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Black Unicorns

When I was eight I got in a fight with a white kid at my school, Palmetto Elementary, which was—at the time, don’t know what it’s like today—an overwhelmingly white institution in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Pinecrest in the overwhelmingly Hispanic city of Miami.

This kid I fought, he was really white too. Like freckles-red-hair-sunburns-thin-nose type white.

We were in after-school care that day, the place where we spent our afternoons, us kids whose parents couldn’t get out of work at three o’clock to pick us up. The whole lot of us were out in the field behind the school playing baseball and I was up at bat when the redhead kid hit me with a pitch—very obviously on purpose—then had the audacity to call it a strike. I pointed out to him that he’d hit me with the ball, so it couldn’t be a strike (confident in this knowledge of the rules because I was a baseball fan at the time, before the Marlins ruined that…but I digress). His response was that he didn’t care, it was a strike because he said it was a strike. I told him that was stupid. He said I was stupid—a stupid black boy, to be exact—then he jumped on me and punched me in the head half a dozen times.

When he was done, he got up and attempted to swagger away. I remember that enraged me more than anything, the nonchalance, so I stood up and grabbed the aluminum bat he’d knocked out of my hand and I hit him, right on the ass. Not my best swing, and probably the worst place you could hit somebody if you really wanted to hurt them. I was never good at baseball anyways (probably another reason I lost interest…naaah still blaming the Marlins). After I hit him, we started wailing on each other until the after-school care counselors pulled us apart, which couldn’t have been pleasant for them.

As can be expected, me and the redhead kid both ended up in the Principal’s Office (just now noticed those initials are P.O.) with tears in our eyes and snot in our nose. I don’t know why the other kid was crying, but I knew why I was: I was 99.9% sure I was about to get the ass whooping of a lifetime when my parents came to pick me up. I’d never been in a full-on fight before, with kids circling around us and all. It had been absolutely exhilarating, for a moment. But now things were too real. I just wanted to go home and have somebody tell me this wasn’t the end of the world, that I hadn’t done anything too wrong.

Me and the other boy sat there like that for about ten minutes before the supervisor of after-school care heard me crying and came flying out of her office with her bright red hair trailing behind her. I can’t remember this woman’s name or much of her physical features, except to say that it started with an F and she was tall and skinny with that bright red hair, like flames shooting out of her follicles. But she needs a name so we’ll call her…just spit-balling ideas here…Ms. Fire Witch.

Anyways, Ms. Fire Witch came flying out of her office, walked up to me and told me to shut up, stop crying, that I’d brought this on myself. Told me the only reason I was upset was because I knew what I’d done was “disgusting” (I remember her specifically using the word “disgusting”; it’s been my main association with that word to this day). She told me that I was only crying because I knew I was in big trouble, that there was a possibility I’d be expelled and sent back to the school I was supposed to go to, which I most certainly would not like.

I’ve always wondered how Ms. Fire Witch knew I wasn’t originally supposed to be attending Palmetto.  Guess she’d checked my records. Which I’m sure was standard, right?

The school I was originally zoned for—the school that was closest to my parent’s house—was Colonial Elementary. However, at the time that I was enrolling, Colonial’s rating in the city’s school-grading system was very low. Always prioritizing education, my parents discovered this information and petitioned to get me transferred to Palmetto (and yes, you guessed it, Colonial Elementary is in a predominantly black neighborhood, which is a whole other issue in and of itself but I’m trying to stay on track here and failing miserably as we speak so let’s keep it moving).

So yes, Ms. Fire Witch did have a point: if I were to be expelled from Palmetto I would more than likely end up back at my originally-zoned school. Which I very much would not like. Palmetto was what I was used to.

Ms. Fire Witch got in my face and pointed her long, witchy fingers and peeled her lips back like a snarling pitbull and straight up berated me. I’m surprised she didn’t spit on me in the process, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to. When she was done, I was a fucking wreck. She didn’t say anything to the redhead kid sitting next to me though, who had long since stopped crying and was playing around with a hole in his t-shirt.

In the end, Ms. Fire Witch made the mistake of yelling at me right as my mom was walking in to pick me up, at which point Ms. Fire Witch found herself subjected to the wrath of a Jamaican mother. I got a Burger King kid’s meal out of the ordeal (thanks Ma).

I wrote about this while I was in grad school in an essay called “Defense” that was originally published in Midwest Literary Magazine (now defunct; I’ll probably end up posting it on here one of these days). At the time, I never really thought about why I felt the need to write that particular story. Looking back now though, I realize that was one of many defining moments in my life, the type of moments that have made me who I am today.

I would never hit anybody now (unless they hit me first), or even pick a verbal fight with someone unless I knew them extremely well and therefore knew that the argument would stay civil (and even then). This is partly because I hate confrontation, which many consider a good character trait in a civilized society. As a result, I’ve never really had to own up to the actual basis of my inherent passiveness:

Fighting or arguing—to me—is and has been historically pointless for black men.

No matter what, no matter where I am or what exactly I’m doing or who I’m doing it with or what the initial result of the altercation is, I don’t get to ever actually win. Not ever. Not in the long or short run. Sure, I might knock somebody out. Or stun them with a verbal jab. But I still don’t ever win.

This phenomenon is known as a Pyrrhic Victory, aka a Hollow Win. The classic phrase: winning the battle but losing the war? Pyrrhic.

I came to this conclusion at eight years old, and it has dictated nearly every move I’ve made in the years since.

It’s no coincidence then that the same year I got in that fight, I also became the fanatic reader and writer that I still am to this day, using written words to vent frustrations I felt I couldn’t actually voice. Using books to form a wall between myself and a society that just felt too intense, adding layers to that wall as I grew older (i.e. headphones, my computer, video games, cell phones, school, TV, social media, this blog).

You see, I was raised by my parents to be a critical thinker. So back then, in my eight year old mind, I came to the simple and logical conclusion that other people look at black boys like me as aggressive and simply wrong by nature. Logic then dictated that the only way to counteract this image was to be quiet, and do what I was told. So I shut up and got to work.

Today, the person I am—Patrick Anderson Jr.—has been shaped by this creed into the archetype of the 21st century Educated Black Man.

A “unicorn,” as someone once called me.

My resumé: Associates Degree, Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, university teaching credentials, current full time college professor with some New York press experience tacked on for flavor. Over a dozen short stories published along with a novel, and I’m currently working on a trilogy of crime thrillers (and yes, I am tooting my own horn here for a moment, let. me. live.)

Yet it is my reality that in my mindand this is how deep it is, that even as I write this and know who I am and what I’m capable of accomplishing, the feeling is still there, rooted in my subconscious, screwing with the confidence I’ve worked so hard to build up—I will always be that little black boy who was shouted down for protecting himself.

For fighting back.

***

I’ve tried most of my life to get away from race, but it follows me everywhere.

I’ve tried at multiple points to be the non-racial writer, the non-racial boyfriend, the non-racial friend, employee, boss, teacher, citizen. I spent pretty much all of high school and college trying to be the type of black guy who nobody could label “The Black Guy.” Yet, in retrospect, all that effort did was make me realize even more that being black is something I have no choice but to define myself by. Which ultimately taught me many things about what it means to be black in the United States.

Lessons Learned:

  • Being black means having to be overly cautious about your temper, to avoid being labeled the “Angry Black Guy.” Because everybody hates that guy, right?
  • Being black means you’ll be told you’re being “too black” any time you assert yourself with any sort of attitude.
  • Being black means having to listen to other people tell white guys who talk like ignorant idiots, wear clothes eighty sizes too big for them, and otherwise act absolutely nothing like you, that they’re trying to be black.
  • Being black means dating is restrictive, with the choices being either 1) date other black people, which is fine when you live in a black area but limits the hell out of your choices when 81% of your hometown is white or Hispanic, or 2) date outside your race but remember to ask the necessary questions, of which there’s really only two:
    1. “Is she into black guys?”
    2. “Do her parents like black guys?”
  • Being black means the above are legitimate questions, and a lot of times the answers are flat out “No” and “Hell No.” And when the answer is “Yes,” there’s very frequently an agenda attached. Like dating a black guy is the equivalent of joining the Peace Corps or traveling to Africa to volunteer at some impoverished village. Matter of fact, Match.com should add that as a filter on their Profile Search page; a little check-box labeled “Into Black Guys,” right next to “Hobbies” and “Education Level”
  • Being black means having to work to get the type of respect others get just by waking up in the morning.
  • Being black means choosing a side, all your life, or risk becoming a social pariah. And the sides are many, and none of them will ever completely accept you as a good representation of the blackness they need for their group.
  • Being black means success makes you the exception in the eyes of the rest of the country.
  • Being black means walking outside with an automatic target on your forehead, whether it’s from mildly insulting “jokes” tossed nonchalantly in your direction like flippant grenades, blatant displays of hatred and brutality that cut like daggers to the throat, or literal bullets from guns held by citizens and authorities alike.
  • Being black means being labeled the “Sensitive Black Guy” if you get angry about any of the above, and “Cool Black Guy” if you pretend you don’t.
  • Being black means waking up every day fully aware that you are black, and knowing that’s a detriment to your character for many people, a sign that you are less of a person, and you always will be, no matter how much you achieve.
  • Being black should be a simple fact about a person, like they’re left handed, or they have green eyes, or their hair is naturally blonde. Instead, being black is a lifestyle forced upon you from birth.
  • Being black means receiving skeptical, borderline frightened looks from people who don’t know you, when you’re just walking by. Being black means having to subtly convince these people by your own actions that you aren’t dangerous, even though you’ve never done anything to make anybody think that about you in the first place.
  • Being black means being called a mythical creature (a unicorn, for instance) or a type of cookie (Oreos are delicious though) when you prioritize education and expanding your mind.
  • Being black means you can’t say things like “being black means…” without alienating people who subconsciously subscribe to the racist views our society prides itself on.
  • Being black means that you are at constant odds with the American social system, from national media straight down to the people you hang out and work with. On a personal level, my blackness has been a universal conversation starter at almost every job I’ve ever had, and many of those conversations have left me seething inside.

When the topic switches to the subject of Systemic Racism, at some point somebody always asks for a definition. As in, what is systemic racism, how do we describe it, make it tangible? For me, the above list of lessons is my definition of Systemic Racism. Which is to say that it doesn’t just exist as part of the system. It is the system.

Saying that racism doesn’t exist is like saying the United States economy doesn’t exist. In reality, there would be nothing without it.

I can’t attempt to speak for other people, because I’ve seen the way people think, and we really are all very different from one another, and pretty chaotic when left to our own devices. And stubborn, also. Extremely stubborn.

I’m just here to tell you my experience of being an educated black kid growing up in Florida.

The aforementioned “unicorn.”

***

I remember my first day at Palmetto Elementary, remember walking into the classroom and looking out at the sea of small white faces and thinking so this is what people call a Good School. Things shifted a little as I aged though, and in the seventh grade I found some solidarity with the other Caribbean-American kids at Southwood Middle. However, I very soon realized that there were factions within those groups too: you were either all about your heritage and Caribbean culture, or you weren’t really Caribbean at all. And I’ve never really been all about any one thing. The trend of judgment in that circle was a natural and justifiable response to the animosity we received from mainstream white America, but it was also a whole other problem in itself.

It’s one thing to feel alienated by people who don’t look like you, a whole other thing to feel that other-ing from people who do look like you. Add to that the fact that I was in a gifted program that was predominantly white, making me almost always the only black kid in my classes.

By high school I got used to these circumstances, to the point that I actually felt less comfortable on the rare occasions I found myself in an all-black environment. Still feels Twilight-Zone-ish to this day, to be honest; last time I went to Atlanta to visit family, I couldn’t remember having ever seen that many black people in one place. It was a little awkward, like waking up one day, walking outside and finding all the houses on your block have been remodeled to look just like yours.

But more importantly, high school is where I started dating. And if you want a quick report on the state of American race-relations, talk to a black guy who’s dated/is dating outside of his race.

My high school dating life, and largely my life as a whole, can be summed up by a conversation I recently had with a Colombian ex-girlfriend of mine from tenth grade. During this conversation, my ex confessed to me that part of the reason we broke up back then—a breakup that came seemingly out of nowhere for me—was because she didn’t want to be the Hispanic girl dating the black guy anymore.

Not because she was racist, but because racist people kept harassing her.

I knew nothing about this because she didn’t tell me at the time. She didn’t want to hurt my feelings. And I’m not mad at her in the slightest. I mean, she was fifteen, and we dated for like two months. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing in her situation. That’s a lot to deal with.

But the moment she told me what had happened, it rang true. Because the fact is that dating—like many of the basic things I do in life—has always felt a bit rigged. Like I’m entering a race with steel plates bolted to the bottom of my shoes.

There’s a limit placed on black people in American society. One that is so pervasive it’s almost impossible to articulate, so powerful not even money can overcome it.

Oprah is Oprah, powerful as shit and rich as hell. But she’s still a black woman. There are certain parts of this country she can’t walk into without protection specifically because she’s black, and there are millions—repeat, millions­—of people in this country who are lower than her on the economic totem pole. Yet many of those people would still cringe at even the thought of having to be Oprah for a day.

Oprah’s worth 2.6 billion dollars.

What the hell are my chances?

***

At some point in American history, living as a black person went from being a work status, to a crime, to a condition. And while the first two labels were horrific in their violence and backbreaking will, that last one is genetic, ingrained in our blood, a cellular gene that dictates how our life experience will be colored from the moment we take our first breath.

For the vast majority of my formative years, I stayed quiet about the things I witnessed, the way this society treated me and other black people. I ignored it and even denied it on a few occasions. Looked at other black people straight-faced and declared “Racism is over. Shut up about it already.”

Ignorance is no longer an option.

The roots of racism are fighting progress every step of the way. And I can say definitively and without hyperbole that the percentage of black people who are okay with business as usual has dropped down to nearly zero (there’s always that one guy/girl on Fox News though, huh?).

There are no such things as unicorns. Just like there’s no such thing as a Typical Black Guy.

We are all nuanced. We are all individuals with the same basic inalienable rights. And we demand to be treated as such.

There is no more room for equivocation on this front.

There is just us.

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3 thoughts on “Black Unicorns

  1. Rick, thanks for this beautifully written story of your experiences as a Black man. This could be a blueprint for teaching the effects of systematic racism in America.

  2. These are such wise words. I really liked the way that you wrote the story about the fight and Ms. Fire Witch, and the sad part is: if you’re black, there is a huge chance that you’ve experienced something like this in your life. I’m Jamaican-English and growing up in the Netherlands, but I also have the added struggles of being a disabled teenager. It seemed like when most children weren’t pointing at me in my wheelchair and whispering about my ‘curled fingers’ behind my back, then they were calling me Caveman because my face looked ‘man-ish’ and my nose was too big. I could relate to so many of the things that you listed when you talked about what being black means. For me, it meant isolation. I once joined a group for disabled children to meet up and hang out, but they were all white and only spoke Dutch. The one place where I thought that I would finally belong was instead clouded by children asking me what gender I was or questioning me about ‘life in Africa’. When I did manage to find black people in my community to connect with – my disability was always a large barrier between us. Thank you so much for sharing these truthful and moving words – hopefully it will help white people to understand that ‘being black’ is more than just braided hair and ‘fried chicken’.

    Love,
    thewheelchairteen.home.blog

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