As the days grow shorter, I find myself occasionally forced to do my running on our basement treadmill. Consider the image, first of all: mother of two on a treadmill in a small town in southern New Hampshire. Few things could diverge more from the grit of the inner city culture that gives rise to hip-hop. Yet that is what I (and many of my fellow moms on treadmills) elect to listen to while logging the most tedious of running miles.
It’s not that I reject my own “culture”; I enjoy a nice Celtic reel or the smooth vocal stylings of singer-songwriter James Taylor. However, when one must summon the will to run in place in a dim basement for an hour, one resorts to what works. So I am grateful that we have no close neighbors to see me as I lip-synch, sneering and fiercely cocking my head along to Dirt off Your Shoulder and California Love. No one would find me persuasive, and while I’m sure they do how to party in the city of Compton, I have no personal knowledge of it. It’s comical to think of someone like me assuming such a persona, of course, just like it’s makes me both laugh and cringe when my mother posts “Tru dat” in response to something on facebook. Upon meeting either of us, it’s fairly obvious that we aren’t from Compton.
I was thinking of this the other day when I drove through my hometown of Amesbury, Massachusetts. There’s a trio of white boys there who stalk the streets around the same time every afternoon. The youngest looks to be about 11 or 12, but small for his age, and he wears his pants low, his hat sideways, and walks with a pronounced fake limp. This is really quite hilarious, since there’s no way this kid even understands what he’s trying so hard to reference. The limp, for instance. I doubt he’s: a) a pimp; b) carrying such a huge amount of narcotics that he can’t walk straight; c) feeling the lingering effects of a gunshot wound he suffered in a shoot-out. The world he’s referencing isn’t his world in Amesbury, so I can’t help but find him funny. He lacks street cred in the literal sense: he isn’t credible. He’s no more convincing as a gangsta than my five year old is convincing as a Power Ranger. But I found myself thinking about that boy the rest of the day.
I may know Amesbury after all, but I don’t actually know this boy. I don’t know what he’s up against. I know it’s not violence in the streets, but I don’t know what goes on in his house, or at school, or anywhere else. My mother can’t persuasively say “tru dat,” but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been through some heavy stuff in her life. You can’t tell by looking at her. You actually can’t ever tell. The fact is, that boy in Amesbury will get more persuasive as he gets older. Give him a couple years, and a growth spurt, and he’ll be someone people cross the street to avoid. I’ll never be scary like that, and I’ll never be persuasive when singing hip hop in my basement. Partly because people look at me and assume I’ve never been through anything tough. Maybe that boy hasn’t either, or maybe he has. You can’t tell by looking at him. But if he’s still roaming the streets in a couple years, I think I’ll recognize him and remember when he wasn’t even old enough to shave.
Yesterday, several friends of mine posted an old but classic clip of Bill O’Reilly talking with Columbia professor Marc Lamont Hill, where O’Reilly says Hill “kinda looks like [a cocaine dealer].” One presumes because Hill is black. The clip seems to have gained new life as election day approaches in light of a small but very vocal group of racists opposed to Obama for that reason alone. It’s appalling, but it’s also good to be reminded that they exist, and that they feel this way. Otherwise, I have a tendency to get very Pollyanna about race.
So, as I close this post, I was thinking of all the trite morals I could offer. There’s the perennial favorite “You know what happens when you assume…” or “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” But I think I’m looking for something a little more concrete. Something along the lines of “Not all black folks are cocaine dealers, and not all white folks have cushy lives.” That ought to do it.