Q: I am going to this predominantly white school for the first time and I am really scared. This is my first time leaving my blackness at home. Is there anything I should expect?
A: Try this.
One day at lunch sit by yourself and observe. Close your mouth and open your eyes. Listen. You are under no obligation to ‘represent’. Neither is anybody else.
Understand this. You can’t say anything intelligent about race, because you don’t even really know yourself. A new school represents a new opportunity to learn something new, so do that. What’s real is that I could show you 1000 books, articles and poems by black authors and still not describe a complete understanding. That’s because people are individuals, even the ones who don’t want to be.
Your blackness is not what you think it is. It is transient and incomplete and it is not what makes you you. This is your opportunity to prove that to yourself, because meeting new people and traveling to new places challenges you to think on your feet.
When I was between 12 and 15, I started interacting with white kids my age for the first time. It happened in several different environments each with a different vibe and flavor. The first was summer school in a ridiculously rich neighborhood. I had shop class and PE. It was the first time I met kids with braces. Those braces cost more than what my parents paid for monthly rent. I couldn’t believe that there were people with that much money in the world. And almost all of them were completely embarrassed about the fact that they wore braces. I hung out with the kids who skateboarded. The thing I brought to the party was that I could run middle distance. I didn’t know that was a thing but I discovered it. For me it was nothing to jog for 30 minutes or longer. The other thing was that I was considered funny. I was just bagging on people but they never quite heard it that way, so they told me I could be class clown. I didn’t want to be, but it was that way to be popular.
I wanted to go that high school in that rich neighborhood, but ended up at a Catholic school. Completely different set of folks. Not so rich, but lots of different types. Whereas in the middle school there were about five or six typical cliques, the jocks, the stoners, the brains, the weirdos, the socialites, the thugs… in this high school there had to be 50 different cliques. Everybody took their own thing seriously.The school was way less laid back. In fact one of the friends I made at the middle school came to the same high school and he dropped out and went back to the other place. It was too stuck up and disciplined and dress code for him. Of course as a freshman I was a shrimp and was trying to find a way to fit in. All the things I actually liked to do, this school did not have. I could wrestle. No wrestling team. I could tumble. No gymnastics team. I could play an instrument. No band. I ended up on the diving team in the second semester and that got me a varsity letter. So I would be four year varsity. But I wasn’t fitting in until that happened. This school had serious spirit and very interesting teachers. But I still ended up doing odd things that weren’t popular. Ultimately I learned soccer, and computers and pinball. Nothing I would have ever guessed when I started.
The summer after my freshman year, I made a black friend. We went to the same church (neither of us were Catholic). His family had a bit of money, and his mother helped arrange for us to go to a day camp on scholarship. It was Junior Guard. So even though I wasn’t a strong swimmer, I became a junior lifeguard at the beach. A completely new set of people. So within one year I met three different groups of white kids from three different parts of the city.
The next year I went to summer camp, again on scholarship, 150 miles away from home. Another group.
By the time I started applying to colleges, I was ready for anything. But still, I only wanted to stay in California. For me, going to USC was all I ever cared about. I got accepted and nobody could tell me shit. Yet within six months I had to drop out because I couldn’t get enough scholarship money. So after all that private school I ended up getting a shit job and working with people who never even thought about college. Completely different group, including Vietnam vets who worked in the warehouse. Yeah I worked a union job. Saved money, bought a motorcycle and a stereo, hung out with kids at a junior college, partied a lot.
One night I ended up at a party and I wanted to dance with this girl. She asked what college I went to. I told her I was a union man. She turned her back and left me on the dance floor. It was the most humiliating thing ever, because I had gone to USC. So long story short, I quit my union job, got a job in a bank downtown wore a tie, got into the management training program. Nothing in my life was going to plan, but I had to think on my feet and survive. I did.
I ended up going back to college and getting a job at Xerox paying me ridiculous money. I moved to an apartment 2 blocks from the beach and started cycling and playing beach volleyball. Three years later I moved to Brooklyn from LA. Two years later, Boston. Three years later, Atlanta and got married.
Every time my life changed, I became a different kind of man than I ever thought I would be. And today, 30 years later, I still can’t tell you what kind of blackness I have. I have the kind of blackness nobody understands, not even my wife. It turns out I was an individual all this time. So for me I can accept that I’m either a completely different kind of black than ever existed before, or that I’m not black at all but I thought I was, or that I don’t even care.
But I do know that I had to deal the the reality of my situation. Doing that was the most important thing. I’ll tell you this, I definitely am my own man and I have no regrets about the choices in my life. I have known way more success and way more failure than I ever could imagine, and I know fitting into somebody else’s definition what blackness is supposed to mean is a huge waste of time and energy.
In the end, you have to live with yourself, even if it’s not the self you thought you would be. But it’s really a big, gigantic, enormous world and there’s more goodies out there than you can guess. You will fit in more places that you can possibly believe.
I’ll just leave you with a couple pictures. It’s my brother Doc who was LAPD (yes LAPD) for 17 years. He’s retired. Right now he’s living in Bodrum, Turkey. He loves it.
The world is yours. No fear.