Black Americans

Day before yesterday, I posted this as my status on Facebook:
Acabo de caminar del gimnasio. Hoy es un día brillante de sol tropical. Y bajo de ese sol iluminante, se me dió cuenta que yo era el único negro/moreno/mulato en la calle que no era obrero, vigilante, mulero, vendedor de cocadas o aguacate, o muchacho de servicio. ¿Qué vaina tan desesperante?

Translation:
I just walked home from the gym. Today is bright with tropical sun. And under that illuminating sun, I noticed that I was the only black/African-descended guy in the street who wasn’t a construction worker, security guard, mule driver, coconut treat or avocado seller, or servant boy. How depressing!

An immediate response from a FB friend:
Interesante, pero qué negro? Vos no lo sos o no pareces.

Translation:
Interesting, but what do you mean black? You’re not, or you don’t look it.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been plagued by the eternal question, “What are you?” I won’t lie and say that I’ve always had a solid racial identity, but for most of my 31 years, I’ve lived life as a black American male, albeit one of obvious mixed phenotype. Growing up in the American South, my identity was never questioned by whites, only by the other blacks I went to school with, often pointing to my curly ‘fro and calling to me in faux-Spanish, “catada-potodo” and all that jazz. My mother, herself the recipient of much vitriol from her darker-skinned peers during her years in segregated schools and at an HBCU in the late 50s, told me how she had often been mistaken for white during the pale winter months of her youth. But despite her recent European ancestry and light-bright-damn-near complexion, she was born in 1938, under the equalizing rule of hypodescent in the United States, with the requisite single drop which once and forever placed her on the dark side of the color line. And it was under the same culture and climate of that rule that I was born in 1977, reddish-brown, darkening in summer, with features sitting halfway between two continents.

That did not mean, however, that I was raised culturally confused à la Diff’rent Strokes. I grew up in a black neighborhood, in a black Baptist church, in a black family with members “from coal to cream.” My youth was always a little bit Cosby, a little bit Good Times, a dash of 227, and a whole lot of Amen. I was surrounded by institutions of black middle-class success, not quite Atlanta-level entrepreneurial luxury, but the fruits of striving, college-educated Southerners who marched in high-stepping bands and continued to serve the Greek letter organizations they joined back when it meant something; and always within a ten minute drive of the ‘hood and the cheap Chinese take-outs and barbecue joints. I was a member of a black Boy Scout troupe and learned about W.E.B. Du Bois and Madam C.J. Walker and Charles Drew as a part of the McKnight Achievers Honor Society. Curly hair notwithstanding (receding, actually), I grew up black. And I know what it means to be followed around in stores, to attend a high school with 50s-era library books, and to be harassed by the police.

I’ve come to reconcile my phenotype the way I reconcile my interests, that to be black—physically, culturally, emotionally, spiritually, politically—is not to be monolithic. That we are, in every range, dimension, and manifestation imaginable. It took me going through stages of emotional maturity, attending a mostly-black high school (where I was hated for being a fat Oreo nerd) and an HBCU (where it was finally cool to be smart, diverse, and culturally inquisitive), and traveling through the realms of my brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, most notably Latin America (where I initially had the naive expectation that people who looked like me also thought like me).

“Why you wanna be a black nigger?
I was asked that once by a Colombian woman who had lived for a while in the United States and couldn’t get her translation right; Spanish subtitles for American movies and TV shows give “negro” for both black and nigger. Though I’m sure she was educated in the proper derogatory terminology during her time in New York. Anyway, her question was prompted by my response to her original query of whether or not I was Latino (that catch-all term which incorporates Spanish-speaking cultures from Mexico to Argentina and truly means absolutely nothing outside of an American cultural context, and even then…), something often asked of me. My answer is always either negro americano, afro-americano, or a mix of the two. More often than not, this answer is never accepted at face value, hence her perplexity at why I would choose to identify myself as something A) seemingly unpleasant, judging by her tone and facial expression, and B) apparently untrue.

See, in Latin America, the race issue is less, pardon the pun, black and white than it is in the US. The Spaniards and Portuguese, already a mixed lot, had much less reluctance than their British counterparts in planting their seeds in foreign soil, so to speak. In fact, an entire range of interesting names developed to accompany the corresponding array of skin tones, hair textures, and facial dimensions, the most prevalent being mestizo (white/indigenous), mulato (white/black), and zambo (black/indigenous). Along with this color gradation came social value, rated according to your position: African slaves, invariably, at the bottom. Underlying this system was the exact opposite idea of hypodescent—one drop of any other blood kept you from being black (though not necessarily enslaved), and some places even allowed enterprising mixed-bloods to purchase whiteness (don’t worry, folks, I’ve included a bibliography below). Wrap all this in the typical European colonial social matrix that privileged whiteness above all else (repeated throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia), and you can understand why no one in their right mind would actually choose to be black in Latin America if they didn’t have to. Why would anyone want to identify with a group of people who, still in 2009, maintain the lowest position on the social ladder in the countries where they are greatest in number, and whose color is a euphemism for poor, dirty, and ugly? Where a Spanish word for cute (mono) is default for blond and where one “German” or “Spanish” grandfather is enough for people who look like Denzel or Oprah to claim, “I’m not black, I’m mulatto,” as if that were a badge of honor (of course, there are no Colombian Oprahs or Denzels because maybe they don’t want to be on TV or in movies here in Colombia, right?).

It’s this same lack of identification that keeps the colonial structure in place, because there’s not enough unity or anger to incite any type of focused paradigm shift reminiscent of the American Civil Rights Movement. The segregation here is most certainly economic, but that functions as a proxy for race when the majority of the lower-class, with no access to adequate education or jobs, is indigenous or of quite obvious African-descent, and the number in the upper classes is negligible (of course, everybody always seems to know the one exception that proves the rule). And people here tend to think that their mixed-raced societies indicate the lack of racism; I’ma tell you that fucking your dusky, voluptuous maid (or paying her to deflower your 15-year-old son) is not the same as legitimate socioeconomic mobility.

100% Negro
Here in Colombia, I’ve been called racist for even talking about race, and for pointing out inequalities that had theretofore gone unnoticed. I’ve been called divisive and off-putting for being proud of my own heritage by people who think nothing of invoking their Italian or German or Norwegian ancestry. I even had a fellow professor once ask, exasperatedly, if we had to talk about race on a Friday afternoon just after I discovered a student had included “nigger” in an academic paper! (Must be nice to have the luxury of scheduling life’s inconveniences, you douche). Still, people can call me any number of things, but it doesn’t reduce the ingrained responsibility I feel for educating and raising the consciousness of my own people as well as others.

When asked why I care so much, I answer that it is because of sheer luck and cosmic grace that my ancestors’ slave ship docked in Charleston and not Cartagena, Santo Domingo, Kingston, or Salvador. Because the United States proves over and over, despite severe and deeply-ingrained problems, that it is, in my opinion, the only country in the hemisphere where people of African descent have a decent shot at unfettered success regardless of skin tone, last name, foreign parentage, or bank account balance (Canadians, correct me if I’m wrong). And like the Afro-Colombians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and some 90 million Brazilians, to name a precious few, I am the descendant of Africans brought over to the Americas as property, speak a European language, and have been acculturated to European mores and values. The language may be different, but the history and heritage unite us. That is why I care about what becomes of a bright 12-year-old black kid who has to stop school to sell chewing gum on the side of the road in Barranquilla to help his mom pay rent. That is why I care about what becomes of the 20-somethings who should be studying law instead of selling their bodies to the highest bidder at the clubs in Rio. That is why I care about what becomes of the Caracas street pharmacist with the business acumen of a Fortune 500 executive. Because under a different set of circumstances, they all could have been me.

There are varying levels of black consciousness throughout Latin America, with Cuba leading the pack and Brazil, Panama, and Venezuela at least showing up to the conversation. But there is still a huge dearth in the number of socioeconomically successful Afro-Latinos/negros/morenos/mulatos/whateverthehellyouwannacallem to serve as examples for younger generations to aspire to, or for non-blacks to see as proof of a people’s abilities. So I willingly accept it as my duty to be an example to my people in the Diaspora, regardless of language or nationality, that black does not have to mean poor and uneducated and ugly (or shoe-leather dark).

My aim is not to pit groups of people against each other; it is to instill sufficient pride in a marginalized and victimized group of people to have them demand better for themselves from themselves, their governments, and their communities. To insist on equal opportunities for quality education and employment, and to see their broad features, kinky-curly hair, and dark skin as signs of resilience and fortitude, not something deficient and needing to be “improved” with each successive generation. I’m young, gifted, and black. I’m black and beautiful. I’m black and full of flavor. I’m black and proud (and uppity to boot!). And I want them to know what it means to be black like me.

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Aside from the four years I’ve spent living in and traveling through Latin America, there are a few pivotal books that have deepened my understanding of the people and their societies:

Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press USA, 2004.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Newest printing – Wilder Publications, 2008. (Originally published, 1903).

Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves (Casa-Grande e Senzala): a Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization. New York: Random House, 2000. (Originally published, 1933).

Robinson, Eugene. Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Whitten, Norman E. and Arlene Torres (Eds.). Blackness in Latin America & the Caribbean: Social Dynamics and Cultural Transformations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

A native of my own hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was the son of an educator, who would later become an educator in his own right, in addition to being a diplomat, poet, novelist, lyricist, and civil rights activist. At only 24, Johnson became a high school principal and founded a newspaper, before being the first black person to pass the Florida bar exam. Soon, he collaborated with his brother, musician John Rosamond Johnson (who happened to be the musical director at the church I grew up in, decades prior, of course), on several theater projects, and penned the amazing lyrics of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which I had learned at least by age six).


These ten li’l high school jitterbugs better sang! (‘Specially the last verse at 2:45).

Tired of the racist buffoonery of popular music at the time (hmmm…so nothing’s changed?), Johnson left that industry, entered Columbia University, and in 1906, was named U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. After being transferred to Nicaragua, where he wrote his impactful novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, he left the foreign service (they weren’t trying to hook a brother up with a decent post back in 1913), settled in New York, became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920, published three anthologies on Negro poetry and spirituals, a collection of poetry, and his own true autobiography. Sadly, he was killed at the age of 67, when a train hit his car in 1938. Still, Johnson is remembered by the students of the various schools that bear his name (my brother went to the one in J-ville) and by the millions of black Americans who get teary-eyed at the last lines of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,

True to our God,
True to our native land.

In belated honor of Black History Month, Fly Brother salutes fellow Duvalian, Renaissance Man, and Fly Original, James Weldon Johnson. May I be half as prolific as he.

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According to the short bio in the back of his best-selling “self-help” tome, The Four-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, Tim Ferriss “speaks six languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, and has been a world-record holder in tango, a national champion in Chinese kickboxing, and an actor on a hit television series in Hong Kong.” Dude is my age. Damn.

Fundamentally, Ferriss is all about “lifestyle design,” which includes personal outsourcing, information management, and mini-retirements that maximize personal free time (to be filled with things you want to do, not have to do). On his blog this week, Ferriss interviews one of his own inspirations, Rolf Potts, writer and professional vagabond who just released his second book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, “a philosophical book about seeing time as wealth and using travel to actualize that wealth.” Now, many folks might not be all that into philosophy, but picking up and traveling, leaving our comfort zones, experiencing the unfamiliar all require a philosophic leap of faith that both Ferriss and Potts try to encourage through their books and websites.

Granted, looking at them – young, Abercrombie-esque, “affluent” white guys – a person of color with a possible interest in international travel might not exactly see themselves reflected in the life experiences of these guys. In fact, the dearth of recorded, comparable experiences by colored folks is the reason for this blog. But these two gentlemen have inspired me to take their advice, borrow some of their techniques, and use their knowledge and experience, plus the seemingly-inexhaustable positive energy reflected in their writing, in planning my life journey.

I’ve certainly encountered racism in my travels and would never assume that the same open arms extended to Nordic-looking Tim Ferriss by the TV producers in Hong Kong would be extended to Caribbean-looking me. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t get on a show in Germany. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t write my own show and have it produced in Venezuela (or Hong Kong, for that matter). I also know that there are streets I can walk down in Latin America and not get a second look as an easy tourist target, while Tim Ferriss wouldn’t last ten seconds without being swarmed by screaming multitudes hawking native trinkets, blood emeralds, overpriced designer knock-offs, or underaged girls. But it’s not about comparing myself to these guys with an attitude of disdain or jealousy. On the contrary; right now, I’m trying to do what they’re doing – traveling and writing professionally – and damn if I’m not going to learn a thing or two from these intrepid lads. As deceased black muti-billionaire Reginald Lewis once asked, “why should white guys have all the fun?

There’s plenty of fun to go around.

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Two more short but excellent interviews with Rolf Potts about his new book and the art of long-term travel can be found on World Hum and Vagabondish.

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When I left the states for South America in 2005, I was definitely not a patriotic person. I mean, 200 years of slavery, a hundred years of legal segregation, and another forty of trigger-happy police incursions and a societal fear of black men do not exactly compel me to sing “God Bless America.” Still, living abroad has instilled in me what I’d call a passive sense of nationalism, manifested as a nostalgia for certain uniquely American cultural attributes that can’t be found anywhere else. The United States is absolutely not “the best country in the world.” No place is. But the US definitely has a lot of cool stuff going for it. This is my list of ten things I appreciate about the States:

10) Magazines. I mean, damn, one whole wall at Barnes & Noble (or Books-A-Million) is dedicated to the glossy, shiny alternate universe of magazines. There’s one for every geek boner you could imagine, from crocheting to dirt biking to porn. And besides the staples of every black household (Ebony, Essence, and the ubiquitous Jet), I get to see gorgeous people of color smiling back at me from the covers of Vanity Fair and Men’s Health and Time as if we’ve actually overcome!

9) Healthy Foods. Here in Colombia, a small, 10-slice pack of turkey breast costs $6. At Winn-Dixie, a pound of sliced turkey breast costs $4. Tropical and temperate fruits. Peanut butter. Protein bars and granola bars and low-carb bars and cereal bars. Yeah, lots of it might be processed and/or preserved, but dammit…we grow tall and big and strong in the USA!

8) Concerts. Mavis Staples. Kid Sister. Seu Jorge. Bebel Gilberto. Afrika Bambaataa. Julieta Vanegas. Dave Hollister. Santogold. Crosby, Stills & Nash. Los Lonely Boys. Black Dice. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. All free this summer in New York. That’s just one venue in one city for one season.

7) American Cinema. Citizen Kane. Gone With the Wind. Imitation of Life. Gilda. All About Eve. Blazing Saddles. Young Frankenstein. The Wiz. Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. Jungle Fever. New Jack City. Juice. Lean On Me. Krush Groove. Love Jones. Eve’s Bayou. I Like It Like That. Casino. Heat. The Shawshank Redemption. American Beauty. Fargo. Requiem for a Dream. Any Given Sunday. A Christmas Story. The Hours. Bring It On (just playin’). And absolutely everything in between. (I couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around a “comprehensive” list.)

6) Landscapes. The amber waves of grain on the Great Plains. Purple mountain majesties of the Rockies. The rocky cliffs of California. The infinite flatness of the Everglades. Volcanoes and pine forests and glaciers and beaches with black and white and beige and coral sands. America is beautiful.

5) Black American and Southern culture. Of course, these often overlap. Grits and eggs and grits and bacon and grits and fish and grits and corned beef hash and grits and fried bologna and cornbread and collard greens and barbecue and boiled crabs (with potatoes and corn and Roger Wood sausages) and, yes, chitlins and music at parties and games of spades and tonk (or “tunk”) and drawls and twangs and shit-talkin and rankin’ on somebody’s mama til somebody gets mad and breakin out movie lines like “You ain’t got-ta lie, Craig!” and breakin out old dances like the Reebok and the Cabbage Patch and the Running Man and the Roger Rabbit (and the Squirrel and the Tawlet Bowl and the Woop and the Tootsie Roll) and HBCU football games and step shows and dropped r’s (pahk the cah, nah!) and words like chuch and mm-hmm and well! and my-my-my and Jesus Lawd and the odd-count grunt that generations of black women have perfected when receiving bad/interesting/surprising news: mmm. Mmm-mmm-mmm. Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm. Thems my peoples.

4) Diversity. There is no other country on Earth with more than two truly international cities. There’s always been the gateways – New York, LA, Miami, San Fran. The capital – Washington. The classics – Philly and Boston. The magnet – Chicago. But now, even bastions of regionalized Americana are noticeably microcosmic – Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, Houston. On any given weekend, you can leave your Mandarin Chinese class to fill-up on some pad Thai before hitting a salsa spot and then an afterparty with a Brazilian DJ. Or you could just go straight to Magic City right after that pad Thai.

3) Comparative success of Black Americans. Nowhere else in the hemisphere do the descendants of African slaves have as many opportunities to develop socioeconomically than in the US, in spite of foolishness from both mainstream society (of which we’re less than 14% of the population) and amongst ourselves. Black immigrants from the Caribbean might do well in Canada, but not too many of them do that well back in their home countries. Colombia’s cool and I love Brazil, but we still got a long way to go in those places, too, which is disheartening since half of Brazil’s 200 million people are of African descent, as well as 40% of Colombia’s. And there are no Latin American Obamas, Oprahs, Colins, Condis, Kenneth Chenaults, or Richard Parsonses. In many places, like where I live, they still Driving Miss Daisy.

2) Freedom of speech and political discourse. “BUCK FUSH!” There, I said it.
Try saying “Puck Futin,” “Chuck Favez,” “Ruck Ufibe,” or “Cuck Fastro” in their respective countries, and thas yo ass.

1) English. I love languages, especially those of the Romance variety (Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian son mis favoritos). Still, much useful information about the world in which we live is only available in the home language of the country that produces that information, and in English. I haven’t seen any Spanish-language publication or broadcast news source that gives as complete coverage to global issues as the Economist. If I get lost at the airport in Dapango, Togo, I guarantee you somebody’s gon speak a lil English. It’s the lingua franca of the new millenium, y’all, and I’m glad I got to learn it growing up so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with learning its ridiculous spelling and pronunciation system as an adult.

What do my fellow expats appreciate about the States?

(Very specific honorable mentions: Marshalls, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and driving on a freeway at dusk with some hot lounge or chill house setting the tempo)

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Because people of color – particularly black Americans – are traveling overseas for work, fun, or education more than ever before, but most travel-related magazine, newspaper, and Internet articles speak from a voice and perspective that I just can’t relate to.

Because people want culturally-resonant information that offers them insight into the ins-and-outs of traveling under the radar in Havana, but conspicuously in Hong Kong. And people want to know what being black means outside of the US.

Because I don’t care bout no damn top ten Irish pubs in New York, and I don’t personally think that Copenhagen has a lock on the most attractive people in Europe. I wanna know about the top ten salsa clubs in LA and see all the shades, from coal to cream, that grace the hotties in Paris.

Because I grew up with Southern black marching bands and HBCU homecomings and found the same energy, spirit, rhythm, and soul at a Vai-Vai samba school rehearsal in São Paulo.

Because we ought to see more of the world, and we ought to encourage and help our mamas, sisters, granddaddies, frat brothers, favorite cousins, play cousins, ‘cross-the-street neighbors, college classmates, and Shaunda’s lil brother who just turned fifteen to do the same.

Because James Weldon did it. And Josephine. And Baldwin. And Du Bois. And Langston. And Zora. And Malcolm. And Barack.

Because the world ought to know more about us than Flava Flav and Diddy.

Because I don’t experience the world via a culturally “neutral,” “color-blind,” “American” matrix. I live life in full color, just like I travel.

Welcome to Fly Brother.

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