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Black History Month approaches, and, it seems, is amazingly becoming a daily affair with the election of Barack Hussein Obama as our nation’s new president. I have never seen so many identifiably African-American faces on programming outside of BET, if most of our females look like White women dipped in molasses. This is both boon and bane. The positives are many and obvious, so I’m skipping them to focus strongly on one rarely discussed negative: People don’t ask when people don’t know.
I can’t count the times I have been embarrassed, lost a budding friendship (even a job opportunity), or gotten into life-threatening trouble because of the assumptions others make about me based on skin color, grade of hair and gender. Between ages 13 and forever, I have often entered a situation and immediately been handed a doobie, offered a line, a rock, or a glass of imbibe without being asked if I indulged. In every instance, I was met by a stranger who knew nothing about me and had not read my work. How I handled it depended. Learning diplomacy under such conditions has been quite the education.
The most recent incident took place two months ago in an insanely busy hospital emergency room, when the young intern taking my medical history cozied up to me and said, “Come on—you can tell me about the marijuana.” Looking at my dreadlocks, her body language inferred that she wouldn’t rat me out but needed to know if she were going to do her best to help me. (I had been severely burned in a home accident). “Damn,” I smiled, “I could use a joint right now! I haven’t had a good toke in decades. I simply can’t afford it anymore.” End of discussion.
On a visit to a Midwestern city, to do a workshop and reading at a community center, my wonderful hosts went out of their way to take me on a tour of places of specific interest to an African-American poet. I was grateful for their enthusiasm and went along willingly. Last stop on the tour was the city’s finest Black art museum. I was introduced to the director and given a tour through splendid digs. But from my perspective, the art it housed was heartsickingly beyond kitsch. It ranged from amateurish to atrocious. As my hosts and the director waited for me to sing praises, I covered by focusing on the remarkable architecture of the museum itself, skirting discussion of the paintings that detracted from its walls. On our way back to my hotel, I nodded vaguely in the affirmative as my hosts raved about them. I could think of no way to inform them that my tastes ran more to German and Abstract Expressionism.
There is something to be said for atmospheres, and during the O.J. Simpson fiasco of the late 90s, walking the halls of post-Bakke academia were extremely dicey. (The pressures of political correctness are stronger and far more confounding than peer pressure.) Confrontations were not to one’s face, but took place behind one’s back, or were “exuded” while being passed in English Department hallways. On some campuses the divide between Black students, Black faculty, and everyone else was not only palpable, it was highly visible, particularly on the quads and in the dining rooms—to the extent that I felt as if I had been thrown back into those 1950s I remember so well. All the high-tone talk about multiculturalism was just talk outchere in The Deep West, where more than a few “recent arrivals” felt secure enough to say aloud and in newsprint that “no one wants to be Black.” Ah—the ever-lowest common denominator still at work. Gingerly, I avoided the topic of O.J. altogether when teaching in the classroom. But not once was I openly asked what I thought about the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Neither friend nor foe on campus, Black, White or otherwise, had the courage or the decency. They simply assumed that I supported Orenthal James.
Not as sharp as I wished to be that day, I once managed to mangle a job opportunity by letting the biases of my interviewing committee undo me. (By 22, I had learned the hard way that one never puts down “poetry” or “writing” on the line next to hobbies.) Things were going famously well until I was asked, “What is your pet peeve.” Quickly, I fumbled for an answer. “My pet peeve is not being asked.” They requested an explanation or example and I fumbled for one. “Well—everyone assumes that because I’m Black that I love the Kennedys.” Faces froze and a chill traveled the room. The interview was immediately ended, I was dismissed and received no call back. Realizing what had happened, I chided myself on not being more articulate. I had nothing against the Kennedys, and had met one or another of the family on social occasions or by chance. What I shouldawouldacoulda done was to have continued thusly: “I very well may support the Kennedys, and if I had been old enough to vote at the time, I might have voted for JFK. But that is not the issue. The issue is respect. It is disrespectful to assume what I think—about anything—without asking, just as it is insulting to assume that I drink red wine and smoke marijuana. I may do all of that, and/or love the Kennedys to death. But I am entitled to be asked about such matters, because to not do so is a denial of my humanity.”
Less than a week into America’s new administration, the profusion of media pundits continue to hash over every move made by President and Mrs. Obama. Newscasters and journalists have made it plain that this will be standard operating procedure for the first 100 days and most likely beyond. My fear is not that our hopes will be assassinated. My concern is for the long-term, for the coming tsunami of political assumptions (they will be anything BUT post-racial) that may roar through our governance and culture like hurricanes Katrina-Rita, as this awesome national paradigm shift reaches its crescendo. I’m afraid that many of the budding promises of our new era will be washed away in the floodwaters.