At War with My Own: Race, Identity, and the Argument for Otherly

AlbinoBlackBoy

Be nobody’s darling… Be an outcast; be pleased to walk alone (Uncool)
Or line the crowded river beds with other impetuous fools.”
– Alice Walker

 

 This is my Defensive Manifesto.

Jazz (a distinctly African-American art form and hence providing great irony in a quandary I face) is the creation of a unique improvisational voice, of taking the chordal framework of a piece of music and moving around within it to explore other intervallic possibilities.  It is the assertion of an identity.

I am a musician by trade.  I am also a musician by the compulsion in my gut to assert a unique improvisational voice, and by doing so, unflinchingly state who I am.

As I stare this quandary down, one that has stared me down with a kind of bullying shoulder-nudge for most of my life, one that threatens my right to improvise, I am most profoundly reminded, and always, of a particular set of words from the writer and scholar W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, who writes of “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other…of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” 1

He was writing, of course, in 1903, of the duality of Blacks in White America.

And yet, as his is the sole entry in my mind’s bibliography in this pondering of mine, this quandary I stare down, I cannot help but observe how on its ear this insight has, one hundred years later, been turned.

That we even see a new phenomenon (new only in the scope of American history; not so in the scope of my entire life) means that America has shifted, adjusted, reluctant and stubborn and slacken though it may be, to make room for its “co-worker in the kingdom of culture.” 2

And so, to stare this quandary down is, at least, a modern peculiarity that verifies a somewhat different world from the one about which Du Bois offers his dialogue.

Is it an improved world?  Or has it merely shifted its dynamic to locate and identify yet another group to be the newest scapegoat of contempt?

There are any numbers of African-Americans in this country who are viewed as living their lives largely “outside” of the Black experience.  They are considered a phenomenon to both Blacks and Whites (although perhaps less so in an era where White teenagers are more and more emulating, with a kind of hero-worship, the Black subculture of rap).

Because a good deal of my friends are White (though my closest ally and oldest, dearest sister-friend for close to forty years is African-American), and because many, though not all, of my romantic relationships have been interracial, I have often been shoved into that category.

And yet, for example, you could not have found a louder voice than mine, screaming at the top of my lungs in frenzy and celebration, the year (11 years ago now) Denzel Washington and Halle Berry swept the Oscars and made not only African-American history but simply history. I shook hips and Jesus-shouted, with a delirious euphoria and a sense of communal triumph, but also with a perfectly conscious goofiness, to the witness of the two White friends who were watching the ceremonies with me that day, that, “It’s Black People Day!  It’s Black People Day!”

Because there is a significant population of Whites in my life, there are those who surely wonder if I am suffering a kind of self-loathing. Those are the compassionate ones, the ones who may not understand my choices in life, who may suspect a pathological history, but love me just the same.  And then there are those who simply dismiss me, who deem me unworthy of being “among the folks.”

There is a club. And from it I have often been banished, like a leper, for fraternizing with Whites.

And yet that was me, on Oscar Day 2002, screaming as loudly as anyone who, in their day, may have screamed, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”  Or those before them with, “We shall overcome!”

Those whose instincts are to banish do not know me, though they would believe otherwise.

And finally, after years of my own confusion and turmoil over the subject, of wondering, myself, why my instincts and alliances have been as they are, and eventually turning inward and doing the kind of deliberate self-examination and facing-the-wall spiritual work that I have now consciously done for the past several years, I have emerged with a light.  It is dim still, until it will one day flicker to its eventual fullness, and give me some measure of peace.  But I am on my way.  And for now, here is what I’ve concluded:

I grew up in an all-black suburb of Los Angeles (Compton, California) in the 1960’s-70‘s; in fact, probably never saw a Caucasian up close for the first few years of my life.  There was a time in my life when if a White person walked into my parents’ home (which eventually began to happen more and more frequently as my mother’s career in local politics and city government grew), I felt uncomfortable.  It was only natural; they were not a part of my inherent familiar.

I remember once having a crush on a little Hispanic boy (the only one in my neighborhood) in my fourth-grade class, but when asked by my best friend why I did not tell him I liked him, saying to her, “He’s Mexican!” as though I were being asked to commit a mortal sin.  Mine was not an anti-Mexican instinct or belief system; it was simply that the idea was completely foreign to anything I had known.

As childhood advanced, for reasons that I believe ultimately took me to art as my calling, I became the one who was known as otherly.  I marched to my own drummer, and my family affectionately called me the weird kid.  Just one example (a story I seem to write about repeatedly):  I once picked up a dead bird and brought it home.  It was so beautiful, unmarred even in its death, that I placed it in a Tupperware bowl and put it in my mother’s freezer.  When my parents (always great sports for my oddness) asked me why I was keeping it, I told them I planned on having it taxidermied some day.  And there it stayed for years, nestled between the rib-eyes and the popsicles.  I cannot honestly remember the eventual fate of my beautiful bird, but I had definitely set the mold for quirky, for better or for worse, much of which ended up being for worse, as childhood defiantly insists on an adherence to conformity. And no matter what I tried to do, consciously or otherwise, to blend in, I had to accept my fate that I would always be the brash dash of color in an otherwise gentle pastel.  Of course, this phenomenon exists in all childhoods, not just a Black one.  But the specific dynamics of my experiences would turn out to ring profoundly with race as the primary and insidious focus of my outcasting.

Spike Lee’s satirical film School Daze (1988) examines, with a scathing humor and not a small dose of tragic irony, one of the more lamentable skeletons in the Black culture’s closet (though we are certainly not the only ones): the racism within the race.  My childhood, being all Black and therefore racially insular, likewise, did not ring of nigger-calling from hateful whites, as an African-American from the South surely experienced his childhood, but instead was ripe with:

“Hey, Shine!”

“Hey, Blueberry!”

“Tar Baby!”

“Ink Spitter!”

“Yellow Banana!”

“Vanilla Head!”

“Look, y’all, she’s so bright, she’s practically white!”

… at each other.

The stunning reality in my childhood environment was that there was no shade any of us could safely be, free from the hysteria of people who simply did not wish to be Black at all (I examine this very phenomenon in my novel Voodoo Child).

Did I not want to be Black?

As a child growing up in an all-Black, lower-to-middle-class neighborhood, already brewing with gang rumblings and self-destruction (which always got displaced and misdirected out of a debilitating frustration to be simply accepted among one’s own), surrounded by drab factory communities, run-down storefronts, and barb-wired schools; the constantly reinforced ideas of my ugly nose and my dulled wool hair that stood on end and my given plight by a punishing God, and with nothing but affluent, pretty, White people and sparkly-clean-Negro-free realities depicted on my television set, the answer then was no.  I did not want to be Black.

I was also not alone, though the syndrome hardly created a support system.  We (those of us who agonized this) were overly burdened by the “two-ness” of which Du Bois speaks:  “One ever feels his two-ness –– an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…” 3

Instead we coveted the much easier world inside of our TV sets.  And whether we did or did not recognize the disease at play or acknowledged the others of our brethren who suffered it, we made sure to keep it to ourselves.

Today my answer is unequivocally, “I would not wish to be from any other race or culture than what I am.”

And how this shift from my initial childhood images to what I feel absolute about today?

It was certainly not the sudden emergence in the late 60’s of the Black Power Movement.  Notions of automatic-weapon-wielding men in black berets only frightened me as a child.  My older sister’s involvement with the movement did somewhat entice and romance me for, in my little girl’s mind, the steeled, chest-spreading boldness with which she entered this exotic terrain.  In my mind’s eye, she was the agitator; I was the conformer.  I looked up to her, all the while feeling about her (the way God is viewed) that I could never aspire to her greatness, that I should not even dare think that I could, and instead comfortably regarded her, from my child’s distance, with awe and fear.

So what has caused the shift?

There is a kind of dizzying giddiness in me when a Nelson Mandela or a Martin Luther King Jr. make our front pages as great men, or have holidays established in their honor.  That giddiness surfaces when those for whom there is little, or no, historical precedence triumph (Halle and Denzel). That giddiness surfaces when a Toni Morrison wins the Nobel Prize.  When a Maya Angelou becomes the Poet Laureate of our United States.  When a Black man with a distinctly African surname becomes the President of these United States.  To be frank, their being Black has everything to do with my giddiness, a kind that is not quite the same when my non-Black heroes make their strides in the world.  And yet, for me, it has never been about the instinct to divide.  It is simply an inherent, blood-tinged, DNA-connected, gut instinct to celebrate my own.

It happens to us all, in some form or another. It comes with time. Our intolerance for silliness and our aging impatience with a fickle heart and a toxic energy to self-loathe tires us. And then we open our wizened eyes and recognize the wonders of our own, and that, as Du Bois put it, our “…blood has a message for the world.” 4

Today there is a different racial dynamic from that of my childhood, but not because the divisiveness is gone; it is simply that the divisiveness has been directed elsewhere.  Instead of trying any machinations possible not to be Black, it is now about testing our fellow brethren to see if they are being Black enough; if they merit entrée into The Club. There is a badge of honor that grew out of the Black Power Movement; an assertion-of-pride answer to a self-loathing that had been perpetuated from slavery clear through to the 1950’s.  But how is that badge of honor manifested today?  In a walk?  A talk?  A secret handshake?  A resolve to divide and separate all over again?  To repeat a bitter history, but this time with our own hands at the Devil’s wheel?

Historically there has always been a White culture to worry about, with no modern example more brazenly displayed than our eight-years-ago political reign, where the movement toward an anti-Middle-East and anti-Islam sentiment, by a decidedly Anglo West (never mind history) was being richly nourished.  But as far as my immediate day-to-day life is concerned, I worry about The Club; the ones who instinctively call me sister, even when they do not know me; yet snicker or roll their eyes, and hold me up to the most stringent of queries, checks, balances, and harsh sentencing when they learn that I speak or dress or wear my hair a certain way.

How many times in my adolescence, for example, that I was laughed at by my Black peers because I “talked White” is a number I demur to record.  That speaking with literacy was somehow something only Whites should claim, that there was a badge of honor in a bold and righteous illiteracy was a far deeper level of self-loathing than I could grasp.  I sort of understand it now among teens ––– it is the classic counter-culture rebellion ––– but it bothers me nonetheless that this is supposed to symbolize pride in our Blackness.  And of course, as a child, I was never articulate enough to put my rants into any intelligible form.  As a child who was outcast, I did not dare challenge the status quo.

It is what single-handedly turned me inward.  It may even be, as often comes with the process, what took me to art.

As a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, with marching parents and an activist sister, I was exposed to the racial atrocities that were saturating our American landscape, even though my own existence was quite insular.  So I fully expected yet another club to be banned from when my family moved to L.A.’s Westside and I started to go to school with Whites.  I was fourteen years old, and entering a whole new world.  I was suddenly in the literal minority, even though I had already felt like a minority in my previous all-Black environment.  Yet after the initial stages of discomfort with being outside of my familiar, eventually I came to discover something quite baffling: For the first time in my life I was being accepted –– quirks, otherliness, and all –– by my peers.  I was not the outsider who’d gotten beaten up after school.  No one called me High Yellow, or had ever heard the term.  No one cared that I liked dressing like a hippie boy, or that I equally loved the Jackson 5 and Jethro Tull.  No one cared whether my hair was straightened or in an afro, either which it might be, depending on my mood, or the day of the week.  And that was just it.  I was allowed, for the first time ever, to have a mood.  To exercise it.  And not be ostracized for it.  No one cared whether I was Black, White, or had three heads.

It was certainly not an adolescence that was free of adolescent conflict.  Girls were still aliens to boys and just coming into their own perplexing sexuality. Teen angst and brooding and emotional disturbances such as cutting and food issues, etc., were just as prominent struggles then as they are today.  Drugs were the floating specter of the tease of cool.  And yet none of that scared me in nearly the way that the haunted echoes of race scared me:  “Am I good enough, cool enough, and Black enough to be in The Club?”  And that was an enormous anvil off of my burdened chest.

And who knows the reasons that race was not an issue in my high school.  Perhaps it was because my mostly White environment was not the red-necked South, or the blue-blooded East Coast, but was instead an environment of West Coast Bohemian progressives, who were teaching their children love for their fellow man (regardless of culture, color, or class) and how to grow a righteous chronic in your own backyard.  Whatever the reason might’ve been, I was accepted for the first time in my life.  And during this most formative of teenhood years, the hard-wiring of my comfort zone had begun to be established.

The greatest irony of our historical stamp of being the descendants of slaves is that the greatest weapon in our pocket has always been and will ultimately be our education, our progressive ideals, our compassion, our shaman’s spirit (as were Martin’s and Malcolm’s), and our rising above an insidious and dangerous piousness: and yet, as a people, we have instead, by and large, developed into a culture of conservatism, fundamentalism, intolerance, and fear.

Take the phenomenon known as “the Down Low,” a reference to the syndrome of African-American men leading seemingly straight lives, complete with the nuclear family, who do not consider themselves gay, or even bi-sexual, yet have sex with men, in a kind of secret, double life, and about which the sole concern in the community seems to be the potential for exposing their unwitting wives to AIDS.  I was profoundly disheartened when I saw the Tyler Perry movie For Colored Girls based on the brilliant choreo-poem by Ntozake Shange (though some of the narrative was someone else’s addition to the text and, frankly, paled next to Shange’s words in every sense), and a storyline that was not Shange’s portrayed this phenomenon, making the wife the singular object of tragedy, and the husband, he who has been caught in the “crime,” demonized.  (I have my own theories about why such a scene would be added to this piece, but that’s a thought for another day.)

And though every culture surely entertains this syndrome, it seems to be epidemic in the African-American community, and it has single-handedly to do with the decidedly cultural intolerance of homosexuality, which is also epidemic, though this is often denied with a scholarly rhetoric.  Make no mistake.  It is epidemic.  The emasculation of the Black male in White America is a theme that has been examined, and examined again, the stuff of forums; and somewhere in that massive psychological tapestry lies the great hysterical rejection of the gay man; the threat, in many minds, to an already disadvantaged fight.  It is, tragically, an uninformed association.  And so these men, feeling oppressed by the possibility of being ostracized by their own community, and victims to a fear and loathing, even violence, of and toward their sexuality, are forced underground.  Or they proudly claim their stamp, and are subsequently banished from, or tormented by, their community.

I, too, feel concern for these wives, because they have been a statistic for this terrible plight of AIDS.  But even more profoundly, they have been duped.  And I maintain that the fault lies more in an unbending and pious society than it does in these women’s husbands (that would’ve been an angle worth examining in the Perry movie; an opportunity missed because the belief system is still deeply broken).  And so my greatest compassion is for the men, themselves, who live every day of their lives trying to be Black AND individuals.  Free of judgment.  Accepted.  Even (dare I ask it?) celebrated.  Allowed to live in peace.  And honestly.

The more I have soul-searched my own issues with race, and my sense of perplexing identity as an African-American (consider the fact that from moment to moment I switch my terminology from African-American to Black and back again), the more I have come to realize that my own comfort level has been continually tested my whole life because of a cultural tendency for a self-righteous judgment of anything that does not spell a very specifically-defined, and decidedly testosterone-driven, “Black experience.”

Because, in high school, I had White friends and was involved in the “white” preoccupations of drama, ballet, and debate (this was literally stated to me once), I was shunned by members of my predominantly White school’s Black Students Union, the joining of which, when I had begun school there, was the very first step (not the drama club, or the debate team, but the B.S.U.) that I had taken toward an attempt at socialization.

Could no one see the irony here?

Why must being Black be the badge we wear on our chests, far above shouting our manhood, or our womanhood, or our alliance to Christ, or Buddha, or Muhammad, or our efforts to be a compassionate human being?

Let us go back to the anecdote with which I opened this thought.  The year is 2002, a history-making year for African-Americans and the Oscars.  And I am ecstatic with a kind of stupored glee that Halle Berry is the first African-American woman to win in the Best Actress category, and that Denzel Washington is the first African-American man to be a multiple Oscar winner, and that Oprah Winfrey is honored with a special award, and that I, a Black person perpetually suspected of loathing her own race, am dizzied by a moment in history none of us could have imagined in the roiling civil-rights 60’s, or the oppressive Jim Crow South, or the dehumanizing age of slavery.   As a Black woman and a former actor, I had some interest in the dialogue that was bound to ensue in the weeks and months that followed.

To my disappointment, but not my surprise, African-Americans came out in droves vilifying the award proceedings, the movies these two actors won their awards for, and the actors themselves.  Many waxed provocatively enough on what was being called a Pyrrhic victory in article after article, with titles such as “Cake Walk” and “The Minstrel Show,” et al.  So sage were some of these insights, in fact (example: the proliferation of “ghettotainment,” 5  which I painfully agree has become a kind of sociological pornography), that the failure to rise above being the victim to their own anger over a century of whitewash Oscar history allowed their vision to be compromised.  I understand that anger has been warranted.  I, too, am frustrated that in eighty-five years, where four acting awards per year are bestowed, [still to this day, though the number has certainly increased from 2002] only a tiny fraction of those have ever been given to African-Americans.  The statistics for Hispanics, Asians, etc., is equally disappointing.  But much of this anger has made it difficult for the angered to see beyond the agenda of Blacks & the Academy, to be able to recognize that their fight was ill-placed to aim it at the two actors who had won the top honors that year, or at the roles they had brought to life.

The problem with the argument was that the quagmire of Blacks & the Academy is far more insidious and threaded throughout a years-long, complex quilt of racism, politics, and commerce than these objections reflected.  Because African-Americans have never had a balanced representation of the full scope of portrayed humanity, it becomes understandably difficult to be accepting of characters that are gravely flawed, such as the ones portrayed that year by Washington (Training Day, 2001) and Berry (Monster’s Ball, 2001).  Yes, the concern is valid.  But the danger (and here comes the artist in me, fighting for the right to express freely the full spectrum of human experience) is that it also serves to lessen the legitimacy of the antagonist archetype.

It would be easy to shove the character Denzel Washington played into the glamorized, bling-dripping street hustler category that strengthens the pantheon of ghetto heroes, and by extension strengthens the argument, but I maintain that there is something much richer going on in this David and Goliath parable, with Washington’s character having lost his very soul and fighting like a mad dog to stay afloat and keep the fealty of his community.  Therein lies his conflict, and the wage of that sin is death.

Why should Washington not be allowed the freedom to build his body of work, by choosing to explore the darker natured antagonist, as any White actor would be allowed to do?  Should he never be allowed to portray the villainous Iago 6, in order to maintain the spun agenda of the Magical Negro?  And if the answer is yes, then Washington is being unfairly imprisoned by not being allowed to peel back the layers and find the subtle workings of a rich character, as is not only his privilege, as an actor, but his duty to do.  A Black man playing Iago is no more a sociological tragedy than a White man playing him.  In fact, I dare venture to offer that with the Black man’s history, a role like that brings with it a very specific poetic irony and poignant baggage that a White man playing him does not.  The power and beauty is in the exploration of the human condition in all of its many possible, limitless facets.

Halle Berry’s work in Monster’s Ball was called a sell-out by many African-Americans, and her character a whore.  I realize that I set myself up for even greater ridicule by daring to defend it.  I may walk alone, but I will do so with clarity.  Here was a character who was the wife of a Death Row inmate, who then tragically loses both husband and child, and finds solace in a character (actor Billy Bob Thornton) with demons and losses of his own.  Was her choice of suitors what made her a whore?  Or could it possibly have been a crucial examination of one’s moral conflict in finding comfort in “the enemy,” and the idea that judgment and principle, in a moment of devastation, often leads us to paradoxical choices, and that from that a kind of growth in both characters is possible.  Drama is not intended to be comfortable; it is meant to unleash just those very kinds of weird phenomena of human nature, and to examine why.

I am aware of the importance of being wary of sexual exploitation, especially in light of the historical baggage of the White-man/Black-woman dynamic (whenever the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar 7 has ever been called on a bandstand of which I am a part, I have infamously exercised civil disobedience by not participating; choruses of “brown sugar!” go on with one voice missing).  But the singular sex scene in this film, which has generated a kind of infamy in certain circles, contains nothing remotely erotic, titillating, or exploitive.  It is a pivotal moment about two people so desperately suffering and alone that they are clinging to life by a thread.  It is practically an exorcism of all that has been built up in both characters, after suffering the crucible of tragedies that each has suffered.  It is a scene that is as poignant as it is painful.  And only someone unschooled in the nuances of human suffering could possibly construe the moment as anything that would get audiences and film crews moist between the legs.

Artists are responsible for illuminating the human spirit.  But along the way, as they try their damnedest to do just that, they keep being accosted by the world’s lobbyists, who try to slip them a buck if they will plead a particular agenda in their next work.  In these two actors’ case, because they are African-American, that agenda is the uplift of their people.  A worthy agenda; it simply does not belong, as a bribe or a threat, in a man’s pocket; it has no place to insist that these artists wear the armbands of propaganda.  The way to uplift the race starts with a coming together of forces that will, and should, be diverse and full of many colors and shades and walks and talks and pathos and pathways.

I do understand the wariness of the threat of being degraded yet again in history.  It is an awareness, if not a wariness, from which we should never part.  But I also know that the enemy is rarely within and that these two African-Americans deserved the support of their own.  That there was a tepid-at-best united front that came out and gave two talented actors their due, after all of the dues they had already paid just by being Black in their industry, has often made me wonder if there is not a pointed agenda of keeping the fires burning between Black and White, and Black and Black, because, frankly, I think it has become such familiar terrain that it is a universe we are not really all that interested in upsetting.

That has been the fuel all along of this particular heartbreak.  I do not care about trying to win over supporters for Hollywood movies. I care about the freedom to make choices in one’s life that will be assured the support of one’s community.

I used to think that I had held onto this particular rant (still more than 10 years later) because I was once an actor who gave up out of frustration, and I am proud of those who did not, but I am now more inclined to believe that it is because this example of a perplexing and convoluted racial quagmire was merely a microcosm of the life that I, and many, have lived for years.  And as we walk through our lives in this present era of our first African-American leader of the free world, and the death of The King of Pop, much is sure to be further studied and revealed about this quagmire:  The Black community’s acceptance or rejection of the confounding state of Michael Jackson’s own personal sense of identity, and where one dares to tread on the memory of someone held up in literal worship; and the phenomenon of Barack Obama, who, during his first term, was pulled and tugged in so many hysterical racial directions, for the agenda of both Black and White, liberal and conservative (He’s Black! He’s bi-racial! He’s Muslim! He’s Christian!  He’s American!  He’s African! et al.).

I plan on keeping my eyes wide open during this ripe time, because my very own life is quite directly impacted by this fascinating preoccupation with labeling, compartmentalizing, and legitimizing.

As stated earlier, I am a musician in addition to being a writer; a singer and songwriter to be more specific.  One of the many gigs and projects that I’m involved in is that I front an orchestra as lead vocalist (a remarkable opportunity that has afforded me a challenging and radical chance to perform twelve-tone, dodecaphonic repertoires), and my participation, made worse by my exuberance toward the experience, actually caused the crinkled, suspicious eye of certain (certainly not all) African-American colleagues to turn my way, wondering what mischief I was up to.  This was very early on in my involvement.  It’s now been nearly 15 years in the orchestra, we’ve become somewhat of an L.A. institution, and I’ve largely learned to tune that energy out, if it even still hovers.  And while the orchestra has actually developed quite a following now of fellow musicians and composers (including some serious heavyweights in the industry), those particular colleagues have yet to come out, 15 years into this, to see and hear this musical experience. That saddens me.

I was the house singer in a plush Beverly Hills hotel lounge for more than two decades, with a lovely jazz trio, and on one occasion many years ago I had just finished singing, in succession, the standards Caravan, You’ve Changed, and Ain’t Misbehavin’.  In between songs, a petite but assured African-American woman approached me to make a request.  With a great chip that had become recognizable to me over the years, and apparently disappointed with my choice of repertoire, she assessed the room, deciding that, though this was a hotel lounge where delicate jazz standards were the call, something else was needed to get the place jumping, and promptly asked me if I sang “any Black music.”  It was quite obvious to anyone witnessing what she meant.  She wanted a little Marvin, a little Sly, maybe even a little Beyoncé or Kanye, something that would put a thump in the proceedings.  She wanted to turn this standards gig on Doheny Avenue into a house party.

More crucially, however, and here is where recognizing the nuances of human behavior come in quite handy, she wanted me to prove that I had it inside of me.  I read this stranger like a book, as I have become accustomed to these Random Black Testings.

You see, they can smell me.  I do not sport a certain mannerism.  Or I do not speak with a certain rhythm and lilt.  Or I laugh and chat on my breaks with the players in the band, who, depending on the day of the week, or the hit, might all be White, and who are unapologetically my friends.  And because I have come to fear these ambushes, which often seem to come at me like non-stop billiard balls, it is as if a switch is thrown to alert the tester that a possible Benedict Arnold is in the room and to get in gear.  And my fear is smelled.  And I am, therefore, prey.

In this particular case, I simply played naïve; partly out of an annoyance that she could not appreciate the musical offering that was being given to her, and partly to plead my case before the court that I was worthy, an instinct of mine that greatly bothers me.  I responded with: “Ma’am, actually Caravan was written by Duke Ellington, You’ve Changed was a huge hit for Billie Holiday, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ is classic Fats Waller. So I believe I’ve given you quite a bit of Black music.” It was equal parts, “Fuck you” and “See, I’m a good Black person;” a defensive move that succeeded only in tangling my brain.

This answer not only did not suffice, but she instantly recognized the salt in my retort (mercurial though it was) and decided that I had my great nerve, and had failed her test.  Her eyes promptly rolled, she returned to her table of girlfriends, and the group single-handedly let it be known in the room that I was a leper who could not deliver what any true sistah would.

I sing Marvin.  I sing Sly.  These legends live deeply in my bones.  I have spent the last two decades building a repertoire of some three-hundred cover songs, developed over the long years of being in this business, and from every musical walk of life.  But that there are, like an unmercifully revving engine, these constant tests to see if I am representing the folks, and often by complete strangers, begins to asphyxiate.

It is, frankly, crippling to have race be the engine that fuels every conversation, every thought, every pointed finger, every waking moment, and supersede every other adjective and community that also defines who I am.  In my case, those adjectives and communities include:  Artist, Buddhist, Democrat, Capricorn, O+ blood type, Type B personality, Woman, Feminist, Sister, Aunt, Daughter, and, yes, American of African descent.  The latter is merely one in a list of many that have shaped me.  And if my being a responsible citizen, a contributor to my society, an artist creating works that aim to enlighten, educate, and entertain, a dedicated friend and family member to the people who love me, a champion of rights for all, and a person who respects the earth, if all of these things are not enough to deem me a proud Black woman, worthy of her race, then what is?

Some find it an exceptional circumstance that, though living in my “white world,” my best friend for close to forty years happens to be African-American.  In a sea of pink faces, which was my high school experience, it is not especially odd that two brown faces would find each other and feel an automatic kinship.  What is perhaps odder is that she and I grew up in different neighborhoods, and yet the phenomenon of being shunned by our own had plagued us both.  She had come from similar history.  And it was this strange, but not so uncommon, syndrome that bonded us, far deeper and more intimate than our brown faces.  We have loved each other without the need to test each other’s Blackness.  The game of the Superior Negro was unnecessary to bond us.  And yet, in each other’s presence, we do not put on white faces, or bleach our souls, as Du Bois worried against.

On election night, November 4th, 2008, we spent the evening together with bottles of champagne waiting to be uncorked, as election results began to flood television screens.  When it was announced that Barack Obama had been elected president (a moment that arrived, sadly, long after my dear mother and stepfather, who had been Civil Rights activists, had departed this earth) my friend turned to me with tears in her eyes, and said, “This means I can now look my [6- year-old] son in the eye and tell him that, yes, he too can be president one day.  It is officially no longer merely a mythological dream.”

I will never forget that moment.  Not only the historical one, but the intimate one between two sisters of the soul.

She and I have always celebrated our own with a great fondness for the eccentricities of our people, the food of our people, the language of our people, the accomplishments of our people, the larger-than-life richness of our people.  And we have, over the years, grown even closer in the wake of that same community finding the need to harshly judge our choices in life.  We have hovered together in our outcastness.

To be frank, all of the African-Americans that are in my life, that I consider comrades in the truest, deepest sense of the word, are those who have experienced similar paths.  And I venture to claim that it is not any of our intentions to deny our heritage, or the people in it, but to find those among us who feel as we have felt, and come together for healing.  THAT is a true brother-sister-hood.

The people in my life (Black, White, and otherwise) are here because they have accepted the unique individual (for better or for worse) that I am.  And I refuse to keep a tally of how many are Black versus how many are White.  I do not care.  They create a welcoming environment for me.  They are good to me, and I do my best to be good to them.

And I will continue to cheer on the triumphs and victories of my African-American brethren, because it is in my very DNA to do so; just as I will continue to cheer on the triumphs and victories of the people in my life who are not Black, because the lessons of my spiritual practice, of loving ALL of mankind, demand it.

In exploring this phenomenon, I eventually came to realize that this war “with my own” that I have always fought has never been with my fellow African-Americans (the ones who have deemed me unworthy), because it is neither my place, nor in my power, to change anyone.  It is “with my own” two selves; the half that desperately wants to be unjudged and accepted, and the half that will always insist on being the brash dash of color in an otherwise gentle pastel.

Granted, it is a significantly different take on Du Bois’ theory of the African-American’s two-ness, but a profoundly explorative one nonetheless, and only proof of the complex layers of the syndrome that he had set down before us.  And therein, I think, lays the greatness in Harvard’s first African-American Ph.D. recipient.

And so to those, both Black and White, who worry, wonder, or simply find me an enigma, I offer this:  If you just absolutely must insist on being confused by my loopy musings of, “It’s Black People Day, it’s Black People Day!” while sitting in a room with White friends, so be it.  It only means that I must be the first person to ever come waltzing through your life who has insisted on marching to her own be-bopping drummer and on her right to improvise; who is a complex and paradoxical human being.  But I promise you, I will not be your last.

 *                    *                    *

Notes / Works Cited

1. 2.  3.  4Du Bois, W. E. B.; The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Bantam Classics, originally published in 1903.

5. Kaplan, Erin Aubrey; “Cake Walk” by Erin Aubrey Kaplan, LA Weekly, March, 2001.

6. Shakespeare, William; The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare.

7.  Brown Sugar, by Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, is a song whose protagonist is the braggart slave master touting his midnight visits to the slave quarters and his inability to stay away.  There has been some debate about the meaning of the lyrics; according to the book Up and Down with the Rolling Stones by Tony Sanchez, the slavery and whipping is a double meaning for the perils of being “mastered” by Brown Heroin, or Brown Sugar.

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

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4 thoughts on “At War with My Own: Race, Identity, and the Argument for Otherly

  1. On The Other

    Some pieces of writing stir the mists of time forging a connection between who I was in an earlier time and who I am now. Feelings, shimmering, clouded, become real again and I am bound to reply, not always directly to what has been written, but to some element in the message that I, now awake, want to pursue.

    I learned from this essay something of the complexities of the African-American identity and also about the tension between unconditional acceptance by other human beings and the expression of the quirky, challenging individual who will always reside on the edge of the mainstream.

    But what also resonated with me was the “other”, the different and the marginal. I want to explore it further. I’ll remove the quotation marks from the other, releasing it from my categorisation and rendering it real.

    My emotional response to this blog arose from my encounters with the other which are the roots of the person I am today.

    I grew up, a white boy of immigrant English parentage, in a small village in New Zealand. Due to my eccentricities I did not fit into the standard mainstream of the children at that time. The mould of the predominantly white village was then similar to a utilitarian settler mentality, robust, chauvinistic, make-do, conservative, lacking in self-mocking humour, hardworking, sport-playing and with little time for sensitivity and eccentricity. I behaved differently, I approached people differently and I became the marginal. In any group of “mates” that formed throughout my primary school life, I was an early reject, the one ignored and sent away.

    When you walk on a barren landscape, that which is different, you welcome, and that’s how I met the other. They turned me away from dejection and brought me to engagement.

    One time, I walked out to the other, several miles down the road to a Pa, a Maori village, to see if I could find anyone I knew at school. In that period there was still an invisible social and cultural barrier between Pakeha (Maori word for white people) and the Maori. Rarely was there a real understanding of the values of each other’s family and community realities (Note 1).

    When I arrived, there was great surprise. “Hey! What are you doing here boy?
    I didn’t really have a good answer but people made a joke of it and we laughed. That was the first welcoming. The kids made fun of me but they laughed with me, not at me. White kids never did that – they laughed derisively, at me, as if they got a lift from putting someone down. I ended up having dinner there and sitting in front of the telly squashed together with about 10 kids.

    I was fortunate to have parents with an open spirit and who welcomed equally all kids I came home with. My father became a friend of the Maori Elders and would regularly meet them and chat at the local pubs. I regarded one particular elder as a mentor. A karate instructor and musician he was someone I looked up to because he represented the multi-dimensional human being, someone who inspired me to follow my own path and not the commonly accepted educational and social models.

    All of this added up. These people moulded me. There was laughter, solemnity, unconditional generosity, a time for a story, play and a place where I was accepted fully as a human being.

    Other times the other came to me from a very distance source – through the jazz music of African-American artists.

    As a teenager, I had a radio shack down the bottom of our garden. There I restored old radios and it was one place where I had flow. I was completely absorbed in what I was doing, no idea of the time passing, just accessing the real me. I was the work.

    More often than not I’d be playing the late-night jazz programme; JJ Johnson, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Art Farmer, Max Roach, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Milt Jackson, Coleman Hawkins and others. All of this music played in the background and it went into me subliminally as I worked, bypassing the intellectual and the aware consciousness. It ended up soaking in to a very deep place. I remember now the feeling I got when that music played. It was solace.

    After a shit day,

    After feeling down,

    After being abused,

    After the struggle to present myself as a boy,

    When the sting and hurt had receded, there, in that bluesy wander of jazz notes, late night, I found a welcoming warm space where my soul came out and played.

    Was there a “blackness” in me that responded directly to the music? It seemed such a frivolous question; how could I ever know the experience of an African American? But there was some connection and later I felt that it was beyond race and culture; it was soul to soul.

    When I play Flamenco Sketches by Davis, Adderley, Coltrane, Chambers, Cobb and Evans it’s not simple memories that arise but a three-dimensional opening between the space I was in back in the radio shack and where I am now. The music was the mood. The music is the mood. It is a living part of me.

    Back in my New Zealand village it could have been very different. I could have grown up as a mainstream white boy with little or no knowledge of the other. But it didn’t happen because my orbit was eccentric and there was, I suppose, a sort of child-like naivety that made me curious about different people.

    Today, I look, to all intents and purposes, like the average white man. But I don’t feel part of the mainstream and I have learned enough from difference to be receptive to the outcast, the poet on the street corner, the artist struggling to make her voice heard. Travel has certainly helped, I’ve cherished times with people from the Pacific Islands, Australia, Canada, France, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, English and French-speaking Canada, The USA, Spain, Romania, Poland, Latvia, The Netherlands, Scotland, New Caledonia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Egypt and many more.

    What I have learned from the other is that difference is what opens us to growth. We need to celebrate it and although it will take continuous effort in this world there is every reason to strive toward empathy with the other and to understand something of their reality.

    To end this piece I return to what I learned from encountering the other.

    In crossing a racial border it helped to have a disposition, a soul feeling for what the people brought to me. Sometimes I walked out to them. Sometimes they came to me through a meeting or through their music.

    Being different from the predominant racial groups, on the edge, forced me to confront my own identity and helped me empathise with the other. Early exposure in a constructive context, in my case, Maori elders, the welcome on the Pa, helped me to understand and, later, value difference.

    The more I live, the more I seem to be hovering at the edge, but the view’s OK there. I’m at peace with it. Not too comfortable, that would deaden my curiosity, but still open to the challenge of difference.

    Only recently, I found out something amazing that I never really knew. My beloved Godmother, who was a shelter and strength all though my young years and who died a few years ago at 106 years, was a blood-elder of the Ngati Hine Ngapui iwi (tribe) that was one of the founding Maori peoples who came to New Zealand. She carried the tribe’s lineage. She also lives in me.

    Note 1
    The programming of European colonising people is extremely strong. They bring with them technology, modern education and new economic theories and practice: farming, mining, horticulture and so on. These forces have often ridden roughshod over most indigenous peoples whose existing social systems and values have been seen as inferior to those of the predominant colony. There is often an assimilation mentality that expects that the indigenous culture to be “upgraded” to “modern” standards and knowledge.

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    • I finally got the chance to read this beautiful missive. The passion and empathy is palpable. I always feel so alone in the world with these musings, only to discover (without fail) that this is never the case. I absolutely adore this. Thank you for sharing in this dialectic, and for the time, thought, and investment to speak your own heart. Here’s to Otherly, my friend.

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