Friday, February 20, 2009

Shades of Would: Writing and the Question of Black Identity

Over the years, I have been approached by fair-skinned, straight-haired individuals who I suspected were Black by “the vibes” they gave off. This usually occurred after a poetry reading. As the crowd thinned, one person would hang back until no one else was within earshot. Then, following the painful confession that “I don’t look like it, but I’m Black too,” I would be asked for advice on how to handle the emotional difficulties and the psychological damages that came with entrenched acculturation and / or their refusals to pass for Asian, Jewish, Latin or White. I felt somewhat an authority, given that authorities on the topic were scarce (still are), and given that my children were the products of a mixed marriage — and that the ever-troublesome topic had made its way into my writings. I preferred to allow the poet in me to speak, to offer succinct and constructive answers and time-tested solutions to specific problems.

My particular identity crises, however, were of a much more subtle nature, related to regional differences which compounded the issue of race. I was not a Southerner, nor was I close to any family roots in what was coming to be known as “the Old South,” nor was I from Texas (A nation unto itself: a maternal uncle once declared he had never experienced racism until he joined the military during the Korean War and was stationed in Texas for boot camp.). My immediate family origins were largely from the Plains States, farming and rural, but my upbringing had been strictly urban and rather generic. Being born in what I have termed “the Deep West,” my parents — “an Oakie and an Arkie,” as I often either lovingly or facetiously called them — reared me to speak only “the King’s English.”

Reading the complete works of Shakespeare by the age of ten, along with the King James Bible, and virtually every other text in my parents’ teensy library, including the sequestered Henry Miller, I had long entered the hostile world of public school and libraries, had undergone the ritual of being called “Nigger” and “Black” (then, an expletive), and was well on the path toward learning the caustically cruel lessons that came with being intellectually and psychologically different from one’s peers. At home, I was forbidden the use of foul language, blasphemy, “bone-head English,” or the slang I brought in from school. To say “ain’t” or “goddamn” instantly generated corporal punishment. I once, actually, had my mouth washed out with Ivory soap (the same soap mother used to give enemas). The usual punishments were sharp cracks of backhands across my face, or a whipping followed by the additional denial of TV privileges and having to go to bed at seven o’clock instead of nine — assuming I could lay down comfortably on my throbbing behind.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” my father would intone, with a Moses-like basso that shook my bones.

My parents were not only beautiful, but possessed an overwhelming physical power so traumatizing that I could not utter a profanity without stuttering, stammering and having spasms of the torso accompanied by a stomach ache. Thus, I never said them. It would take an empty auditorium, stubborn determination, and the encouragement of a friend to break the spell my parents had cast. Once broken, at age 14, it was gone forever. But it wasn’t long thereafter that I would discover the more sophisticated and subtle difficulties connected to place and self-image. Along with obedience, my parents had also drummed into me the notion that I was equal to anyone who was White, that I could be proud of my race, and that as long as I did my best I would be rewarded. The latter delusion would be dispelled by the time I left home, the day after my 18th birthday. But the former teaching has remained intact. Ironically, it became a character trait that, coupled with my creative bent, unfortunately separated me from many of my “scaredy” colored peers — those who feared the White world and its inhabitants, and / or deeply believed in the inferiority of African peoples who were once enslaved.

This was an especially painful happenstance during the onset of puberty. This self-hatred festered in the psyches of many of my Negro classmates to the extent that it often became an insurmountable barrier to friendships. It often caused destructive behavior, toward the school building, the buses, students, and teachers alike. Bizarre incidents occurred daily, and I believed I was trapped in insanity. But pleas to my mother to transfer me out of the schools I attended were met with her stony insistence that I learn how to cope with the circumstances. It would take years to do so, and exposure to the world outside, before I would come to understand what was soon to be called “ghetto mentality.” This acquired understanding has informed my work as a poet and writer, and I am as fascinated with it now as I was in childhood.

As for coping, I was lucky to survive my internment in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I was helped by several sensitive individuals who went out of their ways to protect me. They were perceptive adults, some creative, all ambitious, who also saw themselves as trapped in the system, if in entirely different ways. They spanned the racial, religious, and gender spectrums, and saw through my mediocre test scores and grades to the creative entity beneath. These teachers and mentors not only complemented the rich cultural environment my parents provided (when at their best), but they sheltered me from the relentless racism that prevailed between 1950, when I entered the school system, and 1964, when I graduated from high school at seventeen.

With their help, I was able to combat the ignorance and violence that defined my life in the public schools of the southwest. These mentors gave me the chance to distance myself from what I termed “the madness.” They fostered my growth and the development of the emotional and psychological tools I needed to survive in post-war, pre-civil rights America. They enabled me to understand my other Black peers and to appreciate the history that had shaped them, and to navigate the distances between us. They enabled me to adapt. Instead of resenting those differences, I came to respect and embrace them, which lessened the impact that might have otherwise crippled me, or caused me to become a teen suicide. I had learned that all-important ability inherent in my African-American heritage — the skill of reversing the negative — to transform the madness into works of art, if not beauty; to allow the damages of racism to move through me and be transformed.

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