Tag Archives: Obama

Black & White

I love black peopleMonday started like any other.
The only difference was that I wore one of my favorite tee-shirts.
One that I normally only wear in the house.

In fact, as I made my way through the day, I honestly forgot that I had the shirt on.

From my neighborhood coffee stop to the drug store to the Post Office to the dry cleaner to the barber shop to the supermarket – my path was riddled with looks, both approving and disapproving.

I found the reactions mostly curious until one woman approached me and said, “I think the President went too far with his remarks about Trayvon Martin.”

My first thought was to ask this older White woman what she knew about being Black in America, but that would only encourage a conversation that I was neither in the mood or had the energy for.

True, in his recent remarks about the Martin/Zimmerman case, President Obama shared some little known Black History Facts.

Little known to people who are not Black…

A story from NPR, Polls Show Wide Racial Gap on Trayvon Martin Case highlights the simple fact that Black and White people in America just see things differently.

Sticks and stones and a few words about the "N" word…

What image comes to mind when you hear the word “nigger?”

Think about it.

After all, it is 2010 and we are still having the conversation about its use and the inappropriateness associated with it.

Regardless of our background, we all know people who have used it.

So perhaps it is best to revisit the rules…

White people get no pass, “hood” or otherwise.
Pay attention John Mayer.
Permission is not granted to use the word – in gest, or otherwise.

Much was recently made of Senator Harry Reid’s use of the word with regard to then-potential Presidential candidate Barack Obama. I read the book “Game Change” and my impression is that Reid’s remarks were inappropriate, but in no way appeared grounded in malice.

I am not naive.
A racist is racist.
Like x-ray vision one can see “it” through a brick wall.

I once worked for an individual, who was, despite protestation and by all accounts, a racist.

In what the individual believed to be “confidential” circumstances, – no Black people present, or so they thought, – they flagrantly used the word.

This person knew and fully understood they were wrong…
Nigger was used in an almost whispered tone. Not only was there comprehension about the gravity of the word’s use, its inappropriateness was also understood.

Yesterday I was getting a haircut – at an African-American barber shop – and counted the number of times I heard the word used. In a 30 minute period, the count was eighteen. Eighteen times in a half hour! Employees and patrons alike peppered their conversation with it-

Salutation – “What’s up my nigger?”
Exaggeration – “Nigger please…”

The difference is that in these instances, there was no malicious intent or derision.

While I personally don’t approve the use of the word by Black people, culturally, it is allowed.

Permission is granted.

It is part the African-American vernacular and, in many cases, accepted as such.

This debate is not going away. Nor is the use (appropriate or not) of the word, by Black or White people.

I am intrigued and inspired by three quotes I unearthed by three different indviduals – two having to do specifically with the word nigger and one that was born out of much broader implications and circumstances.

In the forward to his book, “Nigger,” Dick Gregory wrote a special note to his mother –

“Whenever you hear the word ‘Nigger’,” he said, “you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”

Gregory masterfully turned what, on the surface, was a negative into a thought-provoking and challenging positive.

Whoopi Goldberg, commenting on the word nigger:

“I don’t know any and I’ve never been one.”

Goldberg’s refusal to accept a label, which neither fits or defines, suggests that anyone who uses it simply doesn’t understand “who” or “what” they are talking about.

Lastly, former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt:

“No one makes you feel inferior without your consent.”

When we refuse to succumb to demeaning labels, but accept the fact that we are individuals, unique and equal in our common humanity, we win. We defeat those who use words to define us.

Three Little Children, 1944
William H. Johnson (American, 1901 -1970)
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Smithsonian Institue

Editor’s Note:

I was hasty in my reference to Senator Reid’s remarks in the book Game Change. His quote did not use the word “nigger,” but language that was interpreted by some to have a similiar tone. Reid was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama:

“a ‘light-skinned’ African American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” as he said privately.”

Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

A post-racial America. Really??

If Black people were to wring their hands in disgust, protest and offense as a result of every racially inappropriate remark or gesture they were subjected to, the country would be embroiled in riots and disorderly conduct of unimaginable proportions. While no doubt inappropriate, Senator Reid’s comments in the book Game Change regarding President Obama did not cause Black people, other than Michael Steele, to cry foul and “go off.” Besides, in his case, he was simply “carrying his party’s water.” But I digress.

The truth of the matter is that racism in America is still alive and well in 2010. What is different today is that most Black people – at least the ones that I know – are not content to sit on their hands and play the role of victim. The realization that the old adage about teaching old dogs tricks rings very true to most. This is to suggest that there is a greater understanding today than ever before among Blacks about change. If change is to occur, it is going to have to come from us and not those who are steeped in ignorance and self-hatred.

The point is not to suggest that these attacks – that is, after all, what they are, attacks – should be ignored or simply swept under the rug. It is not that simple or easy. Once one has been subjected to the injustice of racial discrimination, no matter how subtle or overt, it conjures up a memory. Like the residual smell after a house fire, it lingers and occupies an indelible place in the brain that can be recalled with very little strain or provocation. So, the change that I referred to is akin to developing a thicker skin and a greater sense of one’s own identity. In doing so, we foster a greater understanding of ourselves, but more importantly, we have the power to enlighten the ignorant. Enlightenment comes in many different forms, but I have found it to be most effective when demonstrated through actions and deeds, not words. My own belief is that as a Black man, I have an obligation to exceed other’s expectations of me. My mother is famous for doling out clichés. My favorite of these is “No one can walk on your back if you are standing up straight.”

I was in Detroit last week and had a conversation with Errol Service, a McDonald’s franchise owner. We discussed among other things, how one lives an authentic life and what is really important. In the course of the conversation Errol said, “In 2010, I am living my life as if I only get one take.

It turns out that he had spent time watching a motion picture being filmed on location. He was surprised at the number of takes it took to film just one scene in order to “get it right.” He said that it prompted him to think of his life as if he were making a film in which he only got one take. He explained that not only did it cause him to take stock in everything that he does, but it has also affected the way he interacts with people on an everyday basis. He has also started spreading this philosophy to his peers and employees in an effort for them to up their game and be their very best.

This philosophy makes sense and speaks directly to the change I am talking about. We have to own our identities and take full responsibility for what we do and the way we live our lives.

A close friend shared a copy of This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women.

The book is a collection of personal essays based on the National Public Radio series of the same name. This I Believe is filled with beliefs about what is truly important to this collection of people from all walks of life. While I have yet to finish the whole book, I was struck by one of the essays, “Leaving Identity to Other Folks,” by Phyllis Allen. The brief essay is poignant and personal, containing moments that we all can relate to, but, in my opinion, the last line of the essay is the perfect summation of this conversation – “What you have to do is be the best that you can be.”

“Standing in the rain waiting to go up the steps to the balcony of the Grand Theater, I gripped Mama’s hand and watched the little blond kids enter the lobby downstairs. It was the fifties, I was “colored,” and this is what I believed: My place was the balcony of the downtown theater, the back of the bus, and the back steps of the White Dove Emporium. When I asked Mama why this was so, she smiled and said, “Baby, people do what they do. What you got to do is be the best that you can be.”