The “New Black”

“The now-cool-for-black-people list: skateboarding, listening to rock music, wearing clothes that fit, being the token black guy.” ~Anonymous


I went to a Dave Matthews Band concert once. It seems like ages ago now. It was back in the time when I was hyper aware of race (when am I not?) and I kept looking around while I was at the show for other black folk. Concerts for DMB tend to skew white, whiter, and whitest, which is funny since more than half the band is black. Three hours long that show was. Not one other black person did I see.

This was back in 1997, though, so I’m sure things would be different if I were to go to another DMB show today. Right? The culture surrounding these kinds of shows is conducive for black people now, I’m sure. Or maybe the more things change the more they stay the same. Stereotypes are powerful deterrents for those who might otherwise partake in something, for those who might have been persuaded to go somewhere if those pervasive generalizations did not exist.

I’ve only been on a skateboard as a joke before. I’ve certainly never ridden one the way I’ve seen guys do at skate parks with all the tricks and such. It’s not because I feel it’s the territory of white folk, though. It’s because I’m just not interested in skinning up my arms, knees, and other body parts. You also wouldn’t catch me playing a game of roller hockey, or mixing it up in a boxing ring, or even at a demolition derby. That’s just not me.

cultureI do, however, adore rock music. I always have. There’s just something about a pure guitar lick that makes me feel like I’m in heaven. There’s just something in the guttural screaming of a rock god that transcends most other things here on earth. Don’t get me wrong. I listen to most different kinds of music, but rock music has been and remains my favorite. That’s why I was at that Dave Matthews Band concert, and why I’ve been to many others like it over the course of my life.

Some people call me the “new black,” as if cinching my pants at the waist with a belt is somehow anti-culture. Well, guess what? Black culture isn’t all watermelons, collard greens, saggy pants, cuss words, and gang signs. It’s what we make of it, those of us who identify as black, those of us who grew up in the ghettos and the inner cities of a black culture that has always been about surviving — and then, after we’ve survived, about having fun.

If that sounds familiar that’s because it should be. This idea of the “new black” is disconcerting to me because it disregards centuries of black people who haven’t fit the stereotype. Sure, the stereotype is there for a reason, but when did it stop being a judgment and start being a reason? Do these young black thugs hang out on street corners and sling dime bags because it’s an expectation based on where they come from and media perception? Or do they do it as a reaction to the system shutting them out for being black? Sounds like a catch-22 to me.

I’m often the token black guy, so I know what it’s like to be some white people’s only exposure to black culture. I realize they have been exposed to media definitions of black people, and that largely I don’t fit those stereotypes, so I imagine they’re confused by me. Often I’ve even gotten the question about what things were like growing up in the black ghetto, about being myself in the midst of things that are not me. And I tell them nothing is as black and white (no pun intended) as they’ve been led to believe.

I try to be the best version of me that I can possibly be…

We are all individuals, and this idea of a “new black” is just as misleading as the generalization that all black guys wear their pants around their ankles. The truth lies in the middle, in that gray area that we hardly ever see, much less give credence to as an alternative to the prevalent view. But I live with it. I try to be the best version of me that I can possibly be, so that others can see there isn’t one reality, that there isn’t only one way to be black.

Because I’m black, but that’s just one part of who I am. I am so much more that you can only find out by spending time with me, by exposing those stereotypes for what they are — judgments loosely based on general ideas about a culture, from one perspective. There are so many perspectives, though, so many black folk who can be found at Metallica concerts, who wear pocket squares, and who speak using correct grammatical structures. It might seem novel and new to you…

But that’s how it’s always been. And how it will always be.



black-and-white-from-the-series-line-form-color-1951Light-skinned hues
Such masquerading
Multi-faceted lies
And straightened hair
Slaves to a culture
They should despise
This dark slides light
Leaving shadows
Such soul depressions
In filthy lines
Waiting for change
A tacit acceptance
The status quo
Shifting in sand
Bleached out and drying
These solid ghosts
Trying to blend in
While the world shifts
And new lines are drawn
As quiet as forever
Passing them by
Like twinkling stars
In the blink of an eye.

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”

The Year I Was Santa

When I was 16, I went to work for the Philadelphia Vision Center. My primary job was going throughout the neighborhood, putting flyers on people’s porches, in their screen doors, in their mailboxes (against the law), and in their hands. For this service, I was paid $5 an hour under the table, a rather handsome sum in 1992 for a high school junior who had never had a real job before. And the job was easy at first, the walk throughout the neighborhood invigorating, the conversation with people interesting, and the flyers pretty much took care of themselves. But after a couple of months, people were tired of seeing me. If they were going to come to the Vision Center, they had already done so, and if they weren’t, I was the last person they wanted to see coming. Then there were the dogs on the lawns who barked at me like they wanted me for supper, so when it got to be December I was so excited when the boss called me into his office and offered me a change of pace.

“I noticed how tall and strong you are,” he said to start, and I knew he was heading somewhere exciting. “And the guy we had last year isn’t coming back this year,” he continued. I was totally hooked by then. “So we want you to be Santa Claus for us this year,” he finished. By that point he could have told me he wanted me to sell Tootsie Rolls to senior citizens and I would have taken him up on it, I was so bored with my daily route (I called it my daily rut). I jumped at the chance, and top it off he said he would pay me extra for every person I brought in to the shop, whether or not they purchased glasses. I could just see the money rolling in.

So I suited up, all 6 feet 3 inches of me, in a bright red velour outfit with white sleeves and suit trim. The conical hat was a bit snug on my large head, even though I had shaved myself bald for just the occasion, but it sort of fit, and that was good enough for me. The major problem, I noticed from the start, was the mustache and beard. It itched like crazy from the moment I put it on until I took it off again. No one tells you about how much it itches, so much so that I had to keep taking it off and scratching my face (that was very pretty when I would have to go home for the night with my face bright red where the beard had been). A pillow for my belly (I was quite thin) completed the ensemble, and I wore black sneakers instead of the classic boots because the boots that went with the outfit were way too small for my monster sized feet. I was ready. first day they gave me my bag of flyers and sent me out in front of the store. Now, just to give you the picture of the avenue, it was pretty congested, with a corner drug store, a check cashing place, and an inner city department store right in the vicinity. That brought the traffic, and I was supposed to direct that traffic into the Vision Center so I could get paid. So I walked back and forth in a five-block radius wearing the hot suit, the fake belly, and the itchy beard, screaming at the top of my lungs, “Ho Ho HO,” and hoped that no lady took offense, handing out my flyers to anyone who would pause long enough to see why a tall black man in a Santa Suit was in their neighborhood. And for the first few days, I did direct more traffic into the store, if just for pure curiosity’s sake.

Now, that was only the first part of my new job, however. The second part was that every hour, on the hour, I had to return to the store, head to the side room, and take photographs with the children of the people I had wrangled into coming to the Vision Center. This tertiary part of the job was probably my favorite because, 1) I got to come inside and sit down for a few minutes, and 2) I got to listen to all kinds of crazy requests from kids wanting all kinds of things their parents could probably never afford. The kids spanned all kinds of ranges, too, from as young as one, to as old as thirteen, and all ethnicities, from Chinese to Puerto Rican, and from white to black. They would all sit on my lap, I would ask them the standard questions, and then we would both pose as my temporary cameraman (they paid him under the table too) snapped a shot with a Kodak camera that the kids could take home as witness of their rendezvous with Santa Claus. And every once in awhile one of the little denizens would tug on my beard, which would hurt. Then I got to head back on the strip to drum up more business.

One story always sticks in my head when I think back to that year when I was Santa, and it happened in that side room when I was on my photography break, listening to kids waxing eloquent about how good they had been that year, and how much they deserved the world in return. There was this one kid who was sitting, waiting his turn, who kept looking at me strangely. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, a small black kid with a mini-fro and Converse sneakers. I remember the kind of sneakers because I wore Converse too at the time. When it was his turn, he came over slowly and sat down on my lap, like all the kids before him, but instead of talking up his merits, or requesting astronomical things, the conversation went this way instead:

“Santa ain’t black,” he told me, point black, as he stared me down. I was quite taken aback by this kid, but I answered as quickly as I could.

“Yes, he is,” I said, the first thing that came to mind.

“Nuh unh,” he said. “Santa is some old white dude.”

“That’s what people want you to think,” I said, “so the real Santa can chill here at the Vision Center without being disrupted too much.”

“But you ain’t even wearing boots,” he said, the little lawyer. “Everybody knows Santa wears boots.”

“The boots are getting cleaned,” I replied, almost smiling. “By the elves.”

“That ain’t right, man,” he continued, shaking his head from side to side and still staring me down.

“Yeah, it is,” I said, starting to get annoyed. “Now what do you want for Christmas?”

“I want a dog, but my mom says it’s not gonna happen,” he said, still shaking his head dubiously. “You gonna make it happen?”

“Well,” I began, “it’s tough when mom and dad don’t want a pet in the house. Only so much that Santa can do.”

“See, I knew you wasn’t the real Santa,” he nearly shouted in my face. But I had had enough of it.

“Look, kid. I’m the real Santa. Now you want a picture with me or not?” I said, barely raising my voice. He looked at me, all steely eyed, then he looked down at my sneakers one more time, paused, and opened his mouth. I had to admit I had no idea which way it was going to go.

“Okay, man. Let’s get this picture done,” he said in his ‘little man’ voice, and that’s just what we did.


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