Since this president’s election, there is more discussion around race – however awkward the genesis for those talks may be. For months now I’ve been struggling to get onto paper the good, the bad, the highs and lows of an adolescent life that started in Compton, California. Yes, Compton – of which I am straight out. Surprisingly, in this post-racial society, race keeps getting in the way of my story; which begs the question, can one grow up in and graduate from Compton High School and have race NOT be a constant issue? I’m sure I’ll have the answer surrounded, if not captured, by the end of this missive.
Growing up in Compton prepared me for a lot of things. My adolescence was like living in a national gold fish bowl what with the Watts Riots a few miles away and the steady stream of whites rushing to get out of this changed city adding to the white-flight statistics. I didn’t need to be told I was part of an undesirable collective as perceived by races other than my own. Looking back, I chose a road less traveled, I got outside of the goldfish bowl and like Frost my road may have looked less traveled but, after my 40th high school reunion, I find I am not alone in my search for happiness, peace and answers.
Are we in a post-racial society now that an African-American democrat is in the White House? Although I live in one of the New York counties that went for a republican candidate, I don’t believe a person is racist by virtue of voting republican, I do worry though at the muted undertones in conservative attempts at casual conversations about race. I believe the root-issue, sometimes putting covert racist feelings in ugly relief, is basically fear – like white flight. When we talk about the things that make us afraid – the dark is always at our unconscious base.
I am straight out of Compton, yet people don’t fear me. For some of my more conservative friends, I am the black friend that’s easy to have. Proof that that person can get beyond race. But I’ve lived long enough to know that the fly on the wall in faculty rooms, local pubs and restaurants knows a lot more than the quiet buzz it emits.
Since our president’s election, the home down the road has put up several confederate flags, rural neighbors cease to wave when I walk by and the young, unemployed white males delight in yelling and coming close to me with their car as I walk alone. It is their attempt at getting me to jump, be afraid and quit walking past their trailer. I am afraid only after I issue my own one-finger-salute. I am outnumbered here in the hinterlands – if I consider my race, which my own reactionary response has forced me to do. I consider my need to curb my reactionary ways. I’d like to always respond with the dignified approach that would make my southern-born grandmother proud. But, alas and alack, I am a child of the 60’s where snappy, life-saving comebacks await, emotionally double-parked, on the tongue. There was the time when the woman who orders the textbooks for the community college at which I am an adjunct made the pre-Martin Luther King day holiday declaration that, “white folks don’t get national holidays. I told her the college probably wouldn’t mind if she came in and worked on that day in protest. I used a light, teasing tone believing any logic would be lost here as she kept pushing at her original argument. In desperation, I released my last salvo; “Well, if you white folks would have quit killing black men sooner then there wouldn’t be a need for such a holiday now would there?” – my verbal equivalent of the undignified low-road, middle-finger. Reactions such as these, I know, could get me hurt or, at the very least, unresolved book orders.
I was asked to give a book talk to a local teachers’ group. The entire event went well. I entertained thoughtful questions which I was able to answer with ease and humor. After the talk the president of this group came to me praising me for my performance. And in her defense, I have to say she did not say how “articulate” I was (in my experience, the word, articulate, is used to refer to an African-American who somehow, magically, can spring from the ghetto and speak “regular English”) but, as we discussed the Harvard, Yale, lawyers and doctors in her family she jumped onto the subject of two black males on a New York City escalator, one going up, one going down, and how disturbing it was to see one throw a duffle bag across the up-down divide to the other. The jump from her offspring of many merits to two anonymous black males on an escalator created conversational whiplash for me. “Wait, your son was throwing a duffle bag to a black man on an escalator?” I asked for clarification – for her as she obviously did not realize the verbal do-do she had stepped into here at a retired teachers’ book talk. She stammered seemingly shocked that I would think her son could be involved with such nefarious goings on before mentioning how she so hoped drugs were not involved in the duffle bag transaction. My mind immediately went to my 22 year-old son and how he would be perceived by this woman had he forgotten his gym gear in the subway and had his cousin pick it up for him. So many ways to look at things and yet, this woman gravitated to the worst. Why? I considered an offer to join the group though I remained perplexed at the group president’s choice of conversation with me. Is this what post-racial conversations are supposed to be like? Is content less important than the ease with which one can display one’s views? Would a post-racial conversational ease be a more apt description of today’s dialogue? I have since discussed this incident with white friends from whom I can expect honest responses. Their take was, this woman was letting me know that, while I may be well-read, educated and able to command a roomful of strangers, I didn’t go to HarvardYaleStanford, I am not a doctorlawyerdentist and, ipso facto – I am not as smart as her children who are, by the way, white. One friend suggested this woman needed to invalidate any racial success I may represent by inserting her own perceived evil (read fear) of the black male. Why does this make me sad?
So, I write yet another homage, bowing to the disfigured feet of U.S. race relations. I need to make decisions here; do I quit walking alone in my rural community? Do I not join the retired teachers’ group? I fear the minute I allow prejudice to determine my decisions – I have lost. Doomed to a life of us vs. them. And maybe there is a connection (besides the obvious) between this essay and the 40th reunion of Compton High School’s students of 1969. This was a mass meeting with 400 hundred beautiful, middle-class, accomplished men and women. Yet, I find it curious that, while I moved around to more than a few tables, I did not come across one at which the past presidential election was a topic. Maybe it was a conversation that happened after the reunion, in the lounge after midnight, without those who, heeding the fatigue of our 50s, went straight to bed. Maybe there was conversation around the backlash of the last election; white vitriol that springs up from the well of fear. Fear of the loss of white-skin-privilege. Fear that this president, however erudite and politically savvy, is not like a “real American” instead, being someone from whom “real Americans” should take their country back. Maybe there was a conversation about an ugly fear that walks on silent feet, tiptoeing into the heart’s interstices. The brain can deal with this fear but the heart is no match for this dark tool cloaked in hearth, home, grizzlies, and loss of a parched constitution. Maybe, too, there was conversation about loss by those resigned to the fact that the color of one’s skin will always, always be a factor in a once white country whose collective self-esteem has had its roots watered deeply for many years in racial superiority. My experiences on that undignified, low-road of human nature makes me ask, “Who would want to give that up – totally?”
Sadly, maybe that last question holds the answer – to the problem and the solution.
And while we can now broach the topic of race with ease (however uncertain) the answers and solutions will be anything but easy.