The Racism That Still Lives Deep in My Bones

The Racism That Still Lives Deep in My Bones
Photo by mana5280 / Unsplash

Let’s call teaching racism to your kids what it is: child abuse

Hey folks, been a busy couple weeks editing Restive Souls. Big changes there. Here's something I wrote on Medium the other day:

I’m blessed to be living in the world capital, Atlanta, of an exciting phenomenon that has worldwide historical and sociological implications: a Black Renaissance.

To be sure, my hometown, Chicago, is another fulcrum of this emerging splendor. Many cities worldwide are participating, from New York City to Durban, South Africa.

This renaissance, involving music, art, literature, sport, and whatever else you can imagine within the broader spectrum of cultural significance, reaches all the way to Africa.

Whereas twenty years ago my exposure to Black literature involved reading Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison or Alice Walker, today I’m reading Things Fall Apart by an African writer, Chinua Achebe. The novel has sold twenty million copies.

But it feels like the beating heart of the Black Renaissance is right here in Atlanta. A large part of this rests on the simple fact that Atlanta is home to a massive Black infrastructure of economic and personal success that involves a majority of middle and upper-class citizens who run everything from bakeries to banks.

This huge demographic is consuming a lot of culture.

White folks have gobbled up Black culture for a long time. But this is something bigger. For one thing, The Black Renaissance doesn’t require white involvement. It stands on its own. Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t need people like me to buy his books to be the quote machine that he’s become. Folks in my demographic don’t need to watch a Jordan Peele film for him to find critical or financial directorial success.

I don’t think many people are aware of the Black Renaissance that is taking place before their eyes. A search for the term on the interwebs doesn’t reveal much, but I have to believe that our Black brothers and sisters are keen to it no matter what the awareness level among whites might be.

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I love being in the middle of it all, even though, if I’m being honest, I don’t participate in a lot of it.

And now, to the problem.

The other day, I found myself with an ugly thought involving Black people. It was fleeting, but it was there.

I wasn’t angry at myself for this. I’ve been fighting old tapes since I was a child.

I was angry at my parents, who relentlessly, tirelessly, stubbornly ground these tapes into my bones from the moment my mother spat me out into this cold, cruel world.

My childhood consisted of a fusillade of verbal attacks against a variety of targets, but Blacks received the worst of it. And, not that I wish any further harm upon these good people than they’ve already received, but my parents didn’t have the courage to say these things directly to the subjects of their wrath. They said it all to me. The awfulness of Black people was our little secret.

Strangely, despite how hate spilled into my ears every day, I fought it from a very young age. I don’t remember ever cheering my parents on, or even understanding any of their resentments. My most common question to my parents became, “Why?”

Even as a child, their answers seemed nonsensical.

One day, in one of her many answers to the question, my mom reported to me that she had been frequently beaten up by Black kids on her way to school.

Upon hearing this, I leaned in close to her to look for scars.

For I was skeptical.

When a Black kid started bullying me on the bus on my morning trips to middle school, you can imagine that my thoughts must have gone to my mother’s reported experience. I don’t remember thinking that.

What I do remember was that within a few months, my Black “tormentor” and I were sitting on the bus together discussing the upcoming race war. “I’ve got your back,” I said to him. “And I got yours,” he said. “We’ll take care of each other.”

I wish I could relay some great illumination that tells you how we became inseparable for a time after our initial conflicts, but the memory has faded. It was nearly a half-century ago, and my memory has discovered other things to hold onto.

Our mutually vivid imaginations led us to common ground, but how we got there has faded from view.


I have a strange history compared to most men. I’ve never hit anyone. I’ve never even wanted to, except for one time.

The closest I ever came to fisticuffs was on the streets of Chicago when I walked toward a crowd of young toughs looking for trouble on Fullerton Avenue in Chicago.

I was in my thirties, walking home from the gym, my blood still pumping wildly from another long session with free weights. As I approached them, one of them grabbed my wrist.

I was pretty strong, and I must have felt confident, too, the adrenalin from my workout still coursing through my veins. I flipped my hand over his so quickly I barely knew what was happening, and, holding onto his wrist, I drove him hard into a chain link fence that was blocking a construction site.

There were a lot of them, and one of me. I don’t know what could have possibly come over me other than thinking it was my only play. I let him go without throwing a punch and made my way to the sidewalk. Maybe they thought I was a cop. The small crowd of young toughs divided as I walked through them.

One of them then thrust his hand out at me. I was thinking, “Uh-oh.” But when I looked down at his hand, it was extended. He wanted to shake mine.

I did, and we all went on our way.

It happened so fast that I had no real emotions. When I think back on it now, it reminds me of playing football when I was in high school, where my chances of getting clobbered were high anyway. There was no time for fear. I just had to run the play.

And that’s how it ended: Like the end of a football play. I may have scored the touchdown, but little did they know I was shaking like a leaf when I heard them bantering as they walked away.

But that wasn’t the time I wanted to hit someone.

No, the time I wanted to hit someone was when my mother went on one of her race-based tirades.

I was in middle school at the time, trying to enjoy a Sunday afternoon dinner with the family, when she went off yet again at Black something or another.

I snapped. I had been listening to it all my life. But now it was getting personal. I had a few Black friends, and this felt like an attack on them. I screamed, I yelled, I jumped out of my chair at the dining room table, and I screamed some more.

I felt pain. Sadness. Hurt. Why was she attacking my friends? There were enough Black kids in my school that she had to know my encounters with them were frequent. She further had to assume that I had no Black friends at all, because, after all, why would I? By some bizarre duty to a twisted code, surely I automatically rejected any potential Black friendship.

Perhaps, then, I was offended by her assumption that I would agree with her poisonous thinking. So I screamed some more.

I left the table, seething, and for the only time in my life, I wanted to hit somebody. A woman, no less.

I doubt I would have if I had stayed. I’ve since learned that I’m just not wired that way. But I was twelve or thirteen. I had no idea what the end result of those incredibly powerful emotions might be.


Looking back on the constant confetti of racial epithets around my home, I have concluded that parents repeatedly hammering away at their kids with that kind of stuff is a form of child abuse.

They are filling their kids with toxins when they rage at other groups of people for the color of their skin, or their religion, or their gender preference.

Older white man holding a sign that says “Racism is a virus, we are the vaccine” with a young Black woman looking on.
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Racist parents are filling their kids’ bones with a cancer that the kids will spend the rest of their lives, if they’re lucky, trying to remove.

If they’re not lucky, they’ll spend their adult years miming their parents’ beliefs to the world, which exposes them to ridicule and possible violence.

These days, if they express racist views in school, given that most young people are anti-racist, they can be tormented and shunned. Parents who let that happen through their antiquated belief system, which itself can only be considered a form of psychosis, are committing child abuse.

When parents infuse their daily conversation with racial invective and epithets, even when we are successful at flushing most of it out of our system, the old tapes play, and play, and play.

Sixty years later, I still hear the same old tapes trying to get a little volume. They’ve faded now, these scratchy old tapes, but they’re there, like part of an episode of American Horror Story, waiting for that one opportunity to get me to say something stupid.

The old tapes will never get me to say the worst of it. But, like living, breathing little demons, the tapes would love to hear me make a fool of myself by uttering a stereotype or making an assumption.

Sadly, white folks don’t need racist parents to hear those tapes in their heads every day. Almost all of us had a racist uncle or aunt or grandparent who was happy to record those tapes every day for future playback. We all hear them.

We grow up with friends who hear them, too, and who often repeat them.


Ask me what I know of the Black Renaissance and I’ll quickly embarrass myself. I don’t know much. But I don’t need to be steeped in the details to understand its importance. I grab pieces of it when I can, and strive to find more, but I’m no expert.

Part of this is an inherent handicap I’ve dealt with all my life. I’ve never had a good memory. I read many of the classics in literature before I got out of middle school, but remember little of them. I’ll watch a movie again I saw a few years ago and strain to remember the scenes I watched.

And my mind, because I’m a white guy, tends toward the whiter parts of many Black-centric films I see. Bradley Whitford’s hauntingly “politically correct” character in “Get Out” was a tribute to Jordan Peele’s brilliance as a director, but it’s still Whitford’s performance I remember most.

It oozed with a subtle horror that made me think, “Oh my God, is that me?”

This was true especially early on in the movie. Before the real horror set in, we knew what we were in for. You could just feel it. Whitford exuded a cloying, but subtle, evil that we knew could not stay inside the box for long.

Films like that make even white folks like me consider what it means to be an ally to the Black community. Are we really allies? When push comes to shove, would we shove Black folks aside when it most matters?

Will the tapes, and the demons, finally win?

Thoughts like I had the other day never get a chance for their voice to be heard. But the very fact of their existence, like the silent roar of mutant rats as they gnaw into the deep crevices of my mind, means my work is never done.

I doubt any of these old tapes inform me in my writing aside from my usual rants, many of which are focused on social justice. In other words, I want to think that when they inform me, they help me rally to the cause. But I can’t know for sure, can I? Therein lies the insidiousness of those relentless words of childhood.

When, in my fiction, I write about Black or other characters outside of my demographic, I want to believe I have a healthy and holistic attitude. I’m sure that occasionally my European background rears its head to display an ignorance about a topic or two. But I don’t blame that on racism. That’s just the result of not having lived the life.

As writers, we can’t forbid ourselves from writing about experiences outside our comfort zone, but we have a responsibility to try to write as empaths.

For someone like me, the bigger responsibility, a much more difficult one, is taking a sledgehammer to the old tape machine every single day. Because that damn thing just keeps coming back, like the bad guy in the movie that you thought the hero killed.

But you know what won’t die? The Black Renaissance. That’s just getting started.


Notes

If you’re wondering what my ugly thought was, I can’t remember. I kicked it aside. The only thing I remember about it was how it made me feel. Besides, why share it, even if I did remember? We don’t need that crap filling our discourse, even if it is fleeting, even if we know it’s stupid, and even if it is repressed.


Thanks for reading! This story first appeared on Medium.

This story was written by a human, not by AI or Grammarly GO (More Info)