I may have mentioned this, but I used to have hair. It has been a long time, but there was a time that that was the case. One day I was in Japan on my way to the music store off base and I got on an elevator with a Japanese family. It was really quiet, I smiled at them and bowed a little, the father did the same, I had no idea if what I was doing made sense, what I did know was that I was tallest person there by at least 4 inches and the old lady with them had to be going on 110 or something. The doors to the elevator close, as we go up, the older lady, very softly, started touching my hair, which was cut low with waves all around. I looked at her and she was smiling, and I returned a smile, the guy, and his wife I’m assuming, were very apologetic, the kids were in shock, and I was cool about it. I let them know it was alright and we all got off the elevator on the same floor, no harm no foul.
Later on in my career, I was in Bishkek, KG at a recording studio at this university. The studio was rather small and dark, but I was there as the contracting officer paying for the recording services for these two guys. Surprise, I was the only Black guy as far as the eye could see. Upon seeing me walk in the door, the sound engineer assumed I was there to rap, coincidentally I do rap, but he assumed it because I looked like a rapper, I guess. I went in the booth and did a little freestyle, but nothing major, they were eager to get more, but I was there on business, so I stepped outside. A few of the students saw me step outside of the studio, apparently, they also assumed I was a rapper…they took off. I went back in for a second to talk with my finance person and she returned outside with me so she could smoke a cigarette. When we got outside, there was a crowd of 20 or 30 people asking for pictures and autographs.
So, for the next 30 minutes I was outside talking to people, taking pictures, and signing autographs for people that saw me as someone special or famous because of where I was and what I looked like in the process. The head sound engineer came out and ushered me back into the studio for some more raps, but they didn’t have any beats that I could work with, so we left and had to make our way through a crowd of 50 or 60 people on the final exit. The finance person half hugged me as we walked through the crowd, we got in the Mercedes bus, and these students ran next to the bus for a block as we drove away, as if I were a celebrity or something…crazy!
My second time in Afghanistan, I made friends with the interpreters and some of the local shop owners pretty quickly. Though they were accustomed to seeing Black people, they weren’t as accustomed to a genuine level of appreciation from anyone really. I always listened to other Americans speaking with them and the conversations sounded very unnatural and a bit condescending to me. It was always an emphasis on haggling over prices or explaining how different something was versus that same thing in the States. In my time with them, I only asked questions and complimented the differences that I liked and remained silent on those I didn’t.
Eventually, this guy invited me to eat lunch with him and a couple of the other shop owners. I went and felt like a fish out of water. We took our shoes off, rinsed our hands, gathered around a lot of food on top of rugs on the floor. There was rice, bread, chicken, beef and lamb, potatoes, raw tomatoes, cucumbers and onion. Unlike the picture above, there was not a knife, fork or spoon in sight. One of the guys said something in Farsi before we ate, I assume a prayer, and everyone just started grabbing. I followed suit scooping rice with the bread, wrapping pieces of beef and lamb in the bread and so on. The food was delicious and I was super appreciative of being invited to their meal time since I was the only American in there for it. The whole time, they asked me if I ever met any of the Black celebrities they knew of…Denzel Washington, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Muhammad Ali. In addition to that, they expressed their love for Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali for obvious reasons.
When I went to Kuwait, I was working at the airport escorting the construction workers around as they repaired things and built new stuff. We were instructed to not socialize with the workers, but one day, I saw these two guys that looked like guys from my neighborhood. So, at lunchtime, I decided to sit by them and eat. Turns out they were brothers, the smaller of the two attended school in Boston, spoke English very well, and he had a degree in Mechanical Engineering. The larger of the two, was a former bare-knuckle boxer, he spoke a little English, but not well. They were both from Egypt. I wish I could recall their names, but it has been 21 years since I’ve seen or spoken to them.
One day the engineer and I were speaking, and he said, “you’re a good man, you’re different from the Americans, the Americans are rude, and they do not truly like us”. I said “well, I’m an American too though”. He laughed and said, “when you filled out your application, what does it say? African American right” I said yeah, and he asked what part of Africa I am from. I had no answer of course, to which he said, only White people are Americans without a qualifier, meaning they’re the only ones the United States consider to be Americans. This was a sobering conversation for me because I had never really thought deeply about it, but he was right.
In my limited time on this planet, I’ve been to a lot of places, met a lot of people and done a lot of things. The people aren’t really that different outside of practices and beliefs, yet we have socially constructed barriers that separate us. When the hashtag Black Lives Matter came out, I thought it was a poor choice of branding. Not because I didn’t understand the intent within the context, but because I knew how easy it would be to exploit it. Granted, the people that exploit it and create counter narratives would do so regardless because at the core of who those people are, they don’t like Black people or Blackness, and that includes Clarence Thomas, Candace Owens, Thomas Sowell and more. They adopt the counter narrative because they profit from it financially and are mostly removed from the areas where they’d suffer from it socially.
When #BLM came out, I was saying “I wish they would have said All Lives Matter” because I anticipated seeing the White Lives, and Animal Lives and all these other random lives matter responses and it happened. The slogan took away from the message, and that is coming from a person that believes in the intent behind message. The slogan is poorly thought out and for all of the reasons I anticipated, it is being bashed right now. All lives matter has been stolen by the counterargument side and corrupted, because there is more unity in it, though there is no unity in the intent it is being used for now. All lives matter should have been a call for justice in a system that values a select few. I gave these brief stories of my travels to point out that despite differences, we can all come together if we leave the superficial behind and focus on the content of our character.
I have friends from all racial/ethnic backgrounds. Not just people I know, or have worked with, or have met, legit friends that I care about. The ability for “others” to come together is possible and my seemingly endless discussion about race recently is due to that ideal being constantly corrupted. These “United” States have never stood for or cared for all lives regardless of race, at any point in history. The separation by race was convenient to ensure poor White people would never align with poor Black people and learn we’re truly in the same position being manipulated by the wealthy class. These superficial distinctions carry on and as a result, poor White people vote against their own interests because of an alliance against melanin rather than an alliance for their interests. Melanin is not the problem, neither is a lack of melanin. The problem is that we think melanin is the problem.
We all have a hand in what a better future is, regardless of where you stand on the subject. The marginalized group today, may not be that way 10 years from now. Instead of preparing for war to maintain the status quo, we need to educate folks so we aren’t fighting about who is or is not right regarding useless information like religion or sexual preference or skin tone. I believe all lives matter…genuinely, not the counter narrative. That said, it is on us all to change the system to ensure Black lives, Brown lives, Queer lives, Native American lives and so on are included in that ALL, because they have been conveniently omitted thus far.