May 23, 2009
Understanding the Black Experience?By Kevin Jackson
I received an email from a black man who was attempting to convince me that, though I am completely black, I have no experience growing up black in America. The bulk of his theory on my ‘blackness' was based on the fact that I constantly lampoon Obama in my blog. He counseled me to embrace Obama, as Obama could help me to "rediscover the black experience." He warned that "whites would never see me, as I see me."
Touting Obama as the poster child for blackness is a ridiculous notion. Further, the idea that Obama can teach me "blackness" is equally ridiculous. Unlike me, Obama is only half-black -- as much white, as he is black. Obama's formative years were spent mostly in the white world. He was raised by his white grandparents in upper middle-class lifestyle. He attended expensive mostly white private schools in his youth, his education culminating with Harvard.
Like Obama, I am a product of a father who abandoned me. My story departs with Obama in that my father spent most of his adult life incarcerated, bouncing in and out of my life mainly by phone. When my father wasn't incarcerated, he was strung out -- chemically dependent -- his drugs of choice being alcohol (a vice he inherited from his father, making me a carrier as well) and crack cocaine (an acquired addiction). Surely a father like this qualifies me for the black condition?
My father's abandonment of his family necessitated my mother's move back with her parents -- another all too unfortunate circumstance of the black condition. Shortly after my mother returned to live with my maternal grandparents, she would die at the age of 24 from what was supposed to be a "day surgery."
In yet another parallel to Obama, my grandparents stepped in to raise me after my mother's death, the difference being that my grandparents were poor. My grandfather worked as a chauffeur and gardener for a wealth family in San Antonio, my grandmother was their cook and maid. Their official designation was "caretakers." We were relocated to this family's 25,000 acre ranch in central Texas to take care of their home there. Caretakers don't make a lot of money, and my grandparents annually salaries were less than $15,000 -- combined.
Though I grew up in the country, prior to college I attended school in the town of Brady. Brady is a typical central Texas town. Population when I lived there was 5,557. Today it is just over 6,000 -- not a lot of growth over 30 years.
Highway 87 split the city west to east. Blacks lived on the south side, whites on the north for the most part. I shouldn't have to tell you which side was considered the rich side of town. Hispanics chose sides, based on where they fell on the economic continuum. That highway dividing line was both a racial and economic dividing line. A line of demarcation, as it were. There were some whites south of Highway 87, but few blacks north. I would learn in my experience in Brady that people were much more interested in economics, then ethnicity -- despite the racist reputations of these small southern towns.
I straddled that line constantly, having friends on both sides of the divide.
The wealthy family for whom my grandparents worked was rarely there, coming only for hunting parties, and short vacations. They never even visited the town. They came to experience their property really as a private luxury retreat. My grandparents did all their shopping for them, hired maintenance people, and so on. Bills were sent to Barfield --their accountant, and bills were paid...on time and in full. To all the merchants in Brady, my family was rich, because we were real. The wealthy family was a ghost.
That was as close of an experience I got to being wealthy in childhood. People in Brady didn't see me or my family as black, but as a solid family of the community. Black was a non sequitur. You could say that we were treated white in Brady, but I say we were treated economically!
Unbeknownst to my grandparents, they made sure that my brother and I got our proper exposure to the poor black experience on our weekend visits to San Antonio. We would leave early Friday, after my grandfather had set up his domino game (for money). We would stay with one of our relatives, usually Uncle Joe and Aunt "Pie". They were "James and Florida Evans of Good Times" poor. Aunt Pie was my grandmother's younger sister, and she and Uncle Joe always opened her home to us. Upon arrival to their home my brother, cousins and I would be dispatched to get Church's chicken as payback for the hospitality.
My grandfather gone on his "hustle," the rest of the family would play some "bid" -- "bid" is the black version of bridge. When we weren't playing bid, we played Spades or "Bones." Mostly we sat around talking. We talked about everything, including politics, religion, education, celebrity gossip, and so on. The weekend would end, and it was back to the ranch.
While my family was living what I deem the black experience, the person for whom I supposedly should be showing deference was living in Indonesia, then Hawaii -- attending private schools. Because of the kindness of my grandparents' employer, like Obama I was provided the opportunity to attend private high school. I would earn essentially a full-ride to Southern Methodist University, and also received a National Merit Scholarship, the Minnie Stevens Piper Scholarship, and a co-op scholarship from SMU.
No silver spoon kid here. The house I grew up in belongs to that wealthy white family, inasmuch as most blacks' homes belong to the banks. No big payday when my grandfather died, and I provide a little extra to my grandmother who is still alive at age 88.
I was not in the will when my grandparents' employers died a few years back. No Mr. Deeds story here. No Hollywood ending of sorts, at least not one provided by my wealthy benefactors.
But they did leave me wealthy -- wealthier than I ever imagined. They showed me the real world that would have only appeared in evening soap operas, like Dynasty and Dallas. I saw daily a life that was dramatically different from mine; yet always in plain sight. A life of "look, don't touch." Seeing wealth and wealth creation with my own eyes, made me look at life differently than most. I loved knowing both lives -- the lives of rich and poor, not black and white.
What I learned is there is no black experience. There are only the limits to your experiences that you allow in your minds. Obama does not define me as a black man. I did not feel any more proud of Obama becoming president, than I felt for Bush. Sadly, I was less proud.
Finally, I don't need validation from whites on how to see myself. Frankly I don't care what whites (or anybody) thinks about me as a black man. I know how I see me. I like what I see-flaws and all.
So, I stand before you America -- A proud American...who happens to be black!