In 1995, I was in the middle of a contract for my own business. I took the day off because I could. I decided to wear a suit and so I took a stroll in downtown Atlanta in the middle of the week. I came to the sudden realization, I suppose rather late in the career of someone determined to live large, that the experience put me in an entirely new realm.
The fun part was knowing that I had all my bills paid and the money was rolling in and I had lots of cash in the bank. My net worth was all good. So I walked down by Morton's which I had only been to once before several years back all impressed knowing that now I could go get me one of those monster steaks if I wanted. Or I could buy another suit. Instead I walked through the mall at Little Five Points and window shopped in every store. I impressed myself. I bought nothing.
At the same time I noticed the people noticing me. Working people with no free time in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. They were the kind of folks I had once been, wondering how the hell anybody could afford anything in these crazy overpriced shops and restaurants. I recall that not four years before I had my first $100 date in New York City, and I was amazed at the fact that I would spend that much money as a single man and not put any pressure on the young lady to put out even though that was the expectation all around. I recall being a freshman in college the year that alfalfa sprouts and avocado became popular sandwich ingredients and that it took me two hours pay to afford such a sandwich. That afternoon in Atlanta, the Black Mecca, I thought about all of the previous moments I had reflected on the times that I poked my head through the decidedly low ceilings.
How high is the glass ceiling by the way? It's relative to your expectations, and expectations vary like crazy.
It turns out that yesterday I had one of those moments, except I played it like I am more likely to play it now. So let me explain how I play it now and why. In that, there is another tale with which some Cobb readers may be familiar. But to my way of looking at the existentials of being black, the only thing missing is millions of dollars. And while there are plenty of old money black families who remain so fussy as to eschew outreach,
About five years ago, I had something going on called the China Deal. To make a long story short, I had guessed that I had stumbled onto that particular job that made me feel like this was the one I always was looking for. Some days it feels like a set of circumstances that were too good to be true, but you know they say that you cannot cheat an honest man. So I didn't get cheated. Nevertheless, although the opportunity didn't pan out, I was there. You know, that place you get to when you know your hard work payed off. When you say "I've got it made" and now everything else is gravy. That's where I was - mentally. It was very satisfying to look back at my life and say with confidence, I'm a success, so what do I feel like doing today?
Having been through that moment, it has been easy for me to relax and let the goodness flow through me to others. I am validated and prepared to deal with new opportunities. I look at myself and I say, why shouldn't I be happy? And I am. Happy for me, and thus sometimes a little bit lazy. This is very different, however, from the feeling I had in my last days of being single. Back then, I felt unleashed.
'Unleashed' is very much like 'off the chain' meaning apt to do anything just because I can - nobody can hold me back, especially not me. It's the energy of feeling not responsible to anything or anybody because you are not the stereotypical person you think other people think you are. So you have this kind of snarky mocking attitude towards everybody. That was me before I got married and had kids.
Now I'm married, survived the seven year itch, have kids who are succesful and bright and have taken on much more responsibility than I get paid to take. I'm not unleashed at all. I have leashed myself to a new set of restraints on myself, just going above and beyond, responsibly, also because I can. I'm at a point at which I think I honestly can do a little good in the world. Imagine that. But what I'm not going to say is something like, 'pretty good for a skinny black kid from the ghetto'. Why? Because those were never really the standards by which I wanted to be judged. Even when I was a skinny black kid from the 'hood, I had more self-esteem than anyone thought I deserved, which was what got me in trouble with people who thought a skinny black kid from the ghetto is all I could ever be.
So that is the point of departure for the idea that's been bubbling under the surface for a couple weeks which has something to do with why there is no black men's magazine that you could possibly imagine that would be edited by Denzel. And why I kind of sneer at Steve Harvey's new book. And while I'm at it, let me repeat the deepest thing I every heard about hiphop. Hiphop is a success because young black women are that desparate for men in their lives. And it reminds me that the market for literature for young black straight men is tiny. All the books published in the past 10 years could be locked in the trunk of Suge Knight's Escalade and never heard from again.
What happened yesterday is that I met Sam, a very bright and successful young black man. Funny as hell. We share a black Catholic school background, and although I can't tell if it bothered him much, at some point in the day I felt a certain confidence given to me. You know the kind, the code switch in the lowered voice, the voice that indicates some fraction of embarassment and perhaps even pain. It's the pain of being beat by Biff and Chad, the pain we sometimes take out on Becky if we can roll like that. Sam's not ugly, I know he could do that kind of roll. So could I. But Sam reminded me of another cat who actually did. He was the man who called himself a 'nouveau nigger' drove a Ferrari, wore polyester three piece suits and only dated Beckys. Blonde, blue bombshell Beckys. You can imagine him parking the red 308 on Rodeo Drive, making her stay in the car and getting out of sight just to watch everybody wonder who was the owner of the ultimate boy toys. Then he'd pimp walk, loud-talking, beep the alarm and burn rubber giving the bird to the jewelry store owner who had him followed.
I cannot remember the last time I wanted to make white people pay. I guess it was the day before Nelson Mandela was freed. I've spent a long time, the greater part of my life, indifferent to the majority of white Americans and their racism in practice and much more time to their racism in theory. Just like the Catholic priest who never bothers to stand on a soapbox at Venice Beach, I don't fear the apocalypse. I don't await the second coming of Malcolm X or secretly thrill at the threats of Farrakhan. Ordinary whitefolks never hurt me. Then again, Biff and Chad aren't ordinary. Biff and Chad walked in doors we honestly thought we ought to be able to walk through and couldn't. And so Biff and Chad were never the hopheads in front of us, they were a kind of spirit transferred. Because wherever it was we discovered a bigger fish, there was surely somebody trying to be Biff and Chad there.
I don't know how long it was after I had been watching golf on TV as a kid that I realized that there was someplace called Augusta and that place never had a black member (if that's true). I don't know who it was that told me the best scuba diving was in the Red Sea and in Belize and it made me both proud and jealous. Proud because I've got black Belize and most Americans aren't welcome in the Red Sea where rich Russians tend to gather and jealous because as much as I dig Jacques Cousteau I had no idea about these places. You grow in sophistication and then you find someplace more exclusive and you know Biff and Chad are not cluing you in. How long does that eat at your soul until you get all frustrated and feel the need to bogard - to put on the dark glasses and smack up the nearest innocent white boy?
Every black man has at least one whiteboy he can beat up on. It doesn't take much, I mean we're all Americans here and black men and whiteboys in my generation learned to drill early. Eldridge Cleaver wrote the book. He wore his mask. Steven Weed wore his, as did Bernie Goetz. Even the sweet deals were stereotypical. I didn't ask to be shown that movie about Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo, but we all knew that our Christianity was insufficient just three years after 1968. But is that what we really want to be, as thinking men? No we don't. We're all too complex for that. And yet sometimes we feel like we have to be unleashed instead of merely free.
Up From Freedom is the name of my autobiography if I get to write it. I don't think I will have achieved anything like Frederick Douglass, but somehow along the line enough of America forgot old Frederick so that MLK had to repeat the obvious, and a new generation had to come up with a new name for 'Free People of Color' and enshrine their own heroes and new schools of thought. And so for my little piece is something that wasn't taught to me which is how to comport oneself on the other side of that Mountaintop MLK kept talking about. How to be cool, if cool was the thing to be, in the face of people you fear to be Biff and Chad even if they are not. I'm talking about how to sublimate the cool pose of fake manhood and experience life with the sunglasses off, with the music turned off, with the hostility turned off, with the fear turned off.
I'm talking about being happy.