These Shriveled Roots

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I remember watching Roots in 7th grade. I guess Mr. Jones felt we were mature enough for the themes of slavery, racism, and just what it means to be human. For me watching that entire miniseries was depressing because growing up with that specter of slavery like a shadow over everything was hard enough in theory, but seeing what kinds of things really happened to my ancestors was a hard weight. It made me think about how little I actually knew about the system of slavery, or who my own forebears were.

So, what did I do about it? Absolutely nothing. I let the miniseries end and I put Kunta Kinte out of my head because it hurt too much for him to be in there. I went back to calling him that Reading Rainbow guy, and I laughed at his show because it was easier to face that reality than the one where people who were related to me were treated like they were less than human, being whipped, chained, and forced into servitude in this great country I love. I couldn’t reconcile the two ideas, so I pretended the one didn’t exist, even though I had been given solid evidence it had.

A few years later I read the book by the great man himself, Alex Haley, and I realized it was more important to understand where those who came before were coming from, to get to the bottom of who we are by getting to know who our ancestors were. I became obsessed with black culture: the vernacular, the clothing, and the connections to Africa that were supposedly severed several generations ago. I read other books dealing with “the struggle” for equality, and the non-violent resistance, even the violent resistance espoused by the nation of Islam and others.

And I began to truly get how horrendous it was, the treatment of blacks in this country, the hatred and loathing of other human beings simply for having different skin color, for coming from somewhere foreign (even though we all come from somewhere foreign on some level). I realized that Black History Month means we’re being compartmentalized again. Why can’t the history of all cultures be celebrated all year long? Why must we segregate even in the honoring of cultures? It made me stop and think about so many things I had just taken for granted my entire life.

But what did I do about it? Absolutely nothing. Apart from thinking about it, that is. I didn’t organize any protests, plan any marches, or even go back to my own inner-city high school to speak to kids about the struggle. I sat there and thought about how harsh it had all been, and I read books about how harsh it had all been, and I watched movies about how harsh it had all been, but it still didn’t touch me on a personal level. Maybe that’s what Alex Haley was really getting at then, I thought, that in order to be personally touched we have to dig deep into our own personal connections, into our own ancestors and their individual struggles.

Which is what I’m doing now. I’m digging through old records, talking to those patriarchs and matriarchs in our family who are still alive, and trying to draw a map back to that time period, to those cotton fields in Alabama that are now swimming pools and condos. I’m connecting the dots on a portrait of oppression and abuse that touches a little close to home, that actually does touch home. You see, this is where I come from, not the land of the free, and the home of the brave. I come from a series of segregations, from a people who were not even seen as people, from a fierce will of those people to be free. Now I’m free, but I can’t forget.

Because in the forgetting the roots shrivel up and die, taking the entire plant with them.


Black on Black

blackonblack“All this talk about black on black crime when people should be finding examples of black on black appreciation instead.”

I have a difficult time interacting with people who fit stereotypes because I don’t know the right words to say to them. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the time of PC — Perfect Christian — when people pretended not to notice things like others fitting a stereotype while at the same time mocking them in private. And stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, because enough people in a particular group fit them, but maybe it’s self-perpetuating too.

It’s like when a crime goes down in the hood and the cameras are rolling so that they can get some footage for the news. Somehow the reporter finds the one person in the entire area who sounds the absolute dumbest and sticks a camera in his face.

“Yeah, I seen what dey did, sh*%, naw mean? Dat sh*% be buggin’, yo. Dis gon’ be on da news?”

And the whole time he has his pants down around his ankles with a pick sticking out of his lopsided afro, with eight teeth missing and a few holes in his t-shirt. In the background you can see his cousin waving at the camera, and you imagine TLC’s “No Scrubs” as the soundtrack for the scene. People in the neighborhood scratch their heads while they watch the broadcast, wondering where this “brutha” came from because they’ve never seen him before, and they swear the news program hired someone to play the role so no one forgets this happened in the hood.

I always want to shake the reporter and tell her, “We’re not all like that!” because guess what? Too many non-Blacks see that fool on the TV as a representation of all Blacks everywhere. Continue reading “Black on Black”

The ‘N’ Word

n word nieema fosterAs a parent I want to protect my children from anything and everything that could hurt them, but realistically that’s not possible. The best I can do is prepare them as well as I can for dealing with and overcoming those issues as they come up. Of course some of the biggest issues that could hurt them come from factors they have absolutely no control over, a fact that hurts even more because, even though I wouldn’t want them to change to fit someone else’s standard, at least it is a flexible thing. When someone hurts either of my children, for whatever reason, though, I am like a papa bear who wants to rip down the entire forest to get justice.

I knew from a young age that if I ever brought children into the world they would be judged, not merely on their mental capacity, or on their empathetic scale, or even on the style of dress they fancied, but also on the color of their skin. Even when I grew older and married a woman who just happened to be white, I knew that skin color would still be an issue, because our children would never be “just” white, so they would be different, especially around here. Yes, we’ve made some great gains in race relations and issues surrounding the tension therein, but prejudice still abounds, even if it is done more subtly now than ever before.

In the class photos you can see the differences, in the abundance of curly, kinky hair, in the fullness of the lips, in the curve of the nose. These characteristics she inherited from me, and I’m proud of that, that I can see some of myself, and of my heritage, in her, even just physically. She gets so much from her mother too, but the one thing that stands out most, especially when looking at the class photos, is her skin color. There is a bit of a Mariah Carey light mocha coloring she has that is so beautiful to me, but I know when others see it they have their own ideas. I will honestly never know why, but some people can’t stand what they don’t understand.

When we are out and about without my wife, it’s interesting to see how differently people treat us, and how they treat me in particular. We are a black family when I am with my children on my own. It’s plain to see when older black women smile at the kids, as if they were their own grandchildren, or when we pass older white couples who look at us like we’re a completely new species. These same older black women, and these same older white couples, treat us differently when we are all together. In fact, they tend to ignore us and go about their business. They don’t “get” us. They can’t wrap their brains around an interracial couple, a mixed race family, even now, in this day and age.

The first time I heard someone use the ‘N’ word I was probably about 8 years old and it was on my block, a place comprised of all black folk, and the term was meant to be endearing. Continue reading “The ‘N’ Word”

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