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The Only Black Dude

CNN has been consistently featuring a black dude in most of its recent stories.  I see this black dude sitting in a room full of white people a lot.  Sometimes, the white people are only men.  They smile and look intently at this black dude as he talks.  Sometimes, the cast changes and there are a few white women thrown into the increasingly familiar news clip.  Sometimes, the setting of the clip changes and the black dude will not be sitting in a room full of attentive white people.  Just this Sunday on CNN the black dude was standing in front of a podium.  Talking again.  The white people were behind him this time.  And in front of him.  The ones seated in front of him raised their hands in an orderly fashion and asked the black dude several questions.  The white people standing behind him nodded their heads approvingly as the black dude answered.  All of them smiled wide authentic smiles.  The white people in these clips always seem to be smiling.  Sometimes, the sound is turned down too low on my TV and I wonder what the black dude is saying that is making the white people so pleasant.  Normally, when there is a black dude in a room full of white people…well, let’s just say, the smiles appear just a tad bid TOO broad…a tad bit TOO forced.  A tad bit TOO self-conscious.

Every time I look up from the papers I’m grading or the book I’m reading and catch this recurring “only black dude” clip, it takes a second for me to remember that this black dude is the president of the United States.

The flood of choked emotion that used to fill my throat when President Obama’s image flashed across the TV screen has melted into something else now.  Far from awe that he has accomplished what many (including myself)  thought to be impossible, I now look at the news clips and wonder about the rules of professional survival black folks gradually learn from the moment they set foot on a college campus.  Rules that they vehemently fight, but are eventually forced to accept once they have had innumerable awkward encounters with the many white people who fill up the rooms they will walk into for the rest of their careers.  

Does Pres. Obama have to be careful about his tone when he is angry?  Does he have to make certain that he does not come off as too frightening?  Too forceful?  Too intimidating?   Does he, like other only black dudes, make certain that he keeps at least a half smile on his face most of the day so as to make his co-workers comfortable around him? So as not to appear as too unapproachable?  He’s a skinny black dude, which helps him in the making-white-people-comfortable department.  But, he is tall and highly intelligent and even when he is not trying, walks with a slight pimp stroll.   Is Pres. Obama required to be acutely aware of how all of these traits he can not control still have to be controlled in some way because he is the only black dude?

Are the white people actually required to listen to him when he talks?  I wonder if they are finding it hard to resist the knee-jerk reaction to wait for the guy who is in charge to say something important when he opens his mouth.  Even more than the rules that Barack has to follow, I find myself terribly intrigued by how well the white people are doing when it comes to adjusting the superiority complex they will never admit they have when the only black dude in the room speaks.  Do they even realize now that they do it?  That their minds wander for a few seconds when the only black dude shares his idea/proposal/report and they have to snap themselves back into attention?  That, occasionally, they don’t quite believe in the effectiveness of his idea/proposal/report until the white dude restates the same idea/proposal/report, only changing a few words here and there. 

Do those smiling eyes turn to Joe Biden for a quick second after Pres. Obama relays his plans for the country?

There has been much discussion about what Pres. Obama’s presence in the oval office represents for this country.  That he serves as a symbol of how extraordinary our nation is.  To elect a black dude to the nation’s highest office is, indeed, a testament to our ability to move on from a shameful past.  However, what I long to see on CNN are more people seeking to find an answer to my question.  (Or at least having the courage to ask it.)  When he is sitting at a conference table in a room full of the highest ranking CEOs?  When he is signing legislation to close Guatanamo Bay?  When he is meeting with the staff he himself has hand selected?  Why is the man who made history by ushering in the era of racial equality still the only black dude in the room?

My Apologies to the President

Dear President Obama,

It is with much contrition that I write you this sincere letter.  While I do owe you an apology for some things that occurred during your special event, I would like to preface that apology with this: Some of these unfortunate occurrences were not totally my fault.   As a matter of fact, my shameful behavior this past weekend can be explained, if you listen with kindness and tolerance in your heart.  I hope I have read you correctly these last two years and that you will listen with an open heart and not judge me.

Some things happened during your inauguration.  These things could not be avoided…most of the time.

I would like to apologize for harboring malice in my heart during a weekend when every American was exploding with deep jubilance.  Malice toward an elder, who only wanted to celebrate in this moment as much as I and the other two million Americans who jam packed the National Mall wanted.  I know you are the president who stands for unity and civility and all, BUT…

See, what had happened was…

My friend had four tickets located in the “silver” section of the mall.  Two were supposed to go to her brother and sister in law.  This left two tickets.  Now, let me say, President Obama, I naturally assumed that I would not be granted one of the tickets.  This friend had graciously opened up her couch to me for four nights just so I could see you become the first Black nerd president.  I was more than happy with the free place to stay.  I assumed that my friend and her husband would naturally take the other two tickets.

But, then her husband mentioned that he had to be in Chicago the day of your inauguration.  He had some sort of interview that he couldn’t get around.  I still didn’t make any false assumptions, though. It would be too tacky to “suggest” the final ticket be handed over to me.  I merely woke up early the next morning and made breakfast for everyone. Not because I was brownnosing, Mr. President.  But, because I was grateful to be alive during this moment in history.  To be in D.C. amongst so much happiness and hope and extra silver tickets just lying around waiting to be offered to a helpful house guest. I also helped get one or two of the children dressed one morning.  Again, I would have done this even if there was not the question of “What to do with this extra ticket?”

My friend, with no pressure from me, implied that she might be able to hook me up with a ticket.  Can you blame me, Sir?  Can you blame me for then assuming I would have a good spot on that Tuesday morning?  If you were me, wouldn’t you have gotten excited that you might actually SEE the new president being sworn in?  Not just watch it from one of the jumbotrons, but actually be able to see the outline of this blurred figure as he took his oath of office?

Well, Mr. President…

Let me just say it wasn’t fair!  I put in two days more than Aunt Henrietta!  Granted, she had been my friend’s aunt for almost 40 years and had taken a plane in from England, I, President Obama, had made eggs and grits for four grown ass people and three loud children who ran around too damn much!  I brought humor and intelligent conversation to that house days before Aunt Henrietta strolled in, crying her crocodile tears and going on about how unreal this moment was for her and how she just found herself so overcome with emotion that she had been crying on and off for days.  Yeah, right, Aunt Henrietta…

I should not have entertained thoughts of chugging Aunt Henrietta’s boots in the lake behind the house or sneezing on her fragile older person immune system.  It was wrong, I’ll admit that.  But, it should be noted that Aunt Henrietta won the silver ticket by fighting dirty.  Very, very dirty, I might add.

How could I compete with stories like this:

“I remember when George Wallace stood in front of those doors of that school and denied my girlfriend the right to go to school.  I was amazed that he would actually tell  a person who wanted to go to school that she wasn’t allowed to just because she was a black girl.”

I mean, come on!  How could my stories of my students demanding I bring them back pictures of you compete with I-knew-the-girl-who-fought-George-Wallace anecdotes?  By the time she started regaling the room with stories of marching on Washington and being spit on at sit ins, I knew it was all over.  I would be forced to “sit” with the masses…I would commune with the commoners at your inauguration.

I am ashamed to admit this, Barack, but I thought of the B word once or twice.  Not the good B word I used in the last sentence…but the other B word.  The one rappers use a lot.  Trifling, I know.  Trifling.

I am sorry for not allowing my emotions to take the higher ground.  You would have, I’m sure.  But then again, you, Sir, already had a good seat, now didn’t you?  (No judgment here.  Just an observation.)

Since I am in this atonement mood, I feel inspired to apologize for one other unfortunate incident.  You know that concert that Beyonce, Usher and Stevie and a whole bunch of other artists held in your honor.  The one that about 500,000 people showed up to?  Well, I had every intention of being one of those 500,000 people, but…well, some things happened.  Things that could not be avoided.

My friend and I had only planned on stopping by Target for a few minutes.  The kids needed stuff.  And the husbands were “supposed” to spend the time we were at Target actually feeding and dressing the kids.  Well, who could foresee the “Inauguration Sale” at Target (Assets body shapers were only $10!) or the slow pace of the husbands back home?

We did come, Mr. President.  With rambunctious kids bundled up in parkas.  Strollers, snacks, cameras, cash…we DID COME.

But, why did the concert have to be so short?  When we checked the schedule online, there were like a million performers listed so it just naturally seemed like it would go on for like 6 or 7 hours.  

WE DID COME.  Just a little late.

I was inspired by the last two minutes of your remarks.  And Beyonce’s song.  I was so touched by your speech and Beyonce’s song that  I was all hyped up, waiting for whatever was next.

And then I saw the credits rolling on the jumbotron.

You don’t have to say it.  I know it is trifling to show up late to the inaugural concert celebrating the first Black president.  It is beyond trifling, really.  But, things happened. These things were out of  my control.  

I am sorry for missing most of your concert.  I really am.  But, I would like you to remember the sentiments of your inaugural address.  You said that it would take time to put this nation back together.  It would take patience and hard work to repair the damage to our economy, educational system and a host of other things.

Well, Sir, please remember that it will take time for all of us Black folks to free ourselves from the crippling clenches of CP time.  Please be patient with us.

Again, I’m sorry.  When you are reelected, I promise to only have love in my heart during any ceremonies I attend and to show up on time to all events.

Sincerely,

A Fellow Black Nerd

On the Night Before History…

Let me just say this: Occasionally, I can be a little “slow.”  Although I am, for the most part, intelligent and quick, there are times when I am just a sprinkle of blonde.  It takes me a minute to get what is oh so obvious or I say something that makes people suggest, “Uh… maybe you should have kept that little question in your head as just a thought.”

Having said that, I will admit this: I had been underestimating the IMMENSITY of the event scheduled for January 20, 2009.  I knew it was huge.  A black man (who’s middle name is Hussein) would be sworn in to the nation’s highest office.  This black man was virtually unknown to many Americans as recently as 2004.  This black man held the attention of the world on Nov. 4, 2008 as every human across the globe waited with baited breathe to see if he had won the gig.

Big.  

But, for some reason, I underestimated this.  So much so that  I found myself amazed by little hints leading up to the official inauguration.  And no, I am not even referring to the 2 million people who crowded the National Mall and how that one visual shakes you out of your slow realization that you are alive during one of the most significant moments in American history.  My moments of “Whoa…this is something” started on the  Saturday before the inauguration.

Hint 1: The stow-a-way

So, I arrive at the greyhound bus station at 7 am on Saturday morning, with the intent of getting on an 8 o’clock bus.  I do get on this bus.  Surprisingly, at as early as 8:30 a.m.  Smug in my brilliant idea to leave for D.C. several days before the big event, I peel off my gigantic coat and ease into my seat.  I look out of the window at the long line of other brilliant people who are leaving early and wonder if they all will fit on the measley 15 or 20 buses I see parked around the lot.

The bus quickly fills, each person who enters grinning as if the lotto ticket had the numbers they had dreamt up the night before.  Actually saying, “Yes!  I got a seat!”

At some point, another jubilant lotto winner gets on the bus and starts that last-person-on-the-bus slow dance down the aisle.  She looks into each set of seats and when she sees a person in it, moves on to what she thinks is an empty seat.  She does this several times until she is at the end of the bus.  She looks anxious.  Annoyed. Afraid.

She goes to the front of the bus and tells the bus driver that there aren’t enough seats.  He seems incredulous, explaining quite plainly that he has 45 seats and only 44 tickets.  Therefore, he has to have an open seat left.

The lady does the slow dance down the bus again.  This time she yells from the back of the bus: “Sir, I’m telling you there aren’t any empty seats.”  I think this woman was very excited to be a part of history because she immediately became frantic and turned into a cranky New Yorker.

“I bought this ticket two months ago,” she explained to the bus driver.  “I got here early just like the website suggested,” she seemed to explain to everybody on the bus.  “Somebody is going to get up out of MY seat.”  That last statement scared many of us.  And, with the exception of one of us, we were all on the bus LEGALLY.

I held onto my ticket and pulled my driver’s license back out of my wallet.  A little voice whispered in my head: “Something ’bout to happen up in here.”

The bus driver turns into a middle school teacher the day before Christmas break.  He rolls his eyes and sighs heavily as he gets out of his seat.

“Look,” he chastises with his voice and his eyes.  “I have 45 seats on this bus and only 44 tickets.  Who doesn’t belong here?”

Shockingly, no one speaks up.  I try to help out the bus driver and scan the faces of those around me, looking for eyes turned downward or random rummaging through bags so as to hide guilt.  No one flinches.

The bus driver repeats his question.  He doesn’t wait too long for an answer this time, though.  

“Alright,” he announces.  “I’m going to call out the tickets.  When you hear your name, raise your hand and your i.d. in the air.”  

This is something.  Folks mean they are going to this thing.

The bus driver calls the first name.  A lady raises her hand and the bus drivers walks over to her and CHECKS both her ticket and i.d.  He calls off the next name.

I start to feel bad for the stow-a-way and jokingly advise him/her: “Yo, you may as well do that walk of shame now.  Imagine how bad you’re gonna look when the driver points at you and KICKS you off the bus.”  A few people around me chuckle.  No one gets up. 

At around name #5, the bus drivers gets agitated because the stow-a-way still hasn’t taken the high road. 

“You mean, you’re not going to get off the bus?,” he asks the air.   He tosses the tickets on his chair.  “Well, I’ll go get the cops and maybe THAT will convince you to do the right thing.”

And the bus driver (who is admiringly dedicated to fairness and ethics) sulks off the bus.  

Everyone starts to get uncomfortable.  We all exchange looks.  Looks that plead, Would Barack be happy with us right now?  Is this really what he wants…folks sneaking onto the bus because they waited too late to buy a ticket?

Folks start grumbling.  The lady without a seat reminds the grumbling folks that she bought the ticket months ago and got up early to make sure she had a spot on this bus. Amidst the minor melee, I notice a tiny figure quietly hunch her back and scurry off the bus.  Right when I notice this, I turn to the lady next to me.  I want to point and whisper: “Look, it’s the stow-a-way,” but there is no need.  She looks at the tiny figure trying to appear casual as she walks back to the greyhound terminal.  We both shake our heads.

“A damn shame,” she mutters.

“I think this inauguration is going to be HUGE,” I counter.  She gives me that look that makes me want to explain how sometimes I can be a sprinkle of blonde.

Hint 2: A “broke” ATM

The night before the inauguration I am at Union Station, D.C.’s version of Penn Station.  Having spent most of the day out, I no longer have cash.  I do what every American does when this happens; I go to the nearest ATM.

I insert my debit card into the machine and press in my PIN.  And…

I get this bizarre, nonsensical message from the ATM.

I don’t have any money.  Sorry, slim.

I sort of look at the screen and wonder what I did wrong.  Maybe I pressed in the wrong PIN and the machine checked somebody else’s account and not mine.  So, I insert the card again and the machine reminds:

I. Don’t. Have. Any. More. Money.  Stop bothering me, please!

Huh?  I am at the ATM in Union Station.  It is a major tourist trap.  There are several pricey restaurants as well as a variety of fancy, overpriced retail shops all around me. Who forgot to put money in the machine?  He/she should get in trouble.  What a screw up.

While I am standing there, trying to figure out why the ATM is not giving me the money I asked for, a kind passer by reiterates, ” Oh, mam, that machine has been out of cash most of the night.  I think you may need to go down the street to Citibank.  I did that earlier.”

I hear what this nice person is telling me, but I am having a slow moment again.  I look bewildered when I ask no one in particular, “How come it’s out of money?”

The kind person looks like she wants to pat me on the head.  She is patient, however, when she slowly answers my question with one of her own: “Why are you here, Baby?”

She sees the answer in my brain.  Before I can share it with her, she nods proudly at me.  “Yep, that’s why all these other people are here, too.  And probably why there isn’t anymore money in the machine.”

This inauguration is going to be HUGE.

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