The Uncle Tom in My Family

Uncle Tomas was the youngest, the attention seeker, of the three brothers but also the least attractive, resembling J.J. of Good Times, with false teeth, losing his real ones when he jumped out of a third-floor apartment window to escape a burning building; the new set of teeth did not keep him from laughing and being the talker, the boaster, in the family; he would argue about everything from who’s the best athlete (Bird over Magic) to presidential elections, usually siding with the Republicans; he was secure in his abilities and believed that hard work would get him places and it did. It took a while, tho. Not gaining admission to a U.S. medical school, he drove a yellow cab for a year or two to finance his medical education in Colombia, a place where he also met his future wife, a woman with looks, in his own words, that would not attract adulterous men. Only a man with deep rooted insecurities would give such thoughts on marriage. Despite his ambitions and book smarts, Tomas contextualized important life decisions through a racial lens, undervaluing his self worth along the way. It took him about six years to achieve the American dream and he was no longer Uncle Tomas, he was now Doctor Tomas. 

“Oh, I see one. And here’s another! Ooooooh this is great!!” said Uncle Tomas in glee referring to the white folks strolling through this gentrified tree-lined block in Bedford Stuyvesant. He was surveying a brownstone in the Stuyvesant Heights section of this neighborhood with historical landmark designation. As Blacks crossed his path during our walk, he became less enthused and scanned them up and down to see if they were the right kind of blacks that would not scare away the whites that were moving in droves to the area. “You see, Jay” Tomas whispered to avoid others from hearing his racially charged views. “The only way to preserve this investment is to make sure more of them keep coming here.” He continues. “So we must give them what they want in this brownstone; give them exposed bricks, fireplace, stainless steel appliances, new hardwood floors. We’ll give them everything. We need them. Our property will be safe with them. They will pay more rent. So let’s do this deal.”

With his medical license in hand, Dr. Tomas was in a rush to leave Brooklyn. “I am not gonna live with these people who want to rob me and take my hard earned dollar.” He said, referring to his neighbors in East Flatbush, a crime-infested Brooklyn neighborhood where many honest working-class Caribbean and American Blacks reside. “I’m gonna buy my house on Long Island.” He added, some sort of affirmation that he has arrived, that he’s earned a one-way ticket out of the black and brown hood, a move that would validate his newfound status; he wanted to live among whites, regardless of their economic or professional status.

He viewed white skin in a multiracial country as a status in itself; this is not a view limited to my Uncle Tomas; it is a recurring immigrant theme that I have seen firsthand, overheard in back office chatter and read in journals and news articles. Koreans don’t want to live with blacks but they will dry clean their dirty clothes in black neighborhoods. Same with the Dominicans, they will operate their bodegas shielded with bullet proof plexiglass with a portal to receive black people’s money; sell them overpriced milk and food which exceeds the expiration date; but will not want us as neighbors. Arabs don’t want blacks in their leased yellow cabs to avoid driving them to nicer and pricier homes than the driver’s own residence. I have seen these slights and have experienced them, myself; these rejections reveal the falsehood that we live in a harmonious global community, the opposite of the TV images of large crowds we recently witnessed chanting USA, USA when Howard (yes, a black man) made record-making saves to keep the team from being slaughtered by Belgium. This love fest exists only for the cameras, my friends.

And so, my Non-American Black uncle takes his chances with the Bedford Stuyvesant investment but would not dare live there even with the sprinkling number of white folks who call the area home; he choose to live on Long Island with white neighbors who will not likely rob him as the crime stats are lower there than in East Flatbush; he gambles that the community will embrace him because he is different from the blacks that he left behind; that his professional credentials and well groomed children will be viewed as the good black in his neighbors’ eyes. However, Uncle Tomas fails to see that the community that he so much wants to be a part of may limit their sight to his skin color alone and that their collective soccer love fest was only a temporary bliss that won’t blind them from imagining perceived differences that don’t exist. My uncle will also be competing with the Asians, Latinos and Arabs who, too, dream to live with these same white neighbors instead of neighborhoods with black and brown people. It seems this race for community acceptance and inclusion will be measured by the degree of lightness of our skin instead of the intangible qualities that make us the exceptional people that we strive to be.

Male Friendships…The One I Struggle to Keep

It was a warm summer evening and Marcus, the quintessential and eternal middle-aged bachelor with biracial good looks, wore a light tan suit with matching silk pocket square and a multi-colored pastel ascot (an accessory that few, but he, can carry). He strode out of the building, avoiding my eye contact, to a waiting white sedan, an S Class Mercedes, no less, and I glanced over my shoulders to watch him enter this car driven by a slender Argentinian-looking woman with white linen attire and two others resembling her in the back seat, I was floored by this scene; it seemed that my grandmother, who lived in the same building, was living in the midst of James Bonds.

I had seen him a week before that day driving a heavily damaged, Yugo, not sure how it got thru U.S. customs, a subcompact car so badly wrecked that it should be garaged in a junk yard; he was down on his luck, living with his frail divorced mother but this was not evident in his attire. Neighbors in hushed voices would ask each other: who is this mysterious man? Few knew him personally as Marcus would rarely engage in small talk with anyone. He only spoke to one neighbor, Larry, only because his car broke down and he needed a ride to the city and asked him for help. It turned out that these rides would occur regularly and usually ended at Area, Paladium, Tattoo and Nell’s, the most celebrated NYC nightclubs of that era.  As he was always dressed to the nines with his jet black hair, styled slick back like Al Pacino in Godfather 2, the velvet ropes manned by obnoxious club denizens would open rapidly when he approached.  Came to find out later, that Marcus knew many of these velvet rope handlers and club owners but never revealed how he established these connections. Over time, I came to know this man, who was over a decade older than me, and tried to imitate his dress style but could never get it right as he did; we engaged in boy’s talk, mainly on women, NBA games and politics at home and abroad. And so he became a friend.

“Man, I hate this country. I need out,“ Marcus mumbles. “This job is a hell hole.  You don’t know how lucky you are, bruh…you have a profession, you own property…you don’t have to deal with my crap” he continues, referring to his city government inspection job; work that he claims has no upward mobility; co-workers he dismisses for their blue collar pedigree; supervisors he despises for reducing his overtime hours. This pessimism also spilled over to his views on women, describing them as gold diggers for judging his attractiveness strictly on the make and model of the vehicle that he owns (he doesn’t have one) and the number of digits in his bank account (barely four).  Marcus, a very proud man who is part Jewish or Italian (refuses to say which) and part Caribbean, was not always this cynical and is far from being the confident man that I first saw, over ten years ago, the 007 replica, living in my grandmother’s building. “Dude,” I said. “You need to change your attitude; this negative energy will only make you more miserable.”  I continued, knowing full well that he’s a lost case.

It is not easy to put aside friendships that, despite some personality clashes and increasing incompatibilities, endured throughout the years; they last because we need the human contact to discuss the mundane of sport highlights and celebrity gossips (yes, men do this too) to the serious matters relating to career decisions and relationship complications. Although many men, especially us silent types, can cope with minimal male friendship, something which our female counterparts can’t do without, I have come to appreciate these occasional talks and meet ups for a balanced life. In times when professional and adult life occupy the bulk of your daily routine dealing with office politics, relationship stress and economic insecurities, it’s refreshing to dial a number and hear a familiar voice on the other line to simply talk, whether it’s purposeful or not; it starts with a “wassup man” and usually followed by “did you hear about this…” and continues on to a thematic convo until we both lose steam or when the life duties call for the next shift.

Leaving this friend behind is what I struggle with today as he has changed from his earlier years of bravado and confidence; his life now is laced with cynicism and uninspired conversation; ask him about the World Cup games, he cites only the corruption of FIFA officials, the games organizers – and shows no interest in the games themselves, the header of the Flying Dutchman, the artistry of Messi and the quick demise of Spain; call him to join us at the BAM African Street festival in Fort Greene for jerk chicken and people watching, he declines and says only soulless women will be present; I won’t dare ask him about work for fear of a long tyrannical monologue about how hopeless it is. I have tried to tell him that his friends and family have shun him due to his toxic ways; that he should seek counseling for his depressive mood; that he needs to overcome his personal battles to see the positives.  I used to put aside those calls and one-on-one meet ups, thinking the occasional text was a substitute (it wasn’t), that Facebook could fill the void (it didn’t) as social media is more media than social for the few egomaniacs who dominate my newsfeed.  It’s been over two years witnessing Marcus’ decline and it’s time to let him go to maintain my own sanity and to continue a positive outlook on life.