The Negro Handbook
Back when I was in college I used to take these creative writing courses, right? And I went to a white school. I love when white people act like they don't know what "white school" means. It means a school with a crappy band.
Anyway, I'd be one of the only black dudes in a class of about fifteen to twenty-five white people and it never failed. At the beginning of a new semester we'd get some assignment asking us to write about our childhood. "Write what your childhood was like." "How was your childhood?" "How did you spend your summer?" "Write about Christmas morning." "Write about your family dog." Blah-blah-blah. And then everybody's papers would usually go something like this …
As a child I remember lying in my bed with my Raggedy Ann doll until I heard the cockle-doodle-doo of Stanley, the head cock of the farmhouse, which signaled the coming of a new day. The piercing sun would rush through my window as it proceeded to dance across my lily-white forehead. As the soles of my feet would embrace the cold caress of the wooden floor, I'd be greeted by Mr. Whiskers' warm meow. "Meow," Mr. Whiskers would say. Then together Mr. Whiskers and I would embark on our daily journey into the world of the unknown to find out what Mee-Maw [white people call their grandparents all kinds of weird shit] was preparing for our morning dining.
After enjoying the gratifying taste of Idaho's finest cuisine, Mee-Maw, Mr. Whiskers, and I would go out to greet all the animals in the barn. "Hello Mr. Doggie." "Mornin' Mrs. Turtle." "Hola Se–or Goat." Then one by one we'd check on all the slaves, I mean helpers. There was Old Man Nate, who'd hum all the latest gospel hymns while farming the land. He'd always say the funniest things about God and how God was preparing a home for him when he died. For some reason it always seemed like Old Man Nate couldn't wait to die, or to go to that "Better Place" where all the black people roamed free, but I knew deep down inside that Old Man Nate was just being silly because let's face it, what could be better than spending your entire life working here on our farm?
Then there was Shirley Williamson, whom we called "Good Girl" for short. Good Girl was an eighty-seven-year-old black woman who still loved nothing better than a hard day's work. I remember sitting in Good Girl's lap as my lips retrieved the salty milk from her sweaty breasts. Then Good Girl would ask me in her sweet and soothing voice reminiscent of the most excellent silk spun by the ever so diligent silkworm. She'd say to me, "Sarah, twelve-year-old girls shouldn't still be suckin' on Good Girl's titties, now should they?-No, don't stop. I was just sayin'."
Then around noon, we'd meet Poopie-Paw (Granddaddy) for lunch. Poopie-Paw and I would hike up the mountain with the basket lunches that Mee-Maw had prepared for us. Once we arrived at our destination we'd sit and eat at a nearby stream. During lunch Poopie-Paw would tell me all these wacky stories about the time Se–or Goat kicked Old Man Nate in the shin shattering his leg into several pieces. That's why he decided to go ahead and saw it off. I bet that's one bone Mr. Doggie'll never forget!
And then I'd become depressed because I knew that these days would soon come to an end, for it was the ending of July and the dawning of August. The finale of a great summer in the country and the prelude to another school year in the city. Gone would be the peaceful harmony of congregating birds replaced by the arrival of disagreeing horns arguing in congested traffic. And I would think to myself, "God, thank you for Poopie-Paw, and thank you for Mee-Maw, and most of all God, thank you so much for making me white." Better place for Old Man Nate? Yeah right. What could be better than here on the farm?
Later that night me, Mee-Maw, and Poopie-Paw would feed Good Girl and Old Man Nate. Then we'd say goodnight to all the animals. "Goodnight, Mr. Horsie." "See ya tomorrow, Mrs. Grizzly Bear." "Hasta mañana, Señorita Sheepo." Then Mee-Maw would tuck me in after dinner and gently place her succulent lips on my forehead right after telling me a bedtime tale of how her and Poopie-Paw's great-grandfathers ran all the trespassing Indians off of our land. It was at that point that I realized that I loved my Mee-Maw, and I loved Poopie-Paw, and more than anything, I loved being white.
And everyone would applaud. Then everybody else in the class would read their papers, and everybody thought their childhood was so fuckin' wonderful because theirs were filled with stories of summer cottages, winter cabins, Midwestern farms, California beaches, snowy mountains, foreign countries, and all this other cool shit. It was enough to make you wanna vomit. Because in my mind I would think to myself, "My childhood was pretty cool too. Albeit in its own way." Maybe I ain't have no mountains, but we used to take some bricks and cardboard and make some hellified ramps in the middle of the street and jump'em with our bikes. And maybe we didn't have any streams, but the water hose was a muthafucka in the summertime. What'chall know about playin' in the sprinkler on a hot summer day?
See, there's nothing like growing up black in America. I mean, minus the poverty, unemployment, hate crimes, gang violence, police brutality, racial profiling, and the always present possibility of getting shot in the head over damn near nothing at all, I wouldn't trade it for the world, because growin' up black can be a beautiful thang.
This was until it was time for the other black person in the class to read their paper. That's when it just got fuckin' depressin'. Notice how I say, "The other black person in the class." Because there were always at least two of us. Never more than three, but always at least two. Because at a white school two blacks is enough to make their quota, but four is enough to start a revolution.
And a funny thing happens when there are only two black people in a room full of white folks, because if I'm black and they're black, there's an automatic assumption that we have to get along. It's in the Negro Handbook.
See, there are all types of rules and stuff you've gotta be aware of when you're black, and when we're born the powers that be give us a handbook to make sure we're all on the same page. It gives you all types of important tips and information, like "Race card. Never leave home without it." How to make good potato salad. Jesse Jackson's cellphone number, and a bunch of other vital information that every black person should know.
And it also comes with a set of theories, rules, and procedures. For example, an n-i-g-g-e-r
is a stupid, ignorant person, but an n-i-g-g-a
is your friend. Or you could say a nigga
is a misspelled nigger
. That's the cool thing about the handbook. Some spots leave room for interpretation. There's also the belief that a black person can never be racist because we don't have the power. Personally, I feel that as an American I have the ability to hate just as good as the next man. How dare you put a limitation on my hate? However, the biggest, biggest rule of them all is that no matter what, whether African American or nigga, male or female, straight, homosexual, rich, poor, or whatever category you fit in, when two black people are in the same room with a bunch of white people, it is mandatory that those two black people take care of one another. This is major! We have to look out for each other. It's in the rules.
For example, if I'm on the bus or the train and it's full, and I see another black person get on and they need a seat, I am by law obligated to scoot over and let them sit down next to me. And if I don't, they can call my ass into headquarters and I'm liable to lose my Negro license. "What'chou in for?" Failure to scoot over. "Nigga what? You ain't scoot over? That's like on page three. What's the matter wit'chou?"
So anyway, this black dude in class is about to read his paper, right? And I'm thinking, Oh shit. Here we go. Cause he gave me the look. You know, "the look"? The look that somebody gives you to let you know that something's about to happen. The look that says, "I'm about to shake things up, and give'em the real." And I've been around long enough to know that when the other black person in the class gives you the look it usually means that they are about to either (a
) say what's on their mind, (b
) tell you how they really feel, (c
) represent, or (d
) all of the above. On the other hand, when I give someone my look it means one thing and one thing only, which is, "I don't feel like hearin' that shit today."
The only problem is that most people don't recognize my look. Especially young black men with dreadlocks and nappy beards. You know, one of them niggas that think they're more righteous than you and that you're a sellout because you actually take time out to groom before you walk out of the house, or that a sista ain't keepin' it real because she's got a perm? They think that every black man on the planet should be as black as them. I'm talkin' about if you go to these niggas' houses they've got black fists for doorknobs and shit. I mean these are some real proud of their heritage type cats. And I'm proud of my heritage too. Matter of fact, I'm so proud of it that I don't feel the need to defend it every day, because it's set in stone. I ain't gotta prove nothin' to nobody. It is what it is. But when they shoot me their "I'm about to say what's on my mind" look, and I respond with my "I don't feel like hearin' that shit today" look, they mistake my "I don't feel like hearin' that shit" for "Yeah. Go on 'head and represent, brotha." And off we go with the bullshit.
And usually when the other black person in class feels the need to speak his or her mind on behalf of the race, I don't mind because I know the procedure. No matter how stupid whatever they're about to say may be, all I have to do is nod my head once or twice, giggle when appropriate, and be ready to give the Black Second Opinion, and my job is done. Cause whenever someone's representin', trust me, you're going to have to answer at least one question for confirmation. Example: Someone'll say, "A black man in America can't get no job. Ain't that right, Hadjii?" All I have to do is nod my head, give a little chuckle, and then say, "Preach, nigga." And then I can leave and go to my job.
But to be perfectly honest, it's the first day of a new semester. I don't know anybody. It's nine o'clock in the morning. And personally, I just feel that it's too got damn early in the morning to be representin' already. You ain't even givin' a nigga enough time to get worked up about nothin' yet. My representin' doesn't usually kick in until around twelve-thirty.
Yet today's situation is a little different, because today we're not talking about politics. We're not talking about religion or education. We're not talking about the war. We're talking about childhood. Past experiences. Relationships. What you've been through. This is personal. So you know what's next? That's right. Here comes the pain.
See, nobody can talk about pain better than black people. I guess it started with gospel music, and the blues, and on and on, but then Tupac came along and took pain to a whole 'nother level. Nobody in the history of entertainment could talk about pain like Tupac could. His pain, your pain, black people's pain, single mother's pain, fatherless children's pain, the hood's pain, the hustler's pain. That's why everybody loved him so much, because he could relate to any and everybody. Pac could write a song about acid indigestion and you felt that shit. If it hurt, he was on top of it. And he lived an interesting life and wasn't afraid to share it with the world, and we loved him for that.
We loved him so much that he inspired us to share our pain and angst about all of the things that we've been going through, so now you've got an entire generation of young people who feel the need to share their personal tragedies and turmoil just like Tupac did. Only problem is, unlike Tupac, the average nigga's life ain't that fuckin' interesting. And unless you can make that shit rhyme over a nice beat, I really don't feel like hearing that shit.
But needless to say, homeboy would go on to read his paper that went something like this:
What was my childhood like? [Insert chuckle.] You wanna know what my
childhood was like? Well, I spent my childhood as a black man. A young black man in America. I spent my childhood as a suspect. See, all you lily-white, pale-faced, somewhat pinkish undertone lookin' muthafuckas don't even know how good you've got it. On your farms, and in your mansions, and condos with the finest things in life like heat and running water. Cable and silverware, and bowls, and all kinds of other cool shit. You lucky to not have to go through the shit I done been through. You're lucky to not have to live every day of your life lost. Ain't that right, Hadjii?
Umm-hmm. Just the other day I was at the gas station thinking, "Where the fuck am I?" I'm witcha, nigga.
I mean, my mama started out a doctor, my daddy a lawyer. Those are some hard times for a nigga tryin' to find his way. So the only way I could get the things that I needed to survive was to get on the grind and start hustlin'. Know what I'm sayin', Hadjii?
Fuck waitin' 'round on Christmas time or a nigga's birthday. I gotta make a way for me and my family now! I might not even make it to see another Christmas. Seems like everyday, I'm losin' anotha homie to some bullshit. My nigga Big Alex died from leukemia. My homeboy from 'round the way died from pneumonia. All my niggas dying in the streets, in car accidents and shit. It's real out here, but I refuse to drive fifty-five for anybody. I already gotta face the judge in a court of law now 'bout some unpaid parkin' tickets facin' me and I'm just prayin', "Lawd make a way for me nigga cause I'm lost!" Don't you feel that way too, Hadjii?
Excerpted from Don't Let My Mama Read This by Hadjii. Copyright © 2008 by Hadjii. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.