Friday, June 5, 2009

the "other" side


Invisible Man, Soul Man, and Black Like Me all try to show white Americans what it is like to be black in The United States. One is a metaphor, two are chronicles of white men going undercover, one fictional one not. I found another way to learn the same lesson, maybe more powerful, surely more modern.

When leaving lily white Sandy Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, people told me Atlanta was a black city. I did not realize how black till I stepped out of a panel van with my luggage at the corner of Ashby and Bankhead.

I looked like no one else. Just in case I was unaware of how much I stood out, people would stare at me everywhere I went and occasionally children would loudly point out my race. Billboards were different, they had black people on them. Not just the ads on busses but everything. Even the two greatest icons of whiteness, Jesus and Santa Claus, appeared black hanging on the walls of people's homes. I did not own a TV but they were everywhere and all tuned to shows like Moesha or Martin. I did not have a radio but everyone else did. Not once did I hear a screaming guitar lick or even a folksy ballad. What I did hear was a beat, sometimes smooth horns, and lots of rapping or singing. No rock style screaming.

It was fascinating at first. I was not used to the attention and enjoyed talking and learning with everyone I met. The fascination soon wore out and got tiring.

I lost my identity and just became the white guy. I could not have a conversation without race being brought up. I had other things to talk about, there was more, but I was rarely allowed to get there. Police regularly stopped me to ask if I was lost or needed help. When they found where I lived they would call me names and predict my needing their help soon. A few promised my surely needed help would not come from him, because I was just asking for trouble by being in this neighborhood.

I felt vulnerable and scrutinized all the time. I got used to it and achieved some comfort, but it never completely went away.

Occasionally I would get what would seem a brief rest when visiting white areas or white friends. Not really. White strangers would not, could not relate to my experience and I had no reason to feel I was anything like them. Friends and family would often joke about some new mannerisms and tastes, claiming I now thought myself black. They questioned my awareness of my own identity.

I found this ironic since I had never been aware of my whiteness before entering this black world. Once in that world, everyone and everything reminded me that I was in fact white. This new self awareness was met with other whites questioning who I thought I was. It was very lonely. I lived there roughly two years. It was almost 12 years ago.

I still haven’t forgotten those days and I still visit.
I remember those lonely days when I hear a white person question why the black kids sit together in the cafeteria or ask why there would be such things as historically black colleges. I remember it when I listen to some white person complain about what words they aren’t allowed to say or how it is unfair that a network named BET is allowed to exist.

I think about those days often and how small that area is geographically compared to the whole country. I realize that without me making a real effort, I will never experience that again. I realize how easy it was for me to leave that black world and retreat back to my white one. My white world is all over. It seams to just be wherever I am, and I move a lot.

I realize that for those who don’t look like me, that period of life, the one where they are the outsider who sticks out, IS their life.

I got worn out after six months, what does one do after 40 years?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The only thing I remember commenting on was the accent you picked up for a while...

'Dalyn! You have an accent!'
'No ah don't!'
linz

Mr. Noface said...

I don’t know about 40 years, but for my limited time on this planet, the constant pressure (because that's what it feels like even in the best of times) to act the part of the “black guy” can be too much for me and I just go hermit mode for months at a time. That's not to say that I go off into the woods and get all "Unibomber", but there are times when I'm just disengage from the rest of the world and keep largely to myself. I'll only do anything social if I absolutely have to (work, church, etc), because I get tired of being expected to act in accordance to my race (this expectation is not limited to white folks either). It's my feeble attempt to dance between the rain drops (I say feeble because no matter how nimble I am, I still get wet).

Claudia said...

Thanks for the perspective. Always interesting to hear more of your life story.

uglyblackjohn said...

I really didn't notice racism much until I moved to Texas.
Here, "Race is King".
Everything revolves around race (even when race isn't really a factor).
I think it becomes the conditioned response.
Now, all I hear is how one group acts or looks different and how I shouldn't make friends with others from a different race.
But even my mocking of racists by hanging out with whom I'd like gets old.
Maybe I'll go back ti Cali for the summer.

Siditty said...

As a black girl whose whole life was in white world, I it gets hard. My husband notices this as I get all militant. I for instance have decided I don't want my future kids to go to a predominantly white school. I want them to go to a more diverse school. Where this school exists I have no clue, but I don't want them to feel the alienation I did in school. Being the "only one" makes for a strange experience, and you are constantly reminded of your race, even in things where race doesn't matter. The only escape you do have is to withdraw into yourself like Mr. Noface said.

----------------------

Uglyblackjohn,

I know where you live, it is my birthplace. Like I said I rep Cathedral In The Pines Kindergarten Class of 1981!!!!!!! You live in a race obsessed area. You are six miles from Vidor, TX, a place well known for it's "sundown" tendencies and who is still struggling for diversity due to the KKK chasing out every minority even up into the 1990s. Your town has a huge black population, but it is heavily segregated, or at least when I lived there. I still managed to not be familiar with many black folks while living there, as we lived in an all white neighborhood and I attended private school while there.

How does a California boy get to that part of the world?

Another thing, is even with the segregation, you are in Cajun country, and you see a lot of black creole, folks who most folks don't even think of as black, but the one drop rule is still in effect. The point is it isn't all that segregated, but we just don't call it mixed race down there, just black. We whites and blacks both tend to have a tinge of native american and white, and/or black mixed in us, even though most of us don't acknowledge it. The one drop rule in effect.

Corbie said...

Great post! But I have to admit that I was really excited when I saw your opening line because I've read those books and I thought that finally I'd have something intelligent (ish) to say about a topic - turns out this wasn't a book review post at all! One day, I'll have something really important to add and I'll surprise both you and myself.