The Tourist (or Not That Black in America)

Black in America

Black in America

Sure enough, I didn’t catch most of CNN’s Black in America 2 special. I’ll most likely catch that sometime in the future; reruns prevail over original programming even on a 24-hour news channel. I caught bits of it and found inspiration in the story of Steve Perry, a Black high school principal whose high expectations and stringent attention to detail made his school (and of course, his students) extremely successful. There were other times in the few clips I got to see that resonated with me as someone who’s grown up in an impoverished predominantly Puerto Rican and Black neighborhood, like the fatherless children, the vacated mom-and-pop shops, and more prevalent cases of grown children raising much younger children, even when they didn’t birth them.

However, I had a hard time looking at the stream of messages from Twitter and Facebook because at the end of the day, a big part of me feels like a tourist in the African-American experience rather than someone fully accepted into what others may see as “Black in America.” To clarify, I believe there is no real definition of Black per se, but there is a shared set of characteristics through culture, skin color, facial features, places of origin, and even speech patterns that help people more concretely identify themselves and others as Black, or any other race. Furthermore, I also see that race and ethnicity are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as there are Black people in Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Ghana, Liberia, Columbia, and even in places like India and Russia. It doesn’t make them any more or less Black, but this variety of experiences makes my consciousness about what it means to be Black in this country even more complicated.

This may not be true for everyone or even the majority of Black people in this country, but in a way, because of the legacy of experiences in America, not just slavery and revolts but also wars fought and to a certain extent patronage and patriotism to this country, many groups of African-Americans hold a certain degree of exclusivity when it comes to Blackness (and even certain elements of Blackness) by which any lesser man may be intimidated.

“I never liked the Cosby Show.” I can’t tell you how many people’s eyes bulged out of their heads, jaws agape, cheeks ever-expanded when I said that. While most of my other friends from different cultures would just nod and keep the conversation moving, many of my Black friends made it a much bigger deal than I felt necessary. Yes, I’ve heard of The Cosby Show, and seen the million and one specials. I’m familiar with the plot and characters, how pretty Lisa Monet was, and the pudding sponsorships and TV shows Cosby had before and after the show. Yet none of that even so much as put a dent in my psyche; what could a Black doctor with a full, happy family whose problems weren’t that great in the grand scheme of things and whose problems could be solved in a matter of 22 minutes and every so often a celebrity appearance tell a young dude whose father figures were barely there or were abusive, and whose apartment only stretched the lower stage of his man’s house (if that)? What did I know of Richard Pryor, Stevie Wonder, Prince, The Color Purple, Purple Rain, Fame, collared greens and grits, Harlem, The Apollo, people feeling “the spirit” in the middle of a sermon (that doesn’t happen in Catholicism), Good Times, Sanford and Son, and Denzel Washington movies before Glory?

Maybe it’s even because of my station in life and my temperament, rebellious to the status quo. Even to this day, I still don’t know why people take too much heed to Cosby’s opinion as it pertains to Henry Louis Gates or Barack Obama, no more than I can explain the taste of grits (grits aren’t bad; they just don’t have a real taste until you throw some cheese on it). I can’t explain why in some African-American circles I’ve been in, they limit the slavery experience to the borders surrounding this country, like I can’t explain why too many Blacks (because even a few is too much) blame Latinos for job losses in the jobs some might consider beneath them like janitorial or culinary work when we should look at all the factors surrounding people’s employment.

And that’s where I turn back to Black in America, because TV has had such a strange effect on the ways others perceive all of these cultures. Upon further reflection, I have to admit that, if not for hip-hop, I may have never known ½ the things I do about Blackness. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at least, had a character who grew up in the hood and ended up raised by rich people; that gave me an “in” that the Cosby Show never did. From the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I learned of the latest dances and styles (as well as not so popular ones) in the Black community, and eventually, I came to feel like it was my 2nd home.

Truly, people who wish to document the Black experience in America may never get it right, and the least controversial way of documenting that experience is simply to provide an emotional attachment to these pieces and let the thought processes and questions come from the viewers themselves. Even if they decided to include some of the prominent experiences we know are out there, experiences like mine would still be left out.

I have a feeling if we replace Black with Latino in this essay and postdate it to the new Latino in America, it’d still be apropos.

Jose, who doesn’t care if he alienates others, but be civil …