To Go or Not to Go: A Weekend trip to Ferguson…

Temperature hit the 80s on that Saturday afternoon on August 9th when 18-year old Michael Brown, an African-American, was shot dead by a white police officer.  All the facts regarding this incident have yet to emerge to determine fault, but it is clear that the increasing high 90 degree temperatures this week, together with the heated passion of Ferguson residents suggest that cooler heads will have to wait their turn.  To start, Ferguson is a small town of approximately 21,000 people with about thirty percent whites and almost seventy percent blacks; similar to the apartheid conditions in old South Africa, Ferguson’s small minority governs the majority people; as the mayor and five out of the six council seat members are white; whether a self-imposed disenfranchisement or deliberate design of voter suppression, something is terribly wrong here. Looking at other stats like the poverty line where almost twenty percent of the town’s population falls below; an unemployment rate which rises above thirteen percent overall and much higher for young black men.  These numbers tell a tale of economic disparity in this Missouri suburb, a setting ripe for racial conflict; and so, a police encounter with a black teen that ends in death defines Ferguson.  What happened next is now recent history, people marched the streets; the protesters were majority black confronted by a white police force controlled by the minority; they shot rubber bullets and threw gas canisters, creating chaos and panic to quiet the masses.

In 2014, this imagery is unAmerican and makes Obama appear disengaged with the signature civil rights issue of this era; his presidency promotes American exceptional-ism. But are we exceptional when we repeatedly fail our vulnerable population? Even tyrannically-inclined nations poke fun at us. Russia, Egypt and China have done worse but they know when to call us out.

I wake up the next day wondering what if the Ferguson protesters were majority white – the Occupy Wall Street movement folks – would the police use bullets and tear gas. The Wall Street protesters caused property damage and resisted police orders for months but a violence response was averted; could it be that the children of the privileged group, those who have the ears of the authority, who reached out to their friends in high places, demanding (not pleading for) police restraint when engaging their kids; mission accomplished as their children’s fairytale social protest is violent-free.

Not too long ago, another Black teen, Trayvon, was tragically killed under the color of law; and like many other New Yorkers I sat on the sideline while Floridians protested. I wore my “Black Dog” hoodie to express muted outrage of my fraternal loss. This fashion-less act did not symbolize outrage.  Celebrities and politicians wore their hoodies in response to those who said Trayvon appeared threatening because he wore one the rainy night when he was killed by the volunteer patrolman.

Two years ago, I remained on the sideline plotting a path to show support for the Trayvon movement but, instead, settled to reading news feeds on my smart phone.  And now once again I’m back at it, surfing Kayak for weekend fares to Ferguson so I can march with local residents; or should I simply pen a WordPress blog post. (Hint hint) By the time my indecisiveness take a firm stance, the news cameras will be gone, off to the next news headline, and a community abandoned once again; perhaps that’s the time for my arrival, when the national spotlight is gone, providing support without the appearance of an agenda.

It wasn’t always this difficult for me to define my role in a civil right moment.  In the 90s, I was a student activist on the frontline, protesting the heinous assault against Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who suffered a brutal sodomizing attack in a NYPD police precinct bathroom.  (Google for additional details, readers)  We marched the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, halting traffic both ways on the Brooklyn Bridge one afternoon, to voice our outrage; the earlier crowds were mainly people of color but others began to join in, including elders, parents and children took off from work and school as no one with a tad bit of conscious could tolerate such inhumanity from those empowered to protect our streets. Ultimately, we achieved some justice, a 30-year prison sentence for the offending police officer; though, police reforms such as creating an independent body to investigate police incidents, never materialized; and so the brutality continued in New York City and many more black men were killed, including Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, and most recently, Eric Garner; these black men who did not possess weapons, nor had a prior criminal record, except for a misdemeanor blemish, the latter which many white men have but none died from a firing squad or a deadly chokehold by NYPD cops. It’s no wonder that when a Trayvon or Brown tragedy happens that many of us black men, regardless of our economic or social standing, feel a kindred bond to take up arms, whether metal ones like coins or the digital types like internet blogs, to finance and defend our fellow Americans on the frontline.

I would have liked to be with the people protesting loudly the freedom songs and chanting the lyrical slogan “Hands up. Don’t shoot!”  I would exchange that live experience over the one that I have now, the daily drudgery of eyes glued to a computer screen;  but, I am not a civil rights leader with a travel budget to be present at the leading social justice event of today; nor, am I a trust fund child who can easily forgo other life obligations to stand a few rows behind the Sharptons; plus, I don’t wish to be blamed as the out-of-town troublemaker causing the violence, as some Missourian commentators have alleged, pointing fingers at Californians and New Yorkers. And so, I will not journey Midwest this season; instead, my voice will be heard right here.

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.

Coming home…The Intra-racial Date with Ms. English

Crystal champagne glass in hand, long shapely legs visible, surrounded by blondes in reserved seating in this dimly lit private London nightclub, the Black English girl’s aura said certifiable diva; this is the noire Tinder pic that caught my eyes as I swiped right; we matched.  I played it kool and sent English a “hello there” message, anything more would demonstrate over eagerness.  She replied. Her first name was unusual and so I googled it and scanned through the images until I found her Linkedin profile.  English had professional credentials, the ones favored by the establishment, and was not just a pretty face. I’ve dated the model types before; lots of excitement in having a new beauty; conversation limited; a courtship to bed her is the mission until things fizzle and end as quickly as it started.

Took a few failed attempts before we finally met at Cipriani in Grand Central Station…she looked different, her hair was a dual color of black at the top and blonde at the bottom instead of the jet black look in her picture; the glowing brown tone skin was hidden behind foundation applied too thickly; and in her mouth was a shiny metal, a tongue ring; and in my mind, her diva status stumbled downward.  Not allowing my vanity to get the better of me, not looking for Ms. Goodbar, I overlook the appearance and allow the evening to take its full course.  We only had one drink at the Italian eatery and left to dine at Buddakan’s main dining room, a dated but celebrated space that has some snob appeal.

As we make our way to the meatpacking district, engaging in small talk, glancing her way, and listening to her distinctive accent, I am reminded of both our shared physical appearance and differing social experience.  She was born in the UK by a Nigerian father, who, she implied, is connected to the petroleum profiteers back home, and to a French Caribbean mother that she did not reveal much. English seemed very close to her dad and has given much thought to his encouragement to join him in Lagos but instead came to New York. Her silence regarding her mother suggested a marriage of convenience. (I won’t elaborate any further as we fellow immigrants have a sacred pact not to question each other on such matters). English attended Kensington prep school and lived in predominantly white neighborhoods…Chelsea, Notting Hill…and so all her friends were white.  I, on the other hand, arrived to the states as an infant and was raised solely by my Non-American Black mother who toiled in the 7th Ave garment factories until she rose to a position of pattern maker to a fashion designer downtown; we lived in the black areas of Crown Heights and East Flatbush Brooklyn until my late teens and all my friends were black.

English and I are both black but continents apart in our experiences; and this prompted some very random thoughts on race; flashbacks on how the social media depict us as linguistically-challenged, academically-deficient, criminally-inclined and having separatist-tendencies. I tried to snap out of it and think positive thoughts, instead, but became fixated on the few bit parts the social media carves out for the safe blacks, the Our Kind of People and Jack and Jill types (look it up readers).  As strange as it might sound, I rarely discuss race matters (except in this blog, of course) and the times that I do is to react to a news event; you know the stories, the ones about Trayvon being the norm; Obama the long exception; and the battle that we all face with Sterling. The last one ended well as Lebron and others spoke up, the SnapChat generation reacted and now Sterling is gone, a positive Hollywood ending.

“Nu Yak is still nooo tu me,” (Translate: New York is still new to me,) she said in her pronouncedly English accent as our hostess walked us down the stairs to our table.   Only three weeks removed from London life, she seemed a bit shy or even nervous as if she was from a small southern town instead of a major cosmopolitan city. So it took some cajoling to get her to open up. I told her of stories of work life, love life, black life while peppering her with soft questions to keep her engaged. Finally, she says “I had a luver for six years.  He was much older and I outgrew him.” I wondered why she said outgrew.  Her body language suggested that it was boredom.  “After him”, she continued “I met Manny, a blue collar guy. He had edge. He couldn’t do much on his own, tho.  I took him places and paid for everything. Love the man.  I asked him to move here with me.  He would not.”  I told English that she demasculinized him. She nodded in agreement.  It was clear that English had a rebellious streak and was trying to find herself; she escaped her safety net in London; she left a self-reliant man for a vagabond; she’s adrift right now and that’s ok as her future has many possibilities, but it will not include me.