Black people seem to be a people apart in America. Black America is an almost completely separate society with its own code of conduct and behaviour, its own dress sense and almost its own dialect of the English language. It also seems to be a much derided and despised group that at a glance would appear to be in perpetual decline.
A lot of my so-called knowledge of the situation in America and of a theory behind the suffering that black people in America go through has to do with a talk I had with a black American guy named Brandon while walking around what was approaching the Harlem area, New York City on September 11th, 2003, when I was twenty-one. That (American) summer I had worked at a summer camp in northern Wisconsin which hosted various black, white and Hispanic groups of kids from the Chicago area for a week at a time. It was named St. Mary’s, run by the Maryville Academy in Chicago, and the camp counsellors there were a mixture of Americans from the Chicago area and a few from Wisconsin and (two-thirds) internationals. I found that the black groups contributed a lot of fun in different ways to their camp week that was missing from the white groups. (There was only two weeks of Hispanic kids.) Overall, the black groups were more willing to sing and dance and contributed mightily to the talent shows and dances that we had on the Friday nights to send the week off and say goodbye. Black (and Hispanic) kids were also, incidentally, a lot more willing to support and encourage the counsellors if they tried singing or dancing as part of the evening festivities.
What the various groups could and couldn’t do well was, I feel, a direct result of their domestic situations. The black kids in general were terrifically skilled at basketball and liked playing flag football and occasionally softball (even though a few of them called it a ‘dying sport’) but were novices at almost every other sport, and virtually none of them could swim. The white kids’ tastes were more varied. They would almost all pass their swim tests and could show their aptitude in other sports like volleyball, water activities, soccer and one of the more select of sports, lacrosse. They liked basketball a lot too and some of them were very adept.
At the beginning of the season I preferred the black groups for the reasons listed above, but by the end I think I found the white ones easier to deal with. Generally the white kids were more sociable with the counsellors right away instead of being warier in the beginning and slowly thawing as the week progressed. But the ones who did thaw provided terrific moments. Each sort of group could bring things that others couldn’t.
Getting to Chicago in September after three months in remote Wisconsin was a difference. Black and white people did not even so much as sit next to each other on trains. I noticed a bad-tempered abruptness and lack of decorum among a lot of people in Chicago who had customer service jobs. At first I attributed it to the struggle and competitiveness of living in a big American city. But after about a week and a half when a few of us had moved on from visiting Chicago to New York, I realised that there was something else that all of these people had in common besides their deficient customer relations skills. Dealing with black people for something as simple a buying a slice of pizza for lunch could frequently take on a confrontational tone and end up being debilitating.
In New York I was for the most part with two fantastic friends who were both from Johannesburg, South Africa. I was very grateful to have been able to spend the week with Jono and Langu, a white guy and a black girl. At the end of the week they were set to go home towards London while I would hang around for another month before it would eventually become necessary to head home in the opposite direction. It was on the last afternoon, after the three of us that morning had been to see the two-year anniversary commemoration at the old World Trade Centre site, that Brandon showed up as we were walking back to our hostel on 101st Street in a Hispanic section of Manhattan. Brandon was a peripheral coach of a high school-age football team who had come from Chicago to use the camp for pre-season training during the camp’s last operating week in late August. I had not worked with them but Jono and Langu had. The players were black teenagers who were incredibly built and looked older than their ages, and were one of the more unruly groups we had for the summer.
Brandon and Langu hooked up that week. That year it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence at that place for the live-in camp counsellors to occasionally see eye-to-eye with some of the visiting staff from the groups themselves. Two months beforehand, in the camp’s early days, I had hooked up with one of the younger supervisors of one of the groups, a girl named Ashlee. And Jono – don’t get me started. When a sizeable (eight or nine) group of us left at camp’s end on August 28th to go to Chicago Jono was with us and so was Langu, originally. But Langu’s concerns about the unsafe nature of the hostel we were all staying at (possession-wise, not personal safety-wise) and perhaps Langu’s precarious money situation meant that she bailed after a day and went to spend the rest of the week at Brandon’s apartment somewhere on Chicago’s south side. The two of them showed up at a get-together we had one night at a local guy’s house, so she hadn’t disappeared completely. I was afraid otherwise when she didn’t show up to meet us and grab our bus to New York, but it was only a temporary hiccup, caused by Langu joking that she’d been going on ‘black people’s time.’
As one of our friends commented to Brandon, Langu must have been something special for Brandon to drive all the way from Chicago to New York for one last chance to see her the last day before she left for home. (But I already knew that.) The four of us went to Central Park, which is pan-Manhattan and no matter where you happen to be staying – even if in a run-down and severely Uptown section nicknamed Spanish Harlem – the Park is within a few minutes’ walking distance for almost anyone. After that, minus Jonathan, three of us decided to walk further Uptown to have a look at proper Harlem.
I was intensely curious but had reservations about the fact that my wallet was still strapped to my chest with $90 inside, and more importantly being white and especially having paid $25 the day before for a Beninoise lady near the hostel (along with Jono) to braid my hair African-style. I was worried I’d be making some sort of unwelcome statement by walking around black neighbourhoods with ‘black hair’.
Langu had once remarked to me that she had once or twice had vague thoughts about moving to Australia but that it would be difficult being one of the only black girls in a white society. I didn’t relate to this statement until the three of us were walking and gradually there were no longer any Hispanics and white people around. I said to Langu, “I’m starting to understand how you would feel if you moved to Australia.” Later I moved to Bolivia and it became my own reality for a year.
I generally kept my head down and looked no one in the face. I did notice one guy looking at me with a puzzled, “What the hell is this guy doing here?” expression on his face. Yes, the area looked in bad repair but not that much more than the area our hostel was situated. I was grateful for Brandon’s presence in these moments, even though he wasn’t all that built, and no doubt Langu was too, although perhaps not in the same way I was. It had been his suggestion to take a look here in the first place. We wouldn’t be there by ourselves. I was tense.
I can’t remember which Avenue we were walking up. Checking the map a few years later, it was probably either Madison or Park Avenue, maybe Fifth. At roughly 120th Street there was some sort of block or dead-end so we turned right. There was an empty street in front of us and we’d been waiting for the little green man for about ten seconds, like they do in Chicago, when Brandon suddenly said, “This is what makes us look like tourists: waiting at the light.” No one in New York needs anybody’s permission to cross the street whenever they feel like it. Even cops do it.
I remember a few of the comments he’d made while we’d been walking. One was about a ‘ghetto whistle’ – you whistle out the front of a building so that a friend pokes his head out the window or something, ’cause you never just go into a building you don’t know in the ghetto. Another was about an Ethiopian restaurant we walked past, with Brandon laughing and suggesting that some very shady things probably happened in there.
It was while we were walking East along one of the Streets that Brandon said, “Do you know why they call it the projects in the first place?” Langu replied that she would guess that it was a project set up by the authorities many years ago to assemble the black people in one section away from the rest of society. He told her that she was right.
“They conducted experiments on rats. If a community of rats were given everything they needed, food and those things, then things would stay the same with those rats. Then they started depriving the rats of enough food to feed everyone. So the rats would have to fight over what they had. And what they found was that with each new generation the rats would get meaner and meaner. Then they did it with humans.
“All these black people, they put them here, in this one section of town so that they don’t mix with white people and everyone else. And they are deprived of the jobs they need to survive. So they fight with each other, like the rats.
“They’ll grow up with other people just like them, but their attitude towards the people they live around and grow up with, people who are supposedly their friends, will be, ‘I’ll hang out with you but I won’t trust you any further than I can throw you.’
“It’s set up so that everything a black person might want is right here, so that they need never leave this little section of town.” He pointed around as we walked. “There’s your grocery store. There’s where you buy clothes. There’s your cinema, your entertainment.” He indicated a Chinese takeout. “There’s your foreign food if you wanted a bit of variety.”
Then his topic extended beyond what I could believe in but I was listening nonetheless. By this point we were heading down Lexington Avenue away from black Harlem, back in the direction of the hostel. This discussion was about things I’d never imagined before. It was also distracting me from the fear I’d been feeling. “Every major American city was set up with streets in a grid formation. That’s so that the army can easily roll right on through if necessary. No one can take over one section of the city. And one thing that every major city has is a stadium. It’s there so a lot of people can be assembled in one place if they need to.” He quoted a few NFL franchises that I was unsure about, being a semi-foreigner. “The Cleveland team moved to Baltimore because there was an increase in the number of black people there, so they needed a stadium. But then they realised that Cleveland was getting a lot more black people too, so they moved another new team back there. Things were all set up this way by the government, so that a black person can’t rise up out of their place.”
“But why would they do that?” I asked, head swimming. The words had just passed my lips when the incomprehension immediately cleared and I answered my own question. “So that they’re fighting each other instead of them,” meaning black people battle with each other instead of teaming up to focus their energies on the people in power.
I suddenly realised that I was so absorbed that since we’d started talking I had stopped looking around and taking in the sights of what was undoubtedly a once-only opportunity in my life. I felt a pang of regret over this. I looked around trying to make up for lost time, and with new eyes, too. I also realised that I’d been paying so much attention to Brandon that I had forgotten about being intimidated by Harlem. Thanks, Brandon.
Brandon wasn’t even an angry guy either, although he spoke about these subjects with understandable annoyance amid his conviction. Generally he was pretty upbeat, joking a lot with opinions coming to the fore. The minute I had met him he’d clicked off a list of what was wrong with the city of New York. How would a less jovial black person endure these disadvantages given from birth? Yes, I believed the majority of what he’d told me. Thinking about all the violence that happens in the ghetto, perpetrated by neighbour on neighbour, these theories made sense.
What did Langu make of all this? She did not volunteer anything. She simply listened to Brandon’s outpourings and my occasional questions. But being black and coming from the country that had once given rise to Apartheid, the subject may well have been up her alley.
She had told me a few weeks beforehand about a movie called Lumumba, which she said was a terrific one to watch if someone wanted a picture of Africa and its politics, colonialism, the whole package. She was now telling me that it had been on in the last week, while we were all in Chicago. The two of them had watched it at his apartment. “We grow up in ignorance,” Brandon said. “When would I have ever heard about Lumumba if not for her?”
We had made it back to our familiar Spanish Harlem surroundings. He was telling me about a job with a car garage that he had obtained and lost. “The second-in-charge hired me and told me that I’d be on this starting pay rate. Then I showed him that I could do this,” (he spoke in specifics as far as money and mechanic techniques go but I’ve forgotten what he said) “and they said, well, you’ve got yourself another x dollars per hour. Then I showed them this, and they said, that’s another so-and-so dollars per hour. Then a week later the boss came back. I was out the door. If I’d held on another month, the boss was fired for an indiscretion. But I’ve got a mark on my CV now. ‘Why was I fired so soon after starting?’ they’d be asking. And what can I do about it?” I hadn’t known that this sort of stuff was still happening. “Some people have a certain look when it comes to blacks, you can tell right away they don’t like them and don’t trust them. The boss was like that.” Langu nodded. “Our boss at camp was like that too,” she said. I was surprised. She’d never said anything negative about our boss before.
We walked towards the eastern extreme of Manhattan Island and reached the river. I’m reconciling all of these directions years later with a map that I obtained of the New York train system a year later, when I was back for a few days in late August 2004 (but on the Upper West Side, not really near East Harlem). On one score I can be very grateful to Brandon, and Langu as well. In most similar situations I’ve ever been with a guy and his girl the guy will generally pay me scant attention. Here Brandon had his last afternoon with Langu and yet he was talking mostly to me and showing me a lot of respect.
He asked Langu what she would want to achieve with herself once home. She said eventually to own her own business. Brandon said that that was the difference between black people in America and elsewhere. “Ambition?” I asked. “Yeah. Here a black guy will say, ‘I gotta get me a job.’ That’s all. She wants to own her own business.” And then there was a regret on his part, half spoken aloud and half not, that he would want to be a part of that. The goodbyes that year were a sore point for me too, more so than in 2004 when I repeated the experience.
We were heading back when Brandon mentioned something else to consider. “They never found the killers of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. To this day no one has the slightest idea who did those killings. But everyone knows that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy. Why do they know about that but not the others?” His belief was that they were taken out from above, and for a reason. And/or that no one doing the ‘investigating’ wanted to find the murderers. I asked him how old Martin Luther King had been when he died. “I don’t know,” he said. He turned to the black woman who was the cop ushering us across the street (there must have been construction going on or something). “Excuse me! How old was Martin Luther King when he died?” “Huh?” She understandably wasn’t expecting the question and didn’t know either.
On the walk back to the hostel we stopped off at the front of an elementary school building so that Langu could use the bathroom. The two of us started to move with her as she headed towards the bathroom as a sort of instinctive protective measure, or maybe because we’d all been walking around for a few hours together and were in the habit. “Gentlemen?” the security guard who had given us directions, asked. He was right, it looked suspicious. We waited and talked to him about the controversy over what would be done with the 9-11 site. It was a painful issue for New York. He also asked how the three of us had all met. We were an unusual combination, even if the hair did make me look like a wannabe black dude. I think on our way back to the hostel we talked about 9-11 conspiracies. But conspiracy theories or not, it’s a common belief that the aeroplane that crashed in Pennsylvania was shot down by U.S. forces. Brandon also remarked about Harlem, “You hear so much about it, I just wanted to see what it was like. It wasn’t as bad as they say. Except for the drug deal those two guys were working out on the corner there, that wasn’t good.” He and Langu were laughing. I hadn’t noticed it. I’d probably been too busy keeping my head down.
We got dinner in the area and realised how ignorant we had been all week to get most of our food at neighbouring McDonald’s and KFCs when the local Chinese places were so cheap. Inside while eating it grew dark. We collected Jono back at the hostel (Who knows what he’d found to do for all that time? I’d never thought about it before now) and went once more to see the wall of lights at Times Square. The pure neon was enough for even Brandon to be impressed by New York despite his reservations that afternoon. He and I each bought a pamphlet for $1 off a young Asian guy that showed drawings of 452 different sexual positions. It seemed an “I’m in New York, why not?” thing to do. Brandon was even able to find a cousin who worked there at a McDonald’s or something. While he and Langu were inside finding the cousin Jono and I sat outside and ‘rated’ any and every female that walked past, “No matter how old or ugly they were.” When he suggested it I had to laugh. We were all splitting up the next day and I would be sorry to leave these moments. Then we rated all of our girls back at camp (the counsellors).
Brandon slept in his car parked around the corner that night. It wasn’t all that big either. We all split up at noon, after hanging around the pavement outside the hostel for the last half hour. This included Brandon, Langu, Jono, me and two others with us named Nigel and Becca from England who had done a lot of things on their own in Chicago and New York (Becca was his girlfriend who had come visit Nigel at camp in late August). They were all going home that day, but I would be staying in the U.S. for another month. I was on my way to Maryland that day, by bus. Langu went off with Brandon who would drive her to the airport for an afternoon flight. It was the last time I ever saw her. Nigel, Jono and Becca went in the opposite direction towards the subway for one more afternoon downtown. I believe they were all catching the same flight that evening, for London. With all of them gone the hostel was very empty for me. I packed my remaining stuff and got out of there quickly.
Brandon and I had intentions of seeing each other in Chicago when I would arrive back there later on, but it didn’t happen. Plans change when you’re abroad. The next year I painfully learned in an even more comprehensive manner that when you are overseas and say goodbye to a person (even if only for the evening and you’re assuming another meeting in the next few days), you can’t ever take it for granted that you’ll see that person again.