I’m from Boston.
Boston doles out its racist vitriol like paper-cuts. It’s not Confederate flags on mud flaps and SS tattoos (unless you date white girls from New Hampshire), it’s smiling pastors’ wives telling you how scary you look until you smile, days before your 14th birthday, when Rubik’s cubes make more sense than girls, and white girls come with fathers who flash guns. It’s being left off of scholarships at your prestigious Catholic high school for your half-moon caesar despite the highest GPA among the pool of finalists. Or being voted captain by your teammates and seeing it go to the backup quarterback. Or lying to your mother about why curfew moved back an hour without her noticing. You traded that hour to satisfy the anger of a Keene, NH, cop who trailed you across state lines to pull his gun and trash your car, because the friend you’d had since middle school was too blond and too Christian to have been comfortable in the car with you. It’ll be good practice for lying about the night you fell asleep on your homegirl’s couch.
You spent that night in holding after cops didn’t like your explanation for the money in your pocket.
To live and thrive in Boston, you’ve got to do so in white spaces. Because the whole city is a white space. It’s not that blackness isn’t tolerated. It’s that there’s no space for it, because the city refuses to make space for it. When new awning fees force out longstanding black businesses, politicians celebrate development. When the Boston Globe breaks down its history, it responds with silence. Black is the enemy of opportunity in Boston. Your ability to remove attention from your black ass determines your ability to get your size from a high-end retailer on Newbury Street, or a table at Eastern Standard, or a liquor license or a business loan. You think your Boston accent makes Officer Mulcahy’s sound like Jack Nicholas’. If it saves you from getting a knee in your back, you’re right.
I’d say I talk like a Wahlberg, but Marky Mark might have an issue with that.
The fight-flight choices for black folks in and around Boston are moving and tokenism. I live in New Jersey.
I tried tokenism before and would’ve kept it up if it weren’t for Pastor Alan.
I met Sean around 13. A year older, Sean lived a few towns over. His dad, Alan, was the youth pastor, a no-paying role he took on for weekends between his engineering duties at GE. Sean was a dirty-blonde kid who looked like a first alternate for a boy band, with the cleanest bowl cut this side of the Mickey Mouse Club. He also knew (but didn’t recite) every word to any and every Mobb Deep song. My mother would begin what would seem like two years of endless surgery shortly thereafter. During one of her brief breaks in those years, my stepfather would be jailed, released, kidnapped, and shot. Sleepovers became standing weekend arraignments. My father only recently stopped choosing Johnnie Walker over child support and phone bills. When I was 14, Johnnie won every time. So after teaching me to tie a tie, shine my church shoes and change a tire, Sean’s dad, likely cast as Dennis Quaid in my biopic, became mine, too.
Being a black “man” at 14 is fun for a while. By 15, though, after a summer full of cops pressing you for details to and from football practice, the shine was off being 5’9” and 225 pounds. Once it settled in that I was dangerous, I felt there were two choices: I could lean into being dangerous, or I could achieve my ass off in an effort to be a real credit to my race and to my class, like my guidance counselor would tell me I could be if I got into trade school with my serviceable 1450 SAT score.
At first, being a token felt like revenge. Like a polite middle finger to the Spanish teachers who were sure I was cheating, or the parishioners who clutched their purses in the parking lot. After the school nurse accused me of faking a 103-degree fever, I landed a story in the local newspaper. I took the interview in front of her office. I’d land myself in a few more papers and on a few newscasts. The light and the acoustics were so good down her hallway, it only felt right to take each and every single interview there in front of her office.
Eventually, like any fish-out-of-water comedy, tokenism gets too lucrative, too easy, too corrupting. Banquets are long, so it becomes easier to pre-empt the scorn. Between my first taste of manhood and my senior year of high school, I’d shucked and jived my way into a full scholarship, honors housing at a prestigious university nearby, a car, and a few lunches with the type of rich folks who argue over naming rights for high school stadiums. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what it was to be black, or what it was to love being black. I learned that from the mixtape man at Simco’s, Bishop John Borders and Miss Farrow’s Beauty Salon. Pro-black kites at the Kite Festival and family cookouts at Salem Willows fueled my love for the skin I was in, regardless of the conflict it caused on the way to and from the aforementioned oases.
The world outside of those spaces in and around Boston is one that vilifies blackness by trying to redeem it, that renders it foreign and antithetical to being a Bostonian, let alone a good one, whatever that means at the moment. I was celebrated because I was a credit to my race, because my intellect and diction have earned me this opportunity.
But if smiling through some gazillionaire’s treatise on everything wrong with my neighborhood was going to keep my mom from picking up a third job, then smile was exactly what I did. Eventually, I smiled so long through so many speeches and impromptu pep talks that I’d internalized far too much of it. My favorite spaces and things felt foreign, staffed by the “problems” and “wastes of space” I’d been told I wasn’t. I was impersonating the white gaze and casting it upon my own community.
At some point during the summer before my first year of college, I must’ve intimated some form of that bullshit to Pastor Alan. The Irish North Shore kid had been black for as many days as he’d played in the NFL, but he wasn’t hearing it.
“This may come as a shock to you, but you…you know you’re black, right?”
The pastor who had kicked me out of his house for introducing his 11-year-old daughter to Nature’s sophomore album knew me enough to know that I’d stand the best chance being exactly who I was. He maintained I was insane for camping out in the cold for sneakers or that he would never understand how using the N-word with a soft A was different than its conventional use. But I was smart enough to make an opportunity for myself, and black enough to have a better handle on how to navigate what it means to be a man since 14. He told me he trusted my judgement over his own.
“You ain’t white, kid. Everyone’s tough here, just be black and let ‘em get over it.”
My mother had traded the hooded, cross-burning racism for its r-dropping northern cousin, and then watched it move slowly to release her husband from prison on trumped up charges. She’d helped neighbors fight expulsion over high-top fades and having to answer to names like “Cornbread” on the job. And she’d watched her nieces and nephews, left with their talents to the neighborhood, waste their potential. Blackness, as my mother tells me now, wasn’t a concern. I was always going to be black, I’d figure it out as I went along. To the outside world, I was sure to win to the extent that I didn’t remind anyone of my blackness.
My mother taught me to be safe, to be prepared, to keep my head on a swivel while instilling in me a love for learning and community.
But a white, Irish pastor insisted I be as black as I wanted to be.
So much of navigating blackness is navigating white people. The day-to-day of mapping life around white emotion is enough to drive some of us insane. Mapping it wrong can get you killed and blamed for your own demise. Living to appease it can alienate you from what you’ve come to know.
Boston taught me to live my life to the best of my ability in spite of white emotion. Anyone with an issue will get over it.
Pastor Alan told me so.