The little, pink General Lee

The last time I really went through the house was probably 10 years ago.

I had just come back from my first big tour abroad and I couldn’t wait to tell my dad all about it. The visit went how they almost always went. I told him stories, he beamed with pride. He told me stories, I tried to take a lesson from them. Then he’d sit down at the piano, I’d pull out my guitar and we’d play old blues songs for the next couple hours. Then we’d take a break, start all over again and keep going until I had to go home.

This particular time, after our first round of stories and blues, I started feeling nostalgic and went upstairs to check out my old room.

The house itself is very old. It was built by my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. Even though most of that side of the family was long dead, much of them still remained in the house. No one was ever completely gone. This was obvious anywhere you went in the house—even in my old room.

My father hadn’t really touched the room since I moved out. My pretentious music and movie posters were still on the walls—which were still the same color I’d painted them in high school: black, naturally. My same bed was still in the same place, though not completely mine. The mattress was mine, but the frame had been my grandmother’s. It was white and gold and matched her dresser, which was also in the same place it had been when I last lived there.

And there was Grammy’s big closet. It was a walk-in, but just barely. It was unfinished and under one of the eaves, but you could definitely walk into it. I never really had, though. It had always just felt like my Grammy’s big closet and none of my business.

Grammy had died when I was five, but I still had vivid memories of her. And they were all loving. In the drawers of her old dresser must’ve been a hundred pictures of her and I, and every one of them reflected those memories. Both of us happy, usually playing together, usually mid-laugh. Even now memories of her bring back a sort of love and excited contentment I haven’t felt since she died.

I was looking for more of that feeling when I decided to go through her closet that day. And that feeling is exactly what I found.

My parents used to drop me off at Grammy’s Friday afternoon. I’d stay the night and she’d let me stay up late and watch my favorite show, The Dukes of Hazzard. She even got me a little toy car that I’d drive through the air and mimic the sound of its Dixie car horn. The toy car didn’t actually look anything like The General Lee. It was pink and it didn’t have any moving parts. It was just a hollow, plastic shell, but it was close enough for me at the time.

Every Saturday morning she’d drive us back to my parents’ apartment and we’d all have breakfast. Then she’d get up to leave and I’d cry. Then she’d hand me that little pink car and tell me that she’d see me in a few days and she’d let me stay up late and we could watch our favorite show.

Naturally, the next week would come and I would have lost the car. But every single time, somehow she would find it and I would have the little, pink General Lee in hand, ready when our favorite show came on.

That little, pink General Lee is in all my memories of Grammy, even the last one. I was laying on my stomach on the floor in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen of my parents’ apartment. Grammy was sitting with them at their kitchen table. She was mid-sentence when her eyes rolled back and she fell out of her chair. My father caught her and gently laid her on the floor. My mother called the ambulance and I jumped up screaming and crying, clutching that little, pink General Lee.

Over the next 20-plus years I would think about the little, pink General Lee whenever I thought of Grammy. It became a sort of legend I not only associated with my grandmother, but also with the house. So, you can imagine the overwhelming joy in my laughter when, in Grammy’s closet I found a shopping bag full of little, pink General Lees.

I had often wondered how she always “found” something at her house that had been lost someplace else and it turned out she hadn’t. I couldn’t stop laughing at what a wonderful, joyous thing this was. It was this sweet and loving prank she had played on me, a joke where the punchline arrives more than twenty years later surrounded by the happiest nostalgia. I went back downstairs to share the joke with my dad.

He didn’t laugh.

My father’s relationship with my grandmother was very different than mine. My grandmother’s family had lived in New England for generations. She was a pillar of her Maine community. She was a deputy sheriff’s widow. And she was the very protective white mother of a white daughter who had just married a big, Southern Black man.

She was never overt in her opinion of my father’s race, but she would let him know in other ways. In passive-aggressive ways. In plausibly deniable ways. In cruel ways. For instance, she would let his Black child watch a TV show that glorified the racist symbolism of the south. She did this knowing how he felt about that racist symbolism. She would go further by encouraging that Black child to run around with a little car hollering out Dixie in his home, knowing how he felt about that song.

It wasn’t possible to explain to me what racism was, never mind all of the layers. The long and cruel history of a country, its life-long battle with race, its ever-permeating racist symbolism and the day to day effects of these things on people who look like us. The country itself still doesn’t understand it, so how would this four-year-old child?

My father was stuck. He was alone, but not in the usual ways a Black man is alone in a white place. This was different than being followed around a store or being questioned by the police. This was even different than the plain and hidden racism he faced in public as a Black husband to a white wife. He would not discuss this with my mother. He would not risk the retaliation from my grandmother. He would not risk the possible loss of his wife and child. He would take as much as he could. Like he did the whispers from fellow restaurant patrons and the shouts from passing cars, he would take it. He would take it because he grew up with different bathrooms and water fountains. He would take it because he was 10 years old when Emmett Till was beaten to death. He would take it because even though it was in his house now, he’d come too far to let it steal his dignity. But he wouldn’t take it lying down. No. He threw away every little, pink General Lee I came home with.

And here I was, 20-odd years later. An adult, standing there in front of him, overjoyed, grinning that same Grammy-is-the-best grin, holding that bag, a time capsule containing a sweet and loving prank for me and a hard, sordid one for him.

I went back to look at those pictures in her dresser drawers. Grammy and me still playing and laughing. They looked different, but not entirely. Even now, when I look at them it’s impossible not to see what I saw then. The photos are as true and real as any grandmother’s love for her grandchild. But I also know another thing. I know that if she had not been my grandmother and I had met her as I am now, the spitting image of my own Black father, she would have likely judged me solely for that.

She was absolutely a loving grandmother. I still have no doubt of that. She was also a spiteful person who would manipulate and exploit her own grandchild in order to make his father suffer for his race.

Both things can be true.

I still have no doubt of that.

I wouldn’t go through the house again until my father died.


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Colin Kaepernick and Nike: The good with the bad

Do you think Colin Kaepernick ever gets sick of his agency being stolen from him? I do. I get sick of it. I mean, if every time I did something people went out of their way to find whatever they could to be offended by and no one even tried to understand why I did that thing, I’d probably get sick of that pretty quickly.

What will it take to get some of these white people to actually acknowledge just one of the things Colin Kaepernick is talking about?

I mean, he says, “Let’s talk about police brutality.”

Here are their responses so far:

“No.”

That’s it. That’s all of their responses. Sure, it’s dressed up a little bit. Sometimes it sounds like

“That’s not how you address this issue.”

“Shut up and do your job!”

“Protest on your own time!”

“I don’t agree with what he’s saying, but I respect his right to say it!”

“Nike is bad!”

All of those responses are a refusal to address the issue.

And that one about Nike though…

There’s a man starving to death. He’s crawling slowly, panting. Dying. Then he finds, of all things, a Twinkie. He unwraps it and takes a bite. He immediately starts to improve. His blood sugar begins to balance. His heart rate evens out. His vision is clearing. He begins to take a second bite, but just before he can a very well-fed man with a mouthful of cupcakes interrupts him to explain how just how unhealthy Twinkies are.

The well-fed man doesn’t see the situation of the starving man. He doesn’t give the starving man healthy food or show him how to get it. He definitely doesn’t consider what could have led to their food disparity in the first place. No. Instead the well-fed man continues to lecture the starving man, all the while convinced he is helping. But he’s not helping. Can’t even understand him, talking with his mouth full like that.

Right now, this is how it feels to listen to some of these white people talk about Colin Kaepernick and Nike.

Like it or not, our world is run by governments or corporations. Too often it’s just a terrible knot of the two. As a Black person, I look at the government side and I don’t see myself represented. But from the police all the way up to the president, what I do see is a whole lotta motherfuckers who’d just as soon see me in prison or dead.

Then I look to the corporate side. Not much there either, but now I see Nike. I know it’s not ideal. It’s not even good, but it’s a whole lot more than what I had just a few days ago.

Yes, I know Nike does some very evil things and no, and there’s no excusing it. They exploit brown people in every way around the globe. But what they’re doing right now, giving voice to a man who is trying to stop the police from killing me and mine, it’s a good thing.

Both things can be true.

Yes, they are just trying to capitalize on a social justice movement, but they’ve also supported LeBron and Serena.

Both things can be true.

The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) is evil. Giant media conglomerates perpetuate all the evils in the world. The whole planet would be infinitely better off without any of them. But ABC brought us Shonda Rhimes, who has helped to normalize Blackness in immeasurable ways. You don’t stop the evil that is ABC by clutching your fucking pearls at Shonda Rhimes.

Black and brown suffering on one part of the world does not cancel out Black and brown suffering on another part of the world. It’s not zero sum.

Both things can be true.

But really, the thing is this. I don’t give a fuck what you think of Kap’s choice of corporate sponsor if:

  • You haven’t already stolen the agency from every white public figure with a corporate sponsor.
  • You haven’t acknowledged that the actual problem is a world in which a Black man needs a corporate sponsor for you to even acknowledge him.
  • You own shoes or clothes or a car or a device or any other goddamned thing produced by brown, enslaved hands.

We live in a world of corporate hegemony that is an overwhelming horror tangled into a generations-long knot made from every kind of string, wire, rope and chain. It’s a knot that needs to be untied and I hope you’re one of the people trying to untie it. I just hope you’re not gonna spend all your time on these goddamn shoelaces.


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Photo of Nike campus courtesy of Nike Inc.

Freedom of speech isn’t a blank check

Welcome to this episode of The Whitest Things in the World: Free Speech Edition!

Free speech? Really? That whole concept is just about the weirdest, most hubristic fantasy anyone could ever imagine, but holy shit, do white people believe in it! I swear, only a group of people encased in the arrogant armor of their own permission would ever believe in this tooth fairy bullshit.

First of all, people who bring it up the most get it wrong. All it takes is one disagreement on the internet to reveal the sheer mass of people who think “Freedom of Speech” means freedom from consequence.

“I can’t believe he got fired for saying that! Whatever happened to freedom of speech?”

Well, nothing happened to it. You just never actually knew what it meant. FYI, it means the government can’t punish someone for speaking out, but I understand where you are coming from. When you are part of a protected class, suddenly not having permission to do something probably strikes at the core of who you are just now perceiving yourself to be.

If you’re part of a group that has never had its rights withheld, actual laws written against it, or been murdered, bombed, tortured, treated as a disease or experimented on by the government for just being part of a group, the difference between an angry comment on social media and government sanctioned violence may be unclear.

This kind of misunderstanding is at the core of racism. Race itself—as it is currently understood in this country—exists as a hierarchy. White is on the top, Black and Native American on the bottom. Everyone else somewhere in between, but all closer to the bottom than the top. Racism is the exploitation and reinforcement of that hierarchy.

That’s why “nigger” is fighting words and “honky” probably sounds funny to you.

Everyone instinctively knows this, but that won’t stop some white people from claiming they experience racism. And even though they look like everyone from the people on the money to the white-sanctioned “official” Jesus, some white people will even say they’re the ones who actually experience racism.

Also, and I know you’re not gonna like this, you shouldn’t be allowed to say whatever you want. It’s a bad idea. Absolute free speech only works if everyone is of equal social standing and speaks only in good faith. And probably not even then.

All it takes is one stroll through 4chan to see that absolute freedom of speech eventually devolves into who can hate the most the fastest. The thing about hate is that it’s destructive, so if you are reliant on any kind of order in your life, which you infinitely are, hate is something you can’t allow.

I know some of you are having a hard time following that idea, but guess what? It doesn’t matter. Your speech is already limited. If you don’t believe me, just walk up to the next cop you see and tell him you plan on murdering him. If he arrests you, just explain to the judge that you have freedom of speech. Then, when you’re on the stand, just lie and say you never did it. If the judge tries to call you out on it you just tell that judge, “Eat shit, motherfucker.”

Everything should work out just fine. Seriously though, you’re censored in ways you don’t even realize.

Now, at this point some of you may be wondering whether or not I am pro-censorship. To you I will say pay closer attention! Censorship exists. Some of it is bad and some of it is good, but the topic itself is nuanced.

People need to be able to speak truth to power.

But in order for that to happen, other people need to get honest about just who’s got the power.


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Photo by Jason Rosewell from Unsplash