I said it. Simply because you’re reading it (and not hearing the nuanced
intonation) the word’s power is drained. Tone is everything. You have no ideas
if I am saying it with venom, with matter-of-factness, or with a certain flirty
even seeing the word is stinging. And stinking.
might say that I, as a white man, have no business using the word even if there
is absolutely no malice intended. For a white man to utter those two syllables
conjure centuries of horror; it is not possible for a white man to say “nigger”
without assuming some degree of hatefulness. It is a mortal sin.
Katherine Kearns with her Dad
say it,” my daughter pleads. “You’re my dad. Please don’t.” She is crying,
tears that are springing from a bottomless well; tears that are as wet as the
tears of Trayvon’s mommy; tears that are as fresh as the tears of Michael
Jordan’s daddy; tears that splash on the streets of Ferguson
and every other street in America.
will be appearing at the Silver Lake Library in Los Angeles, mixing a
Discussion that intends to capture the zeitgeist of the moment with a Performance
that intends to pull the audience into a world that is foreign and yet
dad,” she says, with a determination that she’s been encouraged to cultivate.
is my child. I am so proud of who she’s becoming: her intellect, her
commitment, her politics.
it’s an artistic choice. I’m not doing it to hurt you. Or hurt anyone. She’s a
character, a construct. It’s a word that I believe—with all my heart—she’d use
under these circumstances. And she’s using it affectionately.”
is even more outraged that I dare to play a black woman who says “nigger” as a
distorted term of endearment. “That doesn’t make it okay,” she says.
subtitle of the event (“Michael Kearns: White On Black”) is “How Parenting a
Black Daughter Has Taught Me Lessons About Race.” Little did I realize I’d be
learning lessons less than forty-eight hours before the scheduled time of the afternoon
live in fear of being called that,” she says, sniffling. “I haven’t been—not
yet—but when I’m walking down the street, I’m afraid someone is going to yell
it from their car window. Or come up behind me and say it. It’s a horrible,
horrible word.” Providing that startling context unnerves me.
it’s tempting, I don’t bring up the “faggot” comparison because she knows it
wouldn’t bother me; not in the primal, imprinted way that the n-word would land
keep at it. I bring up Lily Tomlin and Anna Deavere Smith, both of whom have
played men, men who are racially different. She listens, she does.
listen, I do.
feel like you’ve made up your mind,” she says.
Anna Deavere Smith
have. Somewhere along the line, a writer makes certain choices that could be
construed as moral. I write characters (many of whom I play) who are society’s throwaways.
Their language—so “foreign” to the ear that it is difficult to understand—bursts
from an alternative dictionary of language that is littered with words that may
be unsavory but not, sorry, unspeakable: words that are part onomatopoeia stirred in
with some deliberate malapropisms.The
same word could be hurled like a bullet at the end of Cupid’s bow.
is my job to be authentic,” I say. “I contract with the characters I play and
it is my job to bring them to emotional life; I engage in an agreement that promises
to adopt their way of speaking. If I believe a character is going to lovingly
refer to her boyfriend as a ‘nigger’—when no other word will do—I have no
option other than to put that word into her mouth.”
you’re going to say it—in front of people I know—and you’re my dad.”
you think anyone who sees my work thinks that I’m a racist?”
silence indicates that she does not.
the hours go by, I substitute other words; they fall flat. Is this my white privileged
self justifying the pain I see on my baby’s face. Perhaps—in a very rare
instance—I am putting my work before my kid’s feelings?
the late-Eighties, prior to being tested—“to be or not to be,” that was the
question—my work had, almost overnight, accelerated into an artistic
stratosphere that was as exciting as it was terrifying.
saw a photo in People Magazine, one
of many depictions of HIV/AIDS at the time of the publication, more than a
quarter of a century ago: An emaciated black woman, sitting in a bathtub, one
arm uplifted as the other one lathered up her underarm. Her head of dreadlocks
is thrown back, accentuating the huge smile on her face. It is that smile that
would haunt me; it contained an ebullience that screamed “I’m alive” but her
countenance was also carrying rage, sadness, and confusion. In the accompanying
article, my lady in the tub was formerly a lady of the night, a veritable
moving target, daring the virus to do its dirty work.
is the writer’s task: to climb into your subject’s body—naked body, in this
case—and while in residence, perform a magic act of empathy that conjoins two
spirits. This leap into otherworldliness requires workmanlike skills (demands of
the voice and body) in tandem with muscularity of the heart (beware: breaks are
Red” was the manifestation of my initial connection to that photograph and the first black woman I would audaciously portray; she
would become part of intimacies, but
not before I did more exploration. I felt like I had to observe street hookers
workin’ it, so I ventured into the bowels of Hollywood—on Sunset Boulveard, east of
Western—where the action was during that time. I observed these women up close:
pursing their love-for-sale lips, flipping their exaggerated hair, examining
their reflection in the storefront windows that stared back with blurred facsimiles.
In acting lexicon, these are often referred to as “emblematic gestures.” I
memorized them and later, when I got home, I performed them—purse, flip, examine,
again: purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine—over and over and over
did not interview anyone but I got what I needed. More than any other time in
my career, I felt like I was doing field work, becoming an anthropologist in a quest
to deepen my writing and acting skills.
into a solo performance piece in which I uncloak a number of characters who are
ostensibly not within my grasp—as an actor or a human being. "To be an actor in the theater is to teach yourself
and keep yourself disciplined and honorable,” Frank Langella said. “If you do that, you get a chance to fly in this kind of
emotional paradise…Acting is just as much hard work as digging a ditch. And if
you do all the yeoman work, inspiration will come." I did the work and the
work put me on the map, in America
performance itself, I explain to my twenty-one year old, must be stageworthy
(entertaining and believable with something to say) without ever forgetting my
partnership with the audience. It may be a “solo” show but there are those who
witness; they witness the transformative act of empathy, a visual metaphor.
Inhabiting the character authentically becomes
a way to invite the audience to go on the ride with me. If a white man, over
six feet tall, with a head of brown, straightish hair and often sporting a
bushy moustache, can “become” Big Red—in all her transcendence—so can you, the
audience member (no matter what your physicality or emotionality dictates).
Empathy is the artery that leads you to a profound understanding.
with many other things—including parenting my daughter (which trumps everything
else)—empathizing with The Other, on stage and on the page, has become my
During most of his
presidency (1981—1989), Ronald Reagan avoided using the word “AIDS” until
nearly 60,000 cases had been reported and more than 27,000 of those men and
women had died.
The word he did employ,
more times than anyone could possibly count, was “crack” as in “crack baby,”
“crack house,” “crack mother,” and “crack whore.” Instead of a war on AIDS,
Reagan had declared a war on drugs in 1982 when drug use was declining, not
To read Michelle Anderson’s
seething book, The New Jim Crow, is
to awaken to a reality in American politics that virtually proves (with meticulous
data and overwhelming statistics) that mass incarceration in America is testament
to that the virulent disregard that we, white people, have for black and brown
The New Jim Crow is a call to arms.
In order to respond to
Anderson’s detailed account—as emotionally rendered as it is intellectually
generated—I look for myself in the book’s pages (as I do with most books),
trying to insert myself so that, whether I like it or not, I am part of the
The pain that I feel, combined
with anger and embarrassment, must be channeled into action.
Halfway through the book, I
am overwrought with so many thoughts that I must begin organizing them. The
connections create sparks, lightening bolts of empathy, fear, regret; the
illumination is blinding.
There are times when I
don’t want to believe Anderson’s
words, often hurled off the page, seemingly in my direction. But I cannot duck;
I let the words stick.
I do not question the
conclusions that are masterfully drawn in The
New Jim Crow: Americans (Democrats and Republicans alike) have (consciously
or not) allowed (and in some cases, engineered) an environment in which black
people—because of a perverse, immoral legal system—are afforded no more dignity
than slaves were at the start of the Seventeenth century.
(Please don’t stop
"The pain that I feel...
must be channeled into action."
Anderson’s reasoning is not based on conjecture; she relies
on facts when she says (in the Introduction to her book): “An extraordinary percentage of black men
in the United States
are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of
American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in
employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as
their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.”
her canvass is so massive, Anderson
could not go down every road. But I, as a reader, am able to fill in blanks
that personalize the book’s intent. In fact, isn’t that our job as conscious
In the early Nineties, when
I began to seriously pursue becoming a parent, I knew that—as a single, gay,
HIV-positive man—my options were limited. While I explored the
possibilities—everything from being the weekend “father figure” in a lesbian
relationship to being “Dad” to a foster child from the county of Los Angeles.
"...as a single, gay, HIV-positive man--
my options were limited."
After several fostering
stints of varying durations (two brothers for four months), I came to the
conclusion that I wanted a baby of my own; I wanted to be the parent of a child
from as early as possible so that our bond would be as unalloyed as possible.
There is an unwritten and
unspoken transaction that often transpired (or did during the particular period
of time) whereby situations arose that were “foster-to-adopt”—in other words, a
high likelihood that if you fostered one of these babies in limbo (most of whom
had no apparent familial ties) you would logically (a word not usually
associated with adoption in any of its myriad tangled manifestations) become
the adoptive parent.
However, this proposition
did not come without risks, risks that The System knew gays and lesbians were
willing to take. Keep in mind that we were not perceived as the most
candidates for parenting (still aren’t by many factions, including the Vatican);
single men (no matter how they identified themselves sexually)—presumed to be
pederasts—were were at the lowest echelon. In my case, if you included HIV
status on my parenting resume, I would be considered somewhere after Joan
Crawford. So I lied.
When the implied
foster-to-adopt, rather than straightforward foster care, became the quest,
each potential mama and papa was put through an exhaustive training, designed
to weed out the lightweights.
Even though I had no
specific mandate in terms of my future child’s gender, ethnicity, or
potential disabilities, I do remember being told repeatedly that one must be
prepared—especially if you took on the parenting of a black baby—for the
probability that you’d be dealing with a “crack baby.”
And what exactly did that
mean? At every level—from medical authorities to legal pundits to adoption
experts—a “crack baby” would likely be physically challenged on many levels,
unable to bond (even make eye contact) and unteachable. One maven told me that
the child would forever mimic the affect of the mother in her addicted state.
In The New Jim Crow, Anderson explains: “A few years after the
drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city
communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee,
hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack
babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to
make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public
support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote
millions of dollars in additional funding to it.”
In January of 1995, I
became the foster-to-adopt parent of the most beautiful little creature on the