Brian Copeland’s ‘Not a Genuine Black Man’

by Alicia Rudnicki, Library Mix

Who are we? This essay is part of a continuing focus on the issues of identity—such as struggling to fit in, having a sense of place, and practicing tolerance. It is also the first article in a three-part series about how a good book, such as Not a Genuine Black Man, can help us to explore our nation’s lingering racism.

A whole lot of shouting
The 2009 firestorm of news about the unnecessary arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., may have been extinguished by the cool bottles of beer that Gates shared with President Barack Obama and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley. For a summary of the incident read Racial profiling: Real life mirrors fiction.

After a whole lot of shouting, the nation began calming down, and so did Professor Gates. Following what became known as the “beer summit,” Gates sent flowers and a note to the woman who had called the police to report what appeared to be a break-in at Gates’ home. Much the same as Gates and Crowley, she was a good person who had suffered from all the bad press.

Not a genuinely good person?
Lucia Whalen, the woman who called the police, had been accused of racial profiling and heavily criticized in the days following Gates’ arrest. But as an Associated Press report noted, “The subsequent release of the 911 tapes showed that she never described Gates or his driver as black.”

AP quoted Whalen’s lawyer as saying Gates sent the flowers as a “gesture of gratitude.” He understood that Whalen was just trying to be a good neighbor and that she had suffered for it. Gates’ thoughtful action showed us how to forgive and ask forgiveness. But should we forget?

Reading can reinforce our “teachable moment”
Following the White House meeting, AP paraphrased Gates as saying that he and Crowley now should use their shared experience “to foster wider awareness of the dangers facing police officers and the fears that some blacks have about racial profiling.”

We can help promote this understanding and reinforce what President Obama has called our “teachable moment” by metaphorically walking in other people’s shoes. Open a good book at the library and you can open yourself to understanding another person. Speak up about it and you may help spread understanding.

Here is one fine example that can help us consider the impact of racism and profiling, the distance our nation has come in the last 30 years, and the distance we must go to arrive at a post-racial nation.

Not a Genuine Black Man
In light of the Gates incident, I decided to re-read a powerful book that alternately made me cry and laugh the first time I read it. I don’t cry easily, but I couldn’t avoid it on the second read either.

The book is Brian Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs. It has been used in many college classrooms on the West Coast and was the 2009 choice for Silicon Valley Reads, similar to the one book-one city programs across the nation.

Part of the reason why Copeland’s book is so powerful for me is because it concerns the Northern California town where I grew up and the racially charged time when I lived there.

Copeland is a talk show host on San Francisco’s KGO Radio. He is also a stand-up comedian who has opened for many famous musicians such as Aretha Franklin. His book was inspired by his one-man theatrical, Not a Genuine Black Man, which he has been performing continuously for many years in  venues ranging from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Off-Broadway in New York City.

The play was inspired by two experiences. First, Copeland interviewed the great comic writer/actor/ producer Carl Reiner of the legendary Dick Van Dyke Show, who advised Copeland “to find the place where you stand” and write about it. Unlike me, Copeland never moved away from San Leandro. It became his actual and metaphorical “ground.”

Second, an irritated, anonymous African-American who listened to Copeland’s talk show wrote him a letter one pivotal day saying that Copeland was not “a genuine black man.”

Not a genuine black man. Why do people say that to me? Is it how I talk? Is it how I dress? …. I like Motown; that’s black. But I also like the Beach Boys. That isn’t…. I can’t swim. That’s black. But I can’t play basketball, either…. I love watermelon, but I won’t buy one at the store. I refuse. I’m not going to shuffle up to the clerk at Safeway with a big green melon under my arm.

The Promised Land
I was a young college student in 1972 when 8-year-old Brian Copeland, his mother, grandmother, and sisters moved to San Leandro. They were fleeing from the brutal husband and father who had almost choked Brian to death just for looking at him wrong.

Copeland’s mother thought San Leandro, just south of Oakland and east of San Francisco, would be their promised land. After all, it called itself “The Friendly City.” The Copelands were one of the first African-American families to integrate what was then an almost all-white city and, as Brian notes in his book, it was five years after San Francisco’s “summer of love.”

My neighborhood elementary school, Grover Cleveland, was separated from heavily black East Oakland by a creek and a chain link fence. There was no road directly from my neighborhood into East Oakland, and that was the way San Leandrans wanted it.

I remember being told not to linger at that fence staring at the other side of the creek.

The right side of the tracks
My modest blue-collar neighborhood was considered literally to be on the right side of the railroad tracks. I fell asleep each night to the soothing wail of trains passing through a mile or two away. My parents didn’t want me to go home after school with children who lived on the other side, because they took the freeway underpass as a shortcut.

There were quiet conversations between Grover Cleveland parents about girls who had been scared terribly by encountering “them” while walking through the underpass. When I was little, I didn’t know who “them” was/were yet I was worried enough to follow my parents’ rule.

It never occurred to me until high school that “them” were the blacks across the creek. After all, my parents were always polite and friendly with the African-American members of the WWII vintage military club to which they belonged.

Then like a tiny rivulet of water that eventually turns rock into a canyon, a single black student enrolled at my high school, and I fell into the chasm of my hometown’s racism. But more about that later.

The wrong side of the law
We can learn a lot not only about what it feels like to be racially profiled and what it feels like to worry about being a profiler by reading Not a Genuine Black Man. Early in the book Copeland relates his emotionally painful first experience walking by himself in his new neighborhood.

Copeland’s mom suggested that he take his new baseball gear and seek out a pick-up game in the local park. Instead of running around bases, he ended up running away from a car full of unfriendly teenagers.

“Hi,” I said in my best Beaver Cleaver voice.

A boy in the passenger seat spoke up, his face so covered with acne it looked like a relief map.

“Oakland’s that way,” he chuckled, pointing to the north.

His friends laughed.

I tried to be nice again.

“Can you please tell me how to get to the park?”

“What for? They don’t allow no niggers in the park!”

The teenagers began chasing Copeland after he pointed out that “don’t allow no” was a double negative (one of his mother’s favorite sayings), and therefore he did belong in the park.

Copeland was relieved when he saw a policeman and ran up to him breathlessly with baseball bat in hand. But the police officer treated the 8-year-old like he was the offender.

He took my bat and ball, put them on the hood of the squad car, and then I was officially baptized as a black male in this society. He had me raise my hands over my head and he patted me down.

Then the police officer asked him for an I.D. and made him drive home in the back of the police car causing the eight-year-old to wonder, “Was I a bad person now? “

Criminal profiling versus racial profiling
The American Civil Liberties Union says, “Racial profiling does not refer to the act of a law enforcement agent pursuing a suspect in which the specific description of the suspect includes race or ethnicity in combination with other identifying factors.” This is “criminal profiling.”

As already mentioned, in the Gates’ incident, the citizen reporting the alleged crime did not comment on race or skin color when calling the police. It seems clear that the Cambridge Police suspected a violation of the law, but should have stopped short of handcuffing and arresting Gates when it became apparent that no crime existed.

Nevertheless, it’s unclear whether Sgt. Crowley perceived more than a verbal threat. Did his experience tell him Gates’ behavior might lead to violence?

Copeland’s experience clearing fits into racial profiling. There was no allegation of crime. Here was a child who sought police help, but was treated like a criminal due to his skin color.

But most of us don’t think like ACLU lawyers, especially in the heat of the moment. The question of whether racial profiling has occurred can be a murky one. Click here for the second article in this three-part series.

For more information about Brian Copeland:
Authors at Google: Brian Copeland


One thought on “Brian Copeland’s ‘Not a Genuine Black Man’

  1. I grew up in San Leandro on arthur ave. I am the oldest of 5 who also attended Grover Cleveland elem. through the 6th grade. We then moved to milpitas. I now live in texas. Ive often returned to my home town of San leandro with the help of the internet. My old house and block has changed dramatically, but i cant find Grover Cleveland. Does it not exist anymore? Reading your artical took me back to the exact memories i had of the fence and creek dividing the two schools, and ive often walked under the overpass to a friends home. I went to school there from 1959 till 1965. It was an all white school then, and we were taught to be scared of the black kids on the other side of the fence. Thank you for giving me part of my childhood back as sad as it was. Take care and God Bless. Claudette

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