I’m A Black Man (Don’t Look At Me)

I’m a black man. I don’t think about it very often, but there it is anyway. I said it. It’s out there. Of course if you met me in person it might be one of the first things you think of, depending on where you’re from, or how old you are. I’ve gotten quite adept at interpreting “the look,” the one that says you see my color, the one that gives me an inkling of where your thoughts are, for better or for worse.

You see, I’ve gotten that look since I was first able to register looks. There’s the look that says, “I recognize you’re a black man and that I’m supposed to be afraid of you.” There’s the look that says, “I recognize you’re a black man and I’m intrigued by it.” And then there’s the look that proclaims, “I recognize you’re a black man and I hate you for it.” Luckily I don’t see that last look quite as much as I used to, or maybe it’s just my rose-colored glasses again.

When I was a kid I didn’t really know how to interpret the looks that said I was a black man in training. I knew I was black, instinctively, the way you know you’re in water because you’re wet. But what that meant I wasn’t quite aware of, aside from the looks anyway. Generally I didn’t come into too much contact with anyone who wasn’t black for a very long time. I lived a sheltered life, meaning those around me were largely also black. Growing up in Southwest Philly wasn’t quite the diverse atmosphere in the 80’s.

But once I began seeing white people on a regular basis, once I started high school (where to be black was indeed a minority) it became obvious that there was a difference between them and me. For one, I was seen as a member of the minority just by looking the way I did. It wasn’t a negative, per se, but it was definitely obvious. The black kids sat at separate lunch tables, sat together in class, and pretty much segregated themselves from the whites and “others” at the school. At least that’s what I saw, because to my young brain it seemed like real separation. Looking back, though, I think everyone was friendly. It was just that at its base the race dynamic tended to dominate, at least in social situations.

The looks changed, though, when I got a little older and began dating. Because I didn’t tend to choose the “safe” black girls to date, the ones that would have been mother approved simply because of the tone of their skin. I tended to look at girls who had lighter skin and could turn orange if they so chose. Luckily they generally didn’t choose this particular shade, but being white wasn’t seen as a positive. That’s where it got interesting. To that point all the looks I got and recognized were from white people, because I was a black man, and weren’t they supposed to be afraid of me? I began to get different looks when I stepped out on the town with white women.

For a black man, to be with a white woman can be daunting. First, because of the obvious stereotypes of interracial couples, but also because too many people actually believe in those stereotypes. They believe that a black man is simply a beast, and that a white woman who is with a black man must be looking to be submissive. They believe that like has to stay with like, that diluting the racial pool is akin to taking a sledgehammer to the Constitution. The looks these people give are scathing, withering stares, as if they can’t possibly believe what they’re seeing, but that it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen.

The biggest difference in these looks from the initial ones is that these looks come from just as many black people as they do white folk. So, while I was used to being seen as “other” from white people, I hadn’t gotten quite a taste of what being seen as “other” from black people was like. I got it in full force once my dating life began, even in as big and as diverse a city as Philadelphia. I guess my own circles were small enough. The looks were many, and were fierce, some people going as far as to say something under their breath, but not quite under their breath, knowing that I heard them, but also knowing I wouldn’t dare approach them about it.

Most of these people, I have to say, were older. Old black women, old white men, old white women, old black men, it didn’t seem to matter based on gender. It was just WRONG for a young black man to be attracting the fancy of a white woman. It was just unheard of for a white woman to be seen in the company of a black man, to hold hands in public, or even to show other public displays of affection so they couldn’t imagine (as they were wont to do) that we were friends, and nothing more. It’s just funny to me that even as society advanced these people went absolutely nowhere, preferring to keep holding on tightly to preconceived notions of how the world “should be.”

Then I got married and had children, who are mixed race, and they look it. I find it fascinating that now I get a whole other range of looks that at first I couldn’t identify. Many of these new looks are positive. I’m a black man who is there for his children, who is spending time with them, who isn’t a deadbeat. And I guess that’s not as positive as it sounds at first, because isn’t that an assumption that black men aren’t there for their children? My children are often called beautiful by perfect strangers who claim that, “aren’t mixed race kids the cutest?” And I often think, the more we change the more we stay the same.

These looks shift depending on who I’m with or whether I’m alone. When I’m by myself I still get the initial looks, just for being a black man. These looks don’t happen as often as they used to, but I still recognize them the second they do occur. I know this one black guy who claims to embrace the looks, who always plays on it like it’s some kind of joke. Like, yeah, “this one store only hires one black person as a token.” Like, yeah, “somebody’s gotta be black around here. Might as well be me.” I can’t be like him, though, because I really have hope for a world where it’s just another thing.

I’d like to think we live in that world already, but the looks tell me otherwise. Still.


Black Friends

“It’s hard for me to make black friends.”

11965720-friend-friendship-relationship-teammate-teamwork-society-icon-sign-symbol-pictogramI saw this on my Facebook newsfeed today, but it’s always been just as true for me. For those of you who don’t know me, who are reading my blog for the first time, I am black. I say this because I think it matters in the framework of the above quote. A white guy said this on my Facebook newsfeed, but it’s just as true for me.

I grew up in an entirely black neighborhood, I was a member of an entirely black church, and I went to an entirely black elementary school, but that didn’t make it any easier to find black friends. There were many black people around, so I had many black acquaintances, yet I didn’t really get close to anyone. It may have been some combination of my initial shyness, my lack of common ground with them, and/or my low opinion of myself.

Or it could just be that too many black people are too familiar with too many other black people without really knowing them. That has always been a pet peeve of mine. I would love to get to know you, but when you assume that you already know everything you need to know about me I bristle. Maybe it’s just because I’ve never felt normal, whatever that means, so I hate assumptions of normality.

But I shouldn’t generalize, right? As I very much know, not all black people are the same, even if the culture calls for over-familiarization when it comes to other black people. Getting through the initial assumptions, though, they’re tough, especially when the over-arching societal structures don’t allow for getting beneath the surface when you meet someone new.

Besides that, I don’t meet very many black people these days, which makes it that much harder to make black friends. I made the decision to live where I do, to work where I work, and to be where I am, so that’s partially a byproduct of those decisions, but I have to be honest. Even if I met a slew of black people every day, what are the odds that some of them would be my friends?

It’s hard for me to make black friends, even though I’m black. Maybe even because I’m black. But I guess it’s hardest for me to make black friends because for me people are people, because it was difficult for me to even put the term “black” in front of so many nouns in this post. It’s hard for me to make friends, period, which is okay. I’m an excellent friend once you get to know me, once you get to trust me, but not many take that opportunity.

Which is okay, because I hear that quality of friends is so much more important than quantity of friends, no matter their color.


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.


The Quietest Black Man in America

224183_10200178745216477_1951925987_nMyth #1: All black men are loud.

I can’t tell you the number of times people claim I’ve tried to scare them by appearing out of nowhere. Truth is I’m light of foot, and I don’t even realize I make no sound when I approach most times. And I guess it is somewhat ironic considering I’m 6 foot 4 1/2 inches, I weigh over 200 pounds, and I’m a black man. Maybe I’m the quietest black man in America.

Myth #2: All blackĀ  men have rhythm.

Watch the film, and you’ll see that this just cannot be true. What film? Well, pretty much any home movie featuring the dance stylistics of yours truly. I’ve studied the dance moves of the greatest: Astaire, Mr. Bojangles, Michael Jackson, and even Psy (of Gangnam Style fame), but somehow it all looks the same when I try to do it, like a seal flopping around attempting to catch some fish for the long winter ahead.

Myth #3: All black men have a code.

The special handshake, the odd phrasing, and the instant familiarity even when you’ve never met another black man before, that’s what I’m faced with day in and day out (at least on the days when I see other black men — it’s not every day). Luckily the handshake has gone out of fashion lately, replaced with a head nod (up, not down), so I can do that, but I’ll never understand the odd phrasing (damn straight, boo), and yeah, I just met you, so how can we be familiar? Because somewhere in both of our histories we come from slaves? Or from Africa? Um.

Myth #4: All black men are good at sports.

This has been perpetuated more and more lately since we’ve been “allowed” to integrate into the major sports like basketball, football, baseball, and yes, even hockey. Black guys are even playing soccer, but that doesn’t mean we’re all sports gods. Quite the contrary. For every one black guy who can throw a touchdown pass are about a thousand of us who are lucky we don’t drop our coffee cups on the way back to the living room.

Myth #5: All black men have nicknames.

Jimbo. Sleepy Shawn. Wild Bill. Boom Boom. Lil’ Boom Boom. Too often black men’s mamas name them one thing but call them another. Then they pick up another moniker on the playground or the basketball court, and it sticks. So for all the people who know this one guy by “Bucket Head,” there’s a whole bunch of others who call him “Moody Tre.” But for every black man who has a nickname there are maybe 10 others who just have weird names that are actually on their birth certificates.

Myth #6: All black men are deadbeats.

I’ll admit that a ton of black guys aren’t holding up their end of the bargain when they get a woman pregnant. It’s your kid, then you need to be involved, no matter how you feel about your baby mama. But that’s not just a black man thing. That’s a deadbeat man thing, and it needs to stop. Too many times I see kids who aren’t black who are raised without their fathers, and it’s just sad because it’s so avoidable. Just step up men. Maybe black guys are more known for it because black women badmouth them into next year.

Myth #7: All black men objectify women.

I blame Sir Mix-a-Lot for most of this, at least since the ’90s. Baby got back indeed. The truth is that black men are just like other men in this respect. Not all of us like “juicy doubles,” not all of us are into the hourglass look, and not all of us are shallow wanks. Black men who were raised right and who took that to heart are just as appreciative and respectful to a good woman as anyone else who has values. Just because the media likes to portray us as sexists who use women doesn’t mean it’s true.

Myth #8: All black men like rap.

Okay okay. So I do like some rap, but I also like classical music, ragtime, reggae, ska, rock, r&b, metal, and bits and pieces of most musical genres out there. There’s nothing I hate worse than people who take one look at me and think that all I listen to is rap music. The other day I blasted some Alanis Morissette and people were shocked. Yeah, stop judging before you get to know me. Alanis is da bomb. Maybe I should play my music without headphones more often.

And maybe I should get some louder shoes.


Ain’t Pickin’ Cotton

racecardWhy is race never an issue until it is?

We spend so much of our lives not concerned with race, but when something happens how come it’s the first thing we think about? A picture flashes up on the TV screen, and it’s a mug shot of a black man. He has two gold capped teeth and he grins broadly, seemingly proud of whatever crime they claim he’s committed, the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen. My first thought is that he’s been set up, but my good friend Phil says it’s obvious he’s guilty. The difference between me and Phil? He’s white.

My wife said something stark and real the other day when we were talking about people who play the race card, whose first excuse is always that people had bias against them because of the color of their skin. She said that she doesn’t consider race unless she’s in a place where she is one of the few white people in a sea of “others.” When she’s in the minority, she says, it becomes almost the default to consider race. And she wondered if maybe that’s why those people who play the race card as their calling card do it so quickly, because they’ve been forced into it by societal definitions.

And I see her point as clearly as I see my own face in the mirror. Just as I’ve been conditioned to recognize race faster than she is because I’ve always been in the minority, she’s been conditioned not to recognize race because she’s always been in the majority. But our world is changing. This nation is changing, and what constitutes minority just isn’t the same anymore. We commingle and reproduce, shifting the sands of a culture that was never really inclusive to begin with. So playing the race card just isn’t really that relevant anymore.

That’s not to say that race can’t still be an issue. There are still enough racists out and about, breeding their hate like pollution, but we ain’t pickin’ cotton no more. We ain’t standin’ idly by while others define us. But we also ain’t blamin’ others for what we do as individuals. History doesn’t define us. Antagonism doesn’t show us its mirror image. What we do we take responsibility for, but we won’t be caught dead taking slack for something we didn’t do, for something our ancestors did instead, and we won’t hold others responsible for what they didn’t do. While there may be the few out there still using that race card as an excuse, even they know how flimsy it is.

Because we ain’t pickin’ cotton no more.



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.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: