It was the first semester of my freshman year in college. I met “David” while at one of the bars near campus. The people I went there with that night were all too young to drink, but David (who was a junior) made a point to buy shots for each of us. My friends and I were the only black people in the bar, so I guess we stood out. And looked thirsty.
I got drunk for the first time that night because of David’s magnanimity. And we became cool. He wasn’t one of my best friends on campus. But if I happened to be walking in the cafeteria and he happened to be at a table already, he’d scream, “Daaammmmmmmmmmon!” if he saw me. And sometimes he’d invite me to sit at his table, where he was holding court with his (all white) buddies.
One day he invited me and one of my teammates to a party at his house, with a promise that there’d be (his words) “booze and bitches” there. Which was awesome. (I was 18, remember. It didn’t take much.) Until I got there and saw that the “booze” was Sunny D and Jägermeister and the “bitches” were his sister (seriously) and her four friends. All white, of course. For whatever reason, I was expecting the party to be more Benetton ad than Abercrombie & Fitch. But, again, I was 18. Which means I was stupid. Still, we stayed and had a decent time watching everyone get drunk and attempt to heel-toe to Beenie Man.
Anyway, about an hour or so into the night, David called me over to a conversation he was having with a few people.
“Yo, D. Tell them what you were telling me about your block.”
“The suburb my parents moved to when I was 16?”
“No, no, no. The hood! Tell them about the hood!”
My face went blank. WTF is this dude talking about? I thought. Then I remembered.
When he was buying drinks that night at the bar, Cops happened to be on the TV behind the counter. During conversation, I nonchalantly mentioned that my street was featured on an episode. Which excited the hell out of him then, but I was too drunk to realize it.
And then I took another look at him. And around the room. And I thought about a few of the more awkward conversations we’d had in the past couple of weeks. And then it dawned on me:
I am David’s black friend.
Not David’s friend who happened to be black. But David’s friend who is David’s friend because he is black. And then it all made sense—the drinks, the rambunctious invitations to his table, my attendance at this party, the creepy reference to his sister as one of the “bitches” who’d be in attendance. David wanted everyone to know he was cool enough to be cool with a black guy. It wasn’t enough to be my friend. He had to be seen being my friend. That I happened to be a black basketball player from the hood must have been a triple word score on his Token Scrabble board.
It’s been over a decade—s–t, almost two decades—since that night. But I still remember that feeling. Simultaneously jarring and illuminating. Surreal, even. Like I was in a David Lynch movie and was watching myself in a David Lynch movie. And it was funny as f–k. Like, holy s–t! Does he think this is actually going to work?
Which is the same feeling I’ve been feeling while also witnessing Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton play Black Friend Scrabble, where they’re battling each other with quasi black-experience bonus points …
(Bernie: I marched with Martin.
Hillary: Well, I share a last name with George Clinton.)
… and full names hidden in their bags …
(Bernie: I just pulled out a Killer Mike piece and a Ta-Nehisi Coates. That should be good for 78 points.
Hillary: I have a John Lewis. And a Cory Booker. And a Demi Lovato, who could pass for Beyoncé’s cousin, and that’s worth 6 points alone.)
… to prove they’re cool enough to be cool with black people. Only instead of elevated campus status, the goal is for black people to believe that Bernie and Hillary are down enough to earn their vote.