FBQ: What I Know…

Rodney King’s death slapped me in the face and reminded me of how the media has shaped my sense of self as a black man and as a gay man.

I grew up in a pretty insular environment. As I mentioned in the very first paragraph of my very first post, I didn’t experience overt racism in my neighborhood. And my parents (unfortunately, to my detriment) did their best to shield me from such. Until I started venturing into the world alone, my experience with how society would see me was limited to television. Even the DC riots are only a vague memory. Distant–like the smoke I saw rising over another side of the city. However, watching the coverage of the death of Dr. King was the beginning of a conscious and unconscious lesson about how the world (or at least the United States) would see me–not as an individual, but as a member of a dangerous and suspect group with little societal value. Which, in looking back, was a cultural and personal earthquake that to this day continues to give aftershocks.

You see, in my world Black Men were Barbers and Soldiers and Businessmen and–in the case of my father– Systems Analysts for National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, who tracked Apollo missions when they flew high above Greenbelt Md. They were Policemen and Mayor’s Assistants and Lawyers who came to my house every fourth Friday of the month to play Pinochle, while I watched and listened under the dining room table and stole the delectable hors d’oeuvre my mother made for them. They were my heroes and my confidants. My protectors and agents of discipline. And they were even the ones, who, when my father keeled over on his desk from a stroke on the day he put in his retirement papers, steered me through my adolescence while he recuperated.

And even taught me about being Gay.

But the rest of the world had a very different perception of males that looked like me.

Every time Rodney King was hit by a cop on that grainy video I watched with the rest of the country, I flashed to experiences of my own. Of a security guard following me around a store; or the face of the casting director who literally told me I was the best actor she’d seen in a month of Sundays, but that she couldn’t cast me because the “…client doesn’t want to ‘go Black’.” As the batons of the officers flew, my heart was broken again as I heard my favorite college roommate, during a heated argument, say “Why don’t you bring out your switch blade and cut me? I know all you people have one!” I have a feeling that a whole lot of black men across America flinched as they felt their own pain reflected in King’s.

And when I watched that White Bronco going down Sunset Blvd, I remember thinking to myself: “Well, here’s another reason for whites to fear the Big Bad Black Man.” And as much as my heart bled for the Goldman and Brown families when the verdict was read, there was an irrational satisfaction at his getting off. The bastard should have BEEN in jail on spousal abuse charges so that he wouldn’t have been able to commit the murders. But after having read about the acquittals of obviously guilty men in cases like Emmett Till and others, it was hard at that time for me to be objective. But karma is a bitch, isn’t it O.J.?

Everybody in the world has to deal with discrimination in some form or fashion at some point in their lives. I sometimes feel bad for white American men: they are the go-to-guys for all that ills the country. Of course it’s hard to stay empathetic when so many deserve our ire. My point isn’t that black men are special in their journey. But I do think the particular dynamics are unique. And I also think that my/our perspective isn’t talked about or heard very much in societal discussions. I wish you could see Black Men through my eyes–the good AND the bad. King was no hero. But he was an icon–a symbol not only of Police Brutality, but also of how our country sees Black Men. And unfortunately how we sometimes see ourselves.

Wild West

You must forgive the Queen. He doesn’t usually use this terminology to describe black people. Especially because anyone who has read the book knows that Uncle Tom wasn’t even an Uncle Tom. But this brother need serious help.

Definition of UNCLE TOM by Merriam-Webster

1: a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals)

2: a member of a low-status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority

— Uncle Tom·ism noun

I’ve loved Bill Maher ever since his Politically Incorrect days. Granted, I think he’s schooled by all the sisters he dates, but the man gets it. Congressman: with any respect that may be due, get rid of your 80’s Kid ‘N Play hairstyle and horn-rimmed glasses and join us in this century. Yo’ mama ain’t raise no fool. Stop acting like one.

New Hope

But I also know that there is a change in the air.

Pittsburgh arts group mentors black youth

Sometime, when you’re walking somewhere and you pass a group of young men–slow down and listen to their conversation. Once you get past the obligatory adolescent bravado and the talk about girls, cars and music they often converse about other stuff that’s important to them. Like what they want to be–their ideas and dreams. If you listen for a while, you’ll hear the same kinds of conversations we used to have. That we STILL have. Only they now include our hopes for the young men in our lives.


6 thoughts on “FBQ: What I Know…

  1. Thanks for sharing [some of] your perspective as a black (gay) man of a certain age, and of growing up in America.

    I think it’s interesting that you thought to cast Congressman West’s remarks as Uncle Tom-ism. I don’t know anything about him – in fact, I didn’t even know he was black until days after I first heard about his remarks. I heard a radio story about his equation of progressives with Communists, and once I heard his home state simply figured he was either [another] willfully dense Florida cracker or a political opportunist pandering to the more extreme and ignorant of their electorate. Maybe because I am most accustomed to hearing such opinions coming from the mouths of [scary] white Georgia politicians and [scary] conservative white members of the state board which chooses textbooks in Texas, I just automatically assigned such willful glossing over of accepted political designations to a white guy.

    But even once I realized he is black, I thought of it as pandering to an element of his electorate, rather than to members of his own party. That’s why you gotta talk to people – you hear stuff you’d never think of on your own.

    The young’uns: I recently ran across a bunch of mostly under-30 young people in the poetry slam community (& it is just that, that misused term, a community) here who not only inspire my admiration of their initiative in creating that community and their courage in performing their own words, but a huge surge of optimism because the community, while it has a mostly black venue & a mostly white/latino venue, is probably the most integrated scene I’ve seen hereabouts outside of sports & small subsets of the music scene. As far as I can see, all comers are welcomed and treated with respect regardless of sexual orientation, race or even age. (Not a lot of hip young scenes would give the respect I saw given to a guy in his late 50s or early 60s performing his own work, which was decidedly different in tone and subject matter than that of most of the younger performers. Respect? They voted him into the final three.) Obviously, I can’t pick up on subtleties in a few nights observation, but on the surface it was pretty impressive.

  2. Great post, Scotty. And one that really takes me back. I grew up in an even more insular environment, as you know, since I told you I grew up in Williamstown, which is kind of a world unto itself. And actually, like you my primary experience with black people for a long time was that they were very accomplished. Which is maybe surprising that I had ANY experience because, as you know – well, that town is awfully white. The place is an ivory tower in every sense of the word. I can recall one black family that lived in that town that had children in the school system when I was there (and their father was actually the principal of the school – maybe only in Massachusetts would you get a black principal in a virtually all white school…). But my high school did participate pretty heavily in a program called “A Better Chance,”


    which is a program that sends disadvantaged youth, the majority black, off to mostly private schools (mine was one of the few public schools involved), places like Phillips Andover and other funnelers to the Ivy League. The singer Tracey Chapman went to a private school in Connecticut through this program, then off to Tufts. The current governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, also was in this program, and through it got to Harvard. My school had probably 15 or so ABC students at any one time (they seem to have fewer now), which considering it was a very small town was enough to make more than a token presence, especially since as selective as the program was, these kids were pretty highly represented in the honor society, the debate team, in the school plays. I mean, these were some brilliant and talented kids, and they were like ROYALTY at my school (my first experience with fierce black royalty!) The girls lived with individual families, and the boys lived in a group home called the ABC House, which is still in operation today, though now coed. Anyway, there was nothing cooler than getting an invite to go hang out at the ABC House and listen to Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, or the Last Poets!

    This was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so of course it was still a much more politicized era. Like Williams College, our school had a week-long moratorium to protest the Vietnam War, with many speakers and discussions. A lot of the ABC kids had big ‘ole Afros, and we were all given to talking in mildly revolutionary rhetoric that would make me cringe today. There was still a sense of a Youth Movement that was going to change the world, though this was fading fast, that helped bridge differences, I think. You know, we all liked the same music, the same books. In my senior year, the school got around to offering a Black Literature course, which all the ABC kids naturally signed up for, and it was the most spirited and enlightening class I took in high school. (I can’t help but wonder if the discussions would be as lively today.)

    I do wonder, though, what the experience was like for the ABC kids. They were getting an incalculable education advantage, certainly, which can’t be minimized. But how must it have felt to be so cut from your own community to get that advantage? I think I can recall reading that Tracy Chapman had decidedly mixed feelings about her own experience, appreciating the education but really feeling like a fish out of water. Maybe her experience was worse, being at a private school where the students were wealthier and more privileged than we were, the times were different, or her own temperament kept her from adapting so well. I hope the kids I knew had a better experience, but it had to be challenging. I DO know that we townies benefited a lot by their being there. It turned out in a lot of ways to be as much about our education as theirs.

    • “It turned out in a lot of ways to be as much about our education as theirs.”

      Isn’t that always the case? It’s one way I judge any kind of ‘educational’ or ‘outreach’ program – if both sides aren’t able to recognize a learning experience – no matter how rocky – something’s not working right.

      I’ve always felt kids that make it through any kind of situation where they’re put in a new environment as an identifiable outsider – especially kids over say, 10 or 11 – have or grow a special kind of toughness, or endurance if they make a go of it.

      • And I guess I should acknowledge that sometimes, for some kids, that “endurance” is not 100% positive – it’s a kind of emotional distancing that doesn’t always serve one well.

      • Good points! And I look forward to getting Scotty’s perspective, too. The thing is, the more I think about it, the more I have these little qualms. I do think that it’s not only a matter of these kids being put into an environment as an identifiable outsider, but the fact that they’re black kids being put into a white environment I think again gives it a kind of unique dynamic. Is there something wrong with the picture of rewarding a bright, motivated black kid by removing him/her from his environment to this – clearly “superior” – mostly white educational environment so that he/she might succeed? It’s not a very good message, is it, that in order to realize their potential, these kids need to be removed to this other environment, that they have to work to succeed in a white school, and somehow toughen themselves in the process to being an outsider, and then all doors will be open. And, I mean, I understand the logic, as well as the good intentions. And especially when this program started in the 1960s, the idea of plucking talented kids and putting them, as early as possible, into a situation of intense academic preparedness, where it already existed, so that they could compete in the nation’s best universities, well, that was certainly well-intentioned. And I think it genuinely changed lives. I guess what is troubling, and I hate to say it, is that almost half a frigging century later, this model should still be relevant.

  3. “I guess what is troubling, and I hate to say it, is that almost half a frigging century later, this model should still be relevant.”

    Yes. I thought, when it was a more-discussed path, that racial separatism was not an effective path in the U.S., and I still think so. But observations such as the above do make me wonder.

    As always, I think it’s so very much about class, and money, but color is so visible that it takes over the discussion. Not that race isn’t integral, it is. But it is easy to make it carry all the freight and it should not.

    I also wonder that if the relative privilege between groups – or perhaps unquestioned access is a better descriptor than privilege – seems little changed, have the attitudes of those in the groups changed? I don’t know if there is a parallel, but to go to the experience *I* know, I get a milder version of the feeling your observation engenders when I see the statistics that there are actually *fewer* women entering science, technology, & engineering education today than when I was in engineering school (and a very tiny minority) 35 years ago. And yet, the women who ARE studying/working with science and technology feel MUCH more a sense of ownership and more comfortable in their right to be where they are, than we did, as a whole. They still can feel marginalized and outside the male culture – but they get pissed about it and seem to have NO sense of needing to earn the right to claim their own space. Just a sense of having to do battle to do so.

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