A hallmark of my experience growing up black in Tennessee was the feeling that I was always under attack. I felt insecure, but I wasn’t able to get in touch with that insecurity. I felt an underlying grief and heartbreak for experiences I had never acknowledged or put words to. Looking back on it now, I can see how those experiences were both real and created by me.
I had all types of situations that fed a narrative that, I was under attack.
The issue of race was always an undercurrent within my family. My mother’s side are fair skinned and part of the historical ruling class in Jamaica. She is considered white in Jamaica, but black in America. She defied male rule in her family by becoming a doctor, which her father did not support. My Dad grew up as a working class black in South Carolina and participated in the civil rights movement. He is also a doctor, and was partly motivated to become one in order to access the same privileges enjoyed by Whites. As a child, he noticed the most respected people in town had earned degrees as a doctor of something.
To this day, members of my mother’s family have Black Jamaicans as cooks, drivers and cleaners who live in quarters below the house. Quarters original conceived to house slaves. This piece of my mother’s lineage sets off my Dad. His grandfather was a slave. If I were to pick a few adjectives to describe these two parts for my family working out a union, I’d describe one as elitist, racist and humorously dismissive, and the other as impoverished, victimized and fighting for belonging.
I spent all of my childhood in a state of innocence, neither seeing nor understanding the significance of my skin color. I grew up playing games like, “slavery”, “smear the queer” and “German spotlight”, where the point of the game was to eliminate that minority.
When I was in 4th grade I remember having a white best friend at summer camp, and in the second week of camp he informed me that we could no longer be friends because his Dad had told him he shouldn’t be friends with black people. When I was in 6th grade, my Dad brought me with him to a conference for black doctors. Everyone there was in the black professional crowd, so blacks who had, like my Dad, also seen the value of earning degrees as “doctor’s of something. I managed to become the honorary white person among some kids at the conference. I was constantly getting into arguments and explaining I wasn’t white. One kid, Tyrone, was relentless. In an effort to escape Whiteness, I offered that we compare who was whiter. So we stood next to each other with our arms extended out. Turns out, I was slightly whiter than him. That’s… not good.
Of the words, White, Black and Nigger, nigger held a lot of weight in my mind because when a white male said it, there was a particular rage and detachment in the air. Like, when someone is standing in your face, talking at you, but they aren’t present with themselves. They seem capable of anything. You can’t trust it. All the cool males in high school had weapons in their car. I had a hunting knife for example (never used it). White males had baseball bats, which they called nigger beaters.
That type of aggression played out for me on the soccer field. I was the best soccer player in Tennessee for the position I played, and was on the Olympic development team. I was also very sensitive to the emotional tone of my surroundings. Among the normal male aggression you’d find on any soccer field, I sometimes felt this other kind, even if people didn’t say anything. And sometimes they did day something, and that aggression came out overtly on the field of play. I remember one game where the parents of a team from Paducah, Kentucky called the Maniacs were inciting their children to attack me: “don’t let that nigger do that to you!”, “get that nigger!”. Two of the players received red cards for hard tackles before the referee decided to call the game to preserve our safety. A few parents then announced that “they would see us in the parking lot.” My Dad and I remained at the field for most of the day before returning to our car. In another game, a player defied all soccer etiquette and speared me. He was banned from the league. But my arm was broken. This occurred after I’d done some flow-based moves that clearly embarrassed him. Mentally, I was done with soccer after that. None of the white kids had my playing style. There was another black guy one year above me who did, who ended up playing in the MLS pro soccer for a few years.
I didn’t know how to handle these undercurrents of sensation. When anything happened, all I knew was run faster and be better than everyone else. Stay ahead or “they” will get you. That’s also how my dad managed his perpetual state of insecurity. Kill or be killed. “You must be a competitor”, he’d say. He had ideas of what that should look like for everyone. He was a bull, having no problem telling you he was going to win, be top of the class, or president of this or that. I always thought that these efforts were a bit fake, so I became more covert and two faced, opting to mimic the mannerisms of whatever group I found myself in. He relentlessly coached me towards becoming a doctor of something and making money, hoping that with a strong resume and bank account I’d finally find safety. I give him total credit for pushing me to develop my intellect. I remember a few times where I was ready to quit, and just get by on my athleticism and natural ability with people, but from his perspective, I had to do more to survive.
In order to “to be a competitor” I have spent most of my life dismissing racially charged interactions. I push down whatever I am feeling and press on. Speed is safety. From this perspective, I have held on to all sorts of scary memories. And where my own prejudice lies is where, I have found white people tend to be fake – acting nice and Christian-like, while they are actually more racist and fixated on money then they are even aware of (If I’m honest, there’s a deep part of me that hates many white people). Or that Black people tend to harbor a lot of resentment for the past, and focus on sticking together, but then sabotage themselves with particular behaviors, tearing down those who break the ranks. Or, they become fixated on proving themselves through status and money as token black professionals, athletes and artists. Then there are Jamaicans who look up to the United States and White america in a really shitty way where some of the top artists of their time like Vibez Cartel bleached his skin to look more white. Or how Jamaica copies the laws of the United States in order to stay in good favor, even while police openly smoke joints on the corner. This desire to conform breeds corruption because you’re trying to uphold a standard that isn’t you.
I wish I could report that I thought white Americans were triumphing in the racial hierarchy but I don’t, as I see them as merely trying to become the European lords and ladies from which we fled Europe. The pinnacle of the American Dream is having a modern day castle, gated and protected from everyone, with a perfectly manicured lawn and garden. (Did you know the lawn was originally invented to prevent castles from being snuck up on.) I see very little expression of a individual’s unique heart and creativity in that vision of an American Dream
I desire to share my honest perspectives on race with others, which is hard to do because I see a lot of our behaviors as attempt to improve our position on a racial hierarchy that is both real and imagined.
But I also want be neutral and available to others. When I was practicing law in Philadelphia, and hard on the money chase, I remember walking down the street in my business suit, and a teenager who was mixed race, yelled at me with surprise in his voice: “hey, you look just like me!” It was as if for the first time in his life he was going to be able to understand something about his situation. I was too busy ignoring such conversations at that time in my life, so I laughed, dismissed him, and continued walking.
I want to be available for those conversations, and a place open to receive all things people feel, but have yet to say.