Monday, March 06, 2006

black like me. or, uh, maybe not: how i spent my thursday night

The bar in Redfish almost fell completely silent.
Dropping his bar towel the black bartender said, "What do you mean you don't know who Common is?" He pulled the other bartender, a young black woman, to his side. "She doesn't know who Common is."
"No, she didn't!" she said.

My drinking companion, a 40-ish black man, whispered, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that so loud."
The two black girls across the bar started laughing - and not with me, either.
I shrugged. "I'm sorry! I don't know who Common is! I grew up Baptist! I'm biracial! Uh, I don't listen to the radio!" The bartender said that was no excuse. "Do I have to turn in my black card?"

Guy bartender leaned on the bar in front of me and said, "Well, who's Common Sense?"
"There's no Common Sense," I scoffed.
The whole bar howled. The Guy Bartender threw up his arms and turned away. Even the white guy smoking a cigar across from me was laughing his ass off.
Then the bartender held up his hands. The bar was silent again. "So name me all the members of Public Enemy."
Bar howled again.

Bartender said, "Okay, how about 3 members of the Jackson 5?"
My mind totally blanked. "Uh, Tito...Michael..."
They waited. "Um...I got nothin'," I said desperate for another drink while the guy next to me (a very buppie lawyer, mind you) laughed and shook his head. Then the white guy across from me took out his cigar and rattled off the names of all the Jackson 5 (AND their sisters) like they were members of his own family. Bar howled again.

"Girl, you are whiter than the white guy," the guy bartender said. "I gotta ask for that black card back!"


liza said...

Maybe its a midwestern thing? No? Sorry, I got nothing. Same thing would probably happen to me if someone tried to test my Chicana street cred. I remember being so anxious about this back in college.
But wait, if you're dad's a baptist preacher doesn't that count?

john patrick said...

Hmph. Who can sing three verses of the Black National Anthem? Who is from South Central LA? Just because you didn't know who Common Sense is, you are less black in their eyes, whatever... but does less black = WHITE? That is a problem.

This is why I will always live on the West Coast. On the other side of the Rockies, people behave as if they were the bastion of their ethnicity.

I met an awful filipina once who grew up in the Brox knowing three filipinos; her mom, her dad, and her sister. And she had the nerve to tell our straight-from-Manila Tagalog profs that filipinos are shy about sex.

Sid said...

I'da been right there with you getting laughed at. I mean, I know who Common is, but I couldn't hum the first bar of anything he's done. And Common Sense? Saywhatnow?

Let 'em laugh. I wonder how many of them write noteworthy, pointed, eye-opening letters to reporters viewing black athletes through a one-dimensional social lens?

bitchphd said...

Who is Common?

I'm not helping, am I?

Orange said...

I've heard of Common, I think, but not Common Sense. Unless that's a Thomas Paine reference? No? Public Enemy...let's see. Chuck D and some other guys? Am I close? Wouldn't know them if they knocked on my door.

I have a friend who knows all the hip-hop names and loves the music. She's white. Can she have your black card?

But wait. Can you name 10 black leaders from the civil rights movement? Three black feminists? Ten black novelists or poets? Ten black members of Congress? (If there are that many...) I bet you could rattle them off like that. Give this woman back her black card!

Mark said...

I can imagine you in this scene! :-D

and what Organe said.

dignan said...

John Patrick, I wasn't aware that the Left Coast is a land free of nettlesome, sometimes grandstanding ethnic identity politics. Seattle is truly a multicultural wonderspot, an emerald range free of hasty judgments and full of Jimi Hendrixian goodness; it's a judgment-free salad of racial harmony, doused with rainy goodness, latte seasoning, and a side of Mt. Rainier.

Sorry to hear that your sensibilities were offended by that nasty chick from the "Brox" (my dad was Brox-born; I'm from Qeens).


P.S. I find Seattle to be amazingly fucking boring, and I live in Kansas.

john patrick said...

Dear Lee,

I deserve that.

But believe me, I'm not playing "my city is better than yours." I'm saying that the politics of ethinic identity in the rest of America are excruciating for a native Seattlite.

Come on! When you take away someone's black card, they revert to white? So white is the default ethnic identity and black is extra?

There are plenty of good reasons to curse Seattle, but ethno-politics is not one of them.

Perhaps it's hasty of me to get so stridently provincial, but there are few other places in the world where I would want to be an Asian American. Chicago is not one of those places, and Kansas...

Well, I've never been to Kansas. I'm glad you find it less boring than Seattle. Do you find Kansas as comfortable for Asian Americans as Seattle?

ps. you are an awesome typo catcher.

CT said...

Wait, did I miss something? Since when did knowing who Common is define someone's blackness? I'm brown, and I could give two shits about Tito Puentes or Mark Anthony. Does that make me less brown? I wish you had thrown something back at the bartender, like Orange said.

ding said...

actually, Orange's point later became a different conversation with the bartender. a couple of hours later he came back and said, 'y'know, i tutor kids and they all know who all the rappers are but they don't know anything about black history.'

and the three of us, all in our varying degrees of blackness, agreed that was a shame.

dignan said...

It's a little uncomfortable being a (white) Jew boy in Kansas who regularly teaches the Bible to a monolithically Christian audience. And in truth, I'm packing up and moving to New Jersey this summer (Ding, write me, I'll fill you in). But Kansas is actually looking quite lovely, especially since I'm in anticipatory nostalgia mode right now.


P.S. In the interest of being diplomatic, I'll say that there's one great thing I found in Seattle: a restaurant called Wild Ginger. Holy shit, those appetizers were amazing.

john patrick said...

Hee hee. Wild Ginger is indeed one of the tastier faux-asian places.

Orange said...

John Patrick, I'm in Chicago and have an Asian husband, a half-Asian kid, and assorted Asian friends and acquaintances. Maybe Chicago's no Seattle, but it's also no Wisconsin. I've been thinking this is a pretty good place to raise my kid, so I'd be interested to hear what your beef is with Chicago, from an Asian-American standpoint.

john patrick said...

Hey Orange,

I don't have a huge beef with Chicago; i.e., I didn't find it dangerous or hostile. I didn't run into ignorance (unlike Ann Arbor).

This is taking me a long time to write, because I want to give you an answer with an explanation, not just a string of anecdotes. I should probably post a more thoughtful answer on my own blog.

Here's the short answer: in Seattle (Vancouver/San Francisco) there have been Asians here for a century or more, and there's a feeling that we're settled. People ask us for directions. We're not made to feel like tourists or visitors. We grew up with and around a substantial number of brown kids, with different degrees of cultural id, from recent immigrants to 3rd and 4th generation Asian Americans. Being Filipino or Chinese or any other ethnicity is not considered a club that has a card that is given out or revoked. People are used to us here.

There are Asian American faces at all levels of city and state goverment, and always on the news. There are two local channels where sometimes the two anchors, the sports guy, and the weatherman in the newscast are all Asian faces.

Apolo Ohno.

I'll finish this over at my own blog, because I'm sure by now la ding is rolling her eyes.