Black Lives Matter, Part 3
It's been four months since I posted Part 2 1/2, and I'd certainly intended to complete the trilogy well before now. But the end never felt right, like a thousand-piece puzzle with one missing. And then you're left with an inescapable sense of incompleteness spread across your dining room table, a dread that bores a hole in you as deep as that tiny abyss in your puzzle.
That's every story for every writer, to some extent, if they're being true to the pursuit, if they're burrowing into their own hearts. The only solace lies in the belief that if you don't give up on the pursuit, the piece will come, and usually on a day when you've decided to send those nine hundred and ninety-nine others pieces flying across the room.
In this case, my missing piece was waiting outside the Greyhound station on an eye-squinting, beaded-sweat kind of Wednesday in late May. When I pulled up, a tall, lanky white man was leaned against the red brick of the building. He wore an off-white tank top and faded blue jeans, and what little wispy black hair he had rested on the back of his head, unkempt. He shielded his eyes from the glow of mid-80s heat, causing him to stretch his mouth and reveal an unhappy smile. Nothingness dotted the spaces where teeth had once been. Not six inches in front of him, a bald white man, also in an off-white tank top, reclined in a wheelchair, his thighs spilling over its sides, a crooked grin cemented on his oblong face. His hands were folded over his bulbous belly, which gleamed from beneath the white tank top and stretched the elastic band of his blue mesh shorts.
A thin black man, who looked much younger than the two white men, paced in front of the glass double-doors to the station. His clothes were loose-fitting, his dark jeans sagging around his hips, and he had on a plain black baseball cap, the skinny ends of braids curling out the sides and the back. My windows were up so I couldn't hear the exchange, but I watched the young black man untuck a cigarette from the side of his cap and show off a gold tooth while flicking his fingers. The lanky white man returned a gapped-smile and produced a lighter from the pocket of his jeans, reaching around the man in the wheelchair. The black man accepted the lighter and instantaneously lit the cigarette, inhaling a lung's worth of smoke. He returned the lighter and gave each man a fist bump, tugging at his pants and exhaling a white cloud as they all laughed. It appeared to be a genuine reprieve from the heat bubbling off the pavement, and from the fact that all three were seemingly stuck on this sidewalk, just waiting for anything to happen, or for nothing at all.
I had received a Lyft request from "Louis," a black man in his late-fifties, or so I gathered from the headshot on the app, which is one of the differences between Uber and Lyft, the rider's ability to include a picture. It does help me, being able to put a face with a name, instead of assuming what a person named "Louis" might look like. Yet, as vanity tends to go, people sometimes take liberties with their close-ups, same as the first date who doesn't provide a full-body shot on Tinder. But Louis emerged as advertised from the Greyhound station. Almost eerily so, as though the short-sleeve black polo he wore both in his headshot and in reality was his uniform. Louis strode across the sidewalk with purpose, not bothering to glance left or right to acknowledge the two white men and the young black man smoking a cigarette. They watched him, though, and I watched them watching him, all of us keenly aware that Louis was not one of them. Louis was not the aimless kind, nor did he have any time for exchanging pleasantries.
Louis's hair was cropped short and tight, and his chest and biceps were thick enough to stretch the shirt slightly. We connected eyes, his brown and sharp behind a pair of glasses. I attempted a welcoming smile, but he did not return it, only nodded and switched a black computer bag from his right hand to his left before opening the passenger's side door. His jeans were also black, and I considered then, as I studied the side of his goateed face, that his pigment was just a shade brighter, although Louis's blackness did seem to fade into his polo and his jeans, as though he did not feel comfortable in any other color but that of his own skin.
"Where you in from?" I asked as I maneuvered out from the taxi line, leaving those other men in the rearview. I turned the A/C up a notch and left the music inaudible, waiting to determine if Louis was in the mood for conversation or a mindless ride. The rush of air sent a whiff into the car, a mix of men's deodorant and the sweat of a Greyhound bus, that faint stench of every other person who has perspired in that seat before you.
"Back from South Carolina," Louis said. His voice was measured, not gruff but not soft on the vowels, no use for any other words beyond the necessary ones.
"South Carolina home? Or Knoxville home?"
"Detroit's home," he said. Louis rested a hand on each knee, his board-like posture belied by his rounded shoulders and barrel chest.
"You taking a tour of the South?" I asked in an upbeat voice.
"No," Louis said. "I live here, lived here nineteen year." He purposefully excluded the "s," as my grandfather might, the hint of a grammar that does not know a color, only a region and a generation, despite what the linguists would have you believe.
"I understand," I said. "Detroit's home home."
"Home home," Louis repeated. "But I'd just as soon not have another winter like a Detroit winter."
"I lived in Queens and Connecticut," I said. "Didn't know snow until then."
"This is home home, then," Louis said.
"It is," I said. "East Tennessee, anyway. I was raised in Kingston, went to college here. But home home feels a long way off, if you know what I mean."
"Wish I could say it gets easier," he said.
Louis didn't glance at me then as you might expect, with a nod or slight smile. I thought I caught him wince, a quick squint, but maybe it was just the sun, which had settled at eye level, an orange haze above the horizon. He didn't glance out the window, either, as the green exit signs passed on the interstate, signs that have become signifiers to me, of who a person might be and how they might live, depending on what neighborhood I drop them in. I didn't know it yet, but Louis lived in a community of upper-middle class condos about twenty minutes west of the Greyhound station. We were headed in the exact opposite direction of the barber shops and barbecue joints and gas stations with barred-up windows that line East Knoxville, where there is a high school on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. I'd assumed, when I first arrived at the Greyhound station and saw Louis's photo, that I'd be driving him to that side of town.
"What brought you South?" I asked.
"United States Postal Service," he said. "I requested a transfer and moved when I was fifty. I wanted to retire where it was warm. I have some people down here, too."
"If my math's right, that makes you sixty-nine?"
"You right. I'll be sixty-nine in July," Louis said and his mouth turned at the edges, although you couldn't call it a smile.
"You don't look sixty-nine," I said and meant it, same as I wouldn't peg Samuel L. for sixty-eight.
"They say black don't crack," Louis said, hinting that he was at least capable of levity. "Spent forty-two years with the USPS, retired five now."
"Long time at one place," I said.
"Last of a generation," Louis said.
He let himself smile fully then, even glanced over, his teeth as white and peaceful as the snow we'd both left behind. Louis raised a hand off his knee and pushed the bridge of his glasses with his index finger, sliding them back on his ears. Then he brushed his goatee with a cupped hand before returning it to his knee.
"I couldn't even last eight years," I said. "Jumped ship at thirty."
"You don't look a day over twenty-five," Louis said.
"I'm thirty-two now," I said.
"What line of work?" Louis asked.
"Journalism," I said. "Sports journalism. ESPN."
He looked at me, sizing me up, and I looked back. If it wasn't for his black skin, Louis would've reminded me of my own father, his eyes scanning me from behind bifocals, searching for an answer to an inherent question.
"Awful good job to leave," Louis said.
"Feels like I need to apologize sometimes," I said.
"A man has his reasons," Louis said and raised a hand to readjust his glasses. He returned to his resting position, hands on knees, eyes as straight ahead as his back against the seat. "You got a plan?"
"If you would've met me a year ago," I said, "no clue." Louis's exit was approaching, so I checked the rearview and switched from the fast lane to the middle. "I was just back from Ireland then, my first time outside the country."
"Looking for yourself," Louis said.
"For something," I said.
"It'll find you," Louis said, "if it's meant to find you."
"I'm moving to Atlanta soon," I said. "Going for my doctorate in English Lit."
"A doctor," Louis said, raising his eyebrows, leaning his head sideways. "Can't say I ever dreamed of such a thing."
"Can't say I did, either," I said. "I'm a writer, but no delusions of grandeur. I figure I might do some good in the classroom."
"I see," Louis said. "No wife, I assume. No kids. All these moves you makin."
"You right," I said. I switched to the slow lane and merged onto the off-ramp. "I don't have an excuse or a reason. But like I tell most people, I lost my father at fifteen, and I've been looking for a home home I can't seem to find ever since."
"I had me a boy," Louis said, unprompted. He rocked in his seat, breaking posture, his hands fidgeting across his knees. "But he died when he was six."
"I'm sorry," I said. "How..."
"Rare brain tumor," Louis said. "Nothing they could do. I still believe it was the Agent Orange." His voice returned to its measured staccato, the rhythm less steady, his tenor lower, tailing off.
"Vietnam," I said.
"Vietnam," Louis repeated. "Same reason for my diabetes. Just got diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson's, too. They decided it's all Agent Orange."
"You at least..."
"Compensated?" Louis interrupted. "VA gives me a check every month. That must make somebody somewhere feel better."
I didn't prod any further, unsure of my place in the conversation, or where Louis had gone inside his own head. I was stopped at a red light, ready to turn toward the main highway when Louis blurted out: "Our tank rolled over a mine. Blew it all to pieces. I had second- and third-degree burns, lost some of my brothers right there."
The light changed, and I went left. "PTSD," Louis said. "Never will I go back there. All these great deals on tours and flights, telling me I should see how they've rebuilt the country, buried all those dead bodies. No, thank you. I'd just as soon spend a winter in Detroit."
The GPS recommended I stay straight, but Louis pointed for me to go right instead. "My grandfather was in Vietnam," I said, "the Air Force. He still sleeps with a noise machine, got so used to the bombs at night."
"The VA had me in therapy for a while," Louis said. "Big group of us, twenty or so, reliving all that mess. I was better off when I buried it. I quit goin. They give me less money, but I'll take fewer nightmares."
"So you were drafted?" I asked.
"I enlisted," Louis said. "I didn't have no shot at an education. Didn't get one anyway, but thought it would be at the end of the line. I wanted to find out who I was, like you. I didn't know if I was black, or if I was a nigger, or if I'd ever get another shot out of Detroit."
Louis dug his nails into his knees. "They knew what they was doin, convincing a bunch of us broke kids we'd be put on a pedestal. Not much different than what they still doin today, I guess."
There were so many questions to ask, and the journalist in me was riffling through them. Where did Louis stay while his wounds healed? Did he have any siblings, what of his mother and father? Why the post office? Where did he meet the mother of his child? What became of that woman? Had the death of their son hardened her heart and split them apart? Had the hate hardened Louis's heart, that same hate he surely felt for those who called him "nigger"?
But the lives of my passenger's can only be as long as the ride, as intimate as the space we share for a finite time. I have to choose my questions both wisely and selfishly, because I rarely have the luxury of a follow-up session. These are the people I very likely would have never met if not for this modern-day hitchhiking, people who might never have opened up to me if not for these chance meetings, a trust predicated solely on human decency, that I will get them safely from one place to the next and do them no harm.
So I asked Louis, given that he'd actually lived through change, what he thought of our current predicament, compared to the one he'd fought and nearly died for, even lost his son for. I asked Louis, having said what he'd said about his own identity crisis, what advice he'd offer a young man without white skin in this America.
While Louis is not the voice of all black men, Louis is a black man, a black man born in 1948, a black man who was sixteen when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Louis is a black man who fought in Vietnam and worked for the United States government for forty-two years. Louis is a black man from Detroit who deserved to be asked the question: "What does it mean to be black in the United States today?"
"What would I tell a black kid today? I keep my passport up to date," Louis said and smirked. He adjusted his glasses and rubbed his goatee. "I'm too tired to give much advice anymore," he said finally, pushing against his knees and leaning back, like he was relieving the pressure. "I've been answering for the color of my skin a long time. A long time. And if you're asking me, I'm not sure color has as much to do with our problems as we'd like to think. It matters, Lord knows it matters. But this is a class thing, if you ask me."
Louis looked directly at me for the second time, scrunching his forehead, gauging if what he'd said had resonated. "Ever been to Scandinavia?" he asked before I could return an answer. I shook my head no, keeping my eyes on the road. "I been a lot of places all over this world. Scandinavia is a place I could live. Closest I've seen to a classless society. About all of them white too. I hear that's changing, though."
"So no one ever stared at you there, cause you're black?"
"They stared," Louis said. "But they just hadn't seen no black people before. White people are always gonna stare anyway. It's what's in their eyes that matters to me."
I clicked on my left-hand blinker, and the green arrow flashed a few seconds before I realized we were a traffic light away from the next turn. I tapped the gas and reached to turn off the lever, but Louis said, "Go ahead, more than one way to get there." So I cut onto a back road instead of the straight, ninety-degree angle up ahead, and snaked through one of the many bluffs that have become suburban communities overlooking the strip-mall sprawl of West Knoxville.
The sun was sinking lower, setting the sky ablaze above the treetops, and the white cotton of the clouds had gone a peach flavor, reds at the edges, dripping onto the soft greens of late spring. I took in a breath, wanting to exhale into contentment, this Kinkade canvass laid out in front me. I wanted to be in this moment with Louis, soak in a sunset that could always be our last, say to him that this path of mine, from East Tennessee to Queens to Connecticut and now to Atlanta, has been the correct one, that I can glance over my shoulder and find relief in how far I've come. I wanted to steer us toward levity, forget that I wasn't certain of anything, least of all who's right and who's wrong, whether our problems are wrapped in race or in gender or in class or in religion, or if we're too wrapped up in all of them, if we're simply letting them confuse our judgment of basic rights and wrongs.
"What do you see in my eyes?" I asked as the shadows shifted around us with the swaying of the trees.
"You a good man," Louis said.
"Am I?" I said. "Cause it worries me. I worry a lot that my eyes are deceiving."
"That you can see that is the whole battle," Louis said. "Not half of it. We need more of that, son. We need more thinking. But don't think you can fix it all. You can't save nobody from themselves."
"I hear you, about the class thing," I said. "You can always buy your way in, even if you aren't truly accepted. But aren't we still ignoring the answer to the question?"
"Which is what?" Louis asked.
"What does it mean to be American?" I said. "Do we look like Americans? Or is American a state of mind? Or is it just a piece of paper with a number on it?"
Louis was silent but nodded, like he was weighing his options. I assume Louis was like me, attempting to unravel those tangibles of class and race and religion and gender that we've knotted up inside us, trying to untangle an identity that has become as elusive as terrorism, this need of ours to project fear and insecurity onto something unlike us, onto something un-American.
I asked Louis before he could answer, "What do you see when you hear American?"
Louis still didn't answer directly, much less right away. Louis was a kind and considerate man, I could tell, see it when his dark eyes softened. He was a black man who'd started his journey on the lower end of life, and against the odds he'd risen to the middle, although not without casualty. Of course, I'm speculating, as I must do with all of my passengers, but I'd say Louis had to hold his tongue far too many times along the way. I'd say that was why Louis had grown exhausted with discussing his blackness. He'd grown exhausted with his voice being drowned out by white noise, when blackness was never for him to come to terms with. He'd never made his blackness an issue. We had, and still do. It was an issue that could not be ignored as Louis rose to the middle, his continued ascension to equal status, all of us—white and black—now chasing the American Dream beyond our middle-class existence.
I'd say that, if Louis were honest, he'd seen a white person flash behind his dark eyes when he heard me say American, because white is the only image this country has ever allowed itself to outwardly project—until Barack Obama changed all we thought we knew about being an American. Louis knew that if he told me black was his American, then it would fly in the face of everything he and I had ever been taught, in school, in church, on the television. Louis pursed his lips and adjusted his glasses and rubbed his goatee, a tic I'd picked up on, a tic that meant Louis was hesitant to engage, but interested to hear where my logic was headed.
I'm the last person who should lead a discussion on U.S. history, but I told Louis that I'd learned to put our Founding Fathers on a pedestal, men who were white and Anglo-Saxon, men who founded one nation under a God that was their God. I told Louis that I'd learned the ultimate power is President of the United States, and that the names I'd memorized as a kid in school were the names of white men, most of them Evangelical Christians. I told Louis that I'd learned only one kind of English is proper, and that I'd learned proper English only comes from a dictionary written by white men, same as the King James (Bible, that is).
"What if white people have confused being white with being American?" I asked Louis. "What if we've let the we were here first mentality confuse what being here stands for?"
"I do feel for white people," Louis said, "if they truly feel like they've lost their place. I know that feeling. That feeling of having nowhere to belong."
I smiled at Louis. I told him I hoped he was aware of the irony, a black man commiserating with the very people who had once made him ashamed of his own skin. I fear those same people still wouldn't give Louis the benefit of the doubt, if they passed him at night on a street corner, God forbid he have a hoodie pulled over his head. I fear that perhaps the real terror of white people lies in one day scanning a room and not seeing anyone lily white, a concept as foreign as a black person on our currency, as foreign as peace riding on the wings of a crow, not a dove.
Louis motioned to the entrance of his condo community, and I recognized the name on the concrete sign welcoming us, a sign surrounded by manicured shrubbery and purple and red tulips. I'd usually arrived from the less-circuitous route, and I'd always picked up and dropped off white people, just like the other seventy-five percent of Knoxvillians.
"What about you?" Louis asked. "You think you're losing your place?"
"Never felt like I had one to lose," I said. "I was born and raised in the South, and in the church, a tick below middle class. As white as they come, I guess. But I left the South and the church. Always figured I could come back anytime I liked. I even made my way to a tick above the middle. I'm back down now. But I haven't lost anything. If anything, I've gained a lot of perspective."
"Skin doesn't matter, then," Louis said.
"Maybe not," I said. "But you can dance, and I ain't got no rhythm. Right? You listen to Sam Cooke, and I love Skynrd. You talk black, and I talk redneck."
"Stereotypes," Louis said. "But those are just problems if you let 'em be. People who get caught up in those aren't getting very far in this life."
"But when do the stereotypes become statistics?" I asked. "Are more black people in prison because they're more dangerous? Or have we just come to believe them to be more dangerous because we believe the numbers? How do I get to know Louis if I'm afraid of a black man getting in my car?"
"Think outside your box is what you're saying," Louis said. "Don't stay inside of a box cause someone says you can't leave it. And you did that, son. Sometimes leaving your box is the the only way to see the box you were in."
As I was easing through Louis's community, one that had been built during the 1970s, perhaps bleeding into the '80s, I noticed the condos were frame construction, straight edges and lines, the wood painted a muted beige. I was reminded of an Alice Munro short story called "Post and Beam," referencing a nearly synonymous style of construction. The story is about many things, as Munro's stories tend to be, but I'd say the conformity of the main character, a white housewife, was what stuck with me, how we often confuse the inevitably of our station with the complacency to not question our station, to simply live in the same style house as everyone else.
I located the number of Louis's address, a free-standing condo with a short slab of concrete that led to a single-car garage. I wondered if this was Louis's version of Scandinavia, a community where the exteriors were the same, a community where he could afford to be like everyone else, materially speaking, where he would not be looked down on for having too little, or sideways at for having too much.
Louis had continued our discussion, circling around to class again, although I was only catching every third word, lost in my daze over how and why Louis had chosen his current residence, whether the black people in East Knoxville (back on MLK) would consider Louis one of them. Or if the people in this predominantly white condo development considered Louis one of them. I've lived in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Sunnyside, in Queens, New York, where color lines blur easier, the majority morphing into the minority, depending on the subway stop. But here, in East Tennessee, it is virtually impossible for Louis to go about his day-to-day without encountering a white person, yet if Louis were to not leave the boundaries of West Knoxville, he could very likely not encounter another black person for an entire day.
I wondered how many days in my life have gone by without encountering a person of another color, and I thought back then to the one time I'd ever been the only white person in a room, at a TGI Fridays in West Philadelphia. I was staying at a nearby hotel and had wandered in after a concert. Only the bar area remained open after eleven, creating a club-like atmosphere. Most of the eyes swiveled to me, then quickly returned to their drinks and conversations. I nearly walked out, but I didn't want to feed any stereotype. So I found an empty table top and ordered a beer and feigned interest in the NBA games on multiple flat-screens. No one spoke to me other than the waitress, nor did I strike up any conversations. I drank one beer and left, much more inconspicuous than I'd entered, almost as if I'd been an aberration, a white boy who came and went without bothering to shake a hand, feeding the very stereotype I walked in as.
I wondered how many rooms Louis had been in where he was the only black man, where he wasn't wanted or wasn't allowed, bar counters and lunch counters where he sat because it was his right, but didn't make a sound because it might've meant his life. I wondered what that type of exclusion can do to a psyche, why Louis would ever want to be in the same room with a white person again, if it meant being inconspicuous, if it meant walking on egg shells to not feed into their stereotypes.
Instead, Louis pondered aloud how Donald J. Trump had convinced so many people—people who will never shake hands with Trump's one-percent—that a man born rich in New York City could unite a country divided along lines of wealth.
"People of all colors bought into this, you understand?" Louis said, as if to prove his point about class trumping race. "Your education, that living you've been doing out there." He thumbed back to the exit like a hitchhiker. "That gives you a perspective. Emphasis on the letter A. You hear me, son?" He went through his routine, glasses and goatee, although he added a stiff index finger pointed at me before putting his hands back to his knees. "Lot of people only have the perspective they're handed. You're figuring out where you fit, not letting the world peg you—middle-class, white, Southern, Christian, whatever."
I idled in front of Louis's muted-beige condo, letting the attaboy hang there in the silence between an older black man whose fatherhood was taken too soon and a younger white man whose father was taken too soon. In that intimate space, the space that shuts out the world's stereotypes and preconceptions, the colors did not matter, not between Louis and I, same as it seemed to disappear like that white cloud of smoke between two white men and a young black man in front of the Greyhound bus station.
What separated Louis and I from them was that Louis had the money for a Lyft, and I had the money for a car to give him one. Surely that was the answer, the class that divided us, put us in our separate boxes, not the color of our skin. But were we fooling ourselves? Would I have allowed Louis into my car if not for the pretense of Lyft, the knowledge that Louis at least had a credit card and a smart phone? Or would Louis have even turned his dark eyes toward me if we passed on the street, an older black man and a younger white man with seemingly nothing in common, other than our beating hearts? Did that young black man at the Greyhound station simply need a lighter? Did he know that a soft white smile would ease the tension? Are our amicable interracial relations forced out of selfish necessity, rather than genuine human kindness?
"You're the answer," Louis said, shaking a stiff index finger at me. He seemed to be uplifted by our crossing paths, or at least by what he and I seemed to stand for. Louis grasped his computer bag, adjusting his glasses. "Keep going out to meet the world, earn that beautiful thing called a perspective."
Louis extended his hand and I obliged, the kind of hearty hand shake that I'd grown accustomed to in church, the webs between our thumbs and four fingers locked in, a hard squeeze more than a shake.
"What about you?" I asked. "What's in your last chapter?"
I found out Louis was also an Uber and a Lyft driver, and that he had a contract job driving commercial vehicles to pick-up points across the U.S. "This retirement stuff's for the birds," Louis said. "Ain't got nobody keepin tabs, so might as well see all I can see before I'm gone." I was surprised that Louis had failed to mention our shared experience of Uber and Lyft, but to be fair, I hadn't asked. And I'd suspect that Louis is more of a listener, that I'd been given a rare glimpse into a man who prefers the solitude of the open road, considering he'd spent forty-two years confined to the post office, reading off addresses of places he'd never been.
"You a good man," Louis said and loosened his grip on my hand. "I appreciate a man with a perspective." He let go and shut the door. He bent down and wagged that stiff index finger at me, then pushed his glasses up and rubbed his goatee and marched toward his muted-beige condo.
I wanted the moment with Louis to end on that note, a tender and sweet one, so that we might be filled with the hope that sweet music brings. The melancholic truth in the words we'd spoken, the fact that we'd even had to speak them, to discuss the color of our skin, can certainly be hummed away, if we'd prefer it that way, if we'd prefer our heads be suspended in the white clouds of sweet spiritual hymns.
As James Baldwin once wrote, "It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story." Which I've always taken to mean that singing because you're happy and singing because you're free are mutually exclusive endeavors. I've always taken it to mean that singing was once as close to free, to living in the white clouds, as a black person could reach, a feeling that white people in America have never felt, nor can we fathom.
But I can't tickle any ivory, or strum a banjo, so I don't have a sweet melody to wrap around these words, to protect you from the silence in your own head, the discomfort you may or may not feel if you bother to determine what your color does or doesn't stand for in this America. I'm experiencing the same discomfort, writing these words alone and in silence, albeit from the safety of a laptop screen, which is altogether different than staring into the whites of Louis's eyes. Louis and I were strangers, and while we had brought down barriers, there were entire lifetimes between us. We lacked that benefit of the doubt between two people of shared experience, the ease that exists between two people who know where the other is coming from, where the loyalty of the other man's heart lies.
I did not have the heart to tell Louis that my perspective remained unchanged, that once he emerged from my car, the world would still see him as a black man first, I believe, and would see me as a white man first, generalizations and stereotypes included. I've spent years being convinced and conditioned—mostly by white people—to believe that color only matters if we allow it to, if black people allow it to, seeing as how they're the ones who are a different color, not us. I wanted Louis to be right, about the class thing, because he seemed so certain, like so many of his generation, that we'd moved beyond our pigment.
But when you are the change, as Louis was, it's often difficult to discern the miles left to go, considering how far you've traveled. I didn't have the heart to tell Louis that the majority of white middle America still does not know him, the middle-class black man, the one who served his country and put in forty-two years at the post office. That is not the black man who is portrayed on the TV. Louis is not the face of Black Lives Matter to white America—those faces live on the South Side of Chicago and in Baltimore and in the Bronx, where statistics replace stereotypes. Or they are the faces of Steph and LeBron, or of Kaepernick and Kendrick Lamar, who do what black people have a predisposition to do. They are not the man at the post office, who'd like for his black life to matter as much as the middle-class white man who's certain Trump will restore America to when all the instructions for his lawn mower were in proper English.
I didn't have the heart to tell Louis that you'd have to scroll to No. 105 on the Forbes world's billionaires list before seeing a black person, and that Aliko Dangote is Nigerian born, raised, and still a resident. In fact, you'd have to scroll to No. 660 before seeing Oprah, the wealthiest black American, while Robert Smith, a Cornell grad and investor, is the wealthiest black man in the U.S., at No. 814. The only other black billionaire born in the U.S. is Michael Jordan. (For the record, President Trump ranks No. 544 in the world, and his Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, Jr. is tied with Robert Smith at No. 814.)
Billionaire status is the kind of wealth that Louis and I will never know, and it is the kind of wealth that isn't for those of us in the middle to ponder, no matter our pigment, for it confuses our understanding of the lines. These people on the Forbes list, we are told, reside at the extremes, people who defy generalizations and statistics, who pulled themselves up by boot straps, the people who prove class will ultimately define our perspectives and how the wider world perceives us. Although if you go to the page of the ten wealthiest people in the world, eight American white men are staring back at you, same as those forty-four U.S. presidents on the Wikipedia page not named Obama.
Surely even Horatio Alger would agree that this fact cannot be a product of probability alone, that surely despite being the minority, more black Americans than Oprah and Air Jordan and a man named Robert Smith who graduated from Cornell would've pulled up their billionaire boot straps by now. And what of those images staring back at Louis and I, those billionaires and presidents who look like me and not him? Is a picture worth more than these few thousand words, or is a picture all about the photoshop, how the light shines on our skin?
Herein lies the truly blurred line—the fact that if Bill Gates' or Mark Zuckerberg's mother or father were black, our own government would require them to check a different box, to say nothing of which "side" they'd choose, or which "side" would choose them. (Barack was half me, after all.) Right about now is when folks more educated than I, both black and white, would veer off into identity politics. And not that I don't have any use for real smart folks, but I would like to echo Mr. Ice Cube, who told Bill Maher that some white men (and women, I assume) have become too comfortable with using the word "nigger" because "you know, [they] might have a black girlfriend or two that made them Kool-Aid every now and then, and then they think they can cross the line."
So, you see, there is a line, despite Louis's belief that class has erased it. That is one of the great hoaxes Mr. Maher and his upper-class, left-wing constituents have pulled off, committing a far graver sin than that of white, lower-class ignorance. They have become hypocrites, assuming that class and education (or having a black spouse who mixes up some Kool-Aid) somehow affords them the freedom to speak on blackness, as though they actually comprehend having black skin. Mr. Maher and his constituents have stooped to the same lows as their upper-class, right-wing counterparts, those people who generalize black lives, who chalk them up to white statistics and assumptions, even though those same white people don't want to be generalized as racist, or as people with no rhythm.
While hate is undoubtedly at the connotative root of the word "nigger," the concept of racism, even when explained to the blind man in Part 1 or to a child, must begin with the concept of skin color. That is the inescapable reality—whether unspoken or laid bare, Louis and I are born into our skin and into a country that generalizes us by it, until we are given the opportunity to prove otherwise, an opportunity we might never be afforded. But for Louis, that has been a decades-long exploration and search, to quantify and qualify his blackness until he sees beyond his own skin to his own humanity. It has been a decades-long exploration and search that Louis was forced into, a journey he would not have set out on if he were white.
As for me, I have never even thought to ask the question, "What does it mean to be white?" The question has been unnecessary, for it has long been answered inherently. To be born white (specifically white and Christian) in America has long been synonymous with being born American, with almost no concern for our ancestral roots. Any crisis of our identity does not worry with the color of our skin, because we see our skin—within the confines of our own borders—as universal. Our crisis of identity begins and ends with our station in life, why we weren't born a Walton or a Trump, which is why we've long repeated to ourselves that class is the ultimate arbiter.
But the playing field will never be level until white people have to play from behind, until white people have to answer for the color of their skin. For there to ever be any shared experience, white people must experience the resentment that accompanies being judged by our whiteness, and the revelation that our whiteness both defines us and means nothing, and that it certainly does not make us Americans.
I began writing this coda from Kingston, Tennessee, from my hometown, nearly a week after giving Louis a Lyft. I was house-sitting for friends and watching their dog. I drove around one day in the sunshine, not for money but for pleasure, and I rolled slowly down Greenwood Street, the quarter-mile or so where the few black people in Kingston lived when I was growing up, and where they still live. My father always told me that if I wanted to be a better ball player, then I ought to play on the court at Greenwood Street. Driving down it seventeen years after his death, I'm not sure if my father was being racist, or if he was just right.
On Greenwood Street, there is a derelict-looking, two-story house that is a faded yellow. It was once a blacks-only bar, and later a residence. My mother would have yard sales when I was a kid, to try and pay for a week-long vacation to the Florida panhandle, and three black women who lived on Greenwood Street would always show up. My father and I hauled a dresser of ours to that two-story yellow house in his white Mazda pickup, and one of those women bought a Starter jacket of mine for her son, who went to school with me. When I told my mother that I'd seen him wearing it, she told me to never say a word about it being mine.
There is a church on Greenwood Street where my father once sang with the black choir. My father loved to sing old Southern hymns, because he was born poor in Georgia in 1926 and picked cotton alongside the black people who sang those same hymns, the hymns that made my father happy and made those black people feel free. My father was respected by the people on Greenwood Street because he had paid some of their mortgages when he had the money, before he wasn't much better off financially than them. When he died, they stood in the receiving of friends line and shook my hand and told me that he was a good man.
The basketball court is still there on Greenwood Street. It has been repaved, although the lines have yet to be redrawn. Directly adjacent is the NAACP building, but it isn't the NAACP anymore. The building appears abandoned, except for a small sign in the window that seems to advertise some type of government aid.
Driving down Greenwood Street, there wasn't a soul out, other than two white men who were painting a handicapped parking spot. I stopped my car beside the newly paved court, a stranger to my past, as if the life I'd lived couldn't squeeze into the box I'd once felt safest in anymore. I don't know where those young black boys I played ball with are now, but I've been told that they work at local fast-food chains, or that they are in and out of the local jail. A couple of them are dead, but I hear at least one is doing alright, better than what could've been expected, they say.
I walked around and wondered if my upbringing or my skin had been my ticket out. I wondered how your psyche would be altered if you were relegated to a street in a small Southern town that remains ninety-five percent white. I wondered if those black kids I'd played ball with on Greenwood Street had felt their place predetermined, if they had played their hearts out on that court because it was the one place where they believed they were equal, where they were truly free.
I wondered if Greenwood Street was an anomaly or a microcosm, if I was living in the past, if mixed-race marriages would surely render these sentiments of mine moot, as people have told me, people who will surely scoff at the length of this essay, all these words wasted on colors they cannot see. Those same people have also told me that love trumps hate, that the generations behind me won't be defined by color, because color will be impossible to separate.
Standing on that court on Greenwood Street, I closed my eyes and imagined all of us in perpetual motion, black and white, up and down the court, our focus on the orange ball and the red double-rim and the white net hanging against a blue sky. I opened my eyes, which had filled with water. I wept for what we could not see then. We could not see our colors in that rush of adrenaline, how they had already defined us, how society had already pitted us against one another, the stereotypes that did in fact become statistics. We could not see how the wider world had already defined us, Southern, and black, and white, and poor, and lower-middle class, and boys who would become men who should love women who are the same color.
I wept because I'd gained a perspective, yet we can never truly unsee how we first saw the world. I can never truly unsee the whiteness and blackness and what the world first taught me to attach to it. I wept because Louis believes I am the answer and the solution, yet I can only see you through my altered perspective. And only you can see the world through your eyes.