Black Like Me

Trust the Rolling Stones to be incredibly inappropriate and offensive, yet somehow progressive by suggesting a white man have a relationship with a black woman in 1971.

I attend an HBCU (which stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and this semester I am in an African-American Literature class among other English courses. This draws up thoughts about race. I’d really prefer to live in a world where we were all so wonderfully accepting of different cultures and subcultures that we were genuinely delighted to learn something new and be exposed to different ways of thinking, until those concepts are familiar and comfortable. I am generally that way; there are days that go by when I don’t consider the issue of race at all and I feel at home walking around campus, like I am just as much a part of it as I am a part of Kentucky.

Reading about the struggles of the past brings the topic back to mind for me. Class discussions bring up interesting ideas, but they’re also pretty awkward since everyone is so concerned about being politically correct. We couch our phrases delicately, yet the text we read draws in vocabulary like “colored,” “Negro,” and “nigger.” My teacher avoids saying the N-word, she always spells it out quickly. I can’t blame her, I feel dirty even writing it, even to discuss it. In some past discussions I’ve had with my friends, we’ve tried to parse out what we thought were the worst curse-words in the English language. At the time of the discussion, I went with the word “fuck” while one of my friends went with “God damn it.” It never even occurred to me to think of the word “nigger” because it’s so far away from my typical thoughts and vocabulary, but if I had that discussion now, that’s the word I would pick. It surprises me on some level that the word has survived to the modern day among African-Americans (albeit with altered pronunciation, spelling and meaning) after all the ugliness it has represented in the past.

It wears me out thinking about it, because to consider it the human brain adopts a binary mentality: Us vs. Them, Left vs. Right, Good vs. Evil, Black vs. White. Trying to delve into the topic inevitably brings a chauvinistic sensation. Perhaps I feel this way because I don’t like having to step away from black-ness to be the white man in the room; I feel that African-American culture is a part of me as much as Japanese culture is a part of me, or British culture. I don’t directly identify as a member of those groups, but I empathize. My analysis is this: we are all the product of our cultural upbringing, socially constructed. When we learn about another culture, in some small way we join that culture. I’m telling you with a straight face that I feel just a little black.

Okay white boy, if you’re so smart then what does it mean to be black?

Obviously no one can answer that question perfectly: even if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came back from the grave to answer that question, there would be a few African-Americans who disagreed with what he said, or would put addendums on it. All I can tell you is what being black means to me, as I understand it. It’s about teaching through humor. It’s about humor for its own sake. It’s about knowing when to point out somebody is playing the fool. It’s about imbuing magic into the mundane. It’s about feeling the rhythm of life. It’s about the struggle. It’s about knowing where you came from. It’s about storytelling and singing. It’s about flying after life in a cage. It’s about pride and acceptance. Most of all, it’s about not having it be a damn issue anymore, but something to be celebrated, something that’s just another part of life.

It’s about being human.

I guess if I let myself get too comfortable then I might miss some of the lessons I could learn by reexamining my ideas about race. The past can be painful to examine though, especially when I feel some guilt over things I haven’t done. I guess every race on Earth is bound to feel some sort of shame for past failures, so I’m probably not alone in this sensation. There comes a time of revelation, though, when African-American literature starts to move away from a record of suffering and begins a triumphant ascension, when the stories have more victory and growth, and blossom into art. When that catharsis comes, I feel like I’ve been baptized in fire and emerged like a phoenix, that I walked the streets of Harlem with Langston Hughes before I grew wings and flew away. Against all odds, adversity has been overcome and the story has a happy ending… except it hasn’t ended, of course, and it isn’t always happy.

To spread my hands wide
in some place of the Moon
to whirl and to dance
on a wet night in June
then rest at cool morning
as tall as a tree
while dawn comes on slowly,
dark like me –
this is no dream!

To narrow my eyes
in the face of the sun,
Step! Whirl! Smile!
Till the contrast is done.
Rest at gray evening…
at last I see…
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.


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