Saturday, July 08, 2006

Small celebration of difference

Synched up. Legs rolling easy under hips, knees and ankles relaxed, head up, effortless, smiling kind of stroll-along morning. I’m heading up Herring Cove Road in the bright sunshine.

Coming along from the other direction, is a guy I’ve been exchanging hellos with since I moved here. He’s a short, black man with a thousand-watt smile, and the solid build of a fire plug. He wears reflective sunglasses and takes them off when he stops to speak. He’s always friendly, always polite.

This morning, he’s wearing black work-out pants, a black sleeveless T-shirt and weight gloves. His skin is so summer dark it’s close in shade to his clothing. Slung around his neck on a rope is a card that will admit him to the local gym.

“I’m goin’ to the gym” he announces cheerily, by way of greeting.

“I could tell…from the gloves and pass.”

“Yeah. Been goin’ nine months now…”

“Well, it shows.” I give his arms and shoulders an appraising once-over and then grin approval, Lookin’ good!”

Thank y’baby.”

And we’re off in our opposite directions. Thank y’baby.

Spoken by a black man, the phrase has a particular rhythm, a particular inflection. The accent always falls heavily on the word, “thank,” so appreciation is emphasized. “Baby” makes it personal. It’s not a come-on, or pushy, rather it is charming and courtly in its way. It’s been said to me at least once by every black male friend of mine.

I don’t know much about middle-class black men. The black men I know come from working class or poor backgrounds and they’ve come up hard. They can be mean sons of bitches when they have to be, and they have had to be many times in their lives.

And the black men I know often wear a public mask – impersonal, emotionless, unreadable. Richard Majors, a professor of psychology and Janet Mancini Billson, a professor of sociology, wrote on the subject in, Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America ” They trace this phenomenon back to the times of slavery, when betrayal of emotion in front of a slave owner could mean being whipped or murdered. It was a survival strategy then and, in a still-racist world, it is now.

But when a black man drops that mask, smiles right up to his eyes, and combines it with the tone reserved for talking to women – distinctly different from the tone used for male friends – the transition always astonishes me. How a face can seem almost uninhabited one second and flood with life and warmth in the next. How a simple little phrase can contain that much poetry and make such a nice start to a summer morning.


beadbabe49 said...

what a lovely start to the day!

Leazwell said...

Your clarity in this observation/encounter is refreshing!

LJ said...

Thanks BB & L...

I've had a lot of relationships that required me to look hard at the differences and what and why they are.

"Cool Pose" was one of the most insightful books I read during a five or six year period when I read only black authors or books on the justice system.

There was some pretty disturbing material in that five or six years...but some understanding came out of it, and I'm more delighted and appreciative of little things like this, not important in and of themselves, because I've thought so much out and understand the context.

We're raised, we in the "majority" not to even be curious about such things or to understand them in our own context...which is to say, most of the time, incorrectly.

I have a big interest in what people call "ebonics" too. I find it absolutely fascinating how people will own language in their own way. And that has roots in history too.

But I'm rambling...

Katie said...

LJ, really good post. I think you touched on a delicate matter in a way that is respectful.

My best friend is black. Outside of my family, she is the most important person in my life. When I look at her, I don't see a color. But the world at large does.

She is from a middle class family, has graduated college. She is polite and social, the life of the party. She also does not see color.

Funny that in a society that we live in today, so advanced, so intelligent, we still do live in a racist world. It bothers me immensely. I have a lot of black male friends as well and they are all good guys. Nice, respectable, and yes, they can speak an endearment and make it sound like no one else.

About my blog, I don't know what happened with the page. It seems to be up and running now without a problem. Let me know if you still can't see it. Thanks LJ.

Be well, Jamie

herhimnbryn said...

Ramble on, please!

LJ, you were 'open' to the morning and the encounter.
A facinating post, so as I said, ramble on!

zhoen said...

Amen. Although I can't say I have heard that exact phrase, I know the tone, the look. And not just in black men, but so-called 'tough guys' who unexpectedly drop the mask and show their gentle humanity.


LJ said...

Thanks all. Very interesting point, Zhoen. Men, in general, tough men specifically, have to wear a pretty rigid mask sometimes don't they? And the world usually isn't going to reward them for dropping it's really a little gift when they do and you get to see the person.

phlegmfatale said...

how completely charming.