Thursday, October 25, 2018

The "African American" Experience?

Several  years ago I worked with a young, black teacher from a small town in northern state. As we have mutual acquaintences I won't say her name or where she's from. We never had an in depth conversation and truthfully I never found her an interesting enough person to engage on more than a superficial level.
           After working with her for the better part of a year however I thought her to be a tad condescending. She seemed to patronize when she spoke to me.  In all fairness, there are some teachers who feel the need to simplify things when they speak to their students and it carries over to everyday conversations. It sounds as if they're being patronizing, but it's not their intent, they just want to be comprehended and tend to speak slowly and in warm tones. As I had to work with this person and from time to time I had to attend the occasional meeting with her, I couldn't help but notice that whenever I spoke she had a snide comment. There were LITERALLY times when I wished I'd been born a woman so I  could have slapped the hell out of her. I loathed her, but as time went on I couldn't help but notice that whenever the other southern black people spoke she would seem to talk down to us in her replies as well.
          Black southerners tend to look down on blacks from Alabama. I think it has something to do with the fact that during the Jim Crow era blacks in Alabama took more grief than anyone else and seemed to be okay with it. In fact black people calling you a "Bama" is just a polite way of calling you a backward, rustic idiot.  It never dawned on me that blacks from the North and Midwest could see ALL black southerners that way, which leaves me to ask What IS the "black/African-American experience?"

               My grandfather in Louisiana couldn't vote until he was a middle aged man. In contrast black men in Chicago, New York and Boston COULD vote, but often felt as if they had nothing for which to vote.  Did they consider my grandfather and men like him, shucking and jiving Uncle Toms and Bamas who allowed themselves to be pushed around, or did they see them as men who stared down metaphorical (and in some cases literal) gun barrels when they left their homes?  Growing up black in these United States BEFORE I was born was NOT a pleasant experience, but can we compare being black in Chicago to being black in Mississippi? Was being black in Texas the same as being black in Los Angeles or was the black Georgian experience the SAME as the black New Yorker's experience? Racism existed (and to an extent still exists) in all those places, but is being told "we don't serve your kind" in Manhattan after not being able to hail a cab the same as having a mob in Tennessee threaten to lynch you because someone thinks you looked a white woman in the eye or perhaps forgot to tip your hat?

       Don't get me wrong, there are elements of the black experience that are/were universal.

- The sense of isolation one feels when one is the ONLY person of color in some places. There are friendly people of every race color and creed and some will speak to you, but there are times when you become invisible. Waiters and waitresses and other patrons of some restaurants seem to gaze right through you. Some don't want to antagonize us, some simply don't want to engage us, others simply figure if they ignore us long enough we'll go away. Ralph Waldo Emmerson captured that sense of isolation best in his novel "Invisible Man". There are some who don't consider us "American" as evident by those who clamored to believe the theory that a black man born in Hawaii HAD to have been born in a foreign country as they simply couldn't accept that a black American could possibly be the leader of their country.

- Not being admitted into certain places, be it a club, hotel, restaurant, college or neighborhood which gentlemen's agreements, policies and in some cases state laws and city ordinances excluded us. This isn't an entirely black experience. The Irish, Italians, Jews and every other minority has experienced this at some point and it leaves a mental scar even if you can walk away with a smile and pretend it doesn't bother you.
-The random criminal and other stereotypes. At the end of the civil war many who considered blacks the lowest rung on the societal ladder feared newly empowered blacks. The newly freed men and women would want the education denied them, ACTUAL jobs, equality in every way and MAYBE even some kind of retrobution for generations of mal treatment.  To that end laws were put into place to deny all of these things to blacks as a group. In some states there were literally laws to insure that unemployed black men would be in jail to provide a ready made labor supply for chain gangs.  Generations of selective prosecution have lead to many believing that blacks are more likely to simply BE criminals.  Black schools are constantly under funded and some resent their tax dollars going to fund "failing inner city schools".  "Inner city" has become the buzz phrase for "black" and anyone who attended an "inner city" school clearly must have received a sub par education.

In all fairness however we can't say that all aspects of the black experience are "negative".  If you're a black American in a foreign country you MIGHT be treated as the random stereotype that has been exported via mass media, OR you may be treated simply as an American. There are many who LOVE Americans. 
      As I sit and write this piece in 2018 I'm three days removed from having cast an early ballot in an election, a privilege that many of all races would envy. I live in a country where even the poor have running water and electricity and in some cases cable television and three meals a day. 
     I have access to higher education and I know that my grandfather would be proud of me, my sibling and my cousins and nephews who were able to attain it. 

       What DOES being black in America mean? I'd say the black experience in America is like a finger print. No two are exactly alike. I can't judge a black man who grew up in south Florida anymore than a black woman from up Delaware can judge me.  The "experience" in my opinion has as many similarities as it has differences, and as time wears on those will change as all things should.  What's the "black/African American experience?"  How should I know?

No comments: