Sunday, February 13, 2005

Nigga-morphosis

I am eating in Jordan’s Café on the corner of Slauson and Overhill this morning, and there are all of five children taking a seat at the table next to me. Its fairly clear that theirs is a minors-only affair. There are three boys, all fit and thin, who look to be in the 11 to 13 age range. The two girls look a little older, with a little teenage acne tipping me off. Since they arrived by car, I assume that the girl in charge is 16, but she is still very much a child.

They are good kids. After initially seating themselves, the girls notice that there are other patrons standing around. They hop right back up and find out if there is a waiting list to sit down. There is . So they wait, but they end up right back next to me anyway. If I had to guess, I would have said big sister was out for brunch with her best friend, but saddled with taking her little brother and his buddies along. Those car keys come with a lot of strings attached, sweetheart. But its worth it to her so she doesn’t even complain, today.

I conjure up some “just-turned-40” mother-figure somewhere in View Park delighting in her childless and suddenly tranquil home. She still has a beauty about her, but her face is rigid in spite of the soft signs of age creeping in. She is smiling now though, probably relishing the moment over the phone with her sister-in-arms. “Girrrrrl, I am so glad Tianna can drive now." Mom is still hanging on to her vanity and is a couple years shy of that humility and wisdom folks seem to acquire the moment their children are grown and no longer have to even pretend to listen. She actually catches herself in the mirror in mid-conversation and sees a glimpse of what she is going see later when those kids have left for good and don’t need her anymore, but she shakes off the panic at the letter "p", and comforts herself with the prospect of freedom from the last 16 years of semi-dutiful service...

The youngsters snatch me back from my cynical daydream with all of their unmitigated energy. Somehow they are demanding my attention without them actually desiring it, but they don’t mind me too much because I look just young enough to sorta, kinda understand, or so I tell myself. They look really happy to be out and unsupervised, but I only see flashes of their excitment because they are all wearing that same requisite "bored as fuck" expression. A man is strolling over towards this end of the cafe, and one of the girls lights up at the sight of a familiar face. They exchange kisses, hugs, and warm, familiar small talk, but he leaves quickly not wanting to wear out his tenuous welcome. "That was my uncle Bernard," she reports still beaming from the fact that Uncle Bernard is smart enough to say something sincere to his niece almost everytime he sees her to let her know how special she is to him.

With Uncle B. gone and out of earshot, its back to kicking it hard. You remember those first few experiences of glorious teenage freedom - that self satisfied feeling of budding maturity and unrestrained optimism about what the future held now that life might finally be really beginning? Oh yeah, a couple of these little angels are feeling quite grown judging by the way they are letting loose, now. Early on, I hear a “fuck” here and a “shit” there and I glance up trying to give them a look that says, “I recognize y’all little heathens from church AND I know your motherAND I will tell her how yall was cuttin' up in Jordan's today,” but my face betrays me. I cannot help cracking an amused little smile at the awkwardness of how young people sound when first learning to curse. They don't have the "fffah" or the "kuh" sound quite right, and it just sounds so un-vulgar. They decide right then in there, the dude that looks like a broke Bob Marley at the next table ain't tripping.

As I sit trying to read my magazine and do my best “sensitive artistic dude in the corner of the restaurant” impersonation, I keep picking up bits and pieces of their conversation. What they think of as just "everyday conversating" sounds like them trying to pick apart each other's self-esteem to me. Every word reminds me of how indoctrinated I was with destructive concepts of self image from an early age. “She is light-skinned with long hair,” I hear one of the boys say about some girl who is not present, but with an inflection that confidently confesses that it is not just his preference, but the obvious preference of all boy-dom. He is not old enough to be ashamed of the fact that he has accepted some ill-favored notion of beauty, nor is he cunning enough to mask his objectionable predilection. He is certainly not empathic enough to see that the two beautiful girls before him don’t fit that mold and are already resigned about it. Neither of them even blinks, but one matter of factly admits, “her hair is longer than mine.”

I start to feel sad for these girls. I start thinking of why my community still cannot break these cycles rooted in self-loathing no matter how many times we tell the next generation how it all started. Somehow the kids see through us and realize that we still haven’t gotten over our own issues, and are not practicing what we preach. Why should they be strong where we are weak? I want to interrupt their conversation and tell them its bullshit and that they don’t have to accept anyone’s definition accept their own…but I don’t. Maybe its because I am still struggling with how I define myself and feel some guilt over all the secret pleasure I took as a child in being light-skinned with "good hair". "Nah," I rationalize to myself. I need to listen to these kids because they are me, without the sophistication and pretense, and expertise at cloaking all of my own insecurities and uncertainties. They can teach me a thing or two not only about who I was, but who I am still. And besides they are just expressing themselves.

But they don't let me off the hook that easily. I think the oldest girl realizes she has a unique chance to demonstrate to all of the others just how grown she is, because half way through her brunch she decides her new favorite phrase is “nigga, please”. Startled by the fact that I thought she was talking to me (no other niggas around here), I find myself subsequentlyy eavesdropping behind my hoisted copy of Psychology Today. But after she drops that first one, she just starts letting them fly in spite of the fact that everything about her says, she NEVER speaks that way at home. And she isn't speaking to the imaginary nigga in the sky either. She is slapping down every other comment her brother and his friends make like Big Six on a domino table. She starts exploring the phrase like John Coltrane covering the melody of an old pop tune. First she stresses the "Nigga". Then she accentuates the "Please". Then she comes with the rapid fire "niggaplease", and finishes up her masterpiece: the staccato and drawn out "Nig-Ga-Puh-Leaze".

Am...am I flinching?

Thankfully she stops here...She mercifully keeps "nizzle, plizzle" in the chamber.

And it seems strange that she keeps addressing these handsome little men with the term “nigga”, but what do I say? I have not exorcised the word from my own vocabulary and even if I cease using the word out loud, how do I erase it from my mental lexicon. Still, I don't think nigga is being used appropriately in this setting. These boys are not old enough to be niggas. They don’t even look like little niggas in training. Well, one of them does have on a throwback, but its almost cute like pajamas or something. Niggas are man-children who cannot take responsibility for themselves and blame their environment. Niggas are brothers with no sense of history or concern for the future. But these little fellas are still wide eyed and searching. Niggas are self-defeating and caught up in a vicious cycle…and know it. They buy those rims that never stop spinning, because they need to express to the world from somewhere deep inside their soul that they are stuck on the hamster wheel of trying to outnigga the next nigga. But I guess this is the age where it starts to happen…I am watching these innocent little children turn into niggas right in front of my face. They are trying to fight it, but the evidence is strong and compelling that the fight cannot be won at all. Afterall, sitting right there at the table next to them is black man who has been struggling against that same stereotype his whole life and knows how insidious it is. The furrow in his brow displays the wounds of a battle to stomp that word and everything it represents to death with his dynamic, unique, relavent, complex, and damn near brilliant self, and in spite of all that...the nigga is dead silent.

6 comments:

Lia Martin said...

As I have said for years, during our mostly email friendship, your writing has depth and beauty. It reads like poetic commentary. I feel the pain, freedom, intensity, excitement, glamour and frustration of being a black man in a society still trying to grasp with the concept. Your first paragraph is the introduction to a novel or a sociolgy paper--it could serve as either or both. "They are good kids" is a fatherly comment that reads compassion and empathy. Then, when you take us onto the description of your fantasy-construed mother-figure, it rings familiar to anyone who has ever been a child and who grew up with a mother. I just find your writing brilliant yet accessible at the same time. I am not at all surprised that a few of the same books that have influenced you are my personal favorites as well. As a matter of fact, I need to refamiliarize myself with those great works. I digress, thank you for sharing. It was awesome!

yodrea said...

All I can say is....."It's about time", congratulations on your new found courage......I am very proud, Andrea

BP said...

I agree with Ms. Martin, I enjoyed reading these and I certainly also thank you for sharing these. Being the one that "knocked your mom up" back in '73, I somehow understand zactly where you're coming from. I took special interest in your being taken aback by the "nigga pleezes" being doled out so freely by the young lady at Jordan's, as it was you who I admired for feeling free enough to use the word in public while talking on your cell at the airport a few years ago. But, I just wanted you to know (not that you need any validation ..... cause you don't) I feel as you do; the self-loathing starts very early. And it's not the word itself, it's the context in which it is used. One other comment. You've taken "Wilsonisms" to a new level. Heretofore, they were usually reserved for something really, really deep, like what just happened when EC called a moment ago and I said he sounded a little "horse". :-) BP out. Love you.

Trent Jackson said...

I value your experience so much...you are very well spoken, I just wish that you would post more...I am hungry for more

chad said...

This post is pure poetry...
I had to read it a few times just to take it all in. The next time I see a brother at a red light with his wheels still spinning, I'm going to yell out my window, "Get of the hamster wheel man, you'll never out-nigga the world!"

Anonymous said...

It's Friday night, and instead of going out with the masses, I'm home. With tears in my eyes, I read your posts. Absolutely splendid. Kacy Wilson, in the 20 years I've known you - can you count the last 14 years that we haven't spoken? - I can say that I have never been as enthralled with you, your intelligence, your wit, your insight as I am tonight. I can not move away from the computer screen.

You recall your days of feeling proud of being light skinned with good hair, huh? I recall the days of feeling less than par because I was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I recall the days of feeling like my beauty lay in the fineness of my hair, in the length of it, in the silkiness of the strands. My hair was always long per se, but I never quite felt like it was "good" enough. In adulthood I made up for that by making a biweekly appointment at the beauty salon without fail. My hair was always tight. It wasn't until earlier this year that I realized that my perception of beauty was skewed by what the masses were portraying while I was at an impressionable point of my life. Growing up in a "black" neighborhood - Middle Class, but black nonetheless - and in a black school where the latest fads and fashion made you "likable", I learned early on that I had to be like others to fit in. Thank God at 32 I've finally caught on! The perm is gone, the length of hair is gone. What is left is what God intended. My lovely natural state of hair. Every curl, wave, kink is absolutely gorgeous. If I ever have a daughter I will try to instill in her that she is the most beautiful young lady around. No matter who says differently, she was made perfectly and wonderfully. I will teach her to love her curves, her wit, her intelligence, her strengths, even her weaknesses. Because those things make up her being. But... I don't have a daughter. It's even harder for me.

I have a son. My greatest fear is in raising a man. My regular prayer is for him not to grow up a "nigga". I shudder at the thought of even using the word. I daily speak my dreams over him and his future. I daily attempt to instill in him the virtues that I know will enhance his life. I know the man that he can be, but I also know the struggles that can befall black males. Well, I think I know since I am female. My son is only three years of age. My family laughs at my son, because whenever he can't do something and starts to say "I can't", he stops and says, "Mommy says I can do anything." I tell him that he can be anything. That success is in his future. As you walk into preschool, you will work the hardest, you will be the smartest, you will attain all things. This is not to put undue pressure on him. But when the world says that he is nothing, that he comes from nothing, and can never be anyting, hopefully he will remember the words of his mother. That is my prayer. I hope by the time he is of the age of the youth in your restaurant, I pray that he realizes his value. I pray that he continues to seek out the virtues that I am beginning to plant in his soul and spirit now.

Thanks Kace for your words. When is the book coming?

From an anonymous friend from way back. If you can remember we share the same birthday. Even the year.