiting my partner's family in Maryland. It was that unseasonably hot weekend in April that you might remember- the one that had been preceded by lots of welcome rain and chilly air, so that the 96 degree FridaySaturdaySunday temperature seemed like punishment from impending summer months. (Summer knows everyone likes Spring better, and she is so passive aggressive about it). 

Anyways, I was walking around in a stupor for a while, groggy from the heat and who knows what else. 

I sat on the couch to read a magazine under the ceiling fan, and in no time I was chin-deep in nap-sleep.

The 5 foot flat screen TV was droning non-stop in the background as I dozed off, talk from mammoth men in suits about draft picks for football teams. "How bizarre is this?" I thought to myself, sequins and ruffles buried in my nostril from the decorative pillow beneath my head, "...a whole show dedicated to watching people react to people choosing players for a football

 team...this would be so much more entertaining if this was a draft pick for performers in a Broadway musical..."

...fade to black.

I dont know how long I was out for, maybe 30 minutes, give or take. As my eyes struggled to stay closed in sleep, I could still hear those annoying sportscasters voices far away inside the TV.

"...really a prize, that one...never seen anything like him"

" 315 pounds! A big guy, definitely an asset..."

"Powerhouse! He is a powerhouse, I said it then, I said it before, he stunned coaches with his agility last year in the..."

"...always with his head in the game- look at him! He's a steam train! He is really going to take his new team far, I tell ya..."

My eyes stay open, but only partway, unable to get back into calm sleep mode with the TV blaring so much bullshit about things I cared nothing about. 

I hate football. 

But I cant get up from the couch. 

I have found myself mesmerized by the images I see on the screen, flashing from a row full of talking heads, grinning maniacally and for some reason yelling at the top of their lungs (don't they know they are on TV and people at home will turn up the volume if they cant hear them?) to a graphic of a black man caught in mid-running pose, a football nestled in the crook of his arm. The image of the man is spinning slowly, one of those diagrams put together from lots of photos so you can see his body spinning at 360 degrees, the better to see all the details of his He-Man muscles sparkling under the sheen of his skin. Statistics are stacked up in an unadorned font next to his spinning physique, information like weight, height, alma mater, hometown, favorite color, aisle or window preference. The talking heads, who happen to all be mostly white men, are discussing these stats and talking about how this football player is just about perfect;  he is so strong, so quick, so physically fit and essential to the work that needs to be done to make a football team winning and effective. 

Holy shit I must be black cause as I am watching this, all I can think about is this memory I had from when I was little of being taught the most absurd, heartbreaking details of what it was like to be a human owned as property. The white people would auction off the slaves and indentured servants, have them standing on a block so that everyone in the market to buy could see for themselves how strong and physically capable these slaves were, how essential they would be to helping do the work that needed to be done in order to make the slave owner's profits winning and their business effective. 

Im pretty sure it wasn't my sugar-coated-only-in--the-month-of-February-elementary-school-in-Alabama-Black-History-education that taught me this. 

I think maybe I learned it from watching Roots

But its there, inside my head, this image. And laying on that couch on that ridiculously hot day, watching that stupid draft pick on TV, I couldn't help but turn it into a modern version of that nasty part of history that I remembered from so long ago. They were showing this beast of a black man on screen and idolizing him not for his sense of humor, or his wit, or his major in biology, or tendency to cry watching romantic comedies, but for his physical power, and thats it. For what he could do for them. For the money that he could make them. 


I don't think that this is a perfect metaphor. 

I don't think that football is the only machine that benefits from the physical prowess of human beings, I don't think that this is an experience relegated to only black men in this country, or women for that matter, and I don't think that the black men in this scenario are being held captive and stripped of their power- I think they are capitalizing on the benefits just as much as the white team owners. Its a symbiotic relationship. I get that.

But thats why Holy shit I'm black! Seeing the image of the black man on the television screen, his motionless body turning around on a tiny pedestal like a collector's edition item...I doubt it affects anyone else the way it affected me.Thats what being Holy shit I'm black does to you- it makes you see the world in totally different ways than others. Like wearing beer goggles. But instead of ugly people looking cute, its other people looking racist. Or something. 

This isn't a perfect metaphor either. I need to work on these.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

the *real* dichotomy.

Ever since I was a little high yella (magic!) girl, I was consistently confronted with poignant affirmations of how Holy shit, I'm black I was. They still happen to me today as a 28 year old woman, though much less frequently and perhaps with less vehemence, because at some point growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I actually got it. 
Even so, I guess every once in a while I need a friendly reminder. Like the one I got from this 83 year old woman this past Friday night, when I was back in Salisbury, NC attempting to share something of value to the graduating theatre students at my alma mater. I was exiting the Piedmont Players theatre having just watched "Smokey Joe's Cafe" with my friends when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a very old white woman with a very sweet smile on her face.
"With hair like that I bet you could get on stage and sing real good just like them!" she said.
And then I remembered...
Holy shit, Im black!
What you mean to say, I thought to myself with my lips spread apart in the biggest eat shit smile I could muster for her, was that you are not fooled by me; even with my skin so high yella (magic) light you, can still tell that I am Negro enough to be able to muster a Jennifer Hudson-esque wail from my tiny frame. 
(She's wrong, but whatever).
I thanked her, spittle forming at the corners of my mouth in antagonism, and my white friends and I bolted away from her so that we could bust out laughing in peace. We were only about 10 feet away from her, but she probably couldn't hear well anyways.
What is more dynamic to me than being reminded of my Holy shit, Im blackness is the reverse truth that I am sometimes confronted with. 
Today, walking down the street from the gym in the clothes I had quickly thrown on to keep me warm in the breezy afternoon, a young-ish woman passed by me, pointed at my shirt and said "I LOVE your shirt!" Claire and I glanced down to see what I was wearing, and were horrified to find that it said "Smile, God Loves You!"
"Oh no, Claire!" I said. "I feel like an asshole, now; she really thinks I mean that!", which I don't.
Claire's eye got wide as she shrieked at me "Holy crap, you're white!"
You see, black people don't wear shirts to be ironic- when you see a screen print of Patrick Swayze or a candycane or a big sneaker emblazoned on a black person's chest, it means that black person really likes that thing on his or her shirt. White people originated the practice of ironic t-shirt wearing; black people don't have time for that. 
So, I am mostly Holy shit, Im black, but occasionally I am Holy crap, Im white, much to my (white) mother's chagrin. I'm trying to figure out how to break it to her that I want to get a Toyota Prius in the near future. It might just put her over the edge. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Holy Shit! I'm black.

Standing in line at Starbucks with my friend I said, "You shave in the shower? Do you have a mirror in there?"
He said, "No, I just know how to do it. I've only had a couple of side-burn mishaps."

So I stood there, intermittently asking questions about his shower-shaving practice; I don't know what else we talked about, because for the rest of the short conversation, I was biding my time until I could ask another question to ascertain what kind of man would shave in the shower without a mirror.

Then it hit me:
Holy shit. I'm black.

And then:
Holy shit! I'm black.

And then:
Holy shit!! I'm BLACK!

It landed on me, again, like a ton of bricks. To be sure, this was not the first time I'd realized how hard it is to be different, or how hard it is be black (and, therefore, different) in this world. Each time, though, I am struck (ha) by how clarity arrives with the "uh, duh" information.

Perhaps racial lines are drawn in the sand - literally, in the trenches. In the innocent or mundane, ahem, niggling trifles of our days. In the stuff that we do, say, share - or, rather, won't do, don't say, or wouldn't dare.

So then I said, "Don't answer any more of my questions. I won't ever understand. It's a black thing."

And as he opened his mouth to respond, I said, "Sssshh. Don't even get me started on that. Want some coffee?"