On the John
My buddy the racist
Originally completed August 17, 2009
Last Tuesday night, at 10:20, I received a text from one of my oldest and dearest. This friend—we’ll call him “Davis”—is a poet and an MC, and would be performing a few minutes of a cappella verses at an open mic in Lakeview just before the 11 o’clock hour. It had been a long day’s work and I was planning to just head home, so when he texted I shook off the tired, changed my shirt, hopped in the car.
“About to go” said the next text at 10:51. I got inside at 11:06 and trekked up the narrow staircase. I found Davis at the bar.
He was starting a High Life, the bottle barely drained. “I missed it, didn’t I?”
“You missed it. But thank you for coming.”
“How did it go?”
“Went well, I’d say.”
The room was dark, and, like the stairwell, narrow. The bar was on the opposite wall, with the microphone to the left, seating to the right. A roundish girl with country-cute features and brown hair to her back was delivering an ex-boyfriend poem that was more sweet than bitter, and funny, and the crowd (clearly of a matching humor sense) roared with every punch line. I leaned in to communicate with the barkeep, another brown haired girl, though spiney-er. The mic was loud. The laughter was too. As the bartender poured my Guinness, I turned towards Davis and saw a black woman, older, speaking to him in what seemed like firm tones. She walked out the door as my Guinness settled.
I said to Davis, “What did she say?”
He said, “She thought I was racist.”
I said, “Were you?”
His face was a layer of bashful bewilderment. He shrugged.
“What were the lines?”
“Ok, one of them was probably more racist than the other. Like,” he placed his forehead in his palm, and then began strumming the top of his head like a typewriter, “one of them was bad. The other one was probably fine…”
“What were the lines?”
And he told me:
The first lyric
I’m diagnosed by psychic ghosts—whose echo chamber am I yelling in?
I want to be a rap star but I think I’m short on melanin
The second lyric
With all this talking to myself no dolls unhinge my buttons
If only I had cornrows then I’d eat more meat than mutton
“It’s the chemical in your skin that gives it its tone.”
“So if you have more melanin, you’re darker?”
“Tell me the second part again, about cornrows.”
And he told me.
We tossed ideas around. Meanwhile, a dark haired guy of our age was performing acting monologues with furious passion. The crowd leaned in as his words pulled him into the mic, and then he popped out in front and kept walking, entering the crowd, looking into the eyes of the audience, daring them to doubt. He returned to the mic as the people applauded.
He said, “Okay—I am going to do three more, just fire ‘em out. So I hope that’s cool.” He looked to the man with the schedule, who seemed to be a friend. “We’ve got time, yeah?” The man with the schedule was part of a quartet sitting closer to the mic, a trio of men with long hair and beards joined by one woman in a black and white striped shirt and rectangular-framed glasses. The man at the mic did not wait for the man with the schedule to respond. Instead, sensing the answer, he said, “There’s time.” And off he went into his first of three more speeches.
“So?” Davis said, leaning to be heard.
“You are a god damned racist.” We laughed. “I mean, yeah…it was racist.”
“Both bits, or only the cornrow one?”
“Both, technically. And by racist I only mean that you made a statement concerning race that could have been reasonably interpreted as insulting. It’s like if you make an innocuous comment about a fat person, but they take offense. Are you a fatist now? And yet, can you blame ‘em for reacting? Who knows how a person’s going to react? Hell, they don’t even always know, you know?”
Davis nodded. We drank our beers. And then I said, “And the more significant differences—especially in physicality or societal standing—you know, the less you are able to accurately predict how or why someone is responding that way. In this case, you’re white and she’s black, man woman…different generations…” I took another long drink, “…that’s almost…” wiped the foam off my mouth with my arm, “impassable…”
The feller at the mic was on his third mini-monologue. The crowd loved the dramatic ones, and now he was performing a comedic scene that mirrored the earlier ex-boyfriend bit. I was left unmoved by this performance, but the quartet down the bar were howling. This has happened to me before: there is a certain brand of indie, Too Much Light skinny jeans hipster humor that misses me. I will never get it.
Davis said, “but was it racist?” And then, “I don’t think that first one was.”
“I think the use of melanin absolves you. But she’s allowed to experience that comment as insulting if she is insulted. If you’re insulted, you’re insulted. Can’t tell someone how to feel. And as long as she isn’t aggressively rude about it…”
He swung a swig of his High Life as our actor neared climax. “I had no problem that she said all that to me. And actually, she’s heard this set before. Last week. And she was fine with it then. Saw her face.”
I continued, “…so then the real question is: was your comment within a boundary of reasonable content? And I’d say with the melanin drop, you’re all good because it’s somewhat advanced vocabulary, which shows both thought and trust on your part.”
“And the listener has to know what the word means before even possibly finding it offensive, right? Cornrows though…” He paused, and slowly cocked his head and made a questioning face.
“Cornrows packs that gut reaction. When you’re ripping off so many lines, and maybe there’s crowd chatter, and maybe there’s feedback, and maybe she isn’t fully paying attention and then cornrows catches her ear and she looks up to see a rangy white dude with glasses and she goes ‘Why is that rapping white boy talking about cornrows?’”
“…which could be because she’s black and doesn’t like white people rapping, or because she’s older and hasn’t taken to hip-hop, or because of some other reason that we don’t even know.”
“And you don’t know what kind of day she had, or what kind of mood she was in, or her most recent encounters with white people or people our age or males or rappers or tall folk. And nobody else reacted this way. And she seemed cool with it last week you said.”
“She may have been containing her resentment, and then when she heard it a second time…”
“Yeah, and that makes it harder to know how to self-evaluate based on her reaction. Add all of those unknowns to the relatively benign effects of melanin, I’d say that line was definitely within the boundary. Under the same first half of the argument, I’d say you’re probably still inside with cornrows. It’s just a bad line. Written-wise, artistically—you know?” He nodded. I looked at my beer, then back at him. “It’s just not a great lyric. And when you combine that with the manner in which whites often interpret cornrows, and you throw in all the possible sonic difficulties we listed, it might be a bad lyric to use for this kind of gig.”
The next guy up looked half-Asian. Chinese? I thought. And the other half white. He had long black hair in pony-tail, a black t-shirt and blue jeans. He brought only his guitar. He started playing a beautiful song: the string-picking lovely, his voice evoking a sad curiosity as it gently cradled the lyrics.
I took another gulp. I said, “…of course, this is America, so we’re all racist. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. So traveling along the continuum of giving a person latitude because you don’t know their experience, you have to give additional latitude when they are talking about race because we’re all so F’d by it that it’s harsh and inconsiderate to hold a grudge when someone is within the boundary.” In a flash, I get louder, a result of the beer, “…because the alternative is not saying anything about race ever, and then you never know what you really think.” I quiet down, and sit. “So I say, she should have been more understanding of an American’s absolute inability to discuss race stuff without, you know…especially when you two are of different…and to try and be across-the-board unoffensive—inoffensive?—”
Davis thought a moment. “Inoffensive.” And then, with authority, “inoffensive.”
My beer was nearly empty. “Are you getting another?”
“Show’s about over.”
He shook his head twice, and then flagged our bartender. “We are ready to pay you the money.”
We paid and left. Moving carefully down through the stairwell. Passing the bouncers and exchanging nods and have-a-good-night’s. Out on the sidewalk, Davis and I shook hands and wished each other safe travels, and then I spotted the pony-tailed guy who delivered the wonderful performance.
I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned. “Really enjoyed your set.”
Copyright 2009, jm silverstein
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