I used to joke that even though I appeared to be a white, gay Jewish male I was, really, a big Black woman – preferably one who could sing like Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson or, if I chose to go a bit more exotic, Nina Simone. Well, live long enough and any metaphor becomes obsolete and somewhat offensive – or even timely.
It’s difficult to know what one can joke about anymore. Certainly, it’s impossible to decide just what is timely. I decided late this week to bite the bullet and write about Rachel Dolezal, the just resigned former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who was exposed as biologically White after a decade or more passing as Black (Note: Though there was and is still some debate on just what constitutes being Black). But then the idiocy of our national obsession with Ms. Dolezal was swiftly shifted by the actions of one truly undebatable WHITE 21 year-old Southern male.
When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., one of the first Black churches in the country, and shot nine innocent Black people dead after spending an hour as part of their Bible study group on Wednesday night, the meaning of being Black in America once again became crystal clear.
It is not about releasing your inner Aretha Franklin. It is not about crimping your hair, fighting for civil rights, having friends and family members who are African-American in bearing, or possessing any appreciation or talent for rapping, soul food recipes, community service or the historical nature of oppression.
To be Black in the U.S. means to be at risk and to always be, in some small or even miniscule fashion, and despite your apparent economic or social status, looking over your shoulder. It means to be in danger even when you feel 100% safe. And, if one makes the decision to survive and live a relatively happy life, it means deciding, given those parameters, to figure out a way to turn the other cheek on all that and – like all the rest of us – play the hand you were dealt to the best you can so you can fulfill your destiny.
On the other hand, what the hell do I know about being Black in America? What can any White person every REALLY know? Not very much. Because on some very, very teeny tiny level being Black in America is NOT yet like being like all the rest of us – as I just so cavalierly mentioned in the last line of the paragraph above. I guess I will have to be on a journalistic learning curve for the time being on that one for, as we now once again know, old habits die hard.
As a screenwriter and journalist I’ve imagined myself as characters in countless scenarios. I have been male, female and various other animals of all kinds of ages, races and heights with extremely moral codes and deadly murderous streaks. I’ve been a Hispanic single mother, a wealthy Black politician, a white female cabaret singer, a nerdy Jewish boy (Note: That one was soooooo easy) and, currently, a very young white newspaper editor from the Midwest in the mid 1970s with a penchant for justice so strong that I am now in the process of risking my job, friends and family for my principals despite all seeming logic to the contrary. (Note: Don’t worry, that character’s story WILL have a somewhat victorious ending. I mean, please – it’s Hollywood).
All of these imaginations, presumed personalities and dramatic machinations, as a therapist told me years ago, are merely outgrowths of a personal talent for invention, or more precisely, reinvention, that helps the real me deal with life. I concoct stories as a coping method to deal with difficult situations (both fictional and from my real life) and create my very own convincing beginnings, middles and ends around them. But this only works as a way to make me feel better about who I am and the events around me – as I have painfully learned over the years. Although it can certainly be the impetus for me – and perhaps my limited or maybe one day vast audience – for seeing the truth/my truth and creating personal change it is a fiction. In other words, it is not, nor can it ever be, real life. Meaning – it was not reality.
In other words:
One can’t walk in someone else’s skin because we are all born with our own very specific skin.
Marvel Studios made this abundantly clear in a recently leaked Sony email that reveals that in its contract for the Spiderman movies with Sony it is a legal requirement that the movie Spiderman’s human alter ego, Peter Parker, must always be CAUCASIAN and HETEROSEXUAL and that Spiderman himself NOT be a HOMOSEXUAL.
As if there were ever a chance any of these could ever thus be so.
When a rumor recently floated that renowned British actor Idris Elba could one day be the future and first Black James Bond it created an international Twitter exchange, culminating not only with eventual denials from Elba but a public statement by 1970s movie star and former Bond co-star Yaphet Kotto that the mere idea of that was ridiculous and silly.
And that’s only in the movies. Imagine how uppity it could get in other areas. For instance, let’s take politics. Can you consider that one day that we might actually have…I mean, that there could sometime in the future really be…a Black president of the United Sates?
Of course, this says nothing of how Black you have to be in order to be categorized as BLACK. Pres. Obama is half-Black and half-White, which seems to count as being Black. Yet some years ago, it surfaced that Broadway star Carol Channing’s paternal grandfather was Black, making her about 25% Black. Yet this seems to be enough for her to still be considered White, though perhaps that’s just because she’s 94 years old and we’ve always thought of her as such. Still, it doesn’t make it good for the public racial future of Rachel Dolezal. She might have two children with a Black man who identify as Black and several adopted siblings who are Black but now that the closet door has been opened she can never truly change her public face – meaning skin color.
That this would count for anything seems so odd, doesn’t it? I mean, don’t we all require or at least hope our houses and apartments are painted a new, fresh color before we move in? Yes, that color has traditionally been white but lately eggshell, gray, putty or even…well, pick you choice are starting to become popular. Though not yet Black. Can you ever imagine Black walls? I mean, really….
My husband and I have just moved into a new home that is set against a hillside. It’s safe but over a three week period we’d noticed more than a small rock or two falling into our patio and decided to hire some experienced people to haul out some of the dirt and gravel and build some small barriers for reinforcement and ensure (as much as possible) the safety of ourselves and our dog.
The head of the crew we hired to do this is not Black but he is Mexican (Note: Let’s call him Walter, just for fun) and over the last few days we’ve bonded over a mutual respect for the machinations of Mother Nature and a shared penchant for somewhat politically incorrect humor. Walter and I have joked about everything from my lack of knowledge about plants and building things to the fact that all of his siblings have advanced and multiple college degrees in various “professional” occupations while he decided to go into the family business of taking care of the yards (Note: In his case it’s usually grounds, he’s slumming with us) of many of these same professional people.
Nowhere was this more apparent to Walter than when his working class self went to his local bank to cash a large (well, by my standards) check for supplies I had written to him personally. No sooner had he gotten to the teller for the deposit than a manager was called over to look over the check. After a few minutes, the guy looked Walter dead on and the following conversation ensued:
Bank Manager: This check looks washed.
Walter: Huh? What are you talking about?
Bank Manager: It looks like a fake.
Walter: Well, I saw the guy (Note: That would be me, Your Chair) writing it from his own checkbook.
Bank: Well, just remember, it’s gonna come out of your account if it’s no good.
Walter pauses, thinks. Then –
Walter: Well, okay, but I mean, I trust the dude.
Bank Manager: Okay, but — remember — it’s your responsibility.
The first thing I did when Walter related this story – after reassuring him about the money – was to ask him what the heck it meant for a check to be washed. He explained it’s when someone takes a check, washes off the ink and then fills in their own amount. Okay, I thought, that’s nervy and inventive – but these checks are brand new – is there something about my signature or writing that makes them look dirty?
My second reaction, as I thought about it, was outrage. I mean, really? Walter may be a big Mexican guy who lives in the hood, albeit in a nice house with a wife and two kids, and has an accent, but really – he has a business account there and he comes in all the time. Is he really going to pass a bad check?
This guy that questioned you about the check, this really pisses me off, I confess to Walter.
Ah, I don’t let those things bother me, dude. It is what it is.
Yeah, but I mean, I bet if I were trying to cash the check, I wouldn’t have gotten that remark, I tell him.
Probably not, Walter replies. But I’m used to it.
Of course, there are a whole bunch of things he could probably say about me, though it would have nothing to do with whether he’d cash my check.
Yeah, I hear that, Walter says.
One more thing, I tell him. I’ll bet this was a White guy, right? Probably like a middle-aged, middle class white guy, right?
Actually, Walter replied, it was a young Black dude. The Blacks and Mexicans, they got a thing going. But, well — I try not to take it personally.
Well, that makes one of us. I guess that’s some sort of start. Though only kind of.