Chapter 6 – What’s An Adjective- an excerpt from my novel from 2008 discussing race, white privilege, and being a white lover of rap music since birth. A man who grew up surrounded by whiteness, trying to write about race. I just tried to be honest- please let me know where I failed.
Like Eggers’ before me I can guarantee to you that when I see a young black man holding a baby I will smile. I tell you this for a few reasons. First so you like me. I really need you to like me so I can be completely honest with you readers. I mean, sure, I am full of anger and prone to drunken bouts of pure asshole, but for the most part I am a good guy. In fact I am pretty color-blind as well. Well, not the bullshit liberal sense of not being able to see color, which in itself is racist as fuck and puts a blind eye to the challenges people of color endure, but in the sense of not basing judgements based off of it.
But I am not going to lie because I make judgments of people every day based on their appearance. It’s why we use adjectives. Us writers love them because they not only put things into cute categories; but they are also a good for use with people. That’s why when I was asked by a black man named D, “What’s an adjective?” It struck me as this could be the beginning of a story. Actually I did not think that at all but we can pretend that right? So let us start over with a story about an adjective. And you are probably wondering the time frame of this is and well we are in spring 2007 now.
This adjective question would be asked by D, a musician from the Marcy Ave Projects, whom I had just met outside a bodega where I had purchased a 40-ounce beer for seven dollars. I would have haggled over the price, but the place had the feel of a storefront where they move drugs, and well, I didn’t need an ass whooping over a couple bucks and I was thirsty after all. (Side note look at my subtle racism believing a bodega was a drug front.) I was at this bodega because my girlfriend Tiffany and I had got off on the wrong subway stop in our search to see the Bonde Do Role show in Brooklyn. Outside of the store we asked a black dude if he knew where Studio B was and he tried to direct us into the Marcy Ave. Projects a couple blocks down. D, who overheard this, jumped in the conversation.
“Yo, you’re saying there is a new club in the projects? I have to see this.”
Now I was talking to, and smiling at two black men, neither of which held babies. D was holding a Styrofoam cup with beer in it, and when he noticed my own brown paper bag gave me a pound.
“Ha-ha, my man knows the deal, brown paper bag and everything.”
After some discussion we figured out the club was not in the projects, but rather toward Williamsburg, and the hipster section of the borough.
D, with no other plans for the night, decided to tag along with us and thus became our tour guide. As we walked the city the landscape transformed. The cleanest projects in the land according to D vanished, “I mean we don’t have any shit or piss in the hallways, or anything like that,” The bodegas had instead been replaced by a Parisian style cafe filled with white faces enjoying wine and large meals.
“So where you two from?” D asked.
”Right outside Boston in Manchester, NH. Tiff is from New Jersey, but we both live in Boston now.”
”Manchester? I have a bunch of boys who moved out there and love it. They were saying it’s cheap as hell, and you don’t have to worry all the time. Around here you want to act tough, you have to be on guard, because people will test you on that and if you’re fronting they will fuck you up. But I am done with all that bullshit. I used to slang, and what not, but now I just concentrate on music. I am bringing rock straight out the projects with my band.”
”You’re in a band?”
”Yeah, I play guitar, rap, and sing. I mean, I never been trained to play the guitar or anything like that, but I picked it up on my own from listening to the radio. The only problem is my band never wants to practice and really get down to work. They just want to get high and jam out, and never want to put in work on songs with hooks and shit like that. I mean no rock band has really came from the projects, and that’s a gimmick we can use to get noticed.”
So, here I am walking the streets of Brooklyn with my girlfriend and a black dude from the projects. I am drinking a 40, and D has some sort of drank in his cup, and we are talking about rock music on the way to a show from a group from Brazil that does their take on booty music.
Only in America.
Now here is the important adjective question that D will ask.
“Yo, do either of you know what exactly is an adjective? Is it like an adverb or something?”
”Nah, man it’s just a word used to describe something else. Like that car over there is red. Red is the adjective because it describes what the car looks like,” I said.
”All right, I get it, but yo, that’s kind of messed up. Why don’t they just call it what it is, like a describing word, or some shit then, instead of confusing people and calling it something weird like an adjective?”
I never thought of like that, but D had because he knew he had to look at all the angles if he wanted to get out of his situation he was in. He knew that he needed to use whatever advantages he had going for him. If this advantage was the stereotype that black guys from the projects were not supposed to make rock music then why the hell shouldn’t he use that novelty to get him in the door? He made this even clearer when I told him I booked bands back home.
”You should have me come play a show, and you can promote the fact I am a black guy from projects playing guitar in New Hampshire. Hell I don’t care how you want to use me just as long as I can get some money out of it. We both can get paid, you feel me?” D said and then laughed and gave me a pound.
”You know I am right because ain’t nobody doing what I am doing yet.”
As we passed the cafe we came up to an art show flushed with skinny faces wearing angular haircuts, skintight t-shirts, and jeans that seemed to be painted on. Each outfit was put together with meticulous care to ensure the image portrayed would actually show how little they cared about how they were dressed. It was absurd, and they used this seeming aloof nature in order to hide their own vanity. Because the only thing worse than not being hip was to admit that you actually cared about being hip.
Of course I was also dressed hip; but I was hip just cause I was a naturally fly motherfucker, and I knew by rocking a Big L t-shirt, a dead rapper who is adored and loved in some circles more than 2Pac himself, yet unknown by many of the kids in skinny jeans, would prove just how much hipper I was than everyone else. But it’s not like I cared about anything like that, or would even think about what my t-shirt would represent to others. Hell, let’s just say it was the only clean one I had, so I can continue this story with disdain for those who care how they look but pretend they don’t.
”How the hell do you white people wear jeans so tight? You’re nuts must not have any room to breathe.”
”I don’t get it either. White folks are strange,” I said.
It was funny as I interacted with D we were able to bond over the fact that we didn’t pretend the notion of race didn’t exist, and instead embraced and made fun of it. I was a white boy from New Hampshire, and he was black kid from the projects, and we understood it was a strange relationship but also one that we could use to our advantage. It was like the Dave Chappelle routine where he tells the audience, “Every group of black dudes should least one white guy in it for safety. I am serious, because when the cops come around, someone has to talk to the police, and that’s when that white friend Ernie comes in handy.”
From the art crowd we were able to find a threesome of hipsters who knew where Studio B was, and even happened to be headed in that direction. We followed them as my girlfriend chatted up front with the two girls, while I lurked in the back with D and cracked jokes about how the one guy with them was probably nervous that we were going to try to jump him, and steal the bicycle he walked with.
They led us to the club and we stood in line and waited to get in as D told us his theory on why rock music wasn’t as good as it used to be.
”Man, nobody writes with metaphors and shit any more. I want to be able to think about a song and what the singer is trying to say. All these new bands just come out and say it. I get it you are angry, but find some other way to say that shit other than ‘I am so angry. That’s why I love Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Think about it-when he was talking about Polly wanting a cracker you had to think about it? And you knew he sure as hell wasn’t talking about a pet parrot of his.”
”He wasn’t?” I said with a grin.
”Ahh, fuck you, man, but you get what I am saying though. That’s why I don’t listen to any of that new shit.”
”What do you listen to then?”
”Shit from the same time as Nirvana, you know, like Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, and Tool. The good shit.”
I cringed at the last three bands he mentioned. First because I am an asshole when it comes to music, and those bands to me represent all the shitty people from my hometown that hated rap, and still listened to hair bands without shame. Well, not Nirvana, I liked Nirvana, but those other bands sucked. But then I realized he had probably never been exposed to any rock other than what was played on the radio (and of course I assumed this because it was an easy assumption, because black people from the projects could not ever want to listen to rock, and yes, I am that dumb sometimes). Cobain to me was a voice for mostly bored and jaded middle-class white kids, and it was odd that he had been able to penetrate into D’s world and impact him much in the same way. And then I cringed at my own thought and realized that growing up I had rejected those bands, and instead listened to rap music which impacted and spoke to me in a way rock never could. Growing up I had always hated when people would ask me why I listened to black music; instead of white music like rock. Even worse were those who had no idea about what rap music was, and would dismiss it as not music because they didn’t play instruments, or even worse as nothing more than just “niggers talking.”
The line crawled forward and D bounced around with nervous energy.
”So who exactly is playing tonight?” D asked.
“It’s a Mad Decent show with Diplo, Bonde Do Role, and Blaqstarr. Diplo is this dope ass dj and Mad Decent is his label. Bonde Do Role is this Brazilian group that does favela funk, which in English basically means ghetto funk, or booty music. They are like 2 Live Crew and raunchy as hell and use beats that sample everything from Alice in Chains to that ‘Final Countdown’ song from the ‘80’s. And Blaqstarr is from Baltimore and does b-more club which is like a cross between house and rap music. It will be a real hype show. “
”I am guessing it will be if y’all came all the way out for it.”
”Yeah, plus my man Chris Lemon-Red works for Mad Decent, and I used to dj with him before he moved here.”
”Then why we standing here in line? Go talk to your man and get us in.”
”Nah, waiting builds character.”
”Fuck character, I just want to get in there get me a drink, and start dancing with one of these fine white girls,” D said with a laugh.
As we headed to the front, D seemed worried when he finds out there is $12 cover to get in.
“I don’t think I can afford this. My budget is kind of tight.”
”Fuck it, you helped us find the place, so I’ll take care of it as a way to say thanks.”
After I paid I couldn’t help but think of William Baldwin’s Another Country, and the relationship between the black musician Rufus, and his white friend Vivaldo. Rufus always despised it when Vivaldo would try to help him, and would interpret this as not a simple act of kindness between friends, but rather, a paternal nature that made him think Vivaldo was doing this so he could feel good about helping out the poor black man who would be so helpless without him. Which left me wondering, would I have paid for D had he been a white guy instead? And I realized then, had he been a poor white guy from the projects, I would have been less likely to trust him at all, and even less likely to pay to get him into the club.
But I soon forgot all those worries as the music rained down, and the bass cleansed me free. The dance floor was a Where’s-Waldo picture of gangly white flesh, and then in the whitewash a black face, D, fearless and with no shame, could be found walking up to any girl on the dance floor.
I saw Lemon-Red at the merchandize booth and headed over to say what’s up. He was surprised I had made it out the show, and then introduced me to Diplo.
”New Hampshire, huh,” Diplo said, “That’s the, ummm, shit. I know nothing about New Hampshire at all. “
”Don’t worry, most people don’t.”
I told Lemon Red I would catch up with him later and went back to find Tiffany and D. Tiffany asked me if that was Diplo, and I told her yeah.
”He is not as cute as he was in the pictures I saw of him, but then again he was doing Zoolander poses in those.” She then left to take more pictures of the folks at the party for a project for a class she was basing on the NYC club scene. Most of the people she took pictures of had no problem mugging for the camera with their practiced look of disinterest.
Over the course of the night we lost D, and the next day I would find out from a message he left on my cell phone, where he first apologized for bouncing without saying goodbye, and that he had drank too much and needed to leave before he acted a fool and got himself in trouble.
By 4 am the show was over. Tiffany and I left the club and grabbed a couple slices of pizza, and then headed for the subway. Our subway car was pretty much empty except for us, two girls coming back from the club, and a passed-out black man. As we rode through the tunnels of a sleeping city I noticed the girls were snapping pictures of the passed out man and laughing. To them this man was nothing but someone to mock so they could laugh when they showed the pictures to their friends, and put them up on their MySpace and Facebook pages. As we rode they grew bolder and posed with him, mean-mugging and crossing their arms, as if in modern black face; Amos and Andy would have been proud.
And then I went home and instead of using pictures of me smiling with the black man, I wrote a story where the whole world could see just how much more enlightened I am by my thoughts of race, and how I would never exploit it for someone else’s entertainment, and that I was so much better than those girls at the end who took pictures with the sleeping man. But you, reader, you know better than that. And you are probably thinking of a few adjectives you can call me, and I would agree.
But I think D was right in the end-let’s stop hiding behind vague descriptions, and just say it how it is from now on. But then again wouldn’t that mean Polly really just wanted a cracker? I am all confused now. How about you just take whatever you want out of this story, and hopefully you were entertained, because this was just an interlude in tragedy, a chance to make you laugh for a moment, and hopefully help you understand the narrator outside the context of dealing with tragedy.
I am a human you know, which I think is an adjective for person. Plus, as a young kid, I grew up wishing D’s life was mine, while never realizing he probably grew up wishing he had my life. And in the end, regardless of the bullshit, I can’t blame him. But I do thank him for making me realize the true meaning of adjectives.
Reflecting on what I wrote over 12 years ago I am not mad overall. I rejoice in the reality I was able to recognize my white privilege and not be a slave to it either. What I feel I failed on was my silence. At the end of this story I mocked and judged those white girls for their actions, and took a bullshit moral high ground. It was my unique privilege as a white male to feel superior without having to act. My silence to their acts made me complicit. I too was mocking this man by staying silent and judging those who mocked him. By letting it happen I was just like a cop who lets his partner stand on the neck of a man who can’t breathe. I know I personally need to get better. And I will continue to strive for that. In the meantime I won’t hesitate to call out bullshit behavior- it’s the subtle racism that is prevalent where I am from. When you don’t have to deal with black men in your daily life it’s funny how easily racism pervades. When you can’t be checked for saying the n word in a rap song you won’t be surprised how many white folks say it. I was taught at an early age by Wu Tang to always say nuh instead of that word. It was ideal because it always reminded me I had no reason to utter that world-it was never my right and thus nuh right in saying it. Radio edit for the win.