The Year of Magical Negro Thinking

The Year of Magical Negro Thinking

My first cognizant brush with racism happened when I was fifteen years old.

And it was traumatic AF.

I was visiting my father in Pennsylvania that summer, where he’d been living the past few years after taking a job at the federal prison in Wayne County.

We’d driven to a local supermarket to pick up groceries and supplies. Dad had already entered the store, and began darting through the aisles on his mission by the time I’d left the car and walked inside. It was at that moment that a hush suddenly fell over the checkout area, all activity at all of the counters had ceased, and everyone on the lines along with the cashiers were now staring in my direction. Because this was a new sensation, it took some seconds to register what was happening. Once it did, I ran to find my father, begged him to give me the keys to the car so I could sit in it while he shopped, and urged him to hurry out of the store.

Having grown up in the segregated south, dad’s first instinct was to brush off my nervous pleas and continue on his business as if nothing was amiss. But I knew differently. I’d felt it in those tense few seconds of cold stares that things wouldn’t be okay.

In the weeks and months that followed, my father, a man who was thought to be hispanic by his white colleagues and neighbors because of his fair skin and dark, curly, slicked-back hair, began to have his house vandalized. He’d casually reveal this during our phone calls, and without missing a beat would assure me everything was alright to ease my panic.

Eventually, graffiti on his house and debris on his land escalated to shots fired through his windows, and he finally relented and transferred to the prison at Fort Dix in New Jersey, once it became clear that he couldn’t ignore the very real fact that he was in danger.

In short: My father lived for years hiding his true ethnicity so he could live and work in peace to advance his career as a federal employee. Until one day, his brown-skinned child walked into a store and nearly got him killed for existing.

I thought about that yesterday, as I listened in on a conversation with black executives who spoke about the pressure of having to “be on” at a time when black people as a collective are hurting. And it struck a nerve.

For the past two weeks, I have been contacted by a number of non-black friends and former colleagues, who’ve either expressed concern for my state of mind, regret for their lack of awareness pertaining to racism in America, or sought my counsel on ways they could help while unpacking their own guilt for not doing more sooner. While I appreciated their sentiments and gestures, it wasn’t until that talk that I finally was able to feel truly heard, ironically, by people who weren’t even aware I was in the (digital) room.

Throughout my life, I’ve been seated at tables that didn’t get served water as I watched every other one get service. I’ve been at receptions in country clubs where I was the only person of color NOT serving the guests. A man once told me my afro reminded him of his poodle. I’ve gone on dates with men who fetishized me. I’ve been called an “angry black woman” (admittedly, it hurt more when it came from a black man).

And in my professional life, I’ve been the person who got paid four dollars an hour less than my white counterpart while I had significantly more experience and responsibility. I’ve had my hair touched by total strangers in my place of business without consent multiple times. When my mom passed away, my team contacted me during my bereavement time to inquire about calling my clients for an event, and weeks later took up a collection to send food and a card signed by the department to another member of the team when her mother died. Another time, it was suggested that for the company Grimm’s Fairytale-themed Halloween party, I should dress up as “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

Fun times. Certainly not the kind anyone who isn’t black has experienced on the regular.

In all of those times, I did as I was expected to do and likely what my father did before me: I sucked it up and continued to be professional. I made my sales goals. I helped fellow members of my team get what they needed in whatever form that took. I sacrificed nights, weekends and holidays with my family to be of service to my company and clients. I was the silent contributor whose work was claimed by others in the spirit of collective wins. I was the go-to cheerleader, promoting the successes and putting positive spins on the losses. I went to the happy hours and feigned amusement at the inappropriate jokes.

Now…something has snapped.

In all my efforts to practice self care in so-called “stressful” times, I missed the mark completely when it came to times like this; when I instinctively want to heal the world and tell everyone it’s going to be okay, when truthfully I’m only hanging on by a thread. I’m trying to put a smile on my face and “breathe through it,” while simultaneously suppressing the urge to cry, scream and break shit. And it’s only slightly comforting to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

The world has suddenly come to the disappointing realization that black people don’t want to be magical negroes; the soothing, sensible voices of reason who keep things in order and come to the rescue when things go awry. (That’s not to say we won’t be because we don’t want the world going to shit on our watch because we live here too.) We just want to be human beings allowed to exist, thrive and feel and process our feelings without judgement, denigration or expectations. Hell, right now we need to be rescued, and we’re just hoping the current wave of compassion isn’t just a trend that seems fitting because everything else has been cancelled by the quarantine!

I’m tired of brands using “Black Lives Matter” to score cool points. I’m tired of predominantly white media narratives putting our stories in fishbowls to attract more eyeballs. I’m tired of black bodies and talent being used to make others look good while being relegated to perfunctory roles and dismissed as afterthoughts. I’m tired of being considered a threat instead of an asset when I shine. I’m tired of our pain being ignored, mocked and glorified by monsters. And I’m tired of being the source of “strength” when I barely have any left to lift my head off my occasionally tear-soaked pillow.

There are things that I am oddly grateful for at this moment: The first being that my father wasn’t murdered by racists in Pennsylvania or his home state of Georgia, and lived long enough to forget the horrors he’d seen in his seventy-four years. The second is that the world stopped just long enough to make everyone take notice of a sickness that has killed far more innocent black people than the coronavirus. And lastly, that fourteen of some of the most powerful black people in business collectively gathered on a zoom call to pray, choke back tears, and tell the world they have no intention of going back to the way things were.

This may not have been our 2020 vision, but things sure as hell look pretty clear from this point on. Hopefully, this clarity allows us to see the path leading to the end of this current nightmare.

Mirror, Mirror

Forgive me for the unusually long hiatus.

It’s not that I’ve been extremely busy (although I kinda was), nor was it the absence of a topic of discussion. I think we all can agree that over the last few months, there’s been nothing but discussions.

Yet, every time I sat down to write about it, I found myself in that unenviable position every one of us has suffered at one point or another, where I just could not.

But now, I’ve been inspired by — of all things — television.

Unlike my younger days, where I sat for hours transfixed to a television with the intensity of a One Direction fan, these days I’m often out of the loop on most things that show up on most-watched lists, and the equivalent of “water-cooler” conversations.

Like a number of people from my generation, I watched TV not only to pass the time, but to transport myself to imaginary worlds where people had money, adventures, superpowers and even cool, talking cars. As a kid in a single parent home, I also got comfort from seeing the family comedies, where there was a mom and a dad who worked together to teach their kids valuable lessons in comedic ways.

As time passed, those shows – “Dynasty” “MacGuyver” “Wonder Woman” “Knight Rider” “Good Times” “The Brady Bunch” “The Cosby Show” “Family Ties” et al – disappeared, and in their place were shows where real people engaged in shameless acts of desperation for attention, exposure and seemingly lucrative payoffs.

That’s when I tuned out. The fantasy of my childhood shows at least gave me hope of a better life than the one I was currently living. The “reality” was just a depressing commentary on the extreme measures people will take to make their own fantasies come true.

And then Shonda Rhimes came on the scene… Making both history, and shows I could somewhat relate to or, at the very least, enjoy.

From “Grey’s Anatomy” to my current addictions “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder”, Rhimes and her team of writers created stories that teetered on both lines of fantasy and reality. In the case of Grey’s and Scandal, the shows would mix raw and genuine human emotions with the fantasy of teasing happily ever after scenarios that often go horribly awry. A couple who pined for each other after parting ways would reunite, only to have one die in a plane crash. A taboo love affair with the President of the United States gets the bizarre blessing from his wife.

I mean, really, how the fuck is that real life?

But this past Thursday, Shonda and her team outdid themselves, when “Scandal” took a much-needed turn from a nonsensical plot line to deliver the most heavy-hitting episode in its history. In it, they tackled a subject that had gripped the country — myself included — for the last six months: The Ferguson incident.

For anyone who’s been living in a self-imposed bubble, the story of unarmed teenager Mike Brown being gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, has been widespread news. What had already began as a tragedy with the death of an unarmed youth, escalated further by the police department’s refusal to discuss the case until they had found evidence — which would later reveal to be false — that the victim had committed a criminal act which, in their opinion, justified the shooting. The public’s frustration with the police and media seemingly depicting minority victims as criminals had reached its peak, sparking riots in Ferguson and a wave of protests around the country. Everyone from pundits to presidents in other countries sounded off on what had become a firestorm and a black-eye (literally) for the United States of America.

…So Shonda and her team took every sound bite, every perspective and every character and caricature that has lent a voice to this chapter in American history, and lumped it into one very emotional hour of television drama.

In her version, the father of a slain son becomes his protector by sitting with the body while holding a shotgun until justice has been served to clear his son’s name. The police chief hires a black crisis control consultant to mediate the situation before it escalated to chaos. The president, still reeling from the death of his own son, agonized over the shooting, but is advised not to make any public statements due to the hotbed issue.  The crisis consultant has her team investigate the truth, which revealed the shooting officer’s guilt. The officer is then arrested and the victim is cleared. The father is then taken to the White House by the crisis consultant to meet the president and weep in his arms. Credits roll as the episode is neatly tied up with a bow.

In between all the fantasy, there were bits of reality: The anger of the community over another unjustified physical and character assassination. The charismatic, boisterous and occasionally manipulative black activist who uses rhetoric under the guise of good intentions, which ultimately encourage further destructive and counterproductive crowd behavior. The politician who jumps in to give their two cents in hopes of bolstering their presence and agenda with the fifteen minutes of media fame they’ve been allotted. The police chief who’s more concerned with the image of his department than the situation at hand, or the respect and trust of the people he’s supposed to protect and serve by resolving things peacefully and professionally. A crowd of people who are justifiably angry over their mistreatment, but unaware of how their own actions and reactions further alienate them from the sympathies of society and, sadly, justice. The police officer whose resentment over the attitudes of the community and his own deep-seeded disdain for their ethnicity severely clouds his judgement and makes him a ticking time-bomb in a job he clearly should not have. And a president who’s damned if he does say something, and damned if he doesn’t.

As stated before, I’ve had difficulty putting into words what I’ve been feeling over the last few months. As I’ve listened and watched people sound off on this, the Bill Cosby allegations and even stupid shit like a reality show based on sorority girls, I’ve wondered — sometimes out loud — how African-Americans pick and choose what they’re outraged about.

For instance: Why is it hilarious when women act a damn fool for ratings and lauded for their ambition in one show, but dragged to hell and “read to filth” because they wore letters in another? Why is it funny when Kanye West slut-shames Amber Rose for being an exotic dancer, when his wife had sex on camera with another man and built a fucking family empire from it? Speaking of “Empire,” why are people up in arms over the character depictions on a show that is a fictional scripted drama, when we grew up watching soap operas with absurd and borderline psychotic plot lines? Why is it okay for rap artists to spit lyrics about putting “molly” in a woman’s drink, but when it’s revealed that everyone’s favorite TV dad did it in real life, suddenly the women are liars? Where is that same outrage that prompted the now famous #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, when a video of black people fighting goes viral? Where is the same call for action when another black youth or innocent bystander falls victim to revenge and/or gang violence, or just a kid with anger management issues from being abused at home or school?

Maybe it’s just too hard to see ourselves, or own our hurtful behavior, beliefs and habits when they’re reflected in so-called “art” for public consumption and scrutiny. It’s easier to point fingers and talk about what any other race but our own have done to embarrass or degrade our culture.

We spend a short month reminding ourselves how wonderful and majestic our history is; how many people of color changed the world by inventing groundbreaking medical and scientific techniques and countless household items, and blazed trails that have set legal and human rights precedents. How important it is to recognize and support black achievement. We quickly — and loudly — derided the Academy Awards for “snubbing” the movie “Selma”and its director, Ava DuVernay, citing the monumental impact of the event on which the film is based.

But for all the pomp and circumstance we built around the historical significance of honoring the movie on the fiftieth anniversary of the march itself, upon closer inspection, we failed to notice that the box office take of “Selma” was significantly less than the average Kevin Hart movie. Meaning we also snubbed the movie by not supporting it in the theaters!! In fact, we snubbed it more by not doing so, sending a far more dangerous message about our hypocrisy than an Oscar nod ever could.

As much as it makes people uncomfortable, I’m happy there are now shows that rip the band-aid off of the once taboo subject of talking about race and the issues we all face. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. Jewish. African. Arabic. All. Of. Us. Be it discrimination, or even quiet-as-kept subjects like sexual abuse and incest — which was covered in a searing episode of “How To Get Away With Murder” (and may earn Cicely Tyson another award) — we need to see ourselves and our stories so we can maybe… hopefully… start the conversations and actions that create necessary changes.

Understandably, people get rattled when the lines between fantasy and reality get a little blurry, when all they want is to escape to a world where they can be entertained. But more and more, society is showing us that we can no longer look away or tune out when something doesn’t appease us.

If we can hold sports, entertainment and political figures accountable for their “scandals”, surely we can do the same for our own… Can’t we?

It all starts by looking in the mirror…