I remember rushing home on Friday nights to see “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family” on ABC-TV, followed by “The Odd Couple” and “Love American Style.” This is the black experience in America.
I remember having two portraits on the walls in my childhood home, one of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other of JFK. This is the black experience in America.
I remember, as a boy, dancing close with shapely teenage girls at house parties in dark basements over at my friends’ mom’s house. This is the black experience in America.
I remember the first time that I was called a nigger. This is the black experience in America.
I remember summer barbecues with great music and all of your relatives and friends singing, laughing and joking. This is the black experience in America.
I remember too many of my male friends gunned down in the streets and knifed at parties before they were old enough to grow facial hair. This is the black experience in America.
‘You’re not like them’
I remember my father telling me, “You’re not like them. Our people came over in slave ships.” This is the black experience in America.
I remember being told that we have two cultures and speak two languages. This is the black experience in America.
I remember feeling conflicted whenever I had to stand for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. This is the black experience in America.
I remember enlisting and serving proudly in The United States Army ready to die for God and country. This is the black experience in America.
I remember my first white friend. This is the black experience in America.
I remember torn-up textbooks, broken lockers and crowded classrooms. This is the black experience in America.
Car rides, not Disneyland
I remember “family summer vacations” being day trips or taking car rides “out there” to see how white people lived and going to day camp at urban recreation centers, while white classmates spoke of going to Disneyland and meeting new friends at overnight camp while living in many of those big houses that I peered at from car windows, with my parents, with my bare legs sticking to hot vinyl car seats. This is the black experience in America.
I remember the Black Panthers walking proud through the neighborhood dressed in black leather. This is the black experience in America.
I remember going to church all day Sunday, starting with Sunday school and ending with a fried chicken dinner at home. This is the black experience in America.
I remember “American Bandstand” on Saturdays. This is the black experience in America.
The beginning of hip-hop
I remember hearing the beginning of hip-hop at a block party when I was a senior in high school jammin’ to the clean beats of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” This is the black experience in America.
I remember being told by friends, family and society that I had limits. This is the black experience in America.
I remember rejecting all of that and learning that improvisation is my friend. This is also the black experience in America.
To be black in America means always being suspect or being open to the possibility of being suspect. To be black means frequently having to edit your comments out of fear of offending white America. The same statement articulated by a white person may be deemed assertive — while coming out of a black mouth, it becomes aggressive. And one must keep in mind that black success in this society is commensurate with one’s ability to make white folks feel comfortable.
Why wouldn’t there be anger?
The most unbelievable thing to come out of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright incident was that so many white people could be so surprised at the level of anger that could come out of a black individual. Really? Are whites actually surprised that there is anger in the black community? Why wouldn’t there be? The black existence in America is a tragic, wonderful, heroic, bitter struggle originally commenced by a horrific forced trans-Atlantic voyage. Can anyone with a reasonable mind not think that a people with our history in these United States might not feel a bit of anger?
I think that the original emotion that blacks felt vis-a-vis America was hurt. Hurt that we could possibly be in a place where we are so often viewed as a nuisance in the least and with contempt in the worst. And those blacks who have the time, education and privilege, try to find some way to reconcile conflicting love/hate emotions that are traced back to our origins on these shores.
Anger is only one emotion to derive from the mother emotion of hurt. Some other derivative emotions are depression, sorrow, self-pity. Many African-Americans have used these emotions as a springboard to succeed against all odds. Others tend to get trapped in despair and follow a journey to destruction borne from the pathology of a system that kicks ass and takes names, caring nothing for the souls that it leaves behind.
I grew up in the Baptist Church. Most black preachers that I’ve ever known have a seed of anger within them. It was a combination of this anger and a need to mentally reconcile their societal living conditions that many times led them to Christianity. Religion became a source of comfort, solace and focus. The most powerful Jesus narrative, for me, is that which illustrates him as a political revolutionary.
Church: a place of hearts and minds
The church was also a place where many of these preachers could enjoy control and sovereignty. Since the times of slavery, the church was the only place where black folks could speak their collective mind with impunity. Our sacred hearts have always been entwined with our political minds. Preachers led their congregants on slave revolts, as was the case with Nat Turner, or on a path to greater human liberty and freedom, as was the case with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If white folks truly want to understand how it is to be black in America they must be willing to listen. They can’t start from a defensive adversarial place. They must be open, as if they are learning to speak a foreign language. One wouldn’t dream of telling the French teacher that what he or she is learning is incorrect if the accuser had never spoken French before.
We have to start learning to speak each other’s language. If blacks wish to be successful in America, they have no choice. On the other hand, whites have the privilege and the luxury to remain disinterested in black life. The only loser in that equation is ultimately America.
Ralph Remington is a Minneapolis City Council member, representing the 10th Ward. This article originally appeared in the Spokesman-Recorder.