By Max Reddick
Sometimes it is almost serendipitous when a passage from a book or a line of verse you have read a thousand times over is given especially trenchant meaning by the events of the moment.
Just this afternoon, as I made my way from one place to the next in my car, the Baltimore rebellion, along with the continued deaths of black women and black men at the hands of police and vigilantes, as well as the toxically noxious miasma of negativity engulfing our young sisters and brothers, dominated my every thought.
So, I turned the volume up on my car radio in an attempt to drown out the vexing dialogue with my selves taking place in my head just in time to catch the last of Al Letson’s most recent episode of his State of the Re:Union podcast, “The Poems, the Poets, the Power.” For some reason, though, Letson elected to forego his usual podcast closing and let Sekou Sundiata’s recitation of his poem “Black Boys to Men” play out in its entirety. (Serendipity?)
Anyway, the continued relevance of the poem immediately grabbed me in its opening words—“When we talk about the murder of young black men…”. But as I listened, silently echoing the familiar lines in my head, Sundiata recited the lines ending with a familiar phrase I had not heard in so long that suddenly made it all real to me:
Between working in the boiler room and living in the projects,
You would have been knocked out too by the end of the six o’clock news.
And what was that news, anyway, in his day?
Negroes acting their color.
“Don’t act your color!” I remember hearing this phrase again and again as an elementary school student. See, I started school at my local neighborhood, inner city school, Cummings Street Elementary School in Memphis, along with the other little black neighborhood children my age. However, when I began school, I already read and wrote well enough that school administration suggested I take some test. Then, after taking that test, I was transferred to another school on the other side of town.
The population of my new school was overwhelmingly white. And of the hand full of black children there, most were the scions of black families with a name who had made it out of the inner city to suburban enclaves of affluent black people, and some could even brag of being the first to integrate this white suburban neighborhood or that white suburban neighborhood.
For instance, the daughter of Otis Higgs, local civil rights icon, lawyer, judge, and the first African American to come close to winning a mayoral contest in Memphis attended the school. The children of W. W. Herenton, long time Memphis Public School superintendent and the first elected African American mayor of Memphis, attended the school. Not to belabor a point, but it seems that the children of every prominent African American family attended the school at some time or another.
And then there was an even smaller minority of little black children like me whose families had no name and still lived smack dab in the middle of the inner city—the ghetto.
So, the few black teachers there—I can remember only four or five—made our “domestication,” for want of a better word, their mission. They constantly remind us just how lucky we were to be there. The constantly reminded us of the great opportunity to lift our families out of poverty and out of the ghetto we had been. They told us that if we played our cards right, we might even one day prove to be a credit to our race, just like the mothers and fathers of the other black children who came from prominent black families.
But there was this one black teacher, in particular, who took to her mission with a certain missionary zeal. When she perceived that we were being too rambunctious, or too loud, or too rough, even if all the other children around us were being just as rambunctious or loud or rough, she would appear suddenly behind us, seemingly out of nowhere, then grabbing the fleshy part of the back of our arms, pinch so hard that we would winch in pain as tears came to our eyes.
“Don’t be over here at this school acting your color!” she admonished us.
And in the spring, every Thursday we swam in the pool during P.E., and on Wednesday afternoon, she made her rounds to remind us to bathe on Thursday morning as opposed to Wednesday night so that we would not run the risk of the bath “souring” during the night, and by all means, wear clean underwear since we would have to change in the locker room with the rest of the children.
“You don’t want to be caught acting your color!” she scolded us.
And when we arrived for school in the morning, she would be there to inspect us with a jar of Vaseline and a can of Right Guard in hand. If we had just the hint of ash on us, she would pull us aside, hold out the jar of Vaseline so that we could properly deal with the offending body part. If our odor somehow offended her, in full view of the other students, she would embarrass us by demanding that we turn around as we held our arms straight up while she sprayed us with right guard.
“You don’t want to start the day by reminding everyone of your color” she reminded us.
And we pushed back. We protested the best we could, and our parents protested the best they could, but they, too, were always reminded just how lucky we were to even be there, and just what opportunities would open up for us just by being there, so our parents, as anxious and concerned about our future as they were, simply acquiesced.
As a result, by the time I left that school, we left that school, every ounce of fire, of any spirit of rebellion, of unctuous audacity, of righteous indignation, had been pinched and shamed right out of us, all for the sake of teaching us the lesson of “not to acting our color.” And then we were deemed acceptable to meekly go out into the world because we knew how to conduct ourselves, how to act, and now we could lift our families out of poverty and out of the ghetto and be credits to our race.
But to what end?
The education I got at that school did open a number of doors for me. It did create a number of opportunities for me. And for so long I assumed that the doors opened for me and these opportunities accrued for me because I had mastered the tactic of not acting my color. In fact, I took the initiative to develop several selves, several faces, and learned to masterfully deploy these selves and faces as needed as a means to an end.
However, since that time, experience has taught me that often, too often, my color, my black body, seems to act on its own long before the self or face I deem necessary to deploy to meet the exigencies of the moment, but through it all, through the hurt and embarrassment, I am expected to eventually acquiesce because I would not want to spoil a good thing by acting my color, would I?
I mean, I would not want to be like those Negroes acting their color right now in the streets of Baltimore, would I? But, when I really think about, so-called acting our color seems to be the only means of us being heard. Regardless of our behavior, we become suspect of just waiting for an opportunity to show our true colors. We are summarily adjudicated guilty, and the sentence of death is swiftly carried out, often by those charged with protecting us.
And we are shot down in the street returning home from the store with snacks. We are shot in the backseat of cars for playing our music too loudly. We are choked to death on the street. We are “accidently” shot to death pay-to-play cops. Our spines are mysteriously severed during a ride in the back of a police van.
Only when we so-called act our color, when we push back, when out of frustration and anger we take to the streets, we rebel, does the nation take notice, even pretend to show any measure of pseudo concern and feign taking action, and even then the nation still claims not to understand just what is happening and why, even though it has been explained time and time again, and as the angry, fed-up masses gather in the streets, and their voices become louder and more strident, and the flames grow higher and hotter, a cacophony of disingenuous voices wonders aloud, “Just why are you people acting like that?”
But it seems that it is only when the news on that day is Negroes acting their color in the street that anyone even seems remotely concerned.