Imagine for a moment a world in which class and character were always more important than race and religion. A world where people were something of a mystery until you listened to them speak and they gradually came into focus as recognizable by their particular interesting aspects and remained that way. Imagine that no matter what was said about their race or their ethnicity or their religion, it would be nearly impossible to give that matter priority as soon as you could recognize their face or remember their name. Welcome to my world.
One of my earliest racial memories occurred when my father and I were watching our old black and white television set. I asked Dad a question about why the people on TV are fighting and why they were so angry at each other. He answered something to the effect that the white people didn’t understand the black people and thought that they were inferior, to which I replied. “Oh. Well if they got to know us and see how friendly we are, they would be friendly too.” I can remember this clearly because my toddler toy was Casper the Friendly Ghost. It was as plain as day to me as a child that this was the essence of racism. People were afraid of ghosts because they were ghosts. All Casper ever wanted to do in his lonely quest was to make friends. Every first encounter by Casper was met by the kind of fright done justice only by the most outrageous cartoon animation. Racism was and is all about fear, a fear of the other one dare not confront. At any moment that strange human might reveal himself to be a heartless creature from the land of the dead.
Casper had running buddies too. There were other ghosts around who were not beyond having a ball scaring the bejeebus out of civilians. Chief among them was Spooky, but Casper also had uncles who were up to no good as well. It’s hard to know if the authors of this children’s tale were consciously considering much beyond good manners. There were certainly the vocal stereotypes of the day, a thick Brooklyn accent and the bad guy’s black bowler hat, but it all seemed as innocent as any cartoon or comic book from the immediate post-war era might be expected to be. It was simple and clear. If Casper ever regretted being a ghost, I never perceived it. Nor was he completely good two-shoes, he would certainly use his essential ghastly powers to fight bullies. Casper was no superhero; he was just a ghost among many who decided on his own to do good.
In the many times I have considered writing my autobiography there are two titles that come up most frequently in the past ten years. The first is ‘Up From Freedom’ and the second is ‘The Crossover Kid’. I was old enough to know how crazy the 60s were and what a mess society was in the 70s. It was as the Crossover Kid that I was exposed to more than the average Negro. In fact, although I was born as a Negro (no particular distinction, everybody was back then) I grew up as black. My own family was intellectually militant, as many remain today, and although my father’s favorite aphorism had to do with the Four Ls, (Law, Liberty, Love and Land) he decided against shuffling us offshore to where land reform was part of the anti-colonialist Pan-African Revolution. What he did do, through his Institute for Black Studies, was become one of the prototypes for what we now call ‘community activist’. But ours was an internal revolution I feel was always expressed best by Nikki Giovanni in her Revolutionary Dreams. There was never animosity. At least we children weren’t raised to feel viscerally what our parents later confessed. Most importantly, we were never scared. We had nothing to fear from white people. Our job was to compete.
I recall the story of a road trip I took with my uncle’s family that went from Ohio to Florida back in 1970. My aunt, who was born in a small town in the Florida panhandle was frightened to death of driving at night through Georgia. She must have lived through something I have never asked about and she never told. I wasn’t afraid that we were tempting fate. We drove through the night playing James Brown over and over again. My own mother, marching in the streets of Torrance, CA in protest over racially restrictive housing covenants just narrowly dodged a brick thrown at her pregnant belly. She refused to ever mobilize in the streets again, but she never communicated her fear to us children, just the foolishness of facing barbarians with logic.
By the time I found myself at the ripe old age of 15, I had a variety of experiences with black, white, asian and latin kids my age. Some from East LA, West LA, South LA, some from The Valley, some from Venice as well as some from Orange and San Diego counties, not to mention those on the road trip. I wasn’t a peacemaker like Casper, I was a smartass, highly moralistic and judgmental. Nevertheless it was clear to me that I maintained friendships with people who seemed to enjoy being cliquish rivals. My friendships were light and loose, like the clothes of the desert, easily donned and easily shed. In some ways, certainly predictable ones like those of the typical bookish teen and those of the highly competitive Type A personality, I was never very good at making friends. I tended to believe that most friendships were shallow. How, for example, could one be serious about having friendships when things like race got in the way? We were all, in those late 70s days, admittedly weak preferring the ethics of colorblindness to harsh mixing, but at least we joked about it. Can you speak Spanish? No? How does it feel to be stupider than a Mexican? Just this afternoon I realized that my Millennial daughters had no idea what a Pollack joke was. I was ten years younger when I learned.
I learned how Venice Locals hated Vals and how much you are not supposed to act like a surfer if you actually were a Val. I learned that Dogtown Stoners were not only local to Venice Beach but San Diego as well. I learned that ‘White Boy Jam’ was called China Grove and that the dude who could play Stairway to Heaven and pull all the chicks actually hated being asked to, all the goddamned time. I learned that Mexicans were not the same as Chicanos were not the same as Cholos, and that it required work for them to get along with SAs, like Luis from Ecuador. I learned that not all black kids took the bus to school, and some had new convertibles. Every time I see a Porsche 914, I am reminded.
The more I look back to recognize what it meant to be called by your last name in a debate according to formal rules, the more I realize my own privilege. I don’t mean this in any way that is meant to be humble, I mean it with the same kind of pity and disdain I have for those who never learned how to diagram sentences in English or master the grammar of a second language. I mean it with the kind of sad resignation Casper must have ultimately had for his own uncles. I mean it with the square of the distance that every man’s death diminishes in me. I mean it in the impersonal way that a race or some ‘essential’ trait falls into a meaningless fog when there is no personal distinction onto which I can grasp an individual. I mean it with the grumbling acceptance I must take when I am stuck in line for the big rollercoaster at Magic Mountain. I hate the crowd precisely because they are little more than an unfocused mob and so many are looking to grasp what it is that makes them a part of society. You’re supposed to be an individual first, you don’t get to fall back on your group identity. You’re not supposed to ghost yourself.
So many people, young people especially, seem to never quite measure out the beats and interpret the meaning of the drums they are dancing to. Somehow the race and the political tribe come first as does their respective prescriptive dispositions to mistrust. Worse, I know these young people have been miseducated. I understand the disposition to mistrust, but I hate the shallowness, the veneer that has been so slavishly applied. They mistrust the first indication of that individual that would step out of a politically correct line — a strange kind of new conformity that becomes a society within a society. I can’t call it. Now I’m just making generalizations against a fog of indistinguishably sad humanity. I used to say conservatives distrust everyone in general but trust a few in particular. Liberals like everyone in general and single out their enemies. Even that no longer makes sense to me. I only know that I’m looking for people to take psychology more seriously because we don’t get to learn much of the real Humanities any longer. But if they don’t.. I’m Stoic about it.
My openness to experience is high. My neuroticism is low. That’s why I’m a wanderer. I tell my most trustworthy friends that they are like giant implacable trees. I’m swinging through all the branches in the forest. See ya. Go ahead, call me a monkey. I do. I can wear the mask. I don’t mind being misjudged. I’m only here for a minute. If you really need to know you’ll leave the TLDR of my face in your short term memory.
As a Black Man growing… I didn’t need to care if you could understand me. I was working on me. I could presume that you didn’t but for no good reason. I had too much love at home to care. My baby girl said that today. Only about 40% of her friends have two parent families, and fewer still have those with whom they can hang out and chill. Maybe that’s the lesson you never quite learn if you expect, without testing and questioning that you are entitled to be mainstream. Maybe you thought you were born normal and never quite believed that you’d have to prove much. I still work to think my way out of racial explanations, but I know that I’ve traveled out of a sense of necessity. By the time the Ice Cream Man was selling drugs, I was already dis-invested in my block. Maybe I paid that extra bit of attention to MLK and thus grew my understanding that there were mountaintops to achieve. I just had to save up for a good pair of boots, but I was never scared.
Originally published at https://mdcbowen.substack.com.