12 July 2016

Black in America

by Irette Y. Patterson

This is about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and being Black in America. Look away if you can't handle this right now because I barely can myself. And it may be preaching to the choir but I just have to say something.

After one of the deaths last year (sad that I don't recount which one), my 20-something-year-old nephew called me in Philadelphia asking me how to stay alive.
I couldn't give him an answer.

I remember Charleston. 9 people gunned down in a church. In a Bible study on Wednesday night.
You would not find me in a Wednesday night Bible study. Honestly? I'm just not that good of a person. But my parents the Deacon and Deaconness could have been there. My aunts and my uncles were the type, the respectable type, the good type that would have been there.
And the alleged murderer who confessed to the crime was given a ride to Burger King.
And I waited. I watched my facebook feed and my twitter feed to see what would happen. And it was like no one cared.
I was broken, do you hear me? Broken. If the best of the Black Community could get gunned down and no one cared, what hope did I have?

On Being Black in America - Back when I was living in my house in Georgia, one Saturday night I noticed that there was a police car slowing driving back and forth down my street.
Now. My street is not a main road. The only people who drive down it are the folks who live there. So. I call the hot line aka the stay-at-home mom two doors down. Stay-at-home moms are like a neighborhood surveillance system. They know everything. I ask her if she knows a reason why a cop is cruising the street. She says no.
I'm looking out the front curtains and the police car stops in front of my house. The officer gets out. It's late Saturday night. I lived alone. I did not call the cops. Why the heck is Officer Friendly coming up my front steps?
I look at my fireplace and confirm that my parent's picture is on the mantle. I sort of look like them to prove residency. I also have my driver's license in my purse and could pull out the documentation for when I purchased the house.
My neighbor is still on the phone. As the officer walks up my 17 steps, I ask her if she will hold on the phone while I'm talking to the officer. The officer is extremely courteous and remains a few feet away from the door which I appreciate. He stated that someone called in a break in and he couldn't find the house number which didn't exist on my street. I told him that I didn't call it in and it was my house. I moved a little to the side so that he can see my parents' picture on the mantle. He said good-bye and left. I got back on the phone with my neighbor to assure her that I was OK.
Now. Depending on who you are, you might think that I was being ridiculous. Do you know who didn't think I was being ridiculous? My neighbor who immigrated from Trinidad whose family originally immigrated from India. She knew EXACTLY why I had her and, by extension, her former Marine husband on the line.
Let me repeat, the officer was nothing but respectful and professional. But I didn't call him. It was late at night. I lived alone. And I was scared.

I can usually tell when a non-Black author writes a Black character. I don't have to look at the cover. It's because the author does not have the basic respect for Black people to actually conduct research. Other cultures are researched to make sure that certain things are right. The science in a hard sf story has to be right. Black people? Everyone knows about Black people, right?
So. here are the top things that I know when I'm reading that a non-Black person wrote a Black character. Here are the things that are missed—

1. Family. Where are these people's people? My mom is still mad I left Atlanta a couple of years ago. Oh yeah, and family reunions.

2. Respect. I read these characters and wonder how they can get away with what they are saying to their parents. When my parents were staying with me at my house my mom actually asked me if I thought that I was grown in the middle of "heated fellowship". Yes. She was staying with me. In my house. That I was paying the mortgage on. What did I do? I walked away because I have sense, people. I am not crazy.

3. Education. Education is stressed because it was seen as a way out, as being respectable. It's a way to compete. Black women are the most highly educated group in America. That's not by accident. And code-switching is real. I wrote down one time how I talk with family and friends versus when I'm out and out. On the page it looks like two different characters.
I'm not saying that non-black authors can't write black characters. Kristine Kathryn Rusch nails it. In fact, I get a perverse pleasure in recommending non-black authors writing black characters to my black friends when it's done well. I wait until they finish the story and then spring the ethnicity of the author on them.
What I am saying is to respect the culture enough to do your research. I mean, if someone has to translate Beyonce's Lemonade album for you, maybe you need to do some more research before writing contemporary black characters.

Ezekiel James Boston Right on point.
One of my indicators is a lack of shared accomplishment. A character is the first to do something positive (go to college, open their own business, etc.) that hadn't been done by either one or both sides of their family and it's not a big deal to said family...

Irette Patterson Yep. I could never identify with black kids in children's literature growing up. It seems like it was all about growing up poor in the inner city. I grew up middle class in the suburbs. My dad was the first in his family to go to college and it was a big deal. Especially as a dark skinned black man in a time where the paper bag test was real. My parents' church has a ceremony for all the graduates each year.

Note by Melissa Yi: Irette and Sean gave me permission to share their stories from Facebook. I have edited them slightly, but their words are their own. I also highly recommend this article with concrete steps to take for a more just society. The first is to educate yourself about your city’s police conduct review process: http://www.ravishly.com/2015/04/10/what-you-can-do-right-now-about-police-brutality

Irette Y. Patterson (http://www.iretteypatterson.com/) writes uplifting, feel-good stories, like “Worth,” published in the Saturday Evening Post (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2014/12/19/post-fiction/contemporary-fiction-art-entertainment/worth.html).

Ezekiel James Boston favors fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal occult. http://ezekieljamesboston.com/


  1. Irette, Ezekiel, and Melissa, I’ve given thought how to respond and started to write how lucky we kids were that our father took us to visit his black friends in a time when that sort of thing shocked others. He dropped us off to play kickball where we were the only white kids for miles around. Black church services, dinners, weddings followed, but then came a confrontation with my racist uncle that lost us the family farm. In a bout of irony, Dad purchased a new farm once part of the Underground Railroad. I’m proud of my dad, but that’s old news.

    What I see as positive is more and more white people listening (as Anon urged yesterday) and standing up for black neighbors and black strangers and becoming friends. I see more hope in the youth, the young, kids who couldn’t care less whether someone is blonde, redhead, or black. They slough off race as nothing at all, the way it should be. For us, interracial dating was a huge deal, but not for them, not in the least.

    Racial problems are far over, but I’m so glad white people are beginning to understand. Churchill said America always does the right thing… after trying everything else first. We’re getting there; I have to believe we’re getting there.

  2. @Leigh, what a cool dad! Gold star. As part of this discussion, I had to explain to my son Max what the Underground Railroad was. Now I can tell him that we know someone with a connection to it--and that Velma even contributed to Humans 'n' Hot Dogs! ;)

    Another sign of hope: while I was thinking about Irette's words, I read Jennifer Cruisie's post about her work in progress ("Button, Button"). Jenny posted pictures of two characters because she likes to do collages for her work. She's one of my favourite authors, but the collage helped point out to me that I'd never noticed a person of colour in any of her books. I politely inquired if she'd ever considered it.

    The post was almost a week old. I assumed she'd ignore it. Instead, she wrote back, "I've had a blog post in draft form on this for years, and I've never finished it because (a) I sound like an idiot and (b) I keep thinking I'll figure this out. But I'll never figure it out, so I have a long answer for you which will be a blog post by the end of the day." She wrote this: http://arghink.com/2016/07/answering-melissa/ which has 137 comments on it so far.

    Now, I'm sure that 99.999999 percent of New York Times bestsellers--especially ones who haven't finished a book in six years--would have either ignored me or told me to bite myself. Not Jennifer Cruisie and her community.

    Black lives matter. Let's talk, let's write, let's fight for justice.

  3. A good piece and alas, all too timely.

  4. Anti-racism activist & educator "Jane Elliot": "I want every white person in this room, who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens. If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society - please stand! - You didn't understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society - stand! - Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what's happening. You know you don't want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others."

    A great article.

  5. Wow. My parents did a lot of things wrong, raising me & my two sisters in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in the 1950s, but they absolutely weren't racially prejudiced. I have vague memories of an all-white swimming class at the YWCA. The black kids who lived nearby would look at us through the fence until it was their turn to swim. Years later, I found out that a cousin was secretary of the local KKK chapter.

  6. Irette, Ezekiel, Melissa, I hardly know how to respond to this. Except I can't imagine what it is like to grow up as a black person in white America. One of my best friends in the world was a black woman I worked with in the late 60s and early 70s. She always said I was black but got pulled out of the oven too soon. She's been gone for several years and I miss her so much. We loved each other, stayed in each other's homes. We worked together and she told me early on how she knew we would get along because I didn't tell her to clean the toilets in our Xray Department. We both cleaned toilets. We both did what ever work needed to be done then we relaxed. I have to credit my mother for not raising a bigotted person. But it was by her actions and her life. The examples she lived, she didn't preach or teach me. It didn't come up in conversations. I just saw how she treated other people. With respect. No matter their skin color or the way they talked. And we lived in a small town in north TX high plains. I didn't see many black people on a daily basis. But we went to the black church sometimes. And I did go to school with Latino children. I went to work in X-ray when I was barely 17 in Ft worth, Tx. Perhaps it's because in the medical field you quickly learn if you didn't know before that we all look the same on the inside. So even after I was grown I wasn't around people full of hate and predujices, it still blows my mind there are people like that. My children were raised the same. They were always around people of color. I'm not trying to same I'm anything special. All I'm saying is although I can't stand to be around prejudiced people and although I've been close friends with black people I haven't lived in their shoes. My friend Choicie and I used to discuss racial issues a lot. I just know I don't want to live around hateful bigotted people. The sooner we can send those people to the moon will be great news for me. And to your ScFi writer Eziekel: let's have a technology hat we can put on haters which retrains them, okay?


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