Swagger-Free Zone: Staying Ahead is No Birthright

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Ours was the first of nine houses on the row, a tangible departure from the low-slung bungalows and four-family apartments that line the working-class Cincinnati suburbs of Kennedy Heights and Silverton, which surround Brandonburg. I had grown up on those streets, in a house my grandfather had built as his demolition firm began to grow in the s.

The spring before sixth grade, tired of the unruliness and intellectual stultification of the elementary school I went to in Silverton, I asked my mother to send me to the Seven Hills School, which I would pass as we rode along Red Bank Road toward I The gray wood buildings of Red Bank would float past as I sat shotgun in her gas-guzzling GMC Suburban, gazing at the well-manicured baseball fields, connected by walkways and ringed with neat, inviting landscaping, and the Olympic-sized track and field of rubber and grass.

The one I ran and leaped on at the Silverton elementary was made of blacktop, the baseball fields pockmarked with weeds. I recall my mother being somewhat astonished by the request. Eventually he made enough money in the demolition business to purchase, through his white lawyer, a plot of land in Walnut Hills, an exclusive east side community that was normally protected from Negroes by restrictive covenants.

Yet behind closed doors, they complained of the same corruption and racial graft that common Negroes did. Their dissatisfaction, through which I first learned that America allegedly had a race problem, was not restricted to the behavior of whites. Skepticism about our ability to forge a commonwealth within our ranks became a form of received wisdom in this period of my life. The complaints my family members launched at the ineffectiveness of black collective action made me so.

Jews reminded one another of their history, their oppression, while collectivizing in ways that provided their ranks protection and wealth, so went the legend. You would hear it at kitchen tables littered with Little Caesars pizza or at a barbershop in Evanston while awaiting a fade, but not out in public, among whites. These conversations were kept at bay there.

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In these days, I watched elderly black fingers wag at the sagging pants and billowing white T-shirts and fat girls with expensive weaves and too many kids. To replenish the spring of self-loathing from which so many well-to-do blacks draw was to lack a vision of transcendence and, like so much of America, to remain deaf to the sounds of justice.

My grandfather is a man who, like so many of his generation, did his best to assimilate and segregate at once, to upend and uphold an old order.


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Tony was, in his early youth, gangly and awkward, bookish and intense, a child of silver spoons that he kept mostly private. He had a reserve, an aloofness, that I envied and had tried, mostly with little success, to cultivate in myself. I thought the dispassionate way his class of whites went about their business was what you had to emulate to get ahead. But when, in that same science class in which we sat together every day, I was accused, the only black child in the section, of stealing a hissing Madagascar cockroach, I recall no one coming to my aid.

No one leaped forward to speak for my character. I was the new kid, and black. Suspicion naturally gravitated toward me. Our teacher, Mr. Barker, had prized his cockroach, which he dubbed Seymour, ordering it all the way from the island off the southeast African coast for which this particularly rare species of cockroach is named. After arriving home that afternoon, I placed my bag down near the doorway and retreated to the living room so my father, who had picked me up from school, could make me a sandwich.

When I returned to the office to start my homework, my right hand instinctively went for the light switch.


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When I brought it back toward my body, a hissing Madagascar cockroach was staring at me from just below my knuckles. They really do hiss. I screamed and threw it across the room. My father and I trapped it and, a few days later, I took pleasure in gassing it to death in a mason jar. Via Encarta for Windows 95 I discovered that the bug I had found was quite a rare coup, and I included it with pride in my insect classification assignment for Mr.

He recognized Seymour immediately and hauled my mother in for a meeting. Suspicion remained, but no proof emerged, so no punishment was meted out, just a lurking sense that the standard upon which I would be judged was always to be different than my peers.

Barker let me know she had been putting up with bullshit like this her whole life. Although one of the other black students became a lifelong friend, I gravitated, in my three years there, first toward a cadre of short, swarthy nerds, people who would take an interest in Star Trek cards and nascent attempts at fantasy baseball, before turning to the jocks, among whom I was a natural leader and far from the only black, and then steadily toward the kids that experimented with drugs and liked edgy movies, almost all of whom were white.

Cincinnati was the eighth most segregated city in America as Tony and I grew up. My mother managed to persevere in the midwestern demolition industry, an almost exclusively white domain, but nonetheless as an adult never acquired close friends who were white. I saw less and less of my friends from my elementary school days and spent more time, slowly but steadily, in the parlor rooms and upstairs attics of those same east side families my mother had no real interest in getting to know. She was trying to build her own slice of modern middle-class housing for black families in generally black neighborhoods, residential projects that would increase property values for everyone in the surrounding community, she posited.

This was in stark contrast to forging alliances with those who had the real money and heading for the hills, as the black professionals she would meet up with for top-of-the-weekend Happy Hour at T. Why are so many Negroes so broke? Of course, many of those I knew did—in Silverton, we were thought of as rich Negroes. Yet it also left me with a cognitive dissonance about the value of modern black American symbols.

Was hardly a bulwark against these sentiments. Our collectivism manifested itself in ways I found strange sometimes. Watching the O. You could sense the righteous indignation spread among some of the teachers, most of whom quickly stifled it. Not in front of the children; American innocence had to be protected for them, for now.

I thought O. Not a damn thing, but schadenfreude is a powerful animating force in many black minds toward many a white person for reasons that are older than all of us.

He certainly seemed to have insight into blacks that extended beyond stereotype; he was immersed in black forms. As the years went by, I admired not just his thinly concealed melancholy I had my own , but his knowledge of black literature and boxing and soul music.

These cultural signals kept me thinking he probably empathized more than he did. Eventually, toward the end of middle school and beginning of high school, Tony and I ran in a coherent circle of friends. We stopped partying at my house. Eventually, as seniors, we rounded up enough people to invest in our own apartment, which we dubbed Party House. Despite earning the highest grade point average I ever did in high school, I spent most of my senior year in front of a television at Party House, playing Grand Theft Auto and watching Tom Tykwer movies.

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We grew weed in the closet of the sole bedroom, often smoking it out of a six-foot bong to better take years off our lives, and hung an American flag upside down with an anarchy sign written on it. It was a slice of gutter paradise. Across many years class meant little to us—we were just boys having an adolescence together—even as its portent grew more obvious. Tony attended private and pricey Sarah Lawrence for his Westchester County college education, while I opted for the nearby film conservatory at SUNY Purchase, to which I still tithe my wages while teaching a new generation of future Purchase debtors how to dream in cinematic terms.

These were activities Tony would participate in happily, without irony, by himself.

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Beneath his cool patrician vibe was a genuinely searching and tortured and open person with whom I shared a lot of laughs and from whom I learned multitudes. I miss him. But the gaps between us, cracks of misunderstanding in which the entire relationship would become mired, began to overwhelm the thing before I ever had the life experience or self-awareness to bring language to how unnerved I was often made to feel.

I felt perfectly at home with privilege. I realized mine was more precarious than most, but not here. There was safety in those walls, on that champagne-colored carpet of the study and game room where I watched so many championship fights over the years, blunt smoke wafting in the air. In college, Tony and I grew closer still, seeing each other as somehow more reliable than the other people in our circle from back home, many of whom were fleeing Cincinnati for the coasts, but with what we saw as less aplomb. Our Westchester County campuses were only twenty minutes from each other by car or forty-five by public transport, so early in our sophomore year we began to hang out on weekends, swapping party invites and shoot-the-shit sessions.

During Christmas break that year, he slept with a girl I had a crush on. Although the feelings of betrayal that I had toward him persisted for years, by the time we moved in together I thought I was past it. It was a comeuppance that he accepted with what I took for maturity when I told him, later that year, what had happened. We were even. He proceeded through life with the awareness that no financial calamity was likely to threaten his ability to eat and lie down somewhere comfortable, and seemed, because of this, in no great hurry to make his own way.

He knew where entitlement ended, though. I remember thinking it could be worse for the three months that I did, grateful to have my first nonparental or university dwelling regardless of its location or condition. I had resolved to pass the summer reading serious black literature, watching blaxploitation movies, and being as off the grid as possible.

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Despite this desire to live simply and contain myself to my thoughts, it was the first summer I had a cell phone; Don DeLillo novels and inconclusive brain cancer studies had taught me they were bad news, but my mother insisted. When we met the previous winter, she had been living on the waterfront in Manhattan, just off the sleepy eastern edge of the Financial District, in a gargantuan rent-controlled loft.

This woman and her family, remnants of Los Sures, the community that had begun moving into these brick walk-ups in the s, had no reason to doubt that we came as friends. Rolanda was tall and pretty, blue-eyed and openfaced, her hair dyed a pale pumpkin shade that summer. She only stopped when I scolded her, angrily.

What I did care to know, due to concern for my physical safety heightened by exposure to a million television news segments, newspaper stories, rap songs, commonly used epithets, and, most significantly, the painful indoctrination into Negro American fear, handed down to me by my loving and forever concerned mother, was that the New York City Housing Authority NYCHA projects to the west and east and south of my apartment were foreboding, overwhelmingly filled with the dangerous and needy.