Uncategorized

The Musical Side of Things: Autonomous Entity

Anybody who knows me knows that music is my center. For most of my life I felt like a spectator of the art though, until I picked up a guitar a few years ago and started learning. Ever since, making music has been the thing that’s kept me sane, and I’ve tried to expand my pursuit of the craft into production and songwriting. All that to say I’ve started releasing some singles on my SoundCloud page and would love for you all to check it out, rate and share if you can.

As far as the reasoning behind the stage name–Autonomous Entity–I’ve always been a bit of an introvert and loner (comes with the writing territory) and everything I’ve done musically I’ve taught myself and completed solo. So the name seems fitting.

A.E. for short.

Much love.

-P

Click here for Autonomous Entity’s SoundCloud page.

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Race, Rants

A Note to the Majority from a Minority

I spent two years living in Orlando during graduate school, the first half living with a girlfriend and the second half living with a long-time platonic friend named Tina who served as my social life revivalist after said girlfriend and I broke up. Tina—as outgoing a person as a blonde freckled white woman in Florida can be—took it upon herself to fight against my introverted nature and introduce me to what seemed like, at the time, half the population of Central Florida, all while dragging me to every bar in town whenever the inclination hit her (which was often). A few of these outings were to a place named Cowboys, which looked and felt about the way you’d think a bar in Central Florida named Cowboys would look and feel.

Going to Cowboys was never my idea. I hated the place for many reasons, the most significant being that I’ve never been fully comfortable being the only black guy in a room full of distinctly white people (I know, it’s something I’m working on). I also intensely dislike most modern country music, makes me want to stab my eardrums out with a turntable needle (but that’s just my personal taste getting in the way). However, in the spirit of celebration and to avoid the alternative of sitting at home with an extreme case of FOMO, I would occasionally tag along with hopes that tonight would be more fun.

One night I agreed to go to Cowboys specifically to see a friend of Tina’s named Bobby. Bobby had just been hired as a bartender. Bobby was also somebody I knew. I’d never had more than a couple of superficial conversations with the guy, but he seemed cool and amicable; type of guy to throw a couple of jabs my way about how much better the Gators were than the Seminoles right before offering me a beer. Typical born-and-raised Floridian twenty-something-dudes type stuff. Bobby, of course, was a blonde white boy.

Walking into Cowboys that night, I was my usual level of uncomfortable. There’s something about fiddles and lines of drunk white people dancing in unison that gives me a distinct Twelve-Years-a-Slave-y type feeling (like I said, I’m working on it). And I felt the feeling of discomfort was justified, as there was rarely an evening out during this time period where I didn’t have to deal with something in the way of other-ing—the staredowns, the scoffs, the invasions of personal space, the blatantly racist statements. By that point though, I’d had so much experience dealing with this part of society that I was an expert at masking my emotions, ignoring my surroundings and simply pretending to have fun until I was drunk enough to actually be having fun (fake it ’til you make it, amirite?!).

So seeing as I knew the guy, I was relieved to find Bobby stationed at the back bar, far away from the giant wooden line-dancing stage that took up the entire middle of the room. Figured a familiar face is rarely a bad thing, so I walked over, catching his eye as I approached, nodding and possibly tossing a few finger guns (I wouldn’t put it past myself). Bobby stood next to the other bartender on duty, both of them posted up on a beer cooler wearing backwards camo-hats and waiting for the late night crowd to pour in. When Bobby walked over to me, the other bartender followed, both grinning.

“You sure you in the right place?” Bobby said, nudging the other guy with his elbow. “I didn’t think they let your kind in here.”

Then Bobby laughed, and the bartender standing next to him laughed, and a couple of the girls standing next them at the bar also laughed. So I forced a humorless chuckle and bowed my head. I can only guess that my timorous response is why—twenty minutes after the incident, as I was trying to order a drink—the second bartender who had joined Bobby in that little leg-slapping moment of racial hilarity looked me right in the eye—I’m talking pupil-to-pupil—then waved me off and took care of a white dude standing at the other end of the bar.

Seven years later, during a visit to Orlando, I’m initially moved by nostalgia at the sight of my alma mater, a flock of goodwill fluttering up from my memory banks. The goodwill quickly fades to bitterness though as I’m struck by not just the memory of that night at Cowboys, but the memories of countless similar occasions that occurred while I lived out there, all of which left me feeling like an outsider, a mannequin, an object whose sole purpose was to amuse the perceived majority. I also, for many many years, felt like somebody who needed to remain as jovial and insignificant as possible to avoid finding out what happens when that particular brand of attention turns hostile. And it is this timidity that I regret the most.

In each of those moments, it is my parents’ words I hear, spoken over and over again to me as a kid:

It’s not worth it.

In other words, don’t give them a reason to turn the joke into more than a joke, because it’s not worth the inevitably bad outcome; the insinuation there being that you will lose that particular fight every single time. It’s a Martin-Luther-esque inclination that has been passed down on a grand scale from every previous generation of black Americans to ours, ever since that first slave hissed at the second slave to keep quiet or risk the wrath of Massa.

Choose your battles, son.

And yet, it’s 2020. Bigots still exist. Racism still exists. Sexism still exists. Discrimination still exists. And—as is apparent by the mountains of evidence gathered throughout American history, especially in the past couple of weeks—whether these oppressive attitudes are proudly displayed in public or remain sitting just beneath the surface behind locked doors, they all have the same effect of undermining a huge portion of the population’s right to pursue happiness.

At a certain point, you have to admit to yourself when something is not working. And treating race relations delicately when you’re on this side of things—especially when you’ve seen time and time again that many on the other side don’t even know what the word delicate means—then you owe it to yourself to admit that the status quo has failed and the tactics for dealing with this epidemic need to be re-examined.

Not a knock against Reverend King, the man was an icon.

But so was Malcolm X.

**********

Though I lived about 15 minutes from Sanford during graduate school, by the time Trayvon Martin was murdered I’d already embarked on my short-lived pilgrimage out-of-state, relocating to NYC. Nevertheless, coverage of Trayvon’s untimely death peppered every entertainment outlet in Manhattan. There were a variety of opinions on the subject from people of all demographics, social media lighting up daily with personal monologues (much like the one I’m writing now).

An odd amount of commentary I came across sat in the middle somewhere, sort of toe-dipping into each side of the argument. But the most surprising reactions I saw were from other black people, who seemed not just outraged by the murder, but simultaneously angry at the victim, Trayvon. The consensus was strident: Trayvon should have known better, should have never been walking around that neighborhood like that, hoodied up, hands not clearly visible, drawing unnecessary negative attention. If it wasn’t Zimmerman that got him, it would’ve eventually been somebody else, probably the police themselves.

In other words, Trayvon should have known what was likely to happen. Because everybody knows walking down the street at night with clothing others deem inappropriate might lead to you being hurt in some way, right? It’s been rapists’ go-to argument for years, why not murderers? It’s almost as if a specific demographic within black society (here’s looking at you Dr. Cosby, ya frisky s.o.b.) was relieved to see Trayvon gunned down, so they could hold his picture up as they turned to the rest of us youths and scream “See?! We’ve been telling you for years to pull up your goddamn pants!!”

This sentiment was echoed throughout portions of the white community as well, as I found out while at the New York publishing firm where I was employed during the Trayvon coverage. The owner of this firm, Jeff, hired me about a month after I left Florida, following a slightly nerve-wracking interview process which included him questioning the validity of my graduate degree from the very much accredited University of Central Florida (but I digress). I was working at a Brooklyn copywriting company at the time, commuting two hours each way from the room I was renting in Harlem. So when Jeff hired me, I overlooked the mid-20K salary (plus health care, he was always quick to add) and rejoiced over the fact that I now got to work in Times Square.

When the topic of Trayvon came up at work one day, the five of us that constituted Jeff’s work staff all seemed to be on the same page: what had happened to Trayvon was f’d up, and George Zimmerman was an asshole. Jeff, passing by, overheard the conversation but didn’t offer anything other than a nod and a dismissive wave of his hand. Later though, during one of the many impromptu meetings he liked to call in his office to speak to each of us individually (during which I always noticed his office was bigger than my entire apartment), Jeff made his opinion clear when he compared Trayvon to me.

“You see a guy like you,” Jeff said. “You come in here and you’re not dressed like a hoodlum, and we hire you because you’re educated and can speak well. Some of these people though…and then they wonder…”

I remember he let his words trail off there. He was theatrical like that.

A few months later, on Fourth of July—a National Holiday, if not the National Holiday—I received a series of frantic calls from Jeff while at my apartment enjoying the rare day off. In one voicemail he told me that I needed to come into the office immediately, insinuating that my job was on the line. So I got dressed and hit the subway. Sitting in his office half an hour later, I bowed my head as Jeff reamed me about two typos that had slipped into an issue of one of the magazines I was managing editor of (to be honest, by that point both my salary and months of eating ramen noodles for dinner had drained me of all give-a-fuck). Jeff’s face turned red as he shouted, looking me up and down as if I had crapped on his office floor.

“You realize I had to catch a limo in for this?” he asked. “From the Hamptons. That’s not close by. I’m embarrassed of this.”

As he spoke, I looked around once again at Jeff’s giant office, and I thought about the tiny room that I was renting for a grand a month in the tiny apartment located in a predominantly black and predominantly broke part of upper Harlem. I thought about how that tiny room was right above both a liquor store and a junkie who slept in the stairwell and always asked me for change every day on my way out, no matter how many times I told him I was broke too, bruh (I offered him five bucks once to get rid of the rats I could hear scurrying around in my ceiling every night, but he just laughed).

It was then—staring at Jeff’s red face describing to me his rush limo drive back from the Hamptons—that I decided to apply for a teaching position back in Miami. ‘Til the day that I hopped on that plane from JFK to MIA, Jeff—a proud born-and-raised Jewish New Yorker with many, many family and professional ties to the New York real estate industry, let me tell you heh, this guy right here—insisted that he’d been doing me a favor by giving me that job. That he’d been doing me a favor not many others would have done. And every time he spoke like that, I was reminded of the way he’d shook his head at all of us in the board room that day while we were talking about Trayvon’s murder.

Left: Me circa 2007 holding a Black & Mild and trying to look cool (yes, I used to smoke Black & Milds, and yes that is a cell phone clipped to my belt); Right: Trayvon holding some money

Pictures of Trayvon after his death brought me to tears because of how similar to my teenage self he seemed. I wondered so much about him, what his self esteem was like, what type of verbal and physical crap had been tossed his way throughout his short life in Central Florida. I wondered how many people had told him from birth that this society was out to get him, how many times he’d been told that he basically had only two choices: survive through conformity, or risk the wrath of U.S. Oppression. I wondered if Trayvon ever really understood as he walked out of his house on that last day of his life that being killed for his physical appearance was not just a possibility, but an eventuality.

I don’t believe that he did understand. Because I was Trayvon too, at his age. And I never understood. None of my black friends did either, not at first. It would take years of bad shit happening to us for that fact to sink in; the fact that there are just some things black people can’t do.

**********

Mom, dad, and an apparently shell-shocked me

My parents are Jamaican immigrants, transplanted here a couple of years before I was born. Knowing this country’s history of violent discrimination, they were understandably paranoid while raising me. What this amounted to were a lot of stern lectures on how to navigate society’s many potential landmines: racist police officers, racist school administrators, racist bosses, basically anybody in a position of power who could potentially use that power to display their inner bigoted views.

The underlying moral: beware, and don’t ask for trouble. The sentiment is borne from an understandable but misguided ideal: that minorities should be trying to fit in with the majority, because the majority has all the power.

But sitting here now I wonder realistically: does that “majority” of society actually have power? Over me? Am I expected—as a perceived minority—to quietly hold up my index finger and wait for this majority to get around to acknowledging my grievances? Or is that perceived majority a fantasy construct that has pervaded American society for so long now it’s just considered true for lack of a better argument? Am I justified in looking past this majority, towards my ultimate goal of being at peace, and pushing through anybody who stands in my path?

Is the “majority” even really a majority anymore?

In lieu of a concrete answer, I’ve chosen to simply ignore the social constructs inherent in the question, looking instead at the core of what it means to be human and self-aware. At that core is a basic principle: each and every one of us is a singular individual with the natural-born and inalienable right to pursue our own peace of mind. And in this, the concept of “majority” and “minority” becomes irrelevant. All that matters is this pursuit, of self-awareness and self-actualization. If achieving these things requires challenging the status quo, then challenging the status quo is the only option we have.

Power is a construct, just as racism is a construct. They only gain credence if you give it to them. Which—here and now and forever more—I expressly choose not to do, just as I expressly choose to oppose others who give these constructs relevance.

I do not accept the majority power.

I do not accept bigotry.

It is my right not to accept these fantasies, just as it is my right to respond to these societal inconsistencies with a loud and passionate “Fuck. You.”

And believe me, there will be no bowing of the head in deference when I hold up that particular finger.

**********

I started dating a girl named Zuly when I got back from New York in August of 2012. Zuly is Cuban, born from Cuban parents who both immigrated to Miami during the Mariel boatlift. Zuly’s mother is a woman who has never worked a day in her life. The day I met Zuly’s mom—this was maybe a month or two after Zuly and I started dating—I was not surprised by the many religious artifacts lying around the house. Zuly had been raised Catholic, attended a private Catholic high school, and pretty much had all the trappings of a Catholic-raised Cuban girl in Miami (which constitutes a giant portion of Miami’s population).

Zuly’s mother—like many Cuban mothers and fathers I’ve met—did not like me when she met me, and made it very clear to Zuly that this was because I was black (on a related note, she also made it clear to both of us how much she hated Barack Obama as president, not just because he too was black, but because he was a “communist”; her lamentations were nearly constant, occurring in loud succession from the couch in the living room of her government-assisted housing arrangement…irony is always funny in retrospect, not so much in the moment). This was all a moot point at the time though, because I was not dating Zuly’s mother. I was dating Zuly. So I therefore gave Zuly the benefit of the doubt that she had fallen far from the apple tree her mother was rotting on.

One day, as I was giving Zuly a ride to work while her car was at the mechanic’s, we passed a couple walking down 27th avenue in West Flagler. The woman was white and blonde, the man black and tall, and they were holding hands as they strolled, giggling with each other. As we passed, Zuly studied them then turned to me and made a face like she’d just walked by roadkill.

“Every time I see a white girl with a black guy,” she said, shaking her head. “She just looks so…trashy.”

In retrospect, there are many things that come to mind about that comment. What it meant about Zuly’s self-worth is one. How I wish I’d reacted—by ending the relationship and kicking her out of my car right there in the middle of the street—is another. Instead, I continued to date her for another couple of months, which I know now says a whole lot more about me at the time than it does about her.

It wasn’t the first time I’d endured offensive racial statements from prospective partners though. From “you’re cute, for a black guy” to “you’re not cute enough for a black guy” to flat out “I don’t date black guys,” the manner in which race played a role in my romantic and sexual upbringing still sort of baffles me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the statement “my parents would kill me if I came home with a black guy” in casual conversation, or had people I thought of as friends look at me and tell me almost gleefully that a girl I thought was cute “wouldn’t even look at a black dude, much less date one.” Combine it all and the exercise of dating has been sort of like a decades-long game of Russian Roulette.

As is almost every other damn thing for black people in this society.

**********

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Growing up I was drawn separately to all musical genres, from soul to country to pop to rock to jazz and everything in between. As a young black kid living in the southernmost portion of Miami though, I was inevitably exposed to hip hop at an even earlier age. My first cassette tape was Snoop Dogg’s (formerly Snoop Doggy Dogg’s) Doggystyle, a gift from my cousin that my parents promptly found and destroyed once they saw the comic book depictions of anthropomorphized dogs having sex inside the album cover booklet. The first CD I ever bought was Mystikal’s Unpredictable, which I still own, by some miracle. To this day, it is hip hop I put on when I’m taking a shower and trying to unwind.

As with many black kids growing up middle-class though, it was sometimes difficult for me to relate to the more hardcore hip hop artists. Though my parents and I spent the eighties living in an apartment complex in the middle of Cutler Ridge (what many would have considered at the time to be “the hood”), we moved out when I was eight, transplanting to a nice middle class neighborhood a few miles north. By junior high I had a basketball hoop in my front yard, a bicycle I used all the time, my own room, a TV and video games. I went to a predominantly-white and Hispanic middle school and lived on a predominantly-white and Hispanic block. As far as I know, there has never been a drive-by shooting in my neighborhood, and if you see the cops outside with their lights flashing, everybody’s walking outside to rubberneck at the spectacle of it all. I loved hip hop, but I had no idea what the hell half these guys were talking about in their songs.

Why does Biggie keep mentioning bricks?

Has 2Pac actually murdered people?

What the hell is a dopeboy?

None of this stopped me from listening though, because the beats were sick and the artists at least kinda looked like me.

My best friend in the neighborhood up until high school was a white kid named Conrad who lived in a house that overlooked the lake located across the street from my parent’s house. Around sixth grade, it came out that Conrad’s dad had been abusing his mom, which started a chain of falling dominoes that eventually (and thankfully) led to their divorce. After an adjustment period, Conrad’s mom met a new guy who moved in with them, bringing along his daughter, Jessica (sidenote: besides being the first white girl I ever kissed, Jessica also holds the honor of being the first white girl to tell me she couldn’t openly date black guys because of her dad).

After a year or two of friendship, I would eventually admit to Jessica that I had grown an affinity for rock music. It started with MTV back in elementary school, watching music videos with Kurt Cobain lamenting life (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” video still gives me goosebumps). By middle school the interest had congealed into genuine love. So I started rattling off my favorite bands to her: Nirvana, Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Metallica. I had a thing for guitars that I didn’t yet recognize, except to know that this music had a way of touching portions of my soul that hip hop just couldn’t (let it be known that the same holds true vice versa). Jessica looked at me when I was done, sitting on her bedroom floor with her CD collection spread out in front of us.

“Rock is totally not for black people,” she said.

Jessica said it so nonchalantly that I still don’t know if she meant any offense by it. I truly believe that, in her 13 year old mind, she felt that she was just stating the obvious, and at the time that was as close to obvious as you could get: rock was not made for black people, just as hip hop wasn’t made for white people (we’re talking like ’95/’96 here, pre-Eminem).

Today, music enthusiasts know that idea is nonsensical, and it is this transition in sentiments within the progressive society of music-lovers that I’m hoping serves as a microcosm of what the majority of society will eventually look like. Because whether the bigots like it or not, times are a-changing.

There is nothing black people (or any other race) can’t, don’t and won’t do. Humans are a miracle of evolution at a cellular level, a fact that surpasses all physical traits. Working together, the breadth of achievements ahead of us could be vast and not just life-changing, but species-changing. However, the only way for the stragglers to know it’s time for them to cut the crap and get on board the train of progress is to make sure they are no longer allowed to be comfortable with business as usual. Make sure they know that both themselves and their outdated ideals will be left behind, alone and abandoned.

Let them know they are not in control anymore.

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Uncategorized

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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