A couple of months or so ago at the end of the summer, my wife and I planned a trip with a few other African American couples we know just to have one last bit of fun before summer ended. When we first conceived of the idea, we bandied about several suggestions, but all of them seemed so absolutely done.
Someone suggested a cookout at the beach, but I was beached out, and I don’t particularly find the beach all that fun. Of course, Disney and/or Universal Studios in Orlando were offered, but we go to Orlando several times a year already so that was out. And in that same vein, someone suggested Busch Gardens in Tampa, but that too was voted down.
Then my wife suggested that we go somewhere and do something none of us had ever done, something unlikely. And we finally decided on a destination and an activity. But on the eve of our trip, one by one the couples and families called us to say that they had to cancel, that they would not be going. And each couple and family proffered the same excuse: “We all talked and decided that that’s just something black folk don’t do.”
Evidently, all of the black folk got together, or at least enough to form a quorum, and decided that black folk didn’t do such things. Read more...
I thought about this--what black folk don't do--while driving to and from Washington, D.C. this week. I love a good road trip. Driving allows a glimpse of the country and the way people live in a way that flying over does not. There are so many hidden treasures to be found--kitschy shops, little towns nestled in the mountains, frozen in time. Of course, you also see the bad, not just charming Americana. But the bad--the urban blight and rural poverty--are as much a part of the American story as the good. Perhaps we would be better at governing our country if we took time to stretch our legs in another person's space from time to time--stand on a corner in a city deserted by industry or have lunch in one of those picturesque old-fashioned towns with flags lining mainstreet. It's all America.
When I was a kid, I had this dream of driving cross-country in a really cool convertible. I haven't achieved that dream exactly, but, in our 20s, my girlfriends and I took annual 10-day road trips during the summer. We piled in a rented minivan and did it on the cheap. We slept five or six to a room and ate at inexpensive local places. Our goal was exploration. We'd pick a direction--east, south or west--and plot points along the way where we might want to spend a day or two. If we saw a sign for a little-known historical sight or the world's biggest ball of twine along our route, and seeing it struck our fancy, we'd head off down the trail. On the way to New Orleans, we took a detour to see the campus of Ole Miss, because of its place in civil rights history. On the way to Vegas, we toured the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. I count that time touring the country with my girls among the best times in my live. We had a ball, learned a lot and saw amazing things. There was one night, driving through Texas and New Mexico on a desolate, dark road with the moon shining full, tinting everything blue, that I will never forget.
There is another thing I will not soon forget: That nearly everyplace we went, the Grand Canyon; Salem, MA; Tombstone, AZ; the Garden District of New Orleans; we were the only black people there. Not surprising, I guess, because when I talked about my travel plans with black friends and coworkers I received the same message that Max did: "Black folk just don't do that."
I know that I occupy a privileged place in many ways. My family took trips when I was growing up. I am educated and have a career path that allows me to take a couple weeks off to travel. I have the resources to afford travel. I know not every other black person can claim these things. But, the thing is, the people I was talking to could. These were eduated black professionals with knowlege of all the places they could go and the resources to get there. Black people are less prohibited in our ability to move about this country today than we have ever been. So where did the idea come from that even if we have the ability we are not to allowed to explore the country our ancestors built with their sweat and blood?
Where do notions of what black folks do and do not do come from? Have we been so tempered by racism that even when we aren't faced with racial restrictions, we create our own?
Rightfully, a lot of ink and effort is expended on pointing out the lack of equity between black people and the majority culture in education, good housing, safety, opportunity and other resources. But I think we don't talk enough about what happens once those things are achieved, at least in part.
We cannot stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon--one of the seven wonders of the world--because "black folks don't do that." We cannot travel overseas. We can't be marine biologists. We can't listen to rock music.
It's like that grasshopper in the jar story (which could be total BS) that says if you catch a grasshopper and place it in a jar with a lid on it that eventually the grasshopper will eventually tire of smacking against the jar lid and will stop trying to get out. You can eventually remove the lid and rest comfortably knowing that the grasshopper will not escape.
Through most of our history in this country black people have lived within limits imposed by the majority culture. And, I should add, as we discuss often on this blog, we still do live with limits. It worries me to see those limits embraced as "black culture." Take away the limitations and there will still be things we will not allow ourselves to do, even when they are good for us. We will create our own oppression. Every time we say "black folk don't do (fill in the blank)," we become complicit in our own bondage, barriers to our own freedom.
So, why do we do it?