Not to be outdone by the return of the ghost of Big Media Vandalism's founder, Steven Boone (see his Vandals columns on selected Wednesdays), I have decided to start my own regularly scheduled column here at BMV. It's the return of the familiar though infrequent Causing Trouble With Odienator series. You'll be able to find the column here on Fridays, and the subject matter will remain up for grabs until the moment I sit down to type this into Blogger. These are meant to be rambling streams of consciousness, and they're not for the faint of heart.
The idea for this week's column started with an E-mail I received from a reader who stumbled upon this blog. How she got here I'll never know, but she was outraged--OUTRAGED!!--by what she read. After bitching that my writing here was far less polite than what I do at RogerEbert.com, she lowered the boom on my big Black ass. "I thought you were one of the good ones!" she wrote.
One of the good whats? I asked myself. She couldn't have meant what I thought she meant, because we live in Post-Racial America (coughcoughbullshitcough). After about 3 seconds of contemplation, the red whorehouse light bulb came on over my head.
"Oh!" I said aloud. "She thought I was one of the good Nig-[TRAIN WHISTLE]!"
Honestly, I never knew what exactly constituted designation as "one of the good ones." But I tell ya, this heffa ruined my fucking day.
"You've got to remember that these are just simple readers. The common clay of the Internet."
Suddenly, I had a complex. Now, all writers have complexes--it explains why we're all alcoholics--so I should say that I had a new complex. I'm a compulsive, so I like order and consistency. Immediately, I started wondering if my writer's voice sounded different here than it did at other outlets. Granted, I'm far more profane and potentially offensive here at Big Media Vandalism, but even Redd Foxx could work clean and still sound like Redd Foxx.
For clarification, I re-read several of my pieces at Roger's site. It was still me, albeit a kinder, gentler version. (But not too much kinder.) Perhaps that's what threw my letter writer, or perhaps it's because I write more about Black issues here than I do anywhere else. Regardless, I felt stupid because I let her ignorant, racist perception of me cause me to temporarily question my abilities.
I also feel badly because I wrote my letter writer back and cussed her trifling ass out for about 9 paragraphs. Bad Odie, indeed! If I were a woman, the New York Times would have written an article about how I got away with being angry. I blame my parents for making me a boy and costing me an opportunity to be in the paper of record. Thanks, Pops!
My Pops' response to my sarcastic thank you.
No matter how old you get, or how many times it happens, preconceived notions will affect you personally. If you're a minority, an LGBT member or a woman, there's always some clueless motherfucker just fixing to ruin your day. You could be labeled an ignorant thug, a pervert or a bitch by people who know nothing about you outside of what they saw of your type on TV. Heaven forbid you call these people on it! Suddenly, you're "overly sensitive," an amusing idea if ever there were one. Your skin grows thicker than any amount of cocoa butter can penetrate when you deal with this shit every day.
My writer's anecdote above was an intentionally minor example, but the awful truth remains that the way we are perceived can have devastating, physically harmful and fatal consequences. The powers that be don't wanna hear that, and I don't give a fuck if they don't. I've no sympathy. They don't have to live it. We do. No matter how thick one's skin is vis-a-vis dealing with discrimination, it can't stop a bullet, a beatdown or a sexual assault.
"He Spoke So Well And He Fit The Description"
This will be my epitath, a little goose from beyond the grave for any Black folks who walk past my tombstone. If I had a dollar for every time I heard either of those two phrases, I'd be able to vote Republican.
This coulda been ME!!!
I want to close out with two brief stories about my experiences with speaking so well and fitting the description. Of course, the latter one is far more dangerous, and it's only by the grace of a God my mother prays to on her children's behalf that the worst fate that befell me was a broken wrist and a few knots upside my hard head. That's a story for another time. A less violent tale is in order today.
I was working in Nacogdoches, Texas in 2000. My boss and I went to the college dorm of a work colleague to pick him up for dinner. We had plans to hang out at the dorm after dinner. As we walked on campus, a police officer appeared out of nowhere. I swear, he must have come straight out of the ground like manhole steam on a Manhattan street. When he appeared, he did not draw a gun or threaten in any way. In fact, he was incredibly polite.
"Gentlemen," he said to us, "please forgive my intrusion, but--and I swear this is true, I have the paper in my car--you guys fit the description of a thief we've been looking for. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?"
Here's the description we must have fit:
Me: Black male, 30, bald, light-skinned (like Cuba Gooding Jr.), 5'9" tall, clean-shaven, chunky. Has very visible physical disfigurement that is not easily forgotten.
My boss: Black male, 24, dark-skinned (like Wesley Snipes). 6'2" tall, goatee, skinny. Short, black hair on his head.
Our colleague: Black male, 19, Denzel Washington complexion, full beard and cornrows on head. 5'4" tall. Muscular as hell.
We couldn't have even been cousins! And yet, we somehow all fit the same description! Whoever called that robbery in must have been one indecisive son of a bitch. "He was light skinned AND dark skinned, bald AND had hair! Beard, goatee AND clean chin!"
After 10 minutes of questioning, the cop let us go without incident.
As for speaking so well:
Early in my career, I visited a customer whom I'd spoken to over the phone for years before we officially met in person. I knew she was White, but I don't think she picked up that I was Black. It's odd, because when I talk to people on the phone, I can always tell if they're Black, and vice versa for me.
No matter. I went to visit her office dressed to the nines. This was back when Casual Friday didn't exist. I had on a suit and tie, and since it was winter, a full length leather coat and (this is gonna get me teased) a leather hat like Eddie Murphy wore in The Golden Child.
"O-DEE! I want to talk to yoo-ooou!"
I stepped to the reception desk and told them I was there to see Barbara (not her real name, of course). Reception told me where to go. When I got there, it turned out to be the mailroom.
"Um, I think they sent me to the wrong place," I said to the gorgeous Latina in the mailroom window. "Oh, this happens a lot to us brown people," she said, laughing. "Reception automatically sends them here. Go back downstairs and ask again."
The second time was the charm. Reception sent me to the right place, but I had to wait for Barbara. While waiting, I made the acquaintance of a White gentleman named Kevin. He was there for a job interview. We chatted for about 10 minutes before Barbara appeared.
"Odie," she said, "it's so nice to finally meet you!" She extended her hand to the White guy. Kevin silently pointed at me.
Barbara's eyes flew out her head like a Tex Avery cartoon!
"Hullo," I said, trying not to laugh.
Barbara tried to play it off, and I was willing to let it go. But then...
"You're Black," she suddenly said to me.
"Yes," I replied. (I actually wanted to look at my hands and scream "I'm Black!" like Godfrey Cambridge in Watermelon Man. I refrained.)
"But you speak so well!"
"Well, next time we chat, I'll speak in rap lyrics, if that's OK?"
"No, it's fine! I was just surprised."
The last paragraph of my review of Pride holds the moral I wanted to impart in this piece. Yes, I'm going to make you go read it. I'm proud of it and there's a connection here: I got hate mail for that review too. I didn't write that fool back. Maybe that'll make her think I'm one of the good ones.