by Andrea Blackstone
Last night, I met with some friends in a cozy spot, chatting about business and life. To the right of our booth, a flat screen commanded our attention. In my between laughs and brainstorming, the majority of patrons paused when the segment began. In fact, nearly everything ceased. Forks rested on plates, and robust chatter quieted. Most of the patrons of the quaint spot in DC, were people of color who stopped by to unwind after a long day at work. If someone is speaking about a group to which he or she belongs, most people instinctually take interest in wanting to know exactly what will be said about them. In this case, "them" was "us." You know, black folk.
My eyes followed a few scenes that included a glimpse of a neighborhood, then a shot of black hands clenching steel prison bars. I can't speak to the entire show, since I couldn't manage to stomach the entire presentation, but when large images of the stereotypical black inner life city met my eyes, I sighed with sheer disappointment. I expected something else that could make me feel like someone with the power to bring issues to the public would tell more about us...this time. Initially, my heart was filled with hope, but my attention span soon waned in a familiar way. I also observed several other patrons resume conversations and continue eating. My neighborhood doesn't look like that, nor the one where I grew up. I don't know anyone in jail, although I'm not saying that I've never known anyone who hasn't been incarcerated. With that said, I wasn't the only one who couldn't truly say that I couldn't relate to those images.
I was sitting in the presence of a young woman who has been a business owner since 18, and a former DEA agent who is highly respected, not just in The District, but all around the world. Both are females--African-American females. I consider the stories that my father told me of wearing under clothes passed down from white troops, when he was a young man in the military. They were patched up to inspire a second life. He also explained that worn out shoes were repaired and given to black troops to use.
These examples are only the beginning of the discourse that dovetails with equality. There were countless substandard conditions, before integration. Nevertheless, many African-Americans persevered, and proudly served and made great contributions to the United States. I also consider someone else who came to sit at our booth--a witty black surgeon who worked at Howard University Hospital. He wasn't stuffy or arrogant. He greeted me like any other person would. When his friend revealed who he was, and what he'd done, he waved her off, as if his accomplishments were nothing special. Always “the smart kid,” it turned out that he broke some sort of age record, but I won't spend all of my time name dropping here.
In the midst of that conversation, the series continued to play. An avid people watcher, I felt dizzy with mixed images. One played on TV, while others continued to unfold in real time. The ironic thing was that CNN's story of being black in America was nothing like the story that had been written in the place where I was seated. I soon noticed a small business owner slumped over, feeling tired. He sat down on a padded stool to take a break from standing on his feet all day. He obviously put in a hard day's work, where people stop in to unwind and enjoy home cooked victuals. His wife continued serving customers as he wiped his face. I watched him drift off, until someone said goodbye. When he heard his name called, he perked up and answered, lively and warm.
My imagination ran wild in that little dive. Everyone there had a story. The kind of story each patron owned probably won't ever make it TV, yet they too are black people living in America. And for the record, affirmative action was not relevant to any story that I heard that evening. Each individual worked hard to qualify, and press forward, just like any other American. We have a history of overcoming obstacles, yet all too often, the ills of a certain segment of our population becomes the focus of what gets dissected and discussed at length. Here we go again, but do most of "us" expect anything other than the status quo? When one person makes a mistake or commits a crime, does society hold it against our entire race?
I learned to have faith in more than what the media tells me, during my formative years. I read so much news online, and listen to so much talk radio, I often forget to power on the bube tube. My father raised me to value news and business programming like CNN. He always told me that watching certain programming, and listening to certain types of discourse, provides insight regarding how to prepare for tomorrow. As a result, I quickly grew eager to find out what was going on all around the world. By age nine, I was addicted to The Diane Rehm Show on 88.5. I soon learned that Rush Linmbal's views could make me heated in a hurry. Nevertheless, my father, who was a single parent, taught me a lesson in something far bigger. The media is a powerful force. Within the structure of it, viewers or listeners will enjoy the manner in which a given topic was explored, while others will leave segments feeling the sting of the power to inform. Opinions are just that, yet interpretations of social ills, and how various people rise and fall, are a part of the grand presentation. How we deal with life, and how we interact with others in this world, gets jammed into segments, which will also undergo editing. Every angle can't be covered.
In fairness, that's just an impossible task. Although most of us are well aware of the aforementioned, the final product is at the heart of the matter. Thus, my version of CNN's Black in America Series connects with the issue of responsible journalism. Do journalists have a moral obligation to explore both sides of any issue? That premise can’t be enforced, but lately, I've been questioning what I feel "good" journalism entails. I've grown weary of recycled issues with stale presentations. Some conclude that the lack of diversity in presenting stories is an intentional endeavor, while others chalk it up to the way media works, because it's just too hard to change their game. You choose; I'm just here to give you yet one more version of my feelings of being black in America. I too can't cover it all in one opinion piece. What I can do is offer food for thought, based on my experiences living as a black citizen in America.
After my time with my friends came to a close, with a sheet of plastic over my head, I ran toward my door, my mind twisted with introspection. I wondered how I'm going to get to the next level in my life, and what the world could assume about me, just because I'm black. All I can do is put in time and effort, hoping that a substantial door will open some day. To date, much of my life has been spent in school, or trying to find one solid job where I can put my skills to use. With that said, something is better than nothing. Life is not a perfect experience, whether you're black, white, or other. I thought of the story I'll soon be penning about my father's relatives. It doesn't involve gossip, sex, scandal or drugs. It's just a human interest story that speaks to humanity--to people of all colors-- as well as the reality of an ultimate sacrifice. I also consider role models like every black man who goes to work wearing a suit and tie, or blue jeans and a crisp T-shirt. All of them are gainfully employed. Professional or blue collar, they are not sitting in jail, or taking advantage of sisters or the system. Would someone please remind us of the number of black men who do hold degrees, own a business, or did fight for custody of their children? If the goal is to educate others about black people, these stories exist too, so why do producers often neglect to include more of their stories?
In the coolness of the night, I sprawled out on top of my comforter, realizing that my mother's birthday is quickly approaching. What am I going do to this year? Somehow I'll find a way to celebrate. This will be my fourth trip of remembering my best friend for life, the best way I can. I have no husband or kids to soften the blow, but that's okay. Wait a minute--I don't fit the mold either. No kids, no baby daddies? I spent so much time in school, taking note of broken marriages, and kids going through hell, I've walked on eggshells, trying to dodge pointless drama. I could've teetered on the edge of living a good or settled life, but I opted to keep striving for myself, on my own. The road has been difficult, but it is what it is. And as far as mom, I now choose to focus on the good times, not the manner in which I lost her. When life got rough, mom lifted me. "Don't worry about it. Keep trying." That was her mantra.
I had a strong bond with my mother, and I always will. Now a motherless black woman, I didn't lose my mother to drugs or violence. I lost her to cancer. My brother, a black man who holds an advanced degree in divinity, stood by her side, until the very end. Would a story like ours make it to a segment or a show? I doubt it. It probably wouldn't make ratings soar, not even the part about my brother being attacked for recording our mother's last few days of her life. Pardon me, I do know someone who has been to jail. My brother was arrested for doing that. A jury of his peers were all white men from our hometown. Nearly four years later, my brother called to inform me that he lost his lawsuit, thanks to police immunity, and more details that illustrate the other side of black life in America.
His story was brushed under the rug. I was left feeling that any time we look at Mom saying hello to her friends and family on tape, the memory of that experience will resurface. My brother never even had a speeding ticket, but he soon found out what it felt like to be locked up, or go through the trauma of getting his record expunged. A few days after that experience, our mother died. Despite this occurrence, my brother hasn't changed or become a bitter man. He finds strength through his faith in God, just as many African-Americans do in America. Many black people don’t hate white people, nor do a great portion of us judge people we don't even know. Our mother was our best example. She still reminds me how much love can carry you through anything. That's not a black thing; it's a people thing. I suppose that's why people of all colors and races loved her so much. In turn, we too embrace those who embrace us.
I recall a time when my first book was nestled inside of her tote bag. I sat next to her in a treatment room for cancer patients. Some accused me of being a gold digger, not realizing fiction was just that. I have no interest in taking advantage of a man who cracked the code. I want mine by earning it. The reason why I attempted to try my hand at writing urban fiction was rather simple. I couldn't land a job in my field. As a reward to myself, I took matters into my own hands. Whatever people were reading most, I decided that I was going to try to write it. As an English major who attended a historically black college, I wondered if attending another school would've given me more clout in corporate America. I tried the other side, since things seemed to be more about strategy than if you're trainable.
I earned my M.A. in a year and a half, in a rare program, where few blacks rarely enrolled. After I finished graduate school, I recall sitting in interviews, qualified, yet chided for what I'd done. "What made you pick that program?" I've been told by recruiters to remove some of my credentials, just to land a so-so job. I worked hard for them, so why should I? My counterparts are praised for finishing the very same program. I crack open newspapers and magazines, and I never get an inkling that the majority thought it was a bad thing. I hear catty remarks all of the time, and get the brush off from both sides of the fence.
Most recently, one person told me that she was looking to hire someone right away, yet her behavior indicated that I wasn't even in the running to be considered. "Do you have an A.A. degree?" she asked. "Yes I do. I have a Master's and two years of law school," I explained. "Well, I'll take your resume, but I'm still looking." She floated over toward the coffee area, nearly rubbing in her ability to help me pay off my student loans, or keep me in misery. "Oh this coffee is perfect," she crooned with a smile. Her co-worker stood next to her, sipping mocha, as they both indulged in office gossip. By the way, this woman was not white. (Figure it out.) Not to sound like a pessimist, but sitting in the lobby nearly an hour, then experiencing that little dig already told me I shouldn't wait by the phone for her call. Been there, experienced that.
How many years have I been through his? In a who-you-know-town, a degree can justify people being in the loop, while other qualified applicants would never be welcomed there. Deep down, I thought of throwing my hat in the ring to try to earn a PhD. If I did, it wouldn't be for the right reasons. It would only be to gain a little more respect in this world, as well as this town. I want to be the head cheese, primarily because of cheesy people, and the possibility of better job security. Is another student loan bill worth it? Maybe so, maybe not. I've done all of the things I was supposed to do to live a normal life, yet recruiters yawn when I remind them of my degrees or student loan obligations. What they often are willing to pay is no less than insulting. Even so, (repeat after me), something is better than nothing. I've held jobs that didn't require a college degree, and taken trips to South East, shaking as I left work at night, as police escorted staff.
I've also felt the sting of working for years with no benefits. Still, I reminded myself that many people out there had it far worse than I did, and still do. I often let the sun warm my face, crank my easy listening music, then slide up the highway. I had chains on me, and yes, they're still there. I can't find the groove I was groomed to like, so I fake it and hustle hard where my heart is happy. The writing profession is undervalued, and in my opinion, it's much too hard to make a living solely by writing, at least for the average author. I contemplate returning to law school with mixed emotions. All of those things cross my mind, many days. It all comes back to someone who did embrace me with unwavering faith.
I recall sitting next to my mom, trying to ease her worried mind, as she sat in a special recliner. Her veins were filling with bone strengthener, and all I could think was "I've got to sell these books for her." Realizing success is of our own making, completing one little task for "us" would make me feel like I'd done something kind of cool before I die. But along the way, I promised I'd clean up the content and talk about things like this, in a book. I want to weave tales of my grandparents, two modestly paid professors in the South, at a time when mostly anyone didn't have a degree. Mom's wisdom planted that seed, and it has sprouted over the past few years. I'm fighting to officially pen those stories, as well as others that can reach young adults. I'm working hard to earn the right to take that ride, even if landing a book deal of that nature will prove to be extremely difficult. CNN's special reminded me that more stories of the other side of black life should not only be told, but also supported. Our people have suffered various realities that some feel we should forget. How can we forget something if equity is lagging in 2008? That's my biggest question about being black in America.
My first taste of that reality was getting the shaft in law school, simply because I picked the wrong school for the color of my skin. Although I grew up in the suburbs, Cinderella I am not. Now that mom's gone, I have to face something else too. Where is the rest of her family? Some are lightly kissed by the sun, while others have faded into the trenches of white America. Even more complex, some are white, and our relation is very close. And where is the tiny little town in Virginia where my other grandmother grew up? Her mother raised a crew of children alone, so I understand. Native American ties, this time. What does it feel like to be black in America, knowing that blood of other races flow through your veins? Some of us still won't mention it, even if that reality hits close to home, and some people regard mixture as a point of interest or disdain, so you're not supposed to mention it, unless people pry. Most of the time, if people shoot a “high yella” joke your way, you’re supposed to laugh it off. At the other end of my gene pool, I consider my other grandmother who died when I was an infant. She was a maid, faithful church member, and part-time cook in her daughter's popular soul food restaurant. My dad, the cashier in that establishment, from the age of 11, became a graduate from one of the most prestigious institutions around. He completed homework in the backroom, on top of a crate in between breaks or before his shift. Many of his siblings made it too. He also pulled groceries in wagons, and shined shoes to pay for his school clothes, during The Depression. Many other kids from the old neighborhood, who shined shoes, in brick-filled streets of a sleepy town, are now at the top of the heap. Once again, these people are black in America, too. Will someone ever interview more black people like them?
Lastly, my mind shifts toward two young people. One is nine, and was attacked in the inner city, by fellow students. It was a simple case of bullying the kid who was behaving as a normal student--no frills or wild antics in tow. The school did nothing but brush the event under the rug. Hearing that my niece had to endure many stitches, just for being the soul she is, auntie now has to plan a day to be with her, in hopes of doing a little damage control. I don't want her to hate school because of what was done to her. The other is barely 21, battling a heart condition. I root for this young black man who is fighting to make his life better. Last year, he struggled through summer school. "Did you ask your professor for help?" I asked. I was informed that his mathematics professor wasn't too helpful. He repeated the course, and began moving ahead after transferring to another community college with a mixed population. Now his health is failing, due to the stress of simply trying to make his start better than his beginning. Every day he took the bus in the city to get to college in the county, he navigated past gangs where wearing the wrong color shirt could get him killed. He too has been picked on for trying to make something out of himself. Should we not consider why things have spiraled out of control, and how such instances can impact our youth? Some of them want to be saved. Will the world see their plight?
In closing, black life is not perfect, nor are people. Every race has its share of issues to overcome, and all of us are capable of making mistakes. Nevertheless, we should be judged as individuals, not as a group. Considering all that we have endured, I still feel that there's more good to celebrate than bad to emphasize. I encounter so many people of color, struggling to make life better for their families and themselves. Some have been on the bottom of the totem pole, and vowed to sit at the top some day. Others are in mid-stroke, simply trying to stay afloat like most of us. Another segment may fall into the categories of those scenes I initially spoke of, during the beginning of this piece.
Nevertheless, African-American people are diverse. All too often, we've been placed in one box. For those of us who are tired of sitting there, it's time to take ourselves out of it, and expose our eclectic experiences, in this thing called black life. We've been there for too long, and I'm not sure if the average mainstream media outlets will ever give us a chance to set the record straight. To me, the most logical thing that some of us can do is hold hope near, making adequate efforts to distance ourselves from whatever statistics say. Personally, my inspiration comes from something simple and free. It comes from all of the positive black people who I observe doing great things in America!
Andrea Blackstone majored in English and minored in Spanish at Morgan State University. After a two-year stint in law school, she later changed her career path. While recovering from an illness, she earned an M.A. from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland ahead of schedule and with honors. Andrea self-published her first two urban novels, and recently completed her first book deal with Q-Boro Books. Her nonfiction debut can be found in Chicken Soup for the African-American Woman's Soul. A lover of all genres and outrageous characters, Andrea aspires to write a wide array of stories. Her future work will range from inspirational nonfiction to unconventional plots written under one of many pseudonyms. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.