Monday, January 19, 2015

Grammar School

I was born two and a half years into a post-Martin Luther King, Jr. world, and my childhood existed blissfully within the good Doctor’s dreamscape. By the time I started attending the grade school bearing his name on Pittsburgh’s North Side a substantial part of my worldview had already been forged. The students there were Black, White and a myriad of shades in-between, and for the most part I considered this immaterial. I chose friends – along with favorite school teachers, entertainers, comic-book characters[1], etc. – based not on aesthetics or anything topical, but instead according to the simple criteria of how likable they were. That was usually the only distinction necessary and nothing else mattered.

Yes, there were definitely social differences between my schoolmates I was aware of, and sometimes they were stark. In my immediate neighborhood most of the other families were also Black and the general income level was modest at best. The houses and lifestyles in the late 1970s that I was surrounded by were decidedly “brown collar”, meaning no one had any extra money to spare. Also, the grammar used among my family and friends was very specific, and I learned early on not to expect most of my friends who were one color to use certain words, phrases, and slang that friends of the other color used, and vice-versa. It wasn’t hard to draw the distinction: as many have noted before me, it’s like being fluent in two languages. Or to use the cliché stand-up comedian’s routine, black people spoke like this…

*insert exaggerated street accent*

…and white people spoke like this

*insert overly-pronounced uptight accent*.

That’s a ridiculously oversimplified joke, but there was absolutely some truth to it.

This verbal boundary was most sharply drawn directly between the syllables of my first name. Without fail, when my Caucasian friends wanted to shorten my name into a nickname it became “Mar”, yet when my African-American friends did the same, they always addressed me as “Cel”. I found it amusing how this happened without any prompting, and it has held true with remarkable consistency to this day. This may have been the first cultural element I encountered which made me consider directly how others perceived me as filtered through their own backgrounds.

My own social filter was rather rose-colored throughout grammar school and beyond. Since both nicknames were used out of fondness and familiarity, and I didn’t have a preference, there was no problem. Nothing about this coincidence struck me as complicated.

*     *     *     *     *

Skip ahead about ten years to the late 1980s, and I was the youngest student in my class at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Free at last from the strictures of traditional school, these were the years where I really came into my own as a person and became stirred into the Great American Melting Pot. Most of my classmates here were at least a couple of years older than me, and they all seemed far more worldly and sophisticated. I had retained a lot of my childlike outlook on the world, upbeat and cheerful, made all the more pronounced because I was living the dream of being in art school. I viewed most of my new classmates as potential friends and that’s exactly what they became. Eager to fit in, I became something of a social butterfly, and flitted easily between social groups. We all spoke the language of visual art, some more fluently than others, so it felt like we were all on the same page.

Then I remember the day one of my White friends referred to a Black classmate as a nigger.

It happened in casual conversation while several of us were just hanging out between classes. The other boys talked among themselves about students who they lived with at the Allegheny Center apartments. This was an area I was very familiar with, as it was just a block or so away from Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, and even though my family now lived in Squirrel Hill, I visited these new friends on the North Side frequently. All manner of drama unfolded within those dorm-like apartments, so it was fun to visit but I never wanted to live there.

One boy named P. was complaining about another student and A.C. resident named L., and it was obvious that the former (who was White) was at least sub-consciously jealous of the latter (who was Black) being so popular with the girls. P. was that kid, mouthy, insulting to the point you often wanted to smack him, over-confident, obnoxious, and yet still somehow entertaining because of it. And I was raised to like everyone, so I tended to be very Pollyana-esque and accepting even of the most grating personalities. Still, P. got tiresome after a point, and because what he was discussing didn’t pertain to me in the slightest, I had zoned out.

Conversely, L. was very popular in a much more easygoing way, and I was closer to him by far. He would have easily been elected class president if we had such things. If you’ve ever seen the movie CHRONICLE, the character Steve has a lot of L.’s swagger.

So P. ranted about how one gal in particular was so smitten with L., and he said, “I don’t know what she likes so much about that nigger,” about as casually as you’d lament getting passed over for a promotion you didn’t really deserve. And apparently he’d slipped pretty comfortably into his own zone while complaining, because he had completely forgotten I was standing right there. The other boys’ eyes widened while it dawned on me what P. had just said. It whizzed by so quickly, so unexpectedly, I didn’t even have time to be mad. I wasn’t prepared to be mad. There was nothing to quantify this against.

I must admit, it’s entirely possible that I’ve encountered far more racism in my life than I’m aware of. It’s not something I grew up being taught to be on the lookout for, and maybe I should have been. I just remember my mother telling me stories about how, when she worked at Pitt University in the 1960s, she was the only Black woman in the secretarial pool, and none of her White coworkers were held to the same standards of accountability that she was. They polished their nails and took extended lunch breaks, and did sub-par work, all of which my mother couldn’t and frankly didn’t want to do. On the whole, Mom said she liked her job, and remembered a lot of the professors with fondness. But she knew that she was often treated differently. My mom isn’t Pollyana-esque – she’s like an African-American June Cleaver. Her stories, and those of her siblings, weren’t told to boast. They were very matter-of-fact. This was just how things were back then.

Far too often in their experiences, White people acted like this, and Black people acted like this. There was truth to it, but those experiences were in the past. They were not my own. My world had been different up until this moment.

So it took a few seconds to dawn on me that I’d actually heard a White person I knew casually use the word nigger to insult a Black person I also knew (and who wasn’t present, otherwise, the response would have been immediate and unforgettable). In the year 1988. Directly in front of me.

Before I could even think to get a word out, P. flushed a deep shade of magenta, cupped my face in his hands and apologized profusely. The wind was so knocked out of my sails, I just…let it go. The intended target wasn’t there to hear it, and these were just words. Words couldn’t hurt me, right? This dumb boy had misspoken and it didn’t matter. He was a fool and I would turn the other cheek. I didn’t know how to do anything else. Violence was not in my arsenal of tools. I was an artist. Pencils, pens and brushes were my terrible swift swords.

But still, I never forgot those words.

*     *     *     *     *

I can’t remember if it was before or after this incident, but that same dumb boy had once told me, in the middle of class after I’d spoken about something, that I sounded “really Black” when I talked. He said it with a mixture of confusion, condescension, and amusement. Right around that same time, I had attended a party with some of my relatives (who, I need to mention, are also Black) and was talking to one of their friends (who was Black), when she made a point of commenting on how I sounded “really White”. I brushed off both comments, as I would learn to continue doing over the following decades, but I was admittedly confused.

The White person said I sounded Black, and the Black person said I sounded White. So, which was it, and what was the need for me to sound any certain way at all? As long as I knew how to communicate with other people easily, why did this matter so much? I wasn’t really conflicted about it internally, but more externally. When did this become a problem, and why was it so complicated?

It’s apparently always been a problem. As to why that’s the case, I honestly still don’t know.
The friend who had been insulted in absentia, L., was also the subject of another classmate’s off-handed insult. When I spoke of him with another Black classmate one afternoon, she said that she basically considered him to be White, because of his circle of friends and how he carried himself. I never told L. about either of these comments. It was enough for me to know that it wasn’t just me dealing with this issue or perception; L. was likewise too Black for some White people, and too White for some Black people.

I think of all the times White and Black friends have commented on others “being White” and wonder if any of them have ever stopped to consider what they are actually soliciting laughs at the expense of. Since when does being well-spoken and eloquent equate to “being White”? Do any of them ever stop to listen to their own fractured grammar?

*     *     *     *     *

Dreams, like memories, are made of gossamer, and any attempt to recall them with words will be elusive at best. We experience them alone, and can only meagerly attempt to share them. When Mahalia Jackson entreated a Nobel Prize winning pastor from Alabama to “Tell them about the dream!” he probably still felt his words were inadequate to the task. But it says something about the magnificence of his dream that his words still resonate so clearly here and now, bridging the gap between his lifetime and the better world he helped to bring about. Not perfect by far, but better.

The good Doctor understood the importance of words articulating intentions and noble dreams. We should too.

When it comes to how we interact with one another, it’s best to be as cautious with one’s grammar as school-kids about to take an English test. This has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with moral correctness. Words hurled like stones may not break bones, but the damage they can do is far more than skin deep, discoloring character instead of pigment, and sometimes sticking all the way down to the soul. We have to remain diligent about polishing the Golden Rule, so it doesn’t become tarnished by careless tongues and misspoken words.

We are encouraged by our own history not to form a perfect union, but a more perfect union. Instead of being quick to hurl insults or turn our backs in protest when someone says something we dislike, we need to get better at expanding our minds and vocabularies to engage in thoughtful discourse. And when discourse must turn to protest – and sometimes it absolutely must – we still need to watch our words and raise our awareness even as we lift our voices. With so many outlets today for even the smallest of us to speak out we should remember that what we say and write today will be how history measures us when we are gone, both in the micro and macro senses. Be careful what you say to those you know and don’t know. Watch what you post on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram…or on your blog.

Consider the impact of your grammar.

What is viewed as dissent today may be hailed as revolutionary and evolutionary tomorrow. I may have been born into a post-MLK world, but I continue to see relevance in his words and actions. It’s taking a long time to get to glory from the mountaintop, and it’s a tiring journey sometimes. There’s a trail of blood stretching back centuries beneath our feet, from slaveships to bombed out churches and voter recruiting buses to unarmed citizens choked dead in the streets by those who should be protecting them. There are blisters on our feet, and maybe that’s why some of us put on the most expensive athletic shoes we can afford, in order to forget. Maybe we’re tired of asking “are we there yet?” and complacent to settle down where we are right now. It’s tempting to try and run away from it all, even if we’re just running in place.

But we can’t and shouldn’t run. I live in a post-MLK world, and that’s okay. 2015 may not necessarily be a brighter place than it was in 1968, but it is filled with infinitely more hues of vibrance. I have friends of many colors and ethnicities and backgrounds, and wouldn’t want it any other way. My roommate is White and we have a tighter friendship with each other than we probably do with our own siblings. Our relationship would have been impossible in most of America in a pre-MLK world, so I will always owe a debt of thanks to everyone who made this all possible. Everyone who bled, everyone who died, everyone who protested an imbalance of power at the risk of their own safety. Everyone who made things more perfect.

I’ll always vote. I’ll always obey the law when the law is just. I’ll try to pay attention to the world around me and speak to others with dignity and grace, but also with passion and resolve.

I’ll try to regard you as royalty too, because that’s how we should all see ourselves. Not as niggers, or people who should speak this way or that way based on the color of our skins (as beautiful as that skin is!), but as something that God saw fit to create full of majesty.

Inside of every one of us there is a queen. Inside of every one of us, there is a King. This is no dream. This is for real.

And we'll get to the promised land eventually. Just remember, this isn't a race.

It's a march.

This movie is beautiful. Be sure to see it!
[1] Okay, maybe aesthetics with the comic-book characters a little bit. That’s a future blog entry.

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