Black Lives Matter, Part 1
Those of you who've been following along (and I appreciate it) might recall the story of my trip with the blind man, who was of Native American descent. He was certain I took advantage of his inability to see, going the scenic route to raise the fare a few bucks, although I did not. But blind trust is a fragile notion between a man who can see and one who cannot—same as it is between a white man such as myself and a man whose skin is varying shades darker than mine, or a man who does not love as I love, in the heterosexual sense, or a man who was not raised as I was raised, in the evangelical sense, not to mention between myself and a woman, much less a woman who checks off any of those "other" boxes.
Which is to say, once that blind man of Native American descent felt slighted for his simple existence, then his trust toward me, in its textbook definition, was erased. All that remained was reconciliation, but that blind man and I did not get the chance to reconcile. I wonder still, four months later, if that encounter lodged in his subconscious, bolstering his belief that the majority will never welcome him in fully because of its ability to see.
So, as if to correct my overgeneralization, the universe gave me the fortune of picking up another blind man recently, a blind man who was white and in his early thirties, same as me. I had actually given him a ride before, but it was only a matter of minutes, time enough for the pleasantries. I recognized the neighborhood, more of a long street really, lined with nondescript, free-standing condos, all of them connected to one-car garages and well-paved carports, each lit by a fluorescent flood light. It was dark when I arrived, which perhaps is useless to mention seeing as how darkness is the blind man's perpetual state of being, although I pondered then if he'd always been blind. And if so, when he was told the pigment of his skin and made to understand the privilege of it.
The blind man, who we'll call "Andy," walked out his front door as I was pulling in. His eyes were closed. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans and dirty white tennis shoes. His hair was as black as the jacket he had on, maybe Members Only. He felt around with his metal stick until he reached my back door, and I watched over my shoulder as he retracted the stick and felt his way in. He'd sat in the front before, and I considered whether he chose based on the first door he'd reached, or if he had, like many people, decided that Uber was a cab service now, that I was merely a chauffeur.
"Just to Steak 'n Shake and back," he said, "nothing too difficult."
Almost immediately, Andy spoke into his phone, what I assumed to be a voice text. He even accentuated "period" at the end of each thought, as I imagine Donald Trump used to do with a secretary taking dictation—before he was let loose on Twitter. It was small talk mostly, although I was surprised to hear that Andy had purchased a PlayStation 4. "The voice command function was sorely lacking," he told the person he was texting, "so I took it back to the store. They said they don't usually do returns, but in this case they'd make an exception—damn right they'd make an exception."
I'd failed to speed through a red light, so we were idling for a while at an intersection near the Interstate. I'd been playing music (Spotify's "indie" playlist, whatever that means anymore) but turned it down when Andy commenced screaming into his phone. It was just a faint white noise, but Andy's ears caught it: "Where is that awful music coming from?" I told him my speakers and turned the volume to zero.
"Long light," I said.
"Of course it is, always is," he said.
I wasn't sure if he actually meant this particular traffic light, or if he was implying I'd purposefully gotten caught by it. I pushed the thought aside, refusing a repeat of the previous blind man. The light turned green, and Andy kept on with the "sentence period, sentence period" routine. I navigated the Interstate for a few mile markers, a couple of exits, until we took the offramp toward the Steak 'n Shake. I'd assumed we were going through the drive-thru but realized Steak 'n Shake didn't have one. I pulled into an empty spot near the door.
"Are we here?" Andy asked.
"We are," I said.
"You're going to have to help me."
I certainly didn't mind doing it, but leading a strange blind man into a restaurant full of strangers hadn't been something I'd bargained for when I signed up to be an Uber driver.
"Come around to my side," Andy said.
I took direction and climbed out of the car. When I reached him, he asked for my left arm. I put a crook in it, as if Andy and I were preparing to walk down the aisle. He gently straightened it and clasped my bicep, and we shuffled along.
"Step up ahead," I said as we approached the sidewalk. "Now," I said and Andy raised his foot a few inches higher until it connected with the concrete. I pushed open the door with my free hand, and we awkwardly maneuvered through, shoulder to shoulder, only to be in a tiny vestibule with another door to conquer.
We repeated the push-shuffle routine and were enveloped by the savory sweet scent of grease mixed with butter. My mouth watered from the saltiness. Eyes were on us and my face flushed, this blind man holding my arm, a man I barely knew. I didn't turn to address the crowd, instead keeping my eyes on the young blonde woman at the cash register, who looked at Andy and then at me, recognition in her eyes, a smile of pity more than kindness, as if she was saying, I can't imagine, even though neither could I.
"We're at the counter," I said. Andy let loose of my bicep and stretched both arms out until his hands rested on the credit card machine. "Pick up for Andy," he said. "Two hamburgers, two large fries, two large Cokes."
"Coming right up, sir," the young Kirsten Dunst look-alike chirped. She had on a red visor and a red apron, both emblazoned with "Steak 'n Shake" in letters as white as her smile. She disappeared into the steam and silvery light of the industrial kitchen, reemerging with two Styrofoam cups bigger around than my biceps and a white paper bag darkened by grease in spots. The receipt was stapled to the bag, and Kirsten Dunst ripped it free. She punched numbers into her computer screen and called out the final tally.
"Hold it right there a second, honey," Andy said, lolling his head with attitude. "Read me off what's supposed to be on those burgers."
She shifted her green eyes at me, raising her brows. She stretched the receipt taught between both hands and ticked off some fancy type of mayo, two different types of cheeses, light on mustard, heavy on ketchup. "That all?" she asked.
"Fries?" Andy asked.
"Curly?" the girl said, as if she was questioning everything printed in black and white on the receipt.
"That'll do," he said. Andy ran his hands until they hit the slit in the credit card machine.
"It's a chip reader," the girl said.
I cradled Andy's hand and helped him push the card into the slot. "You'll have to sign for me," he said. I didn't even know his last name, so I scribbled "Andy Something" with the stylus pen.
I gathered that the return trip would be more daunting: Andy holding my bicep in one hand and the giant-size Coke in the other; me a bag filled with the weight of two half-pound burgers in one hand, a giant-size Coke in the other, while leading a blind man.
"Have a wonderful night," the waitress said as we inched away, the sound of ice sloshing to mark the time of our steps.
Andy halted. "We should have straws," he announced to anyone listening.
"I have them," I said. "They didn't forget."
"You have to watch them," Andy said.
Surprisingly, we were back in the car and on the road without casualty, food or otherwise. That warm feeling of having done a good deed welled up inside me, and I figured that a rapport had surely been created, although it struck me then that this was simply a night in the life for Andy.
"You ever have trouble getting an Uber driver to do that," I asked, glancing up in the rearview. Andy's head had been tilted at the window, perhaps toward the sound of cars rushing by on the Interstate. He turned in the direction of my voice.
"What?" he asked, oblivious.
"Help you like that."
"Never," he said. "Some are better than others. I'd say no one wants me to report them to Uber."
"I drove a blind man once," I said, "and he thought I was taking him the long way to up the fare."
"Common," Andy said. "You learn early not to trust everything you hear."
"If you don't mind me asking, have you always been without sight?"
"Again, you don't have to answer, but I'm curious what happened."
"Retinopathy of prematurity mixed with a little oxygen toxicity," he said. "In laymen's terms: I was born extremely premature. They pumped so much oxygen into my incubator that my retinas detached."
"God," I said.
"He had something to do with it," he said. I hadn't been able to place it, nor had I been focused on it, but I realized now that Andy'd been faintly humming while he had hold of my arm, occasionally mouthing the words to "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
"Were there any repercussions?" I asked.
"Only my sight being lost," he said.
"I guess I meant for the doctors."
Andy scoffed. "It was blind or die. My parents picked the former."
Perhaps I was hearing what I wanted—the shame of the able-bodied white man in me—but there was a curtness to Andy's answers, bordering on resentfulness, as if the recitation of his disability over all these years had confirmed that he was doomed to live in the margins of this world. I imagine in some ways he wasn't wrong. The man couldn't change the fact that he was blind, nor could he change all the realities and generalities his blindness had imposed on him.
"Sorry to pry," I said. "I just find it genuinely fascinating, especially in times like these."
"What do you mean by that exactly?" Andy asked.
The man seemed beyond offending, almost defiant in that he wouldn't let his lack of sight render him lesser. But this was that pivotal moment, when I would have to prove that I wasn't merely marveling at the capabilities of an invalid. "I just mean your inability to see color," I said, "what with all the racial upheaval this year—Dallas, Milwaukee, Charlotte."
"Don't even get me started on the Black Lives Matter crap," Andy said, rocking up in his seat. "Just a bunch of people wanting attention, starting trouble for no damn reason. Let me tell you, their ancestors would be doing back flips in their graves if they saw the opportunities black people had today. Doing back flips."
To steal a line from author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates—he of the recent 17,000-word opus, "My President Was Black," in The Atlantic—I was shocked at my own shock. Which rendered me mute for a long stretch and allowed Andy to continue on his rant. I faded in and I faded out, wondering how it was that a man who'd never seen the color brown, much less black, could even begin to properly formulate an opinion against a movement predicated on the very thing he cannot see. In my moments of confounded trance, I pondered how I might describe the color brown or black or even caramel to this man, but he had no frame of reference—I wasn't sure he could even comprehend the debate over white and black not being colors, but rather the totality and the absence, seeing as how the man had never squinted into the light that gives our eyes the ability to register pigment.
Then I was reminded of the final few passages from the essay "Notes of a Native Son" by the late author and essayist James Baldwin, a predecessor and sage of Mr. Coates', at least I would assume so on the latter. I won't labor on about the essay, except to say that the underpinnings of it were Mr. Baldwin's coming to terms with the hatred of his father and his father's death, which, as is often the case, made Mr. Baldwin, who was nineteen at the time, wish he'd bothered to love his father, maybe attempted to reconcile their differences. These were the lines that floated through my mind while Andy railed against the color he could not see, the color of Mr. Coates and of Mr. Baldwin: "...blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one's own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law." And here that blind hatred was in my car, manifest in the backseat, in all its pitiful glory.
I resuscitated myself about the time Andy said: "...if the damned media wouldn't have given those black people a voice, they would have disappeared, no attention to gain, which is all that they seek."
"Guess we could say the same about Donald Trump," I said. Andy paused. I knew what I was doing, and I'm sure he did too. I knew his kind. I've sat on their couches and felt their guns underneath the cushions, ready for the brown enemies they've never seen, only heard about on TV. I've seen the ceramic mammy cookie jars they collect as antiques, as if the symbolic racism should be set inside a glass case as the tangibleness of history, of a simpler time, a thing to be appreciated rather than abhorred.
"Donald Trump was simply saying what we all wanted to say," Andy said. "We are paying for the immorality and the criminality of people who don't belong in this country. If we need to kill as a means to protect our homeland, then we should kill. Islam has no place here."
"I'd say Hitler would've agreed."
"Hitler was a visionary in many ways," Andy said. "Have you read Mein Kampf?"
"I have," I said, wondering if anything might be lost in translation to braille. "I'm a writer. I believe in the power of words and persuasion. I'm also cognizant of the slippery slope that is ideology and that is propaganda."
"Hitler's radicalism simply wasn't checked," Andy said, "and we have the ability to do that in this country."
"The line between fascism and good intentions can become so thin you can hardly see it," I said. "But I hope you're right."
"Are you from around here?" Andy asked.
"I am," I said. "A small town west of here."
"The Confederate flag is part of our history," he said. "Why are we being asked to erase it? Why are we being asked to erase Jesus from our schools?"
"The swastika was part of history too," I said. "Same as Muhammed."
"Look," Andy said. "Obama wasn't a bad president, if he's who you're sad about. He was a good man. But he was too meek and too mild—he wasn't going to protect us or our moral values."
"Who's us?" I said.
"The American people," Andy said.
"Black Lives Matter people?" I said more than asked. "No president—no white man—has been asked to walk a tighter rope than Barack Obama, and he walked it for eight years, barely losing balance, while the majority in his own country hurled everything at him but the kitchen sink. A majority, mind you, in which he was a part of and he was raised. Throw a dart at Trump, and he'd burst like an orange balloon, blowing the rest of us up with him."
"The American people have already spoken," Andy said. "But you still can too. Isn't this country beautiful?"
"Isn't it though?" I said. "We shall see what we shall see."
That was our agree to disagree, our respective shots fired, although perhaps a couple of mine were too cheap. We had a few more miles left to go in relative silence, and I recounted Mr. Coates' admirable article chronicling the Obama administration, the history Obama defied and the future we are faced with, arguably because of the very history Obama overcame. Unfortunately, within certain circles of writers and academics, Mr. Coates has been held to an unattainable standard, a standard of explicating the condition of the black American in exacting detail set by Mr. Baldwin, which is like asking LeBron James to replicate the impact of Michael Jordan on the NBA, an impact that was as much a product of time and place as it was of Jordan's talent. Which is to say Jordan's talent found itself in the middle of evolution and subsequent revolution, in a game, no less. Mr. Coates finds himself in an unenviable time of the tides receding, a time when evolution and revolution seems half-hearted, when human existence seems to be fine with resting on its laurels.
I have also been guilty of unduly negating Mr. Coates' impact, mostly out of my own white fear that he is right and I am wrong, no need for gray area. So perhaps I should alter my sports metaphor to give Mr. Coates his due—perhaps Mr. Coates is the Allen Iverson to Mr. Baldwin's Jordan, the corn rows and tats and "talkin bout practice" to a seemingly harmless bald head and wagging tongue and work ethic honed by the likes of black whisperer Dean Smith at North Carolina, as opposed to Georgetown's John Thompson, a black man himself, for those sports novices. There are those who say Mr. Coates has denigrated President Obama unjustly, that Mr. Coates' insistence on Obama's playing both sides—both black and white—is a short-sighted assessment of a president who must play the game of the system to produce results. There are those who say that President Obama is above the role of the "angry black man," which is precisely the reason he has risen to such great heights.
I wonder if rising above doesn't unintentionally begat looking down. I wonder if turning a blind eye is worse than calling it as you see it. From where I'm sitting, I can see that the natural transition, for a white man at least, would be to tick off the number of schools and streets dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., as opposed to Malcolm X. But to begrudge Mr. Coates, who was born and raised in Baltimore the son of a former Black Panther, for stating the obvious, for reminding us that men like Andy, blind and not, do in fact exist, would be no different than to begrudge Andy for wishing he could see a sunrise and a sunset just once in his life.
The young black male writer today is not in the business of playing games, of passing the ball, for which his people have no more patience. And while I certainly can't empathize, I can sympathize with the wanting of results. I can sympathize with the feeling that the owner is limiting your results out of fear that his brand might suffer. Mr. Coates and his contemporaries—like Kiese Laymon, who escaped his native Mississippi for a swath of time before returning to teach—have watched their grandparents and their parents, many of them college educated, kowtow to the white man in the hope of getting a word in edge wise. But to what end? Mr. Coates and Mr. Laymon ask this question unequivocally. Why give voice to the oppressor, whose nature is to oppress, or at the least to not lose his place in the pecking order?
Every time I read the work of Mr. Coates and Mr. Laymon, I wonder if I'm the white folk they are talking about. I know that I am, but I do not want to be. I look deep inside myself and entertain the notion that I am racist, inherently. I often grow angry at them, because they are right. And I am wrong. And there is no other explanation. Of course, anger is not an emotion, simply a reaction, therefore I must admit my guilt and my shame. While I was at ESPN as a Senior Editor, Mr. Laymon enacted a bit of a coup by finding his way into the pages of ESPN The Magazine, an essay about the remains of the Confederacy in Oxford, a place where young black men play football in the shadow of the Southern Cross, where rich white folk tailgate heavily and drink profusely, always raising a glass to the fictitious plantation owner, Colonel Reb, as if the land of cotton should not in fact be forgotten.
I call it a coup because it went to press under the same editor who had once told me that black quarterbacks were a non-issue, that I was living in the mindset of the backward South from whence I came. That same editor once told a room of editors that an issue on "race in sports" sounded about as interesting as a book report. That editor is now much more important than when I left The Worldwide Leader, his name attached to a title with "VP" in it.
I wonder now if that editor was simply biding his time, until The Undefeated was launched, a site affiliated with the ESPN mothership, but one that has been allowed to orbit in D.C., on its own island away from the gated-campus in Bristol, Connecticut. The Undefeated refers to itself as "the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture." I would argue that it is the premier platform for ESPN to siphon off its coverage of the racially controversial, so as to not interfere with its NFL fantasy updates and college football scores, to keep from annoying the white men it serves with the struggles of the black men it covers, as if the lives of those black men were a video game, lives to be measured on mobile or on desktop, with page views and ad revenues and stock prices.
Still, Mr. Coates and Mr. Laymon, to the white man's chagrin, remind us that this game we play has legitimate consequences. President Obama belonged where no black man had before, but his margin for error was nonexistent. Barack Obama might well have been an aberration as opposed to a human being, a man who transcended color in a way so unprecedented that the very black men he empowered became saddled with an even heavier burden, the burden of lifting a race while the white world continues to ignore the systemic deck that has been stacked on top of it.
The black man has reason to be angry. After all, only one has been allowed to run this country (Barack Obama), and only one is currently a majority owner of an NBA team (Michael Jordan).
When we arrived back at Andy's condo, he expected me to help him carry the Steak 'n Shake inside. I obliged, and he told me that there was a dog, that it might approach me but that it wasn't vicious. He used his metal stick instead of holding my arm. I took stock of the two gigantic drinks and the full bag, although not until we crossed the threshold did it dawn on me that there would be a woman inside. The dog, a greyhound, approached me, and I stood still, examining the room directly to the right of the entrance. It only contained a queen bed, which was cluttered with clothes and unmade sheets.
"She's only smelling him," the woman on the couch said, referring to the greyhound.
I'd entered into a narrow hallway that ended at the living room, where the woman sat on a couch, which was positioned less than two feet from a flat-screen TV, video game consoles and DVDs strewn about her. By her comment about the dog, I surmised that she could see, but her glasses were so thick that her eyes were rendered inanimate, as if this were a Duchamp-ian dream that would turn everything I knew upside down.
I continued down the hall, which was covered with off-white carpet and dotted with stains of varying color. I reached the kitchen and it was equally disheveled, dishes stacked everywhere because the sink was already piled too high. Andy asked that I set the food and the drink on the table, on a space that he'd cleared of newspapers and magazines. I wondered if they were in braille or if the woman on the couch with the thick glasses read them to him, maybe skipped parts or embellished.
"Thanks," Andy said once he'd heard me set down his Steak 'n Shake. That was all he said.
I was in a foreign home now, in a life that wasn't mine, nor did I wish it to be. The woman with the thick glasses began to rise off the couch, and I retreated to the door. I walked out into the chilly December night and saw my breath. I'd left the car running to stay warm. I wondered how we might address the hate in our hearts, the hate that Mr. Baldwin so poignantly relates, the hate that Mr. Coates and Mr. Laymon exorcise for effect, to remind us of our prejudices based on sight alone.
But what of Andy? What of the man who cannot see the skin he despises?
I understood that the hate Mr. Baldwin speaks of can only be found in the mirror, where we must search our own hearts. And I understood that our own reflection is not the only indicator, that even a blind man can see inside himself, that closing our eyes might be the only way to see.