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 second article in a three-part series focusing on the book Not a Genuine Black Man.
Finding common ground
Unless you have the brilliantly cheerful and resilient personality of a character such as Zinkoff in Jerry Spinelli’s 2002 children’s novel, Loser, it takes a long time to shake off bad childhood memories about abusive classmates.
To some, Zinkoff is an ugly duckling. He can’t do anything right on the playground or in the classroom. He sticks out like a yellow dandelion amid the uniform blades of a grassy lawn—awkward and unwanted, but gloriously sunny. It’s hard to be like Zinkoff.
I was one of those awkward kids who always got “A’s” on tests, but couldn’t play kickball to save my self-esteem. I was a geek who loved to read and would have appreciated a geeky friend like Brian Copeland, the author of Not a Genuine Black Man.
Feeling like you don’t belong
Copeland attended public school and then parochial school in San Leandro during the 1970s. The population census at that time identified the Northern California city of San Leandro as being 99.99% white. Copeland was always the only African-American in his class.
His classmates loved to call him “Brillo head,” and all the barbers he visited in San Leandro refused to cut his hair claiming they didn’t know how. It seemed to him that not only his classmates but also the entire community was trying to tell him that he didn’t belong.
In fact, the manager of his apartment house worked so hard to get the Copelands evicted that his gutsy mother had to take legal action.
Copeland was a klutzy brainiac who loved to read comics and couldn’t shoot hoops. You might say he encountered racial profiling on the playground.
“What kind of colored kid are you?” one white boy asked as I wildly threw a basketball that sailed a mile past the backboard.
Once it became evident that I was lacking in the physical activity department, that I was weak and uncoordinated, that I wasn’t a threat, it was like blood in the water to sharks. It was open season on “Brillo head.” I fought daily. I fought before school, I fought after school. I fought at recess.
Finding friends in fiction
When you are short on companions as a child, sometimes you find your friends in fiction. That is what happened to Copeland. One of his best buddies was the comic book hero Superboy and his alter ego, the young Clark Kent.
Copeland must have felt like he was from another planet during his school days—an alien who accidentally got past The Suburban Wall (an early 1970’s documentary) in a superwhite city. He began taking his cues from Clark Kent.
I read in one of my Superboy comics where young Clark Kent had a superintellect. He could ace any exam in a breeze. He could even do it at superspeed, finishing it in seconds, if he really wanted to. The problem was that perfect scores would make him stand out, and somebody might figure out his secret identity. They might discover that he really wasn’t anything like them at all. For this reason, he would always deliberately miss a few answers on each test in order to avoid arousing suspicion. I began to do the same thing.
Fortunately, Copeland eventually befriended the almost equally klutzy new white boy in class. There was only one desk left in the classroom, which was next to Copeland’s because nobody ever wanted to sit next to him.
When the new boy invited the entire class to his birthday party and no one but Copeland showed up, the friendship blossomed and so did Copeland’s sense of empathy.
We played a game. And then another. And then another as we waited for the other kids to get there. Forty-five minutes later, no one else had arrived…. I started to feel sad again, but this time for Jon. I realized that he was just like me. He was an outsider…. I thought to myself, “Maybe we can be different together.”
Copeland had finally found that longed for sense of common ground. He and Jon bridged the city’s racial divide.
Misery inspires empathy
Leave it to a librarian to sum things up nicely. In a 1998 essay on BlueThread.com, Rosemarie E. Falanga wrote about an early experience in her career when she was the only white librarian in “a solidly middle-class, home-owning, civic-minded African-American neighborhood.” Her comments provide a useful detour.
Falanga was meeting with a girls’ book discussion group when she discovered that there “are many ways of being a minority.”
“While talking with the girls,” Falanga wrote, “I realized for the first time that my experiences in being miserable in school had opened me up to seeing the world from the point of view of a minority. To me, being different means experiencing good and bad. The good is that one can develop a sensitivity and an empathy for others because one has been there. The bad is that it hurts.”
By sixth grade, Falanga was taller than some of her teachers. She was great at academics, which endeared her to neither the boys nor the girls. She was also “miserable at jumping rope.”
That year, Falanga said, her “social ostracism reached new heights” when she befriended a group of ten bright fifth graders who had been placed in her class as an experiment. She did this because she saw that they were sad. Both the sixth grade class and their former fifth grade class were shunning them.
“Soon I had a trail of ten chicks who followed me everywhere.” None of the sixth graders would talk with this “mother hen.”
Soul on Ice
Falanga is now the director of information services at San Francisco’s famed Exploratorium, a children’s museum. Oddly enough, I found her essay because I was researching Eldredge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, a book that was popular in the 1970s and which made me intensely uncomfortable as a young woman. It would have been nice to have an approachable book like Not a Genuine Black Man at that time in my life.
To test the new librarian, the African-American girls had chosen Soul on Ice for their first read without knowing what it contained. It did me good to hear that they didn’t like it any more than I did since Cleaver justified rape as a tool for fighting back against racial oppression. At 19, I just didn’t get why so many people thought Cleaver was cool.
Falanga told the girls that while Cleaver’s “conduct was abhorrent and frightening to me, I understood his anger and his pain.”
This “led to a discussion very different from the one I envisioned,” Falanga said. “We began to talk about the many ways of being a minority and they began to reflect on how each of them was sometimes in the minority and sometimes in the majority and that it didn’t just have to do with race.”
Imaginary finger pointing
Copeland has had to endure one too many accusations in his life of not being authentically black and this created great confusion for him. Did people want him to be like the father who beat his mother and almost strangled both of them?
He abused me. He abused my mother. He never worked. He never brought money home. He abandoned us. Yet not once in his life did anybody ever accuse him of not being a “genuine black man.” …. Is that what’s expected of me by those who called me an “Oreo” or an “Al Jolson,” a white man with a black face?
Cleaver took a 180-degree turn in his personal philosophies toward the end of his life, but in his heyday, I imagine that his would have been one of the powerful fingers pointing at someone like Copeland as being, in the favorite phrase of that time, an “Uncle Tom.”
In search of identity
Finding a comfortable identity during adolescence is difficult no matter what era, but the late 1960s and the 1970s seemed particularly chaotic. It was a time when even the smallest interactions were infused with racism.
I remember being on a bus late one night in an unfamiliar San Francisco neighborhood when I was 20. I asked the driver for directions when I got off at my stop. After he gave me the directions, he had a strange smile on his face.
I ended up getting lost, so I called the friends I was supposed to meet. They were frustrated when they heard what the driver had told me. “No, that’s wrong. He sent you the wrong way on purpose.”
I am white and the driver was black. I had trouble thinking that he would intend me harm, but I remembered the smile.
Feeling like a ghost
I also remembered the time more than a year earlier when I was similarly lost, but during the daytime, in a black neighborhood along San Pablo Avenue at the northern end of Oakland. I wandered into a community-gathering place. People were obviously busy going from one task to another. The room buzzed with conversation.
“Excuse me, please,” I asked a few times trying to direct myself to the attention of people who looked like they might be in charge.
After a few minutes, it became clear to me that I was a ghost, and no one would be helping me. I was the only white person in the room.
I wandered back out to the street and finally got myself headed in the right direction on the right bus. I wasn’t angry with the people. I was embarrassed. I kept asking myself, “Am I a racist just because I am white?”
The Ugly Duckling or species profiling
One good book inspires connections with another. I recently attended a children’s writing conference where I met Donna Jo Napoli and encountered her book Ugly. It is a thoughtful retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale, The Ugly Duckling, which was one of my touchstones in early childhood.
After reading about Copeland’s playground battles, I was reminded of Napoli’s Ugly, who hatches in a Pacific black duck nest in Tasmania. Since he doesn’t look or act like the other hatchlings, the various waterfowl in his pond community begin to call him Ugly.
They don’t have all the facts, but they make assumptions about him anyway. Call it “species profiling.” Certain of their identities and equally certain that he doesn’t belong, they want to peck him to death. In the end, of course, Ugly discovers his true identity as a beautiful swan, but only after surviving many difficulties.
Similar to Not a Genuine Black Man, Andersen’s and Napoli’s stories provide good messages for all who feel out of place in their larger culture. Click here for the first article in this three-part series or here for the third article.