Black History Month Pt. 1

PROLOGUE

Black history doesn’t begin and end with February. Obviously. Black history also doesn’t begin with slavery and end with the Civil Rights era. It’s more than injustice, inequality, and struggle.

There’s so much more. So many names and places. So much art, science, music, math, medical, entertainment, and cultural excellence. Much of it under duress. It’s phenomenal. It’s moving to me.

I’ve written at least five BHM entries and just can’t pull them together. I find myself saying exactly what I’ve said before and not necessarily any better. They start off okay and regress. So I’ll work on it and I’m breaking them up into a few parts. Probably three. We’ll see. There’s only three more days.

(this is long)

PART 1: SO WHAT

I was embedded in racism. Growing up during my middle school and high school years in the late 80’s. I attended an all-white middle school. I lived in an all-black neighborhood. Still socially segregated despite the evolving morays.  I developed into a teenager and young adult embedded in blue collar white America.

At first there were threats, racial slurs and one random, sincere but toothless death threat. Try concentrating on a pop quiz after that interaction. Sometimes adults and teachers intervened. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes adults were the problem. It was my 11 and 12 year old way of life. In retrospect I never talked to my parents or anyone about it. I don’t know why. That’s just the way kids are sometimes. They would have raised holy hell in a contained rage kind of way.

Ultimately, most people were good people or chaotic neutral and things settled. I loved my friends but I was never part of their world. I had many enduring crushes but, again, I was never really in their world. Besides, talk about stigma. Even a lot of people I considered friends were racist. Mostly inherited racism, which is largely political and based on stereotypes.

I’m mellow. I’m cool. I keep my wits. I try to think before I speak. I tried to explain calmly that I was not okay with them calling black people niggers even if they weren’t including me as a target of the slur. I’d ask why I didn’t belong in their neighborhood. I wouldn’t rap to entertain people. They would test me, I guess, to see if I would laugh at racist jokes. The sight of a black person would make them laugh sometimes.

The middle schools funneled into high school. From < 0.5% black middle school to 33% black high school, give or take, but I was already a stranger, a foreigner, a non-entity to my black peers by then.

I rode my bike all over the place. I left the familiarity of Turner Station and rode to Watersedge, St. Helena, Logan, Old Dundalk, Berkshire, Stansbury, Carnegie Plat, Holabird, German Hill (although the hills kind of dissuaded me from exploring around there on bike), and Eastpoint. Worlds away by a kid’s model scale view.

That’s how I socialized. I would ride to those neighborhoods and if I coincidentally saw someone I knew outside playing soccer, football, or just hanging out I’d chat for a while. Then I’d head home before it got too dark.

It was a reminder to never let my guard down.

People would yell racial slurs every now and then and threaten to call the police because I was … offending them with my existence. Kids would accuse me of being a drug dealer. Some of my friends’ parents did not want a black person in their house. I played on the soccer team for two games – I was not good – and listened to parents make racial and racist jokes about the black kids on the other team. It was a reminder to never let my guard down.

I didn’t go to parties, school dances, no dating, didn’t attend the prom. Who would I have asked, y’know? (Granted, I’ve also been an introverted weirdo for a very long time.) Black kids warned me not to trust white friends because, among other things, they’d ignore you in public when other people were around.

A friend took me to a bar where he worked for a relative. There was a guy sitting at the bar. My friend said, “Watch this. Hey, Joe. What’s the best gun to kill a black person with?”

My friend wasn’t asking out of malice. He was showing me that there’s this guy who’s so racist it’s kind of funny and these are the kinds of topics that would come up every now and then.

Joe looked up, looked over, sipped his beer and said, “A loaded one.”

It was kind of funny even though it obviously wasn’t how those conversations usually went. I imagined it involved stopping power and penetration. My guess would be a .357. Probably something in there about muzzle velocity, too, if I know my racists.

I was at a friend’s house once and we were talking about something or other and I said that black people came first. We all come from Africa, as far we know. He was understandably skeptical and said that he was going to call his uncle who was an anthropologist(?) or maybe it was a teacher of some kind.

He made the call. “Uh huh. Okay. Yeh. Thanks.”

“What’d he say?”

“He said the niggers were first.”

My experience isn’t unique but it’s a different flavor than someone who grew up in the projects or in large black urban and socially segregated suburban enclaves. Their challenges were and are different. Their lives may have been pretty rough. The schools were – the schools failed the kids. Period. The parents may or may not have been involved. Policing was and sometimes is friggin’ brutal. Drug epidemics hit them first and hardest before rippling outward. With it came gangs and the gang-like police units with similar street code culture.

I had it easy. All I had to deal with was the withering psychic assault and targeted verbal and psychological abuse of growing up in a culture of prejudice and racism and being a child on the tip of the spear of sociocultural transition.

We, as a society, were disappearing culturally acceptable racism. Now it’s having a revival.

I have a good family and the community I grew up in was a strong, tight knit community at the time. Like, when I had my first auto accident I had no idea what to do, of course. My mom showed up about ten minutes later (and coincidentally my stepfather, cousin, and sister on their way back from playing tennis – this was before everyone was carrying cell phones, by the way) because someone in the community listened to a police scanner and recognized that Edie’s son had been in an accident on Sollers Point Rd.

I detested waking up early for Sunday School and church but I appreciate the community bond and looking out for each other.

Things have gotten so much better in many ways but people are still trite and small-minded. Dundalk has diversified a lot. There are people of all kinds of background and ethnicities now. It’s great.

Okay.

SO WHAT. WHO CARES.

I would be lying if I said that my past hasn’t had a profound impact on me — the way I see the world, the way I see people, how I react, and how I’m very selective about who I spend time with. The transition from childhood to young adulthood is stressful to begin with. It doesn’t take much to leave metaphysical scars, wounds, uneven gait, partial paralysis of the personality, overcompensating, and floundering.

The physique of our souls develops in response to the heavy weight of heaped adversity. It’s the same way that the most inviting trees with the most personality aren’t perfectly symmetrical. Each branch, each growth, curve and recess is in response to an event: a long, calm fruitful Spring, a brush fire, a storm, an icy winter, a careless child, an axe, an infestation.

Hang in there, Mr. Fuzzy Ears.

Imagine this. Imagine you have a cute puppy. A curious little furball who’s all personality and enthusiasm. Maybe he’s one of those bigger breeds. Let’s call him Mr. Fuzzy Ears. He’s running around, seeing snow for the first time, tripping over his big paws with that goofy tongue hanging out of his mouth when he runs. Got that? Cool.
Now imagine that every few days someone kicks that puppy. You take him to a dog run. Another pet owner kicks Mr. Fuzzy Ears in the ribs. You take him to a doggy day care and another pet owner’s kid kicks Mr. Fuzzy Ears in the hip. The dog walker stomps on his tail when you’re not around. You let him out to play in your yard and the neighbor comes over, throws a rock at him, and kicks Mr. Fuzzy Ears in the jaw. Every few days. Sometimes the same people and sometimes different, random people.

How is that going to affect his personality? How will his formative socialization skills be affected? What lessons will he draw from his life about people, who to trust, and when to trust?

Then you go grocery shopping or maybe you’re online and you hear people talking about how aggressive and poorly behaved Mr. Fuzzy Ears is. Your sweet little pup.

Now imagine if every dog in the neighborhood is treated with the same malicious cruelty. How will they behave as a group? How will they be perceived?

That’s what it’s like except as a human being you can make a choice. Because you know that biting the next motherf—– who gives you s— is not going to work out for you. You rise above mainly because it’s healthier for you and you make a choice to not be consumed by hate and mistrust and to not pass along the confining, self-debilitating hate and mistrust.

When I interned at Apple in Cupertino, one Summer there was a kid from Miami. Here he was spending a Summer at Apple Computer and he couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t handle being out of his element. Despite the fact that his manager was one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve known, this guy grew angrier and more hostile the longer he was there. He put a photo of his handgun on his cubicle wall. He didn’t make it the whole Summer. In a sense, I betrayed him by not affirming his open hostility and antagonism.

EVERYONE HAS A STORY

No matter where I roam
Every single soul is a poem
Written on the back of God’s hand
– Michael Franti

Everyone has a story. Everyone has a journey. Some have it easier than others but everyone struggles at some point and very likely more than you, regardless of your ethnicity. Most people are in some kind of pain.

If there’s intersectionality of oppression, there’s also intersectionality of privilege.

I’ve seen people marginalize and demonize each other based on a word or two – thinking they can easily fit someone else into a box and treat them like they’re less. I’ve seen white people dismiss black people as animals. I’ve seen black people dismiss white people as privileged racists. I’ve seen plenty of people dismiss brown people as terrorists. Or LGBT people as undeserving of basic human dignity.

I’m tired of it. I’m tired of people being mentally lazy and awful to each other. I’m tired of the abandonment of logic in pursuit of the rush of being offended and indignant. (I read an article that said being negative can trigger the same reward centers as cocaine.)

On one hand I don’t care about Black History Month. On the other hand, I’m growing fonder of the fact that it challenges us. We need to be challenged. We should not be complacent. We don’t handle it well. Not at all. But we need it.

I don’t want anyone to grow up under psychic assault just because of their appearance, religion, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or physical disability. I know what that’s like. It robs you of joy. It robs you of life. Some people learn to grow around the insults and injuries and others never quite recover.

Please check your kids’ social media accounts, by the way. I’m seeing a lot of kids and young adults who are being vile racists with their public accounts. They know literally nothing of substance about black people and are under the impression that only white people have contributed to history and mankind. It’s scary.

And if you don’t know what to say to them, well … There’s a whole month dedicated to providing the context for addressing that knowledge gap.

Next time: Blacktoids

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