writing

3 825

On a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the modern film adaptation of a Depression-era short story about an unremarkable everyman stricken by sporadic daydreams of heroism. In the story, mundane tasks inspire epic flights of fancy in the mind of the protagonist, who appears zoned out to the rest of the world. The film, however, takes a mild-mannered photo developer for Life magazine out of his fantasies and sends him on a dizzying adventure to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan. Actually, the film takes us along for the ride.

To be certain, seeing Walter Mitty, mousy and unsure, morph into a ruggedly handsome philosopher-hero is to witness Hollywood cliché. And it’s easy to dismiss as corny the abridged Life magazine mantra displayed throughout the film (see image above). But on that airplane, I drank in every panoramic mountain vista, swam in every lush measure of the soundtrack, and swallowed whole each word of that mantra, because I am a true believer. I know first-hand the power of travel, of conquering fear, of exploring the unknown, of accomplishing the extraordinary. But more, I’ve been blessed to interact with, to be drawn closer to other people who also know this power intimately. Extraordinary people who give little girls the world in the form of a small, blue, 32-page book with an eagle on the front. People who coach men on becoming better men, who kayak down the coast of Texas in search of solace and solitude, who supply menstrual pads to school-aged girls in developing countries, who move to New York then Buenos Aires then Boston when the mood strikes, or whose hobby is slowly but steadily becoming a profession. People raising their biracial daughters or autistic sons as single mothers in foreign countries or foreign cultures, who unexpectedly fall in love with a certain city and then make that place home, who connect compatriots worldwide, who capture the essence of life for posterity. People who do oh so many more extraordinary, epic things.

The examples are all around us; it’s really no secret at all. An epic life, an extraordinary life isn’t just for the movies. And it isn’t just for people who throw off the yoke of conventionality to go live in Bali and trade stocks over the Internet. It’s about recognizing epic moments that already happen in your life – running on the beach, hugging a loved one, laughing with friends – and embracing them, then devising a way to maximize the frequency and duration of epic-ness in your life. It’s not always easy, and right now, it may only be five minutes a week. But in a few weeks, months, years, extraordinary could be your new ordinary. Walter Mitty reminded me that, despite my own fears, inadequacies, conflicts, or difficulties, extraordinary is already my ordinary. I plan on keeping it that way.

So, who’s down for a trip to Greenland?

Which one of these two women represents the real China?

In response to someone who told me I hadn’t been to the real China because I didn’t visit a hutong:

People like to say that Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Beijing these days don’t represent the real China, with their modern skyscrapers, ubiquitous Starbuckses, and global influence. The real China is rice paddies and opium dens, Little Red Books and old ladies with bound feet, straw hats and bicycles and dragon lanterns, right?

When people who fancy themselves “travelers, not tourists,” visit foreign countries for the first time, they often verbalize their desire to see the real place. The real Paris. The real Brazil. The real Australian Outback. (Though, I concede to not hearing very many people expressing a yen for the real Orlando.) In my opinion, this quest for authenticity is as romantically futile as it is superficial – places, like people, are multidimensional entities that embody contradictions and eschew easy categorizations.

In the present, more than at any other time in history, the emergence of a global urban culture has transformed, if not usurped to some degree, the local “authentic” culture of cities. And while that global culture is indeed dominated, somewhat shamefully, by American hegemony, it is still the local incarnation of global culture that visitors to the world’s largest cities encounter – homegrown fast-food chains next door to McDonald’s, hip hop artists rhyming in Yoruba or Finnish or Bahasa Indonesia, jeans and sneakers and hoodies everywhere – evidence that anything can become tradition, given time.

True, once-unique locales have begun homogenizing, morphing into glass-and-steel clones of New York or – gasp – Dubai, with air conditioned shopping malls housing branches of the same mid-range-to-luxury goods purveyor found in commercial centers the world over.

But this is the world we live in now. Yuppies in Beijing use smart phones to order Thai takeout to watch in front of their flat-screen TVs. Students in São Paulo organize anti-corruption protests via Facebook, likening themselves to anti-corruption protesters half a world away in Turkey. It’s the technology that’s connecting us as well as conditioning us into a state of global citizenship (with its concomitant dark side, global consumerism).

Nonetheless, are these places any less real because the people who live there utilize products and services that may not be homegrown, or that many more people in a given country live in abject poverty? Is New York any less American, Paris any less French, or Bangkok any less Thai because of globalization? And does a visitor to the U.S. need to spend a night in the hood or a trailer park to experience the real America? I think far too many people conflate realness in travel with slumming, or at the very least, with what the “average” [insert nationality here] person does or doesn’t do. Every place on the planet is comprised of conflicting realities, one no less real than the other.

What I experience when I travel is as real as it gets, be it an hours-long conversation at a Krispy Kreme in Seoul or comparing dance moves in front of a chaiwala in Mumbai. It’s through genuine human interaction and an openness to learning that I get to know the real place, the real people. And that means first letting go of my own preconceived notions of realness and authenticity.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Image sources: Lauren Nelson & Eightfish

6 1235

Since July, I’ve been to nine countries on five continents, and I don’t think I’ve spent more than five nights in any one location, with the exception of a 7-day cruise with my family where my movement was essentially limited to the Lido Deck.

During these past two months, I’ve had immovable work deadlines and perilously-late paychecks, last-minute press trips and schmooze-soaked travel conferences, a sobering near-breakup and a sobering death in the family. I’ve juggled professional, personal, and social spheres, seeing friends and family whenever I could and taking on writing assignments as frequently as possible. I have pressures to maintain a positive cash flow, maintain a long-distance relationship, maintain personal relationships, maintain professional growth, maintain a blog and a social media presence, maintain my physical health, maintain my sanity. My fingernails are bitten down to the bloody cuticle. ‘Taint no vacation we’re talking about here.

Life on the road is still life—uncut and unadulterated life, with bills, headaches, disappointments, and unrealized goals. At the end of the day, uncompleted items remain on each to-do list, and at the end of the month, a few days on the bank statement inevitably glow red (for now). But it’s the hope for a fulfilling life that keeps me advancing through air and uncertainty instead of coasting on autopilot through a manufactured existence in service to someone who isn’t me but who profits from my talents and resources. It’s the hope that I’ll eventually get as close to “figuring it all out” as I can, that the effort and striving and leaps of faith will turn into something materially-tangible, yes, but more than that—something soul-calming. Something fulfilling. With as few regrets as possible.

Because there’s nowhere any of us can go to escape uncut and unadulterated life, no country or continent where real life won’t intrude suddenly and without warning. The key to hope—and fulfillment—is to embrace, then face the challenges, tackling each one like a wave on the ocean of adventure.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

0 512
Friends do crazy sh*t together.

Sometimes, when you stop just for a second and take stock of the people in your life, you really do have to quietly thank the cosmos for what truly is the blessing of friendship. Many people have a set of good friends that they’ve built over the years through shared experiences in high school or college, on sports teams, in church or at work. Sometimes, these friendships last for many years, sometimes not so many—reason, season, lifetime and whatnot. Mostly, though, they’re established based on geography, which makes sense, since frequent personal interaction is what facilitates the friendship in the first place. In my case, geography is even more of a factor in the friendships I’ve forged over time, specifically because of its frequently changing nature in my life.

I’ve lived in six cities and traveled to three-dozen countries in my 34 years, and I’m actually kind of humbled when I think about the number of quality friends that I’ve made in that time. Some are people I’ve worked with or worked for, or traveled with or hosted or CouchSurfed with. Some I met on the beach in Rio, on the seafront promenade in Havana, on the subway in Paris. A few are from college; fewer from high school (I was an unpopular nerd…oh, but times done changed).

And who are these people? Telenovela and film stars in Bogotá, DJs and journalists in São Paulo, teachers and lawyers in Tallahassee, bloggers and nightclub coat-check clerks in Berlin, special-needs educators in Stockholm, die-hard road dogs in Miami and NY and DC and Jacksonville who can remember each and every one of my previous incarnations and still put up with me anyway. And my actual family’s pretty damn great, too.

Thanks to Skype and cheap airfares, I’m able to maintain and even expand my set beyond physical boundaries. And even when circumstances and logistics call for long pauses between interaction, it only takes a second to fall back into the familiar rhythm and easy laughs (or arguments) that drew us together in the first place. My set isn’t bound by geography or circumstance, but by respect, admiration, affection, and kinship.

So to all my fly peeps the world over, I love you folks and am forever grateful for the $50 that you never pressed me about paying back! 😉

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Sunset from the front porch.

For a week now, I’ve been trying to write a post about the decline, nay, decay of my hometown Jacksonville in general, and of the black community that I grew up in, in particular. It’s been hard; I still haven’t figured it out. After this last trip home, I agree even more with my parents’ assertion that integration wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. My mom was, after all, fully 30 years old when the school system in my hometown finally desegregated, and both my parents remember well the benefit of having successful, accessible community leaders in the community. I remember it, too. It almost feels like I’m from the last generation to actually have that benefit, since nowadays, the only community leaders seem to be drug dealers and thugs. Despite everyone else in our family staying on the straight-and-narrow, we’ve got one little knucklehead who just refuses to do right. I say it’s all that hip-hoppin’, gang-bangin’ garbage they’re listening to these days (or is that just me getting old?), since he certainly wasn’t brought up that way. Then, I question my own role as a “community leader” who, while not necessarily all that financially successful, can certainly stand as an example of how staying out of trouble can lead to an extraordinary life. But then, I left the community, too. The reasons are various and justifiable, but the fact remains that I went back to my hometown, observed the sorry state of affairs amongst what should be a proud people, reasserted my conviction to never move back there unless absolutely necessary, and flew back off to my own life. So the quandary, then, is how to have my own life and still serve a community that I do care about and am still a part of. Or is there no longer a place for community-mindedness in “post-racial” America? And who, exactly, is my community?

The answer will come.

For a little background, see Missing Middle Florida.

Please tweet your comments @FlyBrother, or email me (see About page). And don’t forget to “like” me on Facebook!

The first thing you notice about Switzerland’s largest city – Zurich – is that, by comparison, every other city in the world looks worn-down and raggedy. The whole place smacks of affluence, from the clean comfort of the airport to the understated high-end street fashion (even old people rocked dark denim and leather jackets by somebody famous). In Zurich, they riyotch, beyotch.

Early industrialization and the development of banking services (a business not exactly pure as Alpine snow) helped the Swiss obtain one of the highest per capita standards of living in the world. Food and clothing in Zurich aren’t necessarily the cheapest, but public services and infrastructure are top-notch. I flew into a world-class airport on a world-class airline, hopped a train to the main station, where I met up with my CouchSurfing host (Björn – Swedish name, Swiss dude) for some lunch-time Thai, then took a sleek and efficient tram to within a block of his apartment.

Great Domes of Zurich

I rested a bit from the 12-hour flight until Björn got home from work and we hit the streets of Zurich just as the sun dipped behind the Alps to the west. We walked around the old town, and I marveled at how multicultural the place actually is (I encountered Brazilians, Eritreans, Sri Lankans…), in spite of murmurings about Swiss xenophobia. It was strangely comforting to be in a place surrounded so completely by mountains; I’d lived in Bogotá, which sits on a high plateau surrounded by the Andes, but with 8 million people, comforting is the last word I’d use to describe the Colombian capital.

Skyline at sunset.

Conversation took us past 900-year-old churches and 21st century electronics stores, then down towards Lake Zurich where we hopped aboard one of the water shuttles that augment the city’s transportation options.

Lake Zurrk

According to Björn, the whole city is walkable in about 45 minutes, and we seemed to be testing out that assessment. Finally, as the temperature dropped into the upper-40s, Björn broke out the fondue set and we had some traditional Swiss potatoes and cheese for dinner. So much for my no-carb vacation.

Downtown shopping alley. Expensive.

The next day? Cold, gray, and rainy: perfect weather for a museum visit! The castle-like Swiss National Museum – Landesmuseum Zürich in German – chronicles the history of Switzerland from the Stone Age to modern times, even mentioning the Swiss role as financiers of the slave trade (no pics allowed). I’m always shocked in European museums by the amount of guts and gore that appears in depictions of Christianity: severed heads and people nailed to crosses and whatnot. Victory over violence, my brethren! I was also mildly chided by the old lady taking tickets at the entrance to the museum’s World Wildlife Federation exhibition because, as an American, I’m in some way responsible for America’s lax environmental policies. I just let her talk, responding every now and then with a “Yes, ma’am.”

Landesmuseum Zürich, where they filmed ‘The Haunting.’

Then, I shivered over to the nearby Museum of Design Zurich, mostly because I was sans-umbrella, and caught the temporary exhibition on skyscrapers (my favorite type of building). Photos, blueprints, and scale models of structures in major cities comprised the exhibition, and I took the opportunity to draw São Paulo’s Copan building in the guest book, since other people had drawn buildings in the guest book.

I took this picture on the low-low.

Soon, it was time to grab my onward flight to Berlin, departing from Zurich Airport’s über-chic “low-cost” terminal.

The hoodrat section of Zurich Airport.

Björn, thanks a lot for the Alpine hospitality! Zurich, you are small but sophisticated and your people are worldly and affable. I will be back!

Zurich’s got “something for every taste.”

Please tweet your comments @FlyBrother, or email me (see About page). And don’t forget to “like” me on Facebook!

Though there is no substitute for actual travel, there is something you can buy at your local bookstore or newsstand that’s as close as you can get to scarfing down a Turkish döner in Berlin, catching an Argentinean documentary in Quito, hanging ten off the coast of Bangladesh without actually coughing up the airfare: Afar.

Based in San Francisco (check out the minds behind the mag), the bi-monthly magazine focuses on “experiential travel,” which it defines as being connected with “the authentic essence of a place and its people.” This theme pervades every page of the magazine, from feature stories that take you into the dumpling kitchens of Shanghai and Lee Harvey Oswald’s former apartment in Minsk to double-page spreads featuring the beer cans, national birds, and traditional hats from around the globe. The articles, expertly-written and as respectful of other cultures as I’ve ever seen in print media, keep me in perpetual wanderlust, tinged with a bit of envy at the caliber of the text and slight annoyance that the editors haven’t tapped me for one of their “Spin the Globe” features (where they drop you in a foreign place with nothing but a few dollars and your own travel wits; I’m available, Afar…I’ll call in sick to the day job if I need to! *wink*).

And in the vein of experiential travel, Afar sponsors educational excursions and youth development programs through its foundation, coupling social change and personal development with international travel.

So if you haven’t already checked out a copy of Afar, run to the nearest B&N, or better yet, subscribe through their website to get your bimonthly dose of travel porn, stuffed with gems like this (from “When Being a Good Traveler Means Being a Bad Guest” by Chris Colin, May/June 2011 issue):

“The poignancy of a place lies at the intersection of its virtues and its flaws…
To care only for the airbrushed version of a place is not to care much for it at all – it’s hardly love if your partner knows your charming smile but not your bad breath. So, too, with a place: Your affection takes on depth only after you’ve glimpsed the imperfections and made room for them in your embrace.”

Amen.

Please tweet your comments @FlyBrother, or email me (see About page). And don’t forget to “like” me on Facebook!

Digital StillCamera

Three years ago, shortly after dusk on a crisp July evening, I left the gym and walked with a friend down a cavernous back-street in Copacabana, the gritty, dense, intense, world-famous beachfront neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.  At that time, my Portuguese skills were nonexistent, and I conversed with my friend in an uneasy Portuñol that was more functional Spanish with a passable Brazilian accent. Being the intrepid, street-wise flâneur that I am, I dressed in nondescript shorts, a white t-shirt, basic black sneakers, and took along a Discman: a) to have some music to listen to in the gym, and b) specifically to ward off anyone interested in making even the least bit of profit by robbing me…who the hell would want a Discman in the 21st century?

Well, some ten-year-old kid shows up asking me for who the hell knows what and I told him, in Spanish, that I didn’t really have anything to give him (I didn’t). He then grabbed my arm. I flipped: “no me toques, hijueputa” I said and jerked my hand back. Then he started shouting in Portuguese, I shouted back in Spanish, and then he hit me in the foot with a rock. I swear, if I had had on a belt, that woulda been his ass, but my friend dragged me away and the kid ran off. It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that I thought about what would have happened had the kid pulled a gun: you could have cast me in Airplane!.

Never, in all my years of travel, had I been accosted in the street by anybody. I mean, I’m a 6’2, 210-pound black man…I’m the one who makes people nervous.  In fact, it was the lack of control that was most unsettling aspect of what happened.  And it didn’t matter that I understood all the socio-economic history behind why this kid was running the streets, probably high on glue, looking for hand-outs.  In that moment, I was just a “rich” foreigner, nothing more.  I’ve not felt 100% secure in Rio ever since.

I’ve been back to the city several times; twice, I’ve rung in the New Year on Copacabana.  And there are myriad things to like about the place: the attractiveness of the people, the stunning landscape, beaches with actual waves, the history and the music.  Still, I’ve always seen Rio as Miami/LA to São Paulo’s New York: plastically attractive, with no real depth; a city full of shameless social-climbers, hooligans, and a large percentage of strivers you never meet in person because they’re working themselves to the bone while the first two groups crowd the beaches (no shade on Miami or LA, y’all).  The coolest Cariocas I’ve ever met have been ones living outside of Rio, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any person I know there who I can count as a true friend (the friend who was with me when Lil Zé tried to get at me actually spends most of the year in his hometown of Porto Alegre).

Downtown Rio de Janeiro

But the last couple of times I’ve visited the city, I’ve ventured out of chic and/or titillating Zona Sul into regions I hadn’t charted before: Downtown, full of neo-classical architecture from Brazil’s Belle Epoque that’s slowly-and-surely being restored; the hilly boho enclave of Santa Teresa, with its feijoada dives and political graffiti; futuristic Niteroi, the burgeoning suburb across the bay full of Niemeyer architecture and the vibe of Rio before the crack epidemic.  Hanging over the “Marvelous City” is an atmosphere of tense anticipation, a mixture of hope and anxiety about hosting the 2016 Olympics in a city notoriously besieged by bad management and corruption, class and racial conflict (don’t let ’em tell you differently), and lawlessness (shooting down a police helicopter? Damn!).  There’s also the promise of an Olympic-sized renaissance, a reversal of the former capital’s fifty-year decline since losing that title to Brasília and a return to the world stage of one of Earth’s great urban playgrounds, anchored by a remarkable history as the hemisphere’s only imperial capital and an indefatigable culture of music and dance centuries in the making.

In spite of our shaky past and my status as a bona fide gringo paulista, I’m excited about witnessing Rio’s resurgence.  I hope, soon, that we’ll be completely reconciled and I can name her as one of my favorite cities; after all, Paris and I didn’t exactly get along at first, either.

Chillin’ at the feet of Jesus, overlooking Ipanema.

A few days ago, The New York Times published its list of the “31 Places to Go in 2010.” My former adopted country, Colombia, clocked in at number 26. Certainly, the country is worthy of inclusion on this list; the cultural and geographic diversity alone make it a stimulating visit, and it’s not any more dangerous than much of the US. But it was the last line of this almost-four-paragraph blurb that had the needle scratching the LP in my head: “It has even prompted some travel bloggers to call Cartagena the next Buenos Aires.”

Now, first of all, I’m always annoyed when people dub something “the next” anything, as if there’s a problem with the original something and it needs to be replaced. In fact, for me, that phrase serves as a warning: stay away from Panama because it’s becoming “the next Costa Rica” (read: overrun by drunken Spring Breakers and monolingual retirees).

Granted, travel writers and people in general tend to compare places with others, and that’s OK, especially if the comparison is couched in the writer’s own experience or relegated to certain aspects of a place, such as its nightlife or cultural impact. But as much as I’ve compared São Paulo and New York, I would never call São Paulo “the next New York.” New York, for one, ain’t goin nowhere and São Paulo’s too busy being the next São Paulo to be anything else. There’s also the danger of glaring generalizations and a glossing-over of history, which, as modern and supposedly culturally-sensitive writers, we’re supposed to be avoiding as much as possible. So comparing a tropical colonial port and resort town with a national capital in a temperate climate with a ludicrously different set of demographics and a population 13 times as large is comparing apples to airplanes: they both start with “A.”

I Googled the offending phrase to identify these mysterious “some travel bloggers” that the Times references. “Some travel bloggers” turned out to be one travel writer named Liz Ozaist, featured in Budget Travel magazine back in 2008 with an article titled “From Cartagena, With Love.” The subheading (or super-heading, really, since it appears above the title): “The Next Buenos Aires.” Now, in fairness to Ms. Ozaist, she probably had nothing to do with the addition of that, to my mind, inappropriate heading. She most likely submitted the article to her editor with the title, which alludes to her father’s love for the place ingrained a couple decades before her trip, and hit the road for her next story. I would think it’s the editors at Budget Travel (Lawd, they prolly never gon publish me now) who got it wrong. And though I was drawn in to the article because of Ms. Ozaist’s attention to detail and the interesting characters she meets, I got thrown every time someone compared Cartagena to a place that I feel bares absolutely no resemblence whatsoever. “‘Cartagena reminds me of Venice,’ [Todd] says, ‘it has that same intangible magic about it.'” That’s how Cartagena makes Todd feel, and it’s certainly valid, but I will say this: Cartagena’s surrounded by water, but ain’t nary a gondola floating around in what I would hesitate to consider canals.

“Buenos Aires By Air”

Now, I must admit that I’ve never been to Buenos Aires myself. However, as a student of Latin American history and culture and as a traveler who has spoken to many people about Buenos Aires, I have a pretty decent idea of the kind of city that it is: fairly affluent (for Latin America), boldly planned with broad boulevards and Parisian-inspired architectural flourishes, sidewalk café culture, and peopled largely by the descendents of many European immigrants.

On the other hand, for most of my time in Colombia, I lived less than a 2-hour drive away from Cartagena and spent many weekends rambling the streets of the “walled city.” I called up a good friend who had also lived there, married a Colombian girl, and honeymooned in Buenos Aires:

Ring, ring.

“Hello?”

“What’s up, T? It’s Fly Brother. Lemme ask you something. How would you compare Cartagena and Buenos Aires?”

“What do you mean?”

“The two cities, how would you compare Buenos Aires and Cartagena?”

“In what way?”

“Just, like, in general. Like comparing DC and New York, how would you compare Cartagena and Buenos Aires?”

“You can’t compare them. They’re not comparable.”

“Well, they’re both Spanish-speaking cities in South America.”

“That’s about it.”

“I thought so. Thanks, and Happy New Year.”

Click.

“Bazurto Market Buses, Cartagena” by Cade

Cartagena’s a small, provincial capital supported by tourism and secondary port facilities. The streets of the old quarter are narrow and, like most Spanish colonial cities, disorderly. Most of the people are descendents of the African slaves that passed through the city’s gates as the principal slave port on the Spanish Main. It’s a place for a slow, sunny Sunday afternoon in a hammock, listening to some Cuban son, knocking back the aguardiente; a beach town with fruit sellers and hair braiders and high-rise condos to prove it.

While Ms. Ozaist makes one reference to Cartagena reminding her of one particular neighborhood in the Argentine capital, she alludes to Havana, Cuba’s capital and Cartagena’s closest relative, at least three times in her article; that is the city most evoked while strolling along cobblestone streets under grand arches and pastel facades, something I can speak to personally, having been there thrice. The unmistakable African influence, from the cooking to the music to the lilt of costeño Spanish, that sets Cartagena in the gilded frame of other New World treasures such as New Orleans, Santo Domingo, and Salvador da Bahia, is the single most noticeable feature that separates it from Buenos Aires (also a former slave port, but most folk don’t even know that).

In 2007, the Times published this article, offering up a true serving of Cartagena’s richly tragic past and present. The author, Tim Parsa, seems to have researched the history and culture of the place before penning the piece, an effort that appears to be lacking in this week’s Times blurb by Denny Lee (Did you just Google Cartagena, dude?).

I’m not saying any of this to poo-poo The New York Times or Budget Travel or any particular travel writer or editor or whathaveyou. All I’m saying is that folks, travelers in particular, need to research multiple sources beforehand, then visit a place for themselves in order to get a real sense of their destination. Clearly, relying on media (including Fly Brother) can mean getting erroneous descriptions and untenable comparisons in a subjective attempt to make a place seem more or less appealing than it is.

Unless, that is, you combine both Times pieces and surmise that Cartagena becoming the “next Buenos Aires” means becoming the “new gringo mecca.” If that’s the case, I’ll be off trying to find the “next Cartagena,” someplace Spring Breakers fear to tread.

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.

—————————————————————–

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.