Saturday, November 29, 2014

Guess Who's Coming...


I am not black.

I was a seventeen-year old, attending Normandy High School in St. Louis, Missouri, when I saw Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. A groundbreaking film—yet still with its roots firmly planted in Hollywood—the Oscar winning movie dared to examine race relations as America at large was barely finding its footing.

I remember seeing the film with my Grandma Katie, the one relative I could trust throughout otherwise duplicitous familial machinations. During the late Sixties, she rented a room from a woman who lived in Ferguson, Missouri. I have no recollection of discussing the film although my grandmother took me to see Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with specific intent.

I am not black.

I had met very few black people when I went to a virtually all-white high school; it was only when I ventured into gay bars in East St. Louis that I was exposed to gay black men. They were—to throw out the first of many politically incorrect words I will inevitably employ—exotic.

I knew I was gay in high school and so did almost everyone else including a gang of bullies who—in a militaristic maneuver between classes—captured me, threw me into one of the gymnasium showers and kicked me as I was drenched with cold water. The event would eventually fuel the fires of my activism.

The year I graduated from high school, poised to escape the fear and homophobia I experienced, was a year of mythic political activity: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago riots at the National Democratic Convention, and the student protests over the war in Vietnam

I began to grasp the concept of Us Versus Them.

Ferguson, Missouri

On Thanksgiving, still reeling from the Ferguson debacle, my adopted black daughter and I go to dinner with a few of our “family” members (Carol and Art, who play the “grandparent” roles and “Uncle” Bill). Of the five of us, my daughter is the only one who is black.

I am not black.

About a year ago, Katherine called me from England, where she was at college, studying filmmaking. “You know something, Dad?” she asked rhetorically and straightforwardly. Then answered herself, “I’m black.”

It was a moment I’d been waiting for; in spite of all the Martin Luther King parades and politically correct children’s books; in spite of trips to Leimert Park and God-only-knows how many African-American-centric beauty salons; after how many movie showings (including Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner) and how many friends I attempted to cultivate, one truth remains: Katherine was brought up by a bunch of crackers.

And even though she’s only twenty years old, the color of her skin is saturated with the hues of more than two-hundred years of anti-black sentiment.

I am not black.

“But I know what discrimination is like. I’ve lost work—I’ve virtually been blacklisted in Hollywood [is "blacklisted" a politically incorrect word?]. I’ve been made fun of. I’ve been afraid for my life,” I insist, trying to suggest that my degree of empathy is pristine.

Katherine insists back, “Dad, it is not the same. It’s just not.” I take a lame stab at the marriage issues (even I know that’s not comparable—I don’t know of any gay lynching in West Hollywood).

I am not black.

Katherine gives me a few articles to read which happens concurrently with a Poly Sci class I’m taking that explores race in America, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the murder in Ferguson. While race is an issue that has been in the foreground of my work as a writer and an actor for decades, I suddenly felt like A Big Ignorant Honkie.

Katherine and her friend (to this day) Cassady 

Before we sit down to eat on Thanksgiving, Katherine flippantly says, “Well, I guess I should be thankful I wasn't shot by Darren Wilson.” Action; the camera is rolling—metaphorically. Wilson is the cop who shot Michael Brown—the teen who recently graduated from Normandy High School (which had become primarily a black school since my days as a student there)—not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times.

Carol suggests that she knows what discrimination is like because she was taunted as a child for being unusually tall, having a childhood illness, and not fitting into normative boxes.

“Carol,” Katherine says, trying to reason. “You have to stop saying that. It’s not the same. It’s not the same as living in black skin. You cannot make those comparisons. I could get killed for being black—do you get that?”

I am not black.

The discussion escalated. I tried to keep my big mouth shut but did offer that I, too, felt like the perils of my marginalization as a gay person are comparable to those of a black person—until I really, really listened to Katherine.

“Carol, it hurts my feelings when you say things like that,” Katherine says, walking from the living room, out the front door.

Katherine begins to cry. Carol begins to understand. We can’t be the only family in America exploring Ferguson during a family gathering on Thanksgiving.

High School Graduation with Carol & Art

Carol loves no one on the face of the Earth more than she loves Katherine. She and Art have helped raise her—from changing diapers to navigating these changing times.

Uncle Bill, a therapist, has always watched with intimacy and objectivity.“It’s so good that you are able to say these things,” he assures Katherine on the evening of our family holiday dinner. 

Carol’s perception shifts.

As a new scene unfolds, I lie down in the adjacent bedroom within earshot of Katherine and Carol enjoying a conversation. Katherine explains how her racial identity is directly affecting her artistic life. She is determined to address what she correctly perceives to be a skewed vision of race in the television and film industry.

Now it’s my turn to cry, quietly, tears of thanksgiving for my daughter (who changed her name in honor of my grandmother) and our evolving mixed family.

I am not black.