Thursday, July 22, 2010

Life Lessons

I had an experience the other day that left me filled with so many contradictory emotions that I feel the need to write about it. My writing has always been where I’ve gone when I need clarity. As I explain in print what I’m feeling, I often understand better what it is that I’m actually going through.

My adolescence and even my adult life is littered with lengthy, heartfelt, meticulously typed letters to lovers, friends and family detailing how I felt after fights -- explaining in the overly articulate detail of aftermath why I really won or why I was apologizing -- or as a way to release inner thoughts, positive or negative, that I had trouble expressing in person. There’s even a stack of old journals written to myself from the eighties that I’m almost afraid to re-read, remembering the highs and the lows of those years. Words have the power to bring back both the pleasure and the pain of the past, sometimes more vividly than is comfortable.

This particular event occurred at my local Chase bank, as I entered with my battered bike to get twenty dollars from my account to buy some vegetables at a local farmer’s market to make a salad. The day before I’d grilled some salmon I’d bought on sale, cooked enough for two meals, and realized that I could add it to a cold salad on a hot day, if I just steeled myself for one brief exposure to the heat and humidity to get the fixings.

I was in a good mood. The day was a classically hot and muggy New York summer Sunday, but the idea of eating a cold salad in front of the fan, in front of the computer, pleased me no end and made it worth venturing out.

A black man my age, maybe a little younger, but with a harder history, opened the door with the broad smile of someone who wanted something.

“Come on in, brother!” he said, and ushered me inside, adding that any help to him on my way out would be appreciated. I’m one of those people who will always buy a meal for anyone on the street who says they’re hungry and asks to be fed. I’d like to think I’d clothe the naked as well. But I stopped handing out cash in the nineties, as it got harder to earn and as more people, younger and in better shape than I, were asking me for it, with increasing belligerence, as if somehow it was my duty.

He had a plastic cooler next to him, and as I got my solitary twenty from the cash machine, all I could afford to take out that day, a white woman who‘d walked out as I entered came back to the door and sheepishly handed him a dollar for one of the tiny bottles of water he had on ice for sale, her eyes downcast in guilt. I finished my transaction, and turned to go.

As I approached the door, he began his spiel again, rapidly going from a fake cheerful, “Gonna help a brother out?” to snide derision as it became clear I had no intention of doing so. By the time I hit the door, he was accusing me of letting down the black race by not giving him money, and I felt a flush of embarrassment rise as I exited. Not content, he followed me out the door, and continued his tirade.

I got mad and started responding, yelled back that he was no great representative, and that I had done more for black people than he could imagine, and in return was told, “You don’t even sound black!” spat out as if it was the worst thing he could think of to say. And it was. I launched into a rant that I cut off only because I was heading across a street with my bike and didn’t want to be smeared across Fifth Avenue by traffic.

He stepped back inside the air-conditioned ATM to peddle his wares and his line. I biked down to the Farmer’s Market, angry and ashamed, without knowing why I was reacting so strongly. I understand now, of course, after taking time to process it and talking to several friends of assorted ethnicities about the encounter.

But as I fumed then and came up with all the things I could have said to put him in his place, I came back to one thing. He was a hustler and he’d hustled me. Guilt is the panhandler’s first line of offense, and he’d just clicked into a mode that had worked for him in the past with articulate middle class black folk who may feel some residual guilt that they’re doing better than their less successful fellows.

It wasn’t any great insight he was exercising, or even a truth he was revealing. It was an animal survival reflex. Tearing into him, showing off the high verbal skills he’d mocked, wouldn’t make me the winner, or make me feel any better, even if I made it past his emotional armor to get in a dig.

I was left confronting my real issue. Why do I feel guilty about being educated, being a professional black writer who owns his own home (though still broke at times between jobs), has travelled the world, written and produced hours of television seen across the planet, with two published novels? And why should I?

Of course the obvious answer is that I shouldn’t, but all my life I’ve had to deal with people, both black and white, who have tried, as so many did with Barack Obama, to define my blackness. In my Catholic high school, where my Harlem-raised mother sent me to get a grounded education she felt would be better than public school, I had an argument with two white friends who insisted that, in their words, “You’re not black. You talk like us, you like the things we do. You’re the same as us.”

To them, my manner and cultural tastes were enough to exempt me from blackness, and they meant it as a compliment in their own weird way. In their minds they were accepting me as one of them, despite my skin color, when I wanted to be accepted along with my skin color, not as a faux Caucasian, but as an articulate educated black man like the ones I grew up around.

On a family vacation trip to the Pegleg Bates Resort in the Catskills where there was no one my age to hang with, a group of younger black kids gathered around me one day, going on and on in thick southern accents that I “talked funny. You sound like that Get Smart guy!”

Neither confrontation was meant to be malign. Both were just expressions of astonishment that someone who looked one way should sound and act so differently from others they’d seen that looked like me.

I’ve never wanted to be white -- not that there’s anything wrong with it. If anything, I bemoaned the melting pot past that gave me thin lips and what I saw in profile as a ski jump nose, wanting to be have the full rounded features and dark unblemished sheen of my best friend David from down the street when I lived in Cincinnati. Most of my life I’d grown up on Air Force bases, surrounded by all races, but mostly white. I sounded like very other kid who did the same. We all grew up without a regional accent. “The newscaster voice,” we used to call it as kids. We sounded like the TV shows we watched no matter where we lived, a flat, neutral, slightly nasal accent, like a British actor impersonating an American.

Honey, I can “code switch” with the best of them in a room of black folks at ease, dropping the professional veneer many of us affect at work to be taken seriously. But my default is that nasal Get Smart guy, and on the phone, I’ve had more than one misunderstanding because of the way I sound -- a blessing and a curse, as they say, that has worked both to my advantage and disadvantage. I know I am not alone in any of this, and that we’re all susceptible to having that button pushed. Which brings me to my realization.

Why have we allowed ourselves to culturally support the idea that educated black people are somehow losing their heritage if they rise up the economic ladder into the middle class and above, when for generations we were told to do exactly that by the best and the brightest among us? There’s no reason I should feel guilty for living up to guidelines laid down by Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King and a host of others.

My emotional reaction, the flash of shame and guilt that the panhandler’s hurled abuse raised in me isn’t his fault -- it isn’t the fault of everyone who’s ever told a black kid that doing well in school is somehow a disgrace, that speaking “proper English” well enough to get a good job is turning your back on your people.

It’s my fault for listening, for letting myself diminish the years I spent staying up and studying to get passing grades (not always by as wide a margin as I would have liked), the years I spent working when I could have been partying (not that I didn’t party at all -- oh, I did!), the time I spent becoming the person I am today, a guy I finally appreciate.

That guy is black -- not African-American. My gene pool is far too diffuse for me to claim any one branch of my family tree as my sole origin. Like most of us, I am a Black-American mutt, a wonderful genetic soup cooked up from the races, cultures and widespread geographies that combined to make me. I carry them all proudly, the good and the bad, as we all do in this gumbo called the United States, as divisive as we are.

Short of recent immigrants, no one here is pure anything. That is the chemistry that drives this nation forward -- a distillation process that reduces everything and everyone down to a common goal -- the pursuit of happiness -- without diluting the ingredients it took to make it.

I am resolved not to be embarrassed ever again by who or what I am, or how I am perceived by others. I am a proud black gay man who took decades to find his ethnic identity and self-image in a world and time that offered few choices I could embrace, forcing me to forge my own path. I know my politics, and they are left and liberal. I know my own mind and it is rich and full of ideas that no one has had before, as are all our heads.

That is what the encounter at the ATM has given me -- the right to be me, as I’m finally able to allow everyone else the right to be who they are, as they please, as long as it doesn’t harm others.

To do no harm -- the essence of the Hippocratic Oath -- the heart of any good religion worth believing in and of any good God. I don’t have to hurt the haters. In the end they only hurt themselves by hating. After a lifetime of Catholic education I’m learning again to turn the other cheek, to feel empathy for the man who basically spat on who and what I am, only because I wouldn’t give him what he wanted for doing something I didn’t want done.

In the end we are all only as good as we can be. How well we do is for someone or something greater than us to judge, if we need to be judged at all. I’m just trying to put down my own gavel, and accept the world for what it is, others for who they are, and maybe, just maybe, if anything, trying to leave things here just a little better than they were when I arrived.

If getting from shame and anger to that quiet comfortable place is where writing can take me, then I’m happy to keep doing it. More than anything, that’s why my writing is so important in my life, why I make time for it, and why I open my mind to where it takes me. It tells me who I am.

And if I see that guy in the Chase bank again, I’ll probably give him a dollar this time, without worrying about what he’ll do with it, or passing judgment conjecturing on what brought him there. As far as tuition payments go, it’s pretty reasonable, and I’ve paid far more for lessons far less valuable.


Charles Gramlich said...

What an interesting post. I'd love to see this one get a wide audience. I'm white, but I've taught for almost 25 years at Xavier University in Louisiana, which is predominantly black. I've seen this kind of thing happen with some of my colleagues and students. I can see the war that they have to fight and I know it is a real one even though it seems 'such' a waste of time and energy.

Although nowhere near to the same extent, educated white southerners sometimes get a tiny little taste of this when we hang around educated northerners.

Terence Taylor said...

Thanks! The subject of a conversation I had with a white friend who said much the same thing, while trying to wrap my head around this subject. I just feel sad when people I respect and don't put down feel compelled to put me down.

Terence Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liane Spicer said...

Love the post, Terence. This particular brand of inner turmoil is a reality for many of us, but like you I'm getting to the place where the provokers don't knee-jerk me.

I have tripped on behalf of my students up to fairly recently, though, such as when other students call them names like 'oreo' because they're bright, high-achieving, articulate and interested in stuff like, yanno, literature. And like you, I use writing to help me process the BS.

Liane Spicer said...

Oh, loving the images, btw.

Farrah Rochon said...

Extremely powerful post, and an unfortunate reality for many educated black people. I once had an older white woman tell me I "talk good" for a black person. I quickly responded that I believe I speak well for a person of any color. I don't subscribe to the notion of "talking black."

My mother was an educator for 35 years (an English teacher, at that), so articulate speech was a requirement in my household. I've had black friends tell me I sound stuck up, but that's their issues, not mine. I know who I am, and I make no apologies.

As Dr. Gramlich said, I hope this one gets a wide audience.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Wonderful post Terrence. You've touched on an issue very dear to my heart. In my first novel I dealt indirectly with this issue with a light skinned, light brown eyed lead character who wore weaves and dark contacts to feel "black" because being a high achiever people were telling her she acted white.

Well, that girl reflects my experience dealing with many blacks and even people of other races. Once while in graduate school I refered to a black person as brother, and I was immediately informed by an Argentinian and a white coworker that I was not one of "those." Because I was educated and didn't talk, or act like that, whatever "that" is.
And I've been called all kinds of names refering to my light complexion (including white girl)from my peers as a kid and even now in gest from adults.

So I understand your frustration and I am glad you've found a way to turn it into a positive message that could inspire others.

Way to go Terrence!

Shauna Roberts said...

Great post, Terence. I wish we all were together in person to talk because you made so many points I'd like to respond to.

I had a somewhat mirror-image experience in identity. I never heard "proper" English spoken when growing up except in English class and at my father's parents. My mother's idea of making her kids sound high class was to insist that we say "isn't" instead of "ain't" and "creek" instead of "crik."

Then I went to an Ivy League university. Many people could not understand my "Southern" (actually Midlands) accent, and they universally assumed I was unintelligent because of how I spoke.

I learned to speak with an Eastern Ivy League accent because it was necessary to be taken seriously, but I always resented it and felt "wrong" and guilty. It also made it hard to express myself for many years because before I opened my mouth to speak, I had to first translate from a Midlands dialect.

I came to accept writing in standard English as equivalent to using Hochdeutsch in Germany, but I always believed in my gut that one should be able to speak in one's home dialect and not have to use a dialect arbitrarily chosen as the high-status one. But that's not how the world works.

After moving to the South, I gave up the Eastern dialect for most occasions and now speak some mutt mix of Midlands and Southern dialects. People in my home town ask where I'm from, but people familiar with the dialect spoken along the Ohio River do detect it in my speech, so I'm glad of that at least.

Reading what I've just written, I think others may consider this a trivial matter, but I struggled with what dialect to use for many, many years and still have mixed feelings about the choices I've made. I dust off and bring out the hard, crisp, clipped syllables of an Ivy Leaguer when I want to impress someone or intimidate someone or to be thought intelligent and well-educated. And as I do so, I mentally chastise myself for putting on airs and being snobby. And then I chastise myself for stereotyping the Eastern dialect as snobby.

Whenever I hear about black people who speak standard English being made fun of, all my memories of going to college with the "wrong" accent rush back. So many people feel the need to denigrate those who do not speak the same dialect. I wish everyone could just accept the wonderful diversity of sounds, expressions, and words from different parts of the country and at different socioeconomic levels as part of what makes the American gumbo so cool, just as people (mostly) accept and appreciate such differences in cuisine.

KeVin K. said...

Wonderful essay, Terrence. I'm linking to my Livejournal. (Not much of a signal boost, but this should be read by as many as possible.)

I suspect you would not be at all surprised to know our children had to put up with a species of this, Terrence. Our eldest particularly caught holy hell her first year at a new middle school. It cut me to the bone that I could not do anything about it. I was perceived by not just the children, but a large number of parents as being part of -- or even the cause of -- my children's "problem." I do not understand the intellectual achievement equals denying your heritage mindset. My wife was raised in the islands along the coast of South Carolina. Her mother, herself an educator who demanded the best of her students, once told me white people don't have to keep black folk down for the same reason you don't have to put a lid on a bucket of crabs. Every time one tries to climb out, the others pull him back down.

Shauna, I know what you mean about southern accents. I have one naturally, but I worked to eradicate it back when I was a theatre major in college. I also tried to keep it out of my voice when teaching school -- particularly when teaching English as a Second Language at the community college. I always feel like I'm being covert when I speak standard American. There is, of course, a southern cadence that shows through even when one carefully pronounces all one's Rs; turns of phrase found nowhere else. (These are what set southern writers apart.)
More than once I've been accused of being a racist cracker or assumed to be an dimwit because my default language is drawl.