I want to be able to take special pride in a Jessye Norman aria, a Mohammad Ali Shuffle, a Michael Jordan slam dunk, a Spike Lee movie, a Thurgood Marshall opinion, a Toni Morrison novel, a James Brown Camel Walk. Above all I enjoy the unselfconscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they take, when no one else is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis’s fights, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. I’ve seen his eyes shining as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and how some reporter asked him, after the fight: “Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn’t knocked Schmeling out?” And how ole Joe responded, without missing a beat: “I’da run around behind him to see what was holdin’ him up!”
Even so, I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time-but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group…but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Colored People
A few Fridays ago I went to get my hair cut and for 45 minutes I sat bathed in Black culture. We talked of Black politics, Black TV, Black gossip, and the Black condition. I laughed and relaxed in a way that made me want to just stay and enjoy the comfort of those like me.
Later, that day I went to a church service with my wife. My wife has this gift to dance prophetically and she is often asked to participate in a service in the black community. I sat in church and sang praise songs, heard “Amen” at all the right times and once again was soaking in the luxury of a portion of Black culture.
Living in a diverse neighborhood, I miss swimming in the powerful Black streams I used to. There is something about walking into the barber shop or in to a Black church that makes me feel at home. I also enjoy my diverse neighborhood and diverse church. Learning to socialize and live with others different from me is also important.
When I opened Henry Louis Gates’ book, Colored People, and read the preface, it spoke to my spirit. He so eloquently put into words, “The Balance of Pride.”
I am proud to be black but don’t want to be defined by it. My color is part of me and I don’t want it ignored. I don’t want it to be all that I am. I, too want both. I am proud of the accomplishments of other blacks but also as Mr. Gates says: “One day you wonder: What do the misdeeds of a Mike Tyson have to do with me? So why do I feel implicated? And how can I not feel racial recrimination when I can feel racial pride?”
It is the balance of pride. I know things aren’t always fair. I know the scales don’t always bow in my favor. The barber shop comfort, and the feeling of peace in an “Amen,” said at the same time make the exhausting, at times, balancing act worth it. It is the pride in being black, in being not what people think I am and in being what people think I am that makes it a condition I wouldn’t exchange. Growing up I knew things weren’t fair but the pride of being part of Norman, Ali, Jordan,Lee, Marshall, Morrison, Brown, and most recently Obama made the trade unfair, titling the scales in my favor. It’s what holds me up.