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.