How To Be Black (the book)
For those of you with MTV-generation and later, media-impaired attention spans, I’ll put the quick answer first. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and timely. As much a personal memoir as a piece of social commentary, it takes a head-on look at what is still, 150 years after the Civil War/War Between The States/War of Northern Aggression (or whatever you want to call the battle over the continued existence of chattel slavery in the United States) and almost 50 years after the Civil Rights act of 1964, a subject that most people tend to avoid dealing with. As such, just go get it. Read it. Share the experience with your friends. Play the board game. It’ll be a huge amount of fun and you’ll probably learn something in a fairly painless manner.
Okay, now that you’ve pre-ordered the book (What? You haven’t pre-ordered the book yet? Just go do it. I’ll wait here. mmmpty… mmmm… do-do-do… All done? Good), here’s the serpentine version:
We need to go back a number of years for this, to the general vicinity of the early 1960s, when I was growing up on a poultry farm in upstate New York. My parents, coming from multiple generations of liberal Quakerism, did their best to make sure that we were raised with a minimum of social and racial preconceptions, and at somewhat of a remove from the cacophony of materialist mainstream society.
Add to this 'apartness' from the world, the fact that my brother, sister, and I were all bright enough that we fairly quickly fell into that outsider world many smart kids do, in school systems where the 'gifted' students are segregated from others, and the intimation that they are somehow 'better' is communicated to the normal run of kids. Combining these two factors of upbringing and educational segregation led me to the realities of life as 'the other' relatively early in life. Add in a certain level of shyness in social situations, and I was never easily able to break into any of the hipper social cliques I encountered. With one major exception - I always was accepted for who and what I was by the black kids I knew and their families. Maybe it was a recognition of the aura of more or less permanent outsider I carried. Maybe it was that, since I had no idea that black folks were supposed to be different from us pinky-beige types, that I was just unguarded and myself. Never gotten a good answer to that one, and at this point, it's probably not important or necessary that I do. At any rate, these simple human connections, combined with the blessing of the almost other-worldly gift of my parents' complete lack of racial or social preconceptions, made it all too easy to be aware of that unique combination of social, economic, and class injustices that have afflicted race relations in the U.S.A. for so long, once I became old enough to be cognizant that some of my friends got treated differently than others of my friends (and not in a good way) by quite a number of people.
And then there was the music thing. From the first time I heard serious Blues, Soul, R&B, and Jazz, it had resonance for me in a pretty profound way, unlike the pop stuff that was prevalent on the Top 40 radio of the time. Unlike many of my generation for whom the attachment to the music that emerged from the deep well of Black experience in America came from the rumor that it was supposed to be evil, primitive music designed to summon the devil and corrupt our youth, I didn't know that (once again thanks to the blessing of my upbringing, or perhaps my own natural obliviousness about some things) – it simply felt like home. When I started playing guitar, this was the music that called to me most strongly and that I still feel most connected with, as both listener and player. Despite flirtations over the years with almost all varieties of music, it's the music I keep coming back to. Playing this music led me, a number of times over the years, to be 'the white guy in the band,' and, as such, more often involved in the day-to-day life of Black America.
Then I went and married a black woman from Hollis, Queens. True, she's more of a goth-y, metal/punk intellectual history buff with literary overtones than most would necessarily expect from that brief description, especially considering the reputation that Hollis developed after Run-DMC started doing PR for the neighborhood, but, as Baratunde discusses in HTBB (you were wondering when we were going to get back to the book, weren't you), defying expectations and being who you are is a big part of How To Be Black in modern America. Marrying her made me part of her exceptional family, and her part of mine. And, just for the record, nobody in either family has or had any problems with any of it. Our parents, as a matter of fact, hit it off splendidly from day one, comparing reminiscences of life growing up on farms during the Great Depression. No star-crossed anything here, just almost 23 years of life together with hopes for at least that much more. However, being part of this extended family made me even more aware than ever of the realities of what regular life is for Black Folks (to borrow from W.E.B. Dubois).
So, there's the line of how I ended up here, writing this and encouraging you all to go pre-order "How To Be Black" (and remember, that pre-order link is http://blackte.am/agent_gvdub ) and to mount the soapbox once again to preach for the commonality of all humanity. So, have some laughs, think some thoughts, and remember that, in the words of Baratunde Thurston, "We can't all be black, but we can all be blacker."