My fourteen-year-old son has decided he is of the wrong race, culturally at any rate. He wants to be black - or is it now African-American? Well, whichever it is, that is what he wants to be.
As you might imagine, this is quite a change for a skinny blond kid with a German surname. I read Black Like Me back in the 1960s. The book’s white author dyed his skin black and traveled through the Jim Crow South reporting his experiences, so I know a little about transformations of this sort. But the cultural evolution my son is undergoing is way beyond my comprehension. He has not yet dyed his skin. But I think it is only a matter of time.
I first became aware of his cultural odyssey when he begged me for a haircut with racing stripes, swirls, and his initials. Me, I am pretty much your buttoned-down type of white guy. The haircuts I am familiar with do not include patches trimmed in idiosyncratic patterns. Nonetheless, I do understand the need for individuality among the young, so I consented. Hair, I reasoned, does have the virtue of growing out. He wanted five stripes, I did not want any, and we compromised at three with no swirls, no initials.
Then came the tight-rolled jeans. This entails an elaborate, time-consuming process rolling up jean cuffs tightly against the ankles, urban warrior-style. Actually, I think it is a style mostly designed to consume precious moments every morning - jeans must be rolled just so and if not, start over, and over and over and over and over. This panics me into wondering if the kid ever will get ready for school on time. Can anybody tell me what possible difference there is between a perfectly or imperfectly tight-rolled cuff?
Next thing I knew, we needed $100 Nikes, Malcolm sunglasses, a Chicago Bulls cap, and an over-sized shirt with nothing, but nothing, in the pocket. I tried to slip his ink pen into his pocket the other morning and thereby inadvertently committed an act of rank idiocy. “Homey” is the look he is after, as in “somebody like ‘us’.” Put a pen in the pocket and the kid might end up looking more or less like, well, one of “them.” Meaning me, I guess. But okay. At least these are clothes to which I can still relate.
School officials, though, confiscated the cap. Rival hats create problems among rival students, the vice principal told me when I answered the summons my kid brought home. The wrong cap can occasion a cafeteria food fight or a hallway ambush, or worse. Now, along with knives, drugs, and guns, caps with team logos are banned from Brentwood Middle School.
So there he is, sans cap, dressed out homey and all and voila! a white kid who looks for all the world like an urban black ready to burst into rap.
Which reminds me of the lyrics my son has memorized, rapping them out precisely at moments likely to irritate me most. He has memorized only a few, he tells me. I swear, it is six hundred or more by my count. To my mind - white, male, linear and all - the suggestion that rap is actually composed of anything similar to lyrics is like George Bush telling us he has a vision. Still, I listen to it. Trying to stay in touch with my son means tolerating MTV rap every once in a while. I have not as yet surrendered to his demand to convert my car into a mobile 10,000-watt stereo system, but for his sake I am trying to develop an appreciation for rap. To which I can now say: Jesus may have suffered forty days in the wilderness, but he never had to listen to rap. If the Devil had tried that on Him, we would all still be in our sins, I am sure.
The stuff actually hurts my joints, especially my trick knee. Besides, I comprehend only every sixth word, and that only when I listen real hard. My son naturally attributes my limited comprehension to incipient senility. This, mind you, from a kid who mumbles. When he was two-and-a-half, he spoke multi-syllabic words and used complete sentences, but no more. When I ask him to repeat himself, he tells me I am going deaf. But I am not to worry about it, he says soothingly. Being a few months over forty-five and therefore a candidate for Alzheimer’s, I could not possibly remember what he said even if I could hear it the first time.
Part of my son’s cultural fetish includes watching black television shows - In Living Color, Roc, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Soul Train. He never got to Cosby , though. None of the black kids he knows happen to live like that, well-to-do with intact families. At least one of his friends comes from the projects. Alright, scratch Cosby. Does my son know any black kids who live like the Fresh Prince? This is my inquiry. No. But the Prince has “good lip.”
My son has not entirely rejected his white culture, so we also watch 90210, those Beverly Hills smart alec white kids who pout so prettily when the Porsche will not start. If any blacks go to school at 90210, I will eat my L.A. Rams cap. 90210 is the sort of neighborhood Roc goes through searching trash cans for discarded VCRs. And we watch, yuck, Doogie Howser, which ought to be subtitled “How A Prepubescent Doctor Loses His Cherry.” Gee, but I hate that show. I hope Doogie is slapped with a malpractice suit. I hope his parents ground him, take away his telephone, smash his computer, and crash his disks. I hope he gets an STD. I hope that Vinnie character, a wise-mouth Italian, shows up in the tabloids linked to the Mob. I hope the damn thing is canceled. Give me Homey the Clown from Living Color any time. His humor is obnoxious, but it is at least age-specific.
My fourteen-year-old, to get back to the black thing, has not cracked a school book in my presence all year. Nonetheless, he devoured a 400-plus-page biography of Malcolm X, a $25 “I-gotta-have-it-right-now-or-you-don’t-love-me” book. Was this for English or Social Studies, I asked hopefully. No, it’s simply that during most episodes of Roc one of the characters pays homage to Malcolm, and my son wanted to know about the great man. Malcolm, my son tells me, was a pretty nice fellow who just had a streak of bad press. This is not what I remember. I remember Malcolm scaring the bejesus out of white people like me. Seeing him reduced to a sitcom laugh line is not in the least reassuring. Recalling the measured, emphasized way Malcolm said “by any means necessary” still sends a little chill up my spine. Show me a thin black guy with a goatee, white shirt, black tie, and dark-rimmed glasses - like that fellow next to me at the traffic light this afternoon - and my guts still turn into warm jelly. I’ll have to read the book. And then there is the necklace the boy wears. A friend made it, he said. That’s nice, I said. Pretty, too, with tube beads, red, green, black, repeated in sequence. Do the colors mean anything, he asked me. Not that I could see immediately. He raised his fist and shouted “Free Mandela!” Mandela, I reasonably pointed out, was freed three years ago. Then it hits me. These are the African nationalist colors, sported by a skinny white kid who now, I suppose, has ambitions to become a Third World liberator. Next it will be Winnie. There is a part of me that says skinny white kids attending schools better than 75 percent black, as my son’s is, had better find some protective camouflage if they expect to avoid hassles during the school year. Simple day-to-day survival plays a part not to be underrated in my son’s Afrocentric conversion. But that seems far too simple. There is something more, and I see it, too, among his friends who are black, as more than half of his friends seem to be. I really do not think my son, or his non-white friends, care if someone is white or black. The difference, for all I can tell, makes no difference. I am interested in color, perversely now that I think about it. But he is not. He mentions the name of a friend I have not heard of before, David, and I want to know if the child is white or black. I bite my tongue immediately; it isn’t anything I actually ask. It would be like putting an ink pen in my shirt pocket. What difference, black or white, does it make, I ask myself. None, really. No matter. I want to know if there is a black or a white face attached to the name. To my son, though, the name belongs to a kid he knows and likes and that is all. And I keep asking myself a disturbing question. Why do I want to know whether a kid’s name comes attached with a black or white face? And how come my son does not? I cannot say, will not say, that I was ever overtly prejudiced. There have been blacks I have known and liked. You might even say we were friends. But they were always black and I was always white. We somehow never managed to skip over race. It was always there between us. I knew black kids when I was growing up in Kansas. In a high school class of 203 students, all of 12 of them were black. They stood out in a socially submerged way, even if they did not fit in. My Scout troop was integrated. In fact it was the first integrated troop in my home town, no small accomplishment back then. The feeling I remember, though, was a patronizing one: Big white Boy Scout leader throws arm around scrawny little black kid and tries to teach him how to be white. I had just finished Black Like Me , so perhaps it was an understandable feeling. In 1968, while attending college in a little backwater Missouri town where the local rednecks clearly frowned on integrated colleges, I did briefly date a Georgia black girl. That year the local Republicans hoisted a banner over their headquarters proclaiming “Dixieland is Nixon Land” - which tells you something about the community. Shortly after we started dating, Chantel had a visit from a couple of representatives of the campus Black Student Union, a sure way of killing an interracial romance, and that was the end of that. Besides, it was so long ago - twenty-four years - I can barely remember it, what with me being an Alzheimer’s candidate and all. One of my college roommates was black and my size with a coincident taste in clothing, so we got on fairly well. His kinky black hair left in the sink bothered me, though. My straight brown hair left in the same place equally would set him off. It threatened to become a real racial thing between us. We finally worked it out by cleaning the sink. My best man was black. I once served on a municipal civil rights board. I served a racially mixed parish in Detroit. I have not lived a racially exclusivist life, then, but not all my racial encounters have been benign. Once in Washington, D.C., three blocks from the Capitol building, I was mugged by a black man. Last summer in Kansas City, my seventy-one-year-old uncle was shot to death by a fifteen-year-old black kid. Where I live now in South Carolina, the neighbors next door are black. My neighbor keeps his grass cut, nags his kid as I nag mine, and has never tried to mug me or shoot one of my relatives. He has never been in my house, either, nor I in his. We chat over the fence. We are friendly, but we are not friends. I think about all this and I contrast my experiences with my son’s. I have not had the experience of black friends who are first friends and another color only incidentally, friends that come knocking on the door asking my son to come shoot baskets, stay for dinner, do an overnight. My son is resolutely, genuinely color blind with his friends, and from all I can gather, his friends are the same with him, a case of like finding like. Homeys. This does not describe every white or black kid at my son’s school. Racial incidents at the school this year have sadly increased over last year. But it does describe my son and his friends. I still do not know what this might mean. But I am intrigued by it, and made hopeful for it. Like fathers everywhere, I hope my children do better than I. And here I can see my son and his friends are clearly better men than their fathers. Russell E. Saltzman, Pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is Editor of Forum Letter.