I grew up in a racist world as a white kid, and though I am plenty white, I am not pasty-white. There is little doubt I am a white man, but I have passed for brown a few times in my life, basically with a summer tan. I have naturally dark hair and eyes. So a dark tan can do that. But those occasions were exceptional and rare and brief.
I have had run ins with law enforcement which mirror those of my black brothers – to a very small degree, though. The few experiences I have are enough to inform me, but not enough to make me fear that I am likely to experience such again and again. Still, I know the helpless feeling on the side of the road as the man with the gun, the badge, and the radio acting suspicious of every word I say decides what to do with me. I have been followed for no reason several times and even stopped and questioned once in a small town where I could have just disappeared off the face of the earth. Armed with this kind of experience, I have tried to put myself in the in shoes of my black friends and walk a proverbial mile in them.
Also, I have been both positively and negatively affected by black role models – mostly from the comedy stage.
Hands down, the biggest single black hero in my life (and this certainly has been complicated in recent years) was Bill Cosby. Cosby was “America’s Dad” which is a cross-over designation to say the least. He seemed to be my dad’s hero, and my dad would quote from his comedy routines frequently as he guided and disciplined me. So “America’s Dad” was a little bit my dad too.
I will never forget the first time I really watched and understood his act. I had seen his face and heard his voice on vinyl albums before that, but I had been very young and had not connected his name and his jokes (having grown up watching Fat Albert). But when my school went on an over night trip to Dallas, Texas for a band contest in 1983, I remember all the boys in my motel room glued to the TV laughing at the Bill Cosby Himself video. I was just starting to really grow up, and I don’t think I ever laughed at anything as hard as that show.
Before I was out of high school, Cosby had, as most anyone knows, his own hit, primetime TV series. I find this odd to think about now because I am so certain that as a teenager I did not sit at home watching all the sitcoms every night. I had a social life. But even though I liked The Jeffersons, I am certain I watched Cosby far more. Even Gary Coleman was a distant memory by then.
But there was also Eddie Murphy. And until he revived SNL last year, he seems to have dropped off my map. But when I was a kid, barring Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy was the funniest and edgiest comedy act around. His language was foul, his routine was raunchy, and I did not spout off his act in front of my parents for fear of upsetting them, but I knew all his funny jokes.
Murphy, of course, credits his influence to Richard Pryor. And I was familiar with some of Pryor’s work, but I didn’t think the “F-word” was funny for its own sake, but it seemed to me like he thought it was. I was not such a prude, nor am I now, that I think a joke involving the “F-word” is inherently not funny. That is not my point. My point is that I don’t find the word itself funny. Edgy? Yes. Funny? No. And with that notion of Pryor in my mind, I did not get enthused for him. However, I recall a few of his comedy acts and movies did make me laugh some of the time.
I discovered Denzel Washington too. I was a St. Elswhere fan, but I can’t say he made a big splash for me in those days. I was very young and he was just getting started, but he quickly moved from being a black face in the background to taking lead roles in interesting movies that I liked. No longer was Eddie Murphy the only, or main, black face that might draw me to a movie, but now Denzel Washington would too, and for more thoughtful performances than just cheap laughs. Thus, I see Washington, as a movie fan, as a gateway actor who opened for me up to black movies where the bulk of the cast and the stories depicted black dramas and black lives as more than a token face in a white movie. There was a threshold there which I did not actually realize, but I could feel it beneath the surface of my conscious, critical thought.
As a young adult, I discovered Samuel L. Jackson. Pulp Fiction was just over the top. Until that movie (and following that Jackie Brown too), Clint Eastwood was my movie hero. But after those movies, I thought Jackson had sufficiently crossed over as a movie hero that he was edging Eastwood out in my own personal favorites.
But then he went and did Snakes On A Plane, and I decided that was just too stupid to like. I don’t credit the stupidity to blackness. I credit the stupidity to stupidity. But then as I get really, carefully critical about it all, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown exhibited a sense of flair maybe, but they weren’t exactly intelligent movies.
I never got into Rap or HipHop music. Very, very little of it registers with me. But I dig the blues though. I like the old stuff. But, I am not a musician and so none of those guys strike me as much of an influence on my life.
But I visited Asbury Theological Seminary one year as a prospective student and joined the school for their chapel service when they had a guest speaker who was black and really jazzed me big time. Funny, I remember his message, but not his name. I recall he was a very talented musician who sat at the piano for a fair bit of his presentation.
On the streets, though, I have a couple of mentors. They are women though. Ms. Alma and Ms. Stella. Both old enough to be my mom, and in fact Ms. Alma shared a birthday with her. Both of these women were deeply devoted to Jesus, and when we made friends, they asked me to lead them in Bible study in their homes, which I did. They also introduced me to poor, black people from their neighborhoods, and expanded my worldview quite a lot.
I remember that Ms. Alma walked with a cane, and in the grocery store she used the wheelchair buggy. There was this one night when she asked if I could give her a ride to the pharmacy and the grocery store. I did. And as I accompanied her up and down the aisles, I began to consider how unlikely a pair we appeared to be to the mostly white shoppers around us.
I was just strolling along behind her and would reach to the top shelf for her upon request, but mostly we just chatted away like old friends. Then suddenly I noticed we caught the eye of a passing shopper, a white lady with an inquisitive look on her face, but she did not actually inquire. The young boy bagging our groceries, though, accompanied me to my truck as Ms. Alma put away the wheelchair, and as we got out of earshot, this white boy asked me in hush tones, how do I know her?
I realized then that our little shopping trip had actually been prophetic. We were expanding the imaginations of other people. It was just a small token thingy, but then dynamite comes in small packages. Perhaps the more your average white person sees that kind of thing in their own neighborhood grocery store, the more OKAY it will seem. And the more OKAY it seems, the better it will feel.
That is a slow burn approach, but I think it shows how if we all do these small things and do them a lot, it will have real impact.
Not that I would take away from a full blown peaceful protest or march. But I expect such little gestures as I describe here play an important role too. After all, what is the yardstick of progress here? Is it the abolition of police? Or is the peaceful friendship between races?
I am talking in this post about some black faces and names that have impacted me. When I was a kid, there were precious few black faces and voices in the mainstream that weren’t playing in supportive roles. Bus passenger number 3 is a flat character, and seeing her with a black face is not nearly as powerful as Denzel playing a doctor making life and death decisions for a white person in a hospital.
But then I don’t make Hollywood movies. I make low budget proph-O-dramas right here in Lubbock. And I couldn’t do that without friends like Ms. Alma and Ms. Stella.