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In America, life at the edge of racial belonging is not so black and white.
Photograph: Stefanie Eisenschenk
It might seem to you that I am white. Then again, depending upon how and where we meet—and upon things in your life I know nothing about—it might seem to you that I’m not white. So far, in forty-nine years here, my experience has indicated this much to me. My father came to the United States by way of Canada from what is now Croatia. My mother is a white American liberal from Wisconsin. Many in America would say that, because of the race of my parents, my identity is essentially fixed in those terms, that such matters are innate, inborn. For many on all sides of the color line, this either/or racial paradigm possesses the self-evidence of a law of nature. Yet the social and political machinery necessary to maintain the reality of this illusion proves lethal to men, women, and children everyday.
Nonetheless, contrary to this culture-bound delusion, whiteness is not a natural inheritance. People “believing themselves white” (to borrow a phrase from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who borrowed the idea from James Baldwin) must invest in that belief continually. Whether consciously or not, they must rehearse its prohibitions and privileges all their waking days—in their dreams, even. Our world offers them a great assistance with this and, on average, the dividends paid by this pact with whiteness are real. At the same time, Eula Biss recently argued that this “believing themselves white” business accrues a cost, “White Debt.” It seems to me that she is describing shame even more than debt. Her essay tiptoes around naming the terrible price people believing themselves white pay to sustain that belief.
I confess that, even in the abstract, I have never been able to acquire a knack for honoring the supposed impermeability of American racial categories. Just where is the border in what one says, thinks, imagines, who one loves? Even more, where is the border in how one goes about these things? My racial ambiguity has not only been internal but has been reflected in—perhaps fueled by—the ways that, since childhood, my race has been so frequently “misread,” or far from self-evident. More than once in my twenties, police asked me point blank: Are you black or white? In these previews of often subtler interrogations to come, it always seemed to me that the question was the answer. Yet for years and long after I knew better, and even up until now, I have been afraid to openly analyze the dynamics that have produced these questions. I dealt with them lyrically, both in poems and in life. But in a fearful and tiresome symmetry, this silence and lyrical angularity (like Dickinson’s “tell it slant”) also forced me to treat my condition as if it were a personal psychosis, mine and mine alone, an essential and incommunicable privacy. It’s taught me how necessary privacy is but also how an incommunicable privacy narrows, collapses, becomes a trap.
• • •
My immigrant bricklayer father was almost never home. Working for a construction company on the South Side of Chicago, he was more or less permanently on the road when, in the 1960s, my family moved out of Chicago to Wisconsin, where my mother had lived for part of her childhood. This, of course, is called “white flight,” a migration undertaken by millions of white families of the era. In my experience, however, there is a complement to this story that doesn’t get a name. In the 1970s and early ’80s, I met many black kids whose families—broken in ways not dissimilar to mine (one sister gone somewhere, a father gone somewhere else)—had left the same urban neighborhoods to make the same migration to similar points, usually located along interstates leading out of American cities. One finds black communities in towns such as Newburgh, Hudson, and Albany up I-87 from New York City. In the Midwest, similar communities cluster north and northwest of Chicago along I-94 and I-90, in Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee, Rockford, Beloit, and even Janesville. Such communities dot the American landscape as much as do white exurban enclaves.
More than once police have asked me: Are you black or white? It seems to me that the question is the answer.
During middle school and some of high school, I lived in one such community in Madison, Wisconsin. My mom had gone back to school, my dad was usually away, one sister had gone to college, and the other had run away. Rather than be alone in my house, I spent most of my time with my friends and their families. Most were black. For a long time, I did not apprehend my difference from them. We all knew something was up. But, it was vague: I remember Junior Clark’s sister Vanessa asking him one day, “What’s that cute little Mexican boy’s name?”
Or sometimes it wasn’t vague, like Bo Walker’s older brother pinning me against the wall of the building next to theirs in the Wright Street projects and pummeling me with fists: “Ed, man. You a cool white boy. You just got to learn to take blows and fire back twice as hard.” Somehow this meant the opposite of difference, or distance; it felt like I’d been accepted. And indeed, in the years that followed, Bo, his brother, and other black kids protected me, did not permit me to roll alone, to be an easy target.
But I remember the very day a moment of clarity appeared. It didn’t come directly from anything anyone else said or did to me. It was the summer of 1979. I was twelve. As I did often enough, I had spent the weekend mostly outside with friends. That weekend it was with Keith Alexander and two of his cousins visiting from Chicago. We’d been to the playground, the beach, and we knew how to gain entry to an office complex that didn’t lock the break room’s supply closet stocked with snacks and soda. We’d been up half the night listening to bootlegged Chicago radio and rehearsing karate moves in Keith’s older cousin’s bedroom. Keith’s cousin claimed to be a black belt; everyone I knew had a cousin who was a black belt. Back at home, I’d walked in the hallway past the bathroom and caught my reflection in the mirror. Who’s the white boy? I heard my brain ask my eyes. That’s me, some part responded as if surprised and, it seemed, in another voice. Then, a cacophony: What? Me? Which me? Who said that’s me? Who said it’s not?
I told my reflection, with the impossible hubris of a child, That white boy will never be me. I wasn’t, I decided in the basement of our rented duplex on Dwight Drive in Madison, going to be made to live that lie. I would decide what and who was important to me and become who and whatever that entailed. Call it pride. That decision was startlingly clear to me then. Comprehension of the complex forces that compelled that confrontation lay, however, beyond me, far ahead. I was a child; I had no idea what it would mean to me and those who would come into contact with me over the decades. Soon I’d begin to learn about that; I’m still learning.
Given my community and friends, there was no way I could have been or become “white.” By age twelve or thirteen, all of us had already heard and seen enough of people who believed they were white, could feel ourselves vividly and obscurely surrounded by them, coerced and policed by their expectations. We had been indwelled by the uniquely American complex of a fully racialized society, its ambivalent attractions and revulsions.
Purposefully but to effects that were mostly unconscious, we had come up with ways to reinforce that sense of experience. Our responses were part ritualized and part improvised. We had devised a few particularly elegant ways of fucking with the white world. With the benefit of time and an adult consciousness, these methods might look silly and insignificant—mean, even. But that small power we held in common helped produce something invisible: a shared identity, a sense of experience as a collective (as opposed to a strictly individual) reality. I carry it with me to this day; it is part of how I am in the world.
In a heavy snowfall at night, for instance, we would hide in the bushes by the intersection near the projects. This was in the late seventies, so most cars had rear-wheel drive. When a white couple or family would arrive at the stop sign, three or four of us would run to the back bumper while another one or two would run up to the windows of the car. Confronted in this way, the driver invariably gunned the engine, at which moment we at the rear of the car would lift up on the back bumper. When the spinning tires lost traction it felt like the whole car was floating in our hands. Taking advantage of the loss of friction, we could easily spin the car on the axis of its front wheels until the driver let up on the gas. Sometimes we could spin the car a full 360 degrees before dropping it and running (always in different directions) back to the apartment complex where, we figured, no one would follow. As much as a child can, and with a sense of a certain solidarity as a guide, I therefore began to address, amend, and even attack the racialized life that adults attempted to hand to me. This was often a solidarity signaled—I’d suspect most often less than consciously—through inflections in our voices and angles in our eyes. Insofar as I could intuit what was coming at me, I would reject the world whose assumptions would separate me from my friends and tell me to betray and deny myself.
• • •
In 1982 my mother and I moved again, this time to an “all-white” town in Wisconsin. We had lived there before, earlier in my life. My friends tried to warn me that this move would be trouble; I didn’t see it. I even knew some kids there, or thought I did, or had. Quickly, however, things got strange. I was sixteen years old and isolated. Only with time would I come to understand that the terms of my isolation were racial. If it took some time to arrive at this deduction, I can perhaps be forgiven for not finding it obvious, given that I was not black. I was dimly shaded, sure, call it olive. But as it turned out, race in this instance wasn’t really about skin color. Indeed, one must generally remark that perceptions of race draw upon much more than skin color. In this new environment, because I loved black people and black expressive culture, because the codes and rhythms of black community and family life inflected my presence in the world, in the eyes of my classmates and teachers, I was not really white—and their impoverished racial imaginary left them with only one other thing I could be.
At this time, I never thought I was black, never thought I was “pretending” to be anything. My sense of self was both an improvised and ritualized response to my life experiences, such as they were. During my adolescence, my most immediate environment was black, and certainly black enough to mark what “whiteness” was and keep it at a distance—how great a distance, I did not understand until it rendered me racially conspicuous to neighbors and schoolmates. At the same time, approaching this situation by searching for an environmental “cause” is a dangerous (and very American) game to play. Real as all of that is, in another way, my reactions to this shifting environment clearly had everything to do with an invisible metabolism of fears and necessities, a signature unique to me. I would hazard this is true of everyone. And mostly the world doesn’t care.
In this new all-white environment, I encountered racial conflicts with history teachers (Is apartheid in South Africa racism?), basketball coaches (Is it ever really necessary to dribble between one’s legs or shoot on the move?), and, most of all, with kids over how to walk, laugh, and talk. In the middle of a pick-up basketball game, one of my shots bounced a few times on the rim before dropping into the hoop. We called that touch. It was produced by a finesse in the fingertips, something akin to the gentle way a barber guides the head of his customer into the correct angle for the clippers, or to how one touches the head of a beloved child or friend in an embrace. One of the kids, I can’t remember which team he was on, called it a “nigger roll.” I’d never heard that. They had to pull me off of him. But, in ways far beyond epithets, the latent and explicit racism in the priorities this world had affixed to its sense of reality were everywhere. Upon arrival, I’d spent the summer looking for the best basketball players around my age and beating them again and again in any way the game would allow.
When the first actual practices began, everything changed. Suddenly, these mediocre players were good because the coaches said they were, and these coaches had a host of dreary drills and a style of play to prove it. I was confused about where I stood in it all. In ways beyond what I realized at the time, in ways like a finely honed rhythm, a social radar, basketball had become a venue I’d used to locate exactly where I was and how I existed in relation to those around me. We all did that. Looking back, in addition to “playing basketball,” we had been rehearsing who and where we were with each other on those courts. If you won, it meant that you got to stay in that swirling rhythm of momentum for another game. Now, this white style of play had broken the game into a tactical endeavor arranged in advance and executed, in so far as it was possible, by stationary individuals. In these all-white practices, I remember the distinct feeling that my body had been stolen from inside my skin and hidden somewhere. How had this happened? What could this mean? Were these boys really better than me? Still, it didn’t quite focus.
Our culture has been driven mad by its need to deny what it was, where it came from, what it has done.
One day on the way into the school building from the parking lot, a boy turned to me and sneered, “You’re a nigger.” These whispers and looks were common enough, but that direct address must have been uncommon because it stands out in my memory. This wasn’t a matter of style or association and allegiance. This kid was staring at me, talking to me, about me. Trying to defend myself—I guess it was myself—I said: “Well, you’re an asshole.” And he smiled at me and said, “Yeah, but at least I’m white.” For some reason, I couldn’t fight him. I stood rather in amazement, as if he spoke not for himself but for a vast and diffuse worldview. There he was, a messenger.
Things got worse. Someone would whisper nigger to me, I’d yell “fuck you” back and end up in the principal’s office, again. Racist messages about monkeys were stuck through the vent in my locker. Finally, I quit the basketball team and took to playing ball every night, often by myself. Friday night football game? I’d be in the empty gym at the YMCA with a boombox or a Walkman. I refined my game to the rhythms of the music I loved: The Gap Band, The System, Junior, Chaka Khan, Kashif, D-Train, Alicia Myers, Zapp, Cameo, Lakeside, Howard Johnson’s “So Fine, blow my mind.” More than basketball, these sessions had become a kind of one-man Afrocentric martial art. “Somebody, somewhere, told me this about you,” I would time the ball to hit the net when the chorus chimed back into Roger’s rhythm, “baby, heartbreaker.” This was privacy; this is what imagination had become to me: how to house a (now lost?) collective inside your body.
• • •
I was seventeen when my girlfriend, based on her sense of my predicament, gave me James Baldwin’s collected nonfiction, The Price of the Ticket (1985). I was not much of a reader, and here was this huge book. So I looked in the table of contents for something that might speak directly to my situation. The first essay I read was titled, simply, “Color.” Its first sentence: “White people are not really white, but colored people can sometimes be extremely colored.” I thought maybe I had found a clue.
Much of “Color” compares relationships between people—and between people and music—in clubs in downtown Manhattan versus those in Harlem in the early 1960s. The essay was written before I was born, and I had never been to New York City. But I had observed and experienced the ways music could comprise a fluid center of black family, social, and intimate life. Meanwhile among the limited subset of whites I knew, music seemed to confound them—especially the boys, who often dismissed it as “background.” When in a situation where they were incapable of pressing music to the periphery, rituals of what one might, against better judgment, call dancing ensued. Apart from a few exceptions, it appeared to me that whites—especially men—danced in a desperate attempt to survive the moment. I also noticed that they often appeared to me mocking and making fun of the music—and themselves—while doing so. This didn’t look fun to me. It looked desperate. This desperation was made visible by basketball or music. But, I’d sensed an avoidance of something far more widespread, far deeper, than basketball courts and dance floors could account for. Baldwin made the connection and described exactly what I had felt in this dynamic. Someone had recognized what I’d felt before I had. Something secret of mine had been placed in history; romance defeated, it felt powerful. I had never had that experience with a book before.
After color, my next biggest problem was teachers. It so happened that the very next essay in the book was called “A Talk to Teachers.” I rambled through it in a blurry way until reaching a paragraph that felt like the first proof I had encountered that what I’d been going through was real. Baldwin lights upon the idea that white people call black people niggers in an effort to name (and avoid) something about themselves. He begins, “In order to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere.” When I read those words, I was twelve again, staring at what my brain had just called the “white boy” in the mirror, being inundated by the feeling that a mistake had been made. Now the real white boys were calling me a nigger; teachers and counselors thought I was not smart enough for college; coaches thought I was a scrub; someone had cut the tires on my father’s truck. All of it, I knew in my guts, was racial. The content of one’s character, like the fluid system of one’s body, wasn’t romance; it was a racialized, historicized matter. And that matter was deeper than skin.
I read that paragraph on a loop. I put all the people I knew, including myself, into one or other of the two positions he described in this American theater of mutual and complexly motivated mutilation: those who cry “nigger” out of some deep misapprehension about their own selves, and those at whom the cry is directed. And, above all, the strangely vacated world such people created in the process.
Baldwin concludes: “If I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either! And that is the crisis.” There it was. I probably read those words a thousand times. It didn’t matter if I knew them from memory; I still found myself needing to look at them on the page. Never before had I imagined needing anything in a book. In effect, I was learning to read. And I was learning why to read. (The realization that this was also the reason to write was still on a different, distant planet.) According to Baldwin, I wasn’t a freak. The people I loved were not niggers, nor was I. The key to that psychodrama did not even come from us; it was someone else’s projection. Skin color, moreover, was only an alibi for racists. Yet history had made the lie real, even lethal. This affected millions and millions of people; but that didn’t make it true. It was a head fake that had the whole world fooled. But James Baldwin hadn’t gone for it, “in order to live.” That simple phrase echoed—echoes still—back to me from my prideful, twelve-year-old decision in the mirror. Clarified in his paragraph, I not only had proof, hell, I was proof. Our culture had been driven mad by its need to deny what it was, where it came from, what it had done. That dangerous denial was not only about “historical” things like slavery, it also controlled what you felt—or didn’t—in a song, which meant in yourself; how you spoke—or didn’t—to a child, to a friend, or a daughter. It whispered in your ear on the pillow.
You can imagine how twisted and blurry all of this was to me as a teenager. I burned to confront the terrifying emptiness of whiteness that Baldwin unmasks. For all its hollowness, its power was unmistakable: I had seen close-up the harm it inflicted upon black kids, families, and communities. Truth be damned, that power was very real. Simply put, it was genocidal. In a piece for The Root in November 2014, Danielle Belton noted that Wisconsin was the worst state in the United States to raise a black child. Among other indicators, she noted that 49 percent of black men under age thirty in the state had been incarcerated. That might have surprised many readers. It did not surprise me; it clarified my sense of things. Growing up, I had experienced firsthand how the authority of whiteness could twist one’s talents into liabilities until it felt like you didn’t know which way was up. Meanwhile, the world believing itself white acted like nothing was amiss. Until, that is, something was amiss and then that something was usually you. Half the time, that dynamic led to jail. Or worse.
Nonetheless, I also had a deep sense, a sense as strong as my sense of life itself, that that wasn’t all there was to it. I was seventeen, I knew there was more to being black than being a loser; and if winning meant becoming white, as far as I was concerned, you could keep it. Perhaps obsessively, I had retraced the contours of my experience along the logic of Baldwin’s paragraph. In a way far beyond my ability to think or talk about it, it felt very much like the “criminal conspiracy” Baldwin goes on to describe in “A Talk to Teachers,” and the stakes did feel like survival or destruction. The codes were racial but the rules of skin color could not account for all of it.
As far as I can remember, the only book I read in high school was The Price of the Ticket, and I don’t think I ever took it to school. As I read and reread those essays “in order to live,” I pieced together a way to be in the world, a way to be in my sense of being. It was an essentially American way of being. No other country of origin could account for my sense of experience, of what life was about and what that felt and sounded like, my sense of aspiration and my sense of a conspiracy that threatened everyone, in a blizzard of different ways, with a racially coded choice between literal and spiritual destruction.
But, because America had refused to be itself, all I knew was that my sense of world and self was basically, undeniably, and indelibly black. This was true, somehow, despite the color of my skin and the “race” of my parents. Allowing the world to convince me otherwise felt like a betrayal of myself—and people I loved—that I couldn’t survive. So, the battle was on. As it is said, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. In the years to come, at construction sites on which I would work, and in college, and in the ways my life circled me back to Chicago, then exploded, these questions would expand and contract and intensify in ways that, eventually, would force me to begin to script it out on paper, by myself. I would start to retrace the story on pages that, in 2016, in the weeks after my forty-ninth birthday, would lead to these pages and, I hope, by whatever grace, beyond.
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