And if you think it's easy that's only 'cause
You ain't me. And I ain't you.
-- Earnie Isley
When I took this picture, I was just over 30 years old. I lived in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn in a brownstone on the top floor. I had a two bedroom flat with an EIK at 7th Avenue and Flatbush. Wooden floors, exposed brick, roof access. I worked in Midtown, was single and had no kids. I didn't do drugs and had basically no bad habits, except one. I wrote a different personal ad every week, but never bothered to send it to the Village Voice.
I had a stereo, NAD and Souncraftsmen components and Infiniti speakers. I was into Prokofiev and Arrested Development. My two bookshelves were full. I was into Charles Wright and Umberto Eco. I had Chianti and steaks in the fridge, although I'd just as soon get sushi right up the block. One of the bedrooms was an office with my computer, desk and files. I had French doors, mood lighting and a king size bed. The only reason I didn't have a BMW was because I just sold it back in LA.
It was very difficult, back in those days to get any young lady to visit my apartment. I actually had the conversation that helped me understand why. I was told that because I was well-dressed, didn't curse, was 30 years old and had never been married and had no kids that most black women in Brooklyn would think I was gay. I was also a poet you see. I was doing the performance poetry circuit at various joints in NYC, and I also wrote rap lyrics. Hmm. I don't know if I've ever published them at Cobb. How about a sample? I had the nerve to show up at an open mic for rap producers. They thought I was going to sing ballads.
I have been him, the Unbelievable Black Man.
I have been that man whose statistics didn't add up, whose raison d'etre was not supposed to be anything resembling a raison d'etre. I have been the man unexpected and uncompensated, at the right place at the right time to the chagrin of those present. I have been that man to make women flinch in fear of beating when I was only reaching to swat a fly from her area. I have been that man to sit quietly in complete bored understanding only to have them repeat themselves to me more slowly. I have had the landlord collect rent at my front door, amazed that it was me. I have had the check delivered to my subordinates at the restaurants, and have had the police ask me if I know how to operate the high beams on my BMW because most car thieves don't understand such sophisticated vehicles. I programmed computers before Apple existed. I climbed mountains many hours from the 'hood and slept in redneck forests. I have hugged Republican statesmen and saluted the flag. I have performed inward 2 1/2s from the 3 meter board.
I wrestled with my Unbelievability with the consolation that at least I refused to be Invisible. And after a time, I made peace with my individuality. So it doesn't really matter why I have been that unbelievable black man. Long ago I accepted something Baldwin wrote:
All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact - this may sound very strange - you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.
So I went about forcing the world and imposing my identity on the world, whether the world liked it or not. I had Greg Tate in mind.
Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural identity among themselves while getting branded as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complexion of a community, let alone a nation. If Afro Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed upon them -- from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological myth -- it's because the black collective conscious not only knew better but also knew more than enough ethnic diversity to subsume those fictions.
I could never settle for the racist reduction. Not spiritual. Not political. Not cultural. Not economic. If I could have been said to have a motto it might have been "I will not be reduced." I never was, and it doesn't matter. There isn't an easy way to be believed. One shouldn't try so hard to be believed. Maybe I didn't believe that I could be believed because I didn't believe myself. None of that matters any longer. I'm the man I was trying to be.
Being a man involves integrating oneself into the structure of society in such a way that allows you and society to have mutually acceptable expectations. Deep down inside, I knew that Lionel Ritchie was right way back in Zoom.
Well, I've shared so many pains
And I played so many games
Ah, but everyone finds the right way
Somehow, some way, some day
And so I went from Unbelievable to Unstoppable. And I married, and raised my family, and got that job and moved to that neighborhood and got that promotion and started that business, and went on that vacation and finished those books and wrote that poetry and built those websites and retired that debt and handled that lawsuit and lost those pounds and didn't have a heart attack...
And now I think about where I should sit when it's time to have a glass of wine. And I think about who I should toast with, and relax with. Who can come to my house and grab a beer out of the fridge without asking? Nobody. When I call my old pals from back in the day they don't have time to answer the phone. We still say, yeah one of these days we have to get our kids together. And everybody seems to be just playing golf or watching the game trying to put the grind out of their mind.
If I should die, who is going to raise my son? He's more unbelievable than me.
It's a man thing. It has to be, and it always will be.
I think these days around the question of permanence, and how well prepared we are to pass on something to the next generation. It's something my friends know, but when I was in the 7th grade, somebody was fixing me up on a date with Flip Wilson's daughter. Flip Wilson was the man who discovered Robin Williams and Billy Crystal. There can only be a few reasons why the heirs of Flip Wilson aren't running a major section of Hollywood right now. I think one of those reasons was that Flip was out there by himself - somebody we all could know and admire, and yet with nobody he could trust to keep his vision alive.
I asked at P6 the other day:
The basic question is something like this. How many men do you know that you would not hesitate to give the keys to your house? If your answer is less than 3, you're in trouble. The trouble is that your success ends with you - you don't have a path to pass it down. Nobody is invested in your success but you.
But it's also about failure. How do you sustain failure and not rely on some government program to bail you out? What is it like to have somebody you can trust to do business with and look after your affairs? The analogy that comes to mind is the father Chris Cooper plays in "October Sky", who had to kick his kid's friend's stepdad's ass. Why? Because that's what a good man would do.
Success vs The Element is not really a part of it. It's certainly not the impetus. For me, it's all a question of Old School Values which exist independent of class. It's more of Spence's question - how do I keep my marriage going? How do I extend family beyond family? What's next if I'm successful? Who has got my back if I'm not? I actually do want to see that Black Royalty thing going on, and I'm reasonably serious about it. Fzample, I would like to see a network of brothers who have a spare bedroom so that when somebody is traveling on business to Omaha, they know where the hookup is. I want it to be a married man's club, I guess.
But I'm very very serious about crossing class gaps. In some ways I'm taken back to that Ayn Rand allegory about the hidden valley with the shield where the man behind the counter serves the perfect hamburger and everybody smokes the same brand of cigaretts. I'm talking about Delroy Lindo's character in Crooklyn, an honest man with family who could use some good company.
My best friends from college are living all around the country. I simply can't do much more than talk to them on the phone for half an hour maybe twice a year and catch up that way. Plus my career, up until this point, has had me mostly working away from home. So I can tell you where a good steak restaurant is in the business district of most any American city, but I can't tell you much more than a walking tour of the 'hood will reveal.
Now there's a certain part of me that wants also to do the Prosper.com thing, because that's where I was in 2003 and just four months ago - needing 3000 bucks for a month, hey I'm good for it - a little domestic lending. And I want to get a friend of mine involved who is running a local black bank, but that's really secondary. For me the real deal is rather much what Craig says about communion.
Intellectually, I am drawn to post-modern organizational paradigms. I've worked in three different virtual corporations. I understand some basics of cellular spycraft. I'm hip to Boyd's OODA. I'm impressed by the way people can organize given today's technology and non-hierarchical protocols. So I'm interested to see how a networked collection of black men could socialize for their mutual benefit and keep something alive that survives the destruction of the ghetto.
What happens when you get 10 unbelievable men together? It's part of my new direction for 2008. Believe it or not. As Frankie Beverly said, I don't like being alone.