I’m white…in case you didn’t know.
Several years ago, while teaching in Atlanta, my friend Jerald gave me a Black card. No really, he created and then gave me a Black card. It said, “I’m Black,” and had his signature. Later that month, Jerald made keys for all of us to access a storage room at the school where we worked. He put colored plastic rings around each key. Andrea, another Black teacher, asked Jerald, “Which key is Del Duca’s?” Immediately, Jerald responded, “Del Duca Black.” She smiled and nodded in agreement. “Right.”
So how is it that this soon-to-be-forty-two-year-old white guy gets a Black card?
It all starts in 1946.
I know, the math doesn’t work, does it? Thing is, this story only continues with me. It started with my Mom.
She was born and raised smack dab in the middle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she was into black music from the get go. She loved doo-wop, then she loved Motown, then she loved funk, rhythm & blues. She saw Sly and the Family Stone; Earth, Wind, and Fire; and she even grooved to brother James Brown’s, “Black and Proud.”
My Mom was, and is, Catholic…more hip to the new-testament and social-justice Jesus, the rise of the non-violent civil rights struggle, and the spiritual liberalism of the Kennedy clan and Martin Luther King, Junior.
She cared about fairness, judged a man by the content of his character, and was, by all accounts, pretty fly for a white girl.
On September 16th, 1974, she gave birth to me.
That’s where her story continues and mine begins.
If nature and nurture predict anything, you can see straight away how I earned that Black card. Really, I didn’t earn it. Mom did, and I was fortunate enough to inherit it, cherish it and come of age at a point where I could wear a term like “Wigger” as a badge of…if not honor or pride, then at least simple reality; and neither as a scarlet letter nor a threat of bodily harm.
And then, in a simultaneously serendipitous and ironic turn of events my biological father (…who by all accounts had been a full-blooded Sicilian-American racist raised by full-blooded Sicilian-American racists…) married a Black woman. He moved in with Angie, his new wife, and her teenage children in the Alequippa projects where he became the only white resident. Except when I visited, which doubled the Caucasian population.
My biological Father was immature, debilitated by whatever experiences he had in Vietnam and, previous to that, his upbringing in a dysfunctional immigrant home. Ultimately he proved not a good, not even a decent father. But Angie and her children? They were wonderful. They welcomed me. The enveloped me in love and they protected me from my Dad, particularly when he was behaving irrationally or overwhelming me with his unresolved emotional baggage. Which was often.
I loved Angie. I loved my step-siblings. I loved the Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Hall & Oates constantly blasting from someone’s room.
I ate government cheese, stood in line for free lunches, and frolicked in sprinklers, not pools. I felt like a little part of something; gained confidence. I projected my inclusion into Angie’s family onto the entire community…and there…was the mistake that would sink my titanic confidence.
It was Summer. 1983.
I’d eaten my subsidized snack, splashed in a stagnant puddle, and began the walk back to our apartment.
I noticed four kids, a bit older than me, climbing the steep, rocky hill that formed a natural amphitheater looking down on the front façade of Building C. I was intrigued. They hit a flat spot and they started singing, “Under the Boardwalk.”
This was it.
I tore up the hill…as fast a fat-ass preteen can.
Now sweaty, curly hair stuck to my glistening forehead, shorts riding up my now-chafed inner thighs, nearly out of breath, I reached the flat. There, next to the bass, was a spot. For me. I hit my mark, and I joined in.
And the singing stopped.
Not me, though.
“Un-derrrr the boh-whoa-oard walk…”
(Now I realize the quintet has become a solo)
And one of the Faux-Drifters stepped back and shoved me with all of the anger and frustration he could muster.
They say a rolling stone gathers no moss.
A fat kid, however, gathers all kinds of shit along the way.
As I neared the bottom, their laughing ceased and the chorus resumed.
I stood. Angry. Embarrassed. Sad. And in unbelievable bodily pain. I stared back up, and at a distance that now seemed impossibly far the quartet performed to an audience of anybody but me.
I limped back to the apartment, my spirit crushed…and Angie wiped me off and built me back up. And Shawn, her son closest in age to me, told me to forget about all that mess. He referred to me as brother. And William, the eldest, who had Colecovision…let me play uninterrupted until the tears dried and I licked the salty remnants from my cheeks and lips, “Sarah Smile” drifting down the hall from my half-sister Tanya’s room.
(If you feel like leavin’, you know you can go…)
You see…that experience could have pushed me in any number of directions. But I had my Mom. And I had the love and protection of one Black family.
I came to love soul food. I heard Newcleus’, “Jam On It” and was a certified hip-hop head until…well, until this very moment. I absorbed the art…through music, literature, spoken words, and other media…of numerous Black luminaries. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and I helped found a KIPP charter school in East Point, Georgia. I hit emotional rock bottom there in Atlanta and was enveloped in the love of a Black man and his Baptist church. In 2004, Jerald, and Neriah Baptist Church saved me, just like Angie and her clan did twenty years earlier.
I got my Black card from my brother, Jerald.
And although I no longer have the actual artifact, those words remain in my soul…I’m Black…with Jerald’s signature, the songs of Neriah and the embrace of Pastor Lindsay, and the words of Angie and her family etched lovingly upon my heart; all wrapped in a bow of unconditional love from my Mom.
So if you need me…
…on a blanket with my baby is where I’ll be.