Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Black and Blue - But Not White

I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case
’Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
Those lines are from the song “Black and Blue” written in 1928 by Andy Razaf and Thomas “Fats” Waller, and while I understand the sentiment, I’m uncomfortable with Razaf’s choice of words. I know that he’s trying to say, “I’m really just like the rest of you,” but the fact that he uses white as the standard is what makes me uncomfortable.

Over the years, many of my friends and colleagues have commented that I’m not really black, or that I’m one of the whitest black people they’ve ever met. No offense was intended by my white friends, and thus none taken. Indeed, it was meant as a compliment. On the other hand, when said by other African-Americans, it was intended as an insult. It was meant to say that I was an “Oreo” black on the outside and white on the inside. Now, in the spirit of my discomfort with Razaf’s lyric, the time has come for me to finally address this.

When even the most enlightened of people say this, what they’re really saying is that I, and others like me, don’t fit into their stereotype of what a black person is like. What kind of music a black person should like, what kind of food a black person should like, what a black person should talk like, etc. And to be sure, this is a stereotype. It’s a stereotype based on a statistical misunderstanding.

A few years ago, I read in the Statistical Abstract of the United States that 30% of African-Americans live in poverty. While that is a high percentage, the all-important flip side of this is that 70% of us do not live in poverty. This is where the statistical misunderstanding comes into play, and, with apologies to my sister, the statistician, I will deliberately oversimplify things in order to make things easier to understand.

The 30% of us who live in or near poverty are more likely to live clustered together in so-called “black neighborhoods,” where they make up 90% of the population. On the other hand, the 70% of us who are better off are more likely to only make up 10% of the “white neighborhoods” that we live in. In other words, there are actually more of us in the suburbs than in the inner city, but the greater concentration of us in the inner city, and the media’s representation of them, is where most people, even many African-Americans, get their idea of what we’re “supposed to be” like or where we're supposed to live.

That which is put down by inner city blacks as “acting white” is simply holding middle class values and striving for a middle class life, a goal which has been held by us since Emancipation. That which my confused friends and colleagues consider my “acting white” is similarly the result of having grown up in a middle class community with middle class values. The problem is that neither of these groups seems to be aware of just how many blacks there are out there with middle class values, sensibilities, and tastes. Both of these groups seem to think that to be “authentically black” (whatever that is) you have to behave like the 30% that is so much more easily seen.

I’m tired of being told that I’m pretty white for a black guy, even if it’s meant, especially if it’s meant, as a compliment. As I would say to Andy Razaf if he were alive today, white is not the standard. I may be the same as you inside, but that don’t make me white.

It makes me human.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Greatest Revenge

Recently my 16-year-old daughter got a fortune cookie that said, "Massive success is the greatest revenge." It sounded a lot like a saying, attributed to the Rabbi Hillel, that I've had on the wall of every place I've lived since about 1980:
Live well. It is the greatest revenge.
I have to admit that when I first heard that saying, and first saw it on the hand-lettered plaque at a kiosk in the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, NJ around 1980, my interpretation of it was pretty much along the lines of the fortune in Devra's cookie. My parents had been through a nasty divorce, not only leaving me having to find a way to put myself through college, but also resulting in a lot of my belongings being given to people on “that” side of the family. In addition, I had found out that some people who I thought were my friends, actually thought very little of me and figured that I would never amount to anything.

As a result, I saw Hillel as saying “Get better stuff than the people who screwed you over and made fun of you.”

After all, isn’t that what “living well” is all about? Getting better stuff? It was to me at the time. And so while I was furious that my piano that ended up with one of “those relatives,” Hillel and I decided that I’d get an electric piano, one that never needed to be tuned.

Hillel and I also decided that I’d become a famous singer-songwriter, with enough money to ostentatiously shut up everyone who had ever given me grief, or turned me down for a date because I wasn’t good enough or cool enough.

Well, I've had a succession of electric pianos, each one better than the last, but what about everything else? What happened to the famous singer-songwriter? And what am I doing teaching computer literacy at a small school in Central NY?

The answer is that I grew up. And as I grew up, I saw both life and Hillel in a whole new light.

I slowly learned that Hillel wasn’t really talking about getting more stuff and better stuff than the people who had hurt you in the past. I learned that Hillel wasn’t talking about stuff at all, and that as long as I was focusing on the stuff, I was missing the point altogether. He wasn’t talking about what you have, but what you are. He was talking about the quality of your life and the character you possess. He was talking about a certain graciousness that enables you be a better person than those who have hurt you, and even to those who have hurt you, and how this is the greatest revenge.

Ideally, though, you get to the point where you’re not even thinking about “them” or revenge anymore. And once you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished what Hillel was really talking about. When you live an honorable life, and no longer care about those who have wronged you – that is the greatest revenge.

But you’re still wondering what happened to the famous singer-songwriter. Well, when I was a teenager, I saw a man sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, and thought to myself, “One day I’d like to be the guy sitting on the front porch that everyone comes to for advice.” Later on, as I thought carefully about the toll that being famous or trying to become famous could take on my life, and as I thought about what I really wanted in the long run, I came back to the guy on the front porch.

For the past 17 years my porch has been the computer lab, and my rocking chair is a big comfy blue chair that I let very few other people sit in. And from my chair I’ve given advice about a whole lot more than computers. I have the greatest job in the world. I teach in a place where I am not just respected, but loved; and where people value my advice.

And that, my friends, for a kid that some people thought wouldn’t amount to much, is the greatest revenge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Forgive Yourself - And Them Too

I was talking to an old friend of mine, we'll call him "Paul," from college about the whole Facebook phenomenon, and how it makes looking for people from your past acceptable, and even cool. After all, you're on Facebook because you want people to connect with you. In the past, it might have been considered a little creepy to search the Internet for people you hadn't seen in 10, 20, or 30 years.

Paul said that he had thought about seeing if his old girlfriend "Frances" was on Facebook, so he could apologize for being such a jerk 30-odd years ago. This got me thinking about one of the many things important things I've learned from being a teacher - the difference between developmentally appropriate and socially appropriate.

A lot of things that we do from the moment we can speak until we're about 24 are developmentally appropriate, but socially inappropriate. That's because our brains aren't quite done until we're 24, and we're still trying to make some social sense out of the world, and trying to figure out how to act and under what circumstances. With this in mind, our 50-something selves really need to give our 20-something selves a break for some of the hurtful, jerky things we did to others. Especially if we're able to understand what hurtful jerks we were then.

I told Paul that he needed to cut himself a little slack. At 20 or so, he wasn't done yet, and is a much better person than he was then.

Nancy was one of my best friends in 4th grade, but we had been arguing over something one morning. I was still angry when I went home for lunch, and on the way home I thought of the perfect thing to say to her that would get to her, and give me the winning strike. When we got back to school for the afternoon session, I went up to her and called her a name that I immediately regretted, because the look on her face told me that the missile did much more damage than I had intended it to. I immediately apologized, and probably felt worse than she did about it.

I felt bad about that for decades. Every now and then the memory of that day in 4th grade would resurface, and I'd feel just terrible.

When I became a teacher, I got to see how kids that age treat each other all the time, and learned about developmental vs social appropriateness. And when I understood that, I realized that I didn't have to drag the guilt of an 8-year-old around with me into my 40s. I understood that for Pete's sake, I was just a kid. I wasn't done yet. It didn't excuse it, but it did sure did explain it. And I definitely learned from it.

There are many people who we need to forgive because they "just weren't done yet." I long ago forgave "Tina," the girl who broke my heart when she dumped me under parental pressure because I was black. 22 may seem awfully mature at the time, but it's not; and finding out a few months later that her mother was dying of cancer changed the entire equation. That girl needed a lot of slack cut for her.

We need to forgive ourselves, and each other, for the hurtful things we did when we were younger and thought we had a clue, but really didn't.

I hope that Paul finds Frances on Facebook so he can apologize. I'd like to find Tina too, so I can tell her that I understand and it's OK.

And then there's Nancy. It would be really nice to hear her say, "Good grief, Keith, you were just a kid!"

That would make it perfect.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Back to the Future?

As I look around my house, it looks like the future that was envisioned when I was a kid was a little off the mark. 2009 is looking a lot like 1965, but with improved versions of everything we already had then. There hasn't really been a quantum leap to some great new, unimagined thing.

My wife has a Singer sewing machine that she got as a wedding present in 1988. It has a lot more features than the one I remember my mother having, but the basic concept is still the same.

There's a phone next to the bed. OK, so it's a push-button model, and not the old rotary one, and I can see who's calling and decide whether or not to answer the call, but it's still a phone. Even the cell phone on my belt loop is still...well...a phone. Yeah, it can be a camera too (and not a very good one at that), but it's still a phone.

And while we're speaking about the phone, the PicturePhones that I saw demonstrated in the Bell Pavillion at the 1964/65 World's Fair never did become the everyday items that they were supposed to. My mother won a pair of AT&T VideoPhones back in 1994, and with video being transmitted at a mere 8 frames per second, it was actually annoying to talk to her on it.

The clock-radio next to the bed is all solid-state now and comes on immediately at the set time. The one I had as a kid still had tubes in it, and the sound of John Gambling's voice would slowly fade in as they warmed up in the morning.

The piano that I taught myself how to play on has become a Yamaha Clavinova, with over 100 voices, and the ability to record and play back songs.

The black and white television that I had to get up from my seat to change the channels on to get maybe seven stations has become the color set with remote control and almost endless cable channels.

Now I know what you're going to say. "What about the computer? Surely you're not going to say that that's just a variation or modernization of something you had 40 years ago?"

Actually, I am. It's many things that I grew up with. It's the typewriter that I typed my book reports on in 4th grade, but with the ability to let me make major edits without retyping the whole thing. It's the calculator that my parents wouldn't let me take to school because it cost $100 in 1973 money. It's the set of encyclopedias that used to sit on the shelves in the dining room. It's all those boxes of slides and movies that sat gathering dust in the closet until company came over and we dragged out the projector. It's the phone book and atlas not just for Essex County, but for practically the entire world. And the computer of 2009 is an improvement on the first one I bought in 1987, which was basically just the typewriter.

2009 looks nothing like we thought it would when I was a kid. There are no flying cars, houses on stilts, or household robots. There are no colonies in space or under the sea. And we use pretty much the same tools now as we did then. With that in mind, how far off the mark will we be with our predictions for 2049 or even 2029? Will they be radically different worlds, or just 2009 with improved tools?

I know what I'm betting on.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The View From The Choir Loft

My first paying job was as a boy soprano in the choir at St Andrew's Episcopal church; a job I held until my voice changed, after which I stayed on a few more years as a teenaged alto. But this meant meant that I was paid to go to church, so there were no complaints from me about getting up early on a Sunday morning and having to miss Wonderama.

St Andrew's was where I got a lot of my musical training, as our organist and choir director, George Blake, himself a published composer, steered me in the right direction as I tried teaching myself how to play many of the hymns and anthems by ear.

But this isn't about the music. It's about the commandments.

Back in the "old days," unless you went to the 8.00a service, or it was a special occasion like Christmas or Easter, communion was only the first Sunday of the month; and on that first Sunday of the month, the liturgy included a complete reading of the 10 Commandments with the Kyrie, going something like this:
Rector: Remember the Sabbath day, and to keep it holy.
Choir: Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
Rector: Honor thy father and mother.
Choir: Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
Rector: Thou shalt do no murder.
Choir: Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
It's that last one that this is all about. Over the years, I've heard people refer to the 6th commandment (number 5 if you're Catholic or Lutheran) as "Thou shalt not kill." And what seems like a relatively innocuous word change has led to people coming out against things from war to capital punishment to even eating meat. Because, after all, the commandment says that you shouldn't kill. But my choir memories told me that maybe there was something else going on here. Maybe it wasn't as simple as all that. Maybe murder was a specific type of killing that wasn't allowed, while the others were actually sanctioned under the right conditions.

Indeed, when I checked the definition of murder, my suspicions were confirmed. But that wasn't enough for me. I had to know if the same difference between "murder" and "kill" existed in Hebrew. That would settle it once and for all. A quick check with a rabbi got me the answer to that question. There are a number of Hebrew words for killing, and the word used in the commandment is the one that corresponds to our English "murder."

Now mind you, I'm not saying that war is a good thing. Nor am I saying that capital punishment is always right (mistakes have been made). Sometimes they are both necessary evils. But if you're going to base your objection to something on a rule that you think everyone knows and is aware of, it would help if you took the time to understand what the rule is really saying.

And one thing I can tell you is that it's not about turning us all into vegans.