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.
Admittedly, this strategy makes sense. It would actually be foolish for either of them not to do it. Sanders seems to be firmly entrenched as the candidate for young voters and voters who skew more liberal, while Clinton seems to be the desired candidate for older and more conservative Democrats. (Her assumed stronghold with women seems more tenuous after New Hampshire.)
The wild card here is black voters. Clinton is counting on them to win her the Southern states. But the memory of 2008’s anti-Obama dog-whistling is still very fresh in people’s minds. Even fresher are the Sanders co-signs from people like Coates and Cornel West. Then there’s Michelle Alexander’s viral piece; the only way it could have been more damaging to Clinton’s brand was if it revealed her rocking blackface. While shooting Tupac.
So, as the black patrons saunter into the bar, still feeling a certain way about bouncer Bill Clinton throwing a dozen of their friends out last week, there’s Bernie manning a stool in the corner, waving everybody over and buying bottomless shots of Honey Jack and Maker’s Mark.
Now, do I believe that Bernie Sanders’ courting of black voters is insincere? No, I do not. Although he is far from the perfect candidate, there are quite a number of his ideas, positions and beliefs that, if they were ever made into policy or law, could help remedy certain conditions that disproportionately affect black people.
Also, although Hillary Clinton approved racist tactics in her campaign against President Barack Obama (and supported many of her husband’s policies—many of which have done irreparable damage to the black community), I don’t believe she’s a racist. Just someone who’s so competitive that she’d pander to anyone—blacks, whites, Mexicans, Martians—if she believed it gave her a better chance to win. (Also, there are still many who believe that, although Sanders is the more attractive candidate–or, better yet, the least unattractive candidate—Clinton would have a better chance of beating Trump.)
But we (black people) do fill a vital need for them. And, for the next five months, we will be paraded, invited over, bought shots, called to cafeteria tables, added on Instagram and even invited to sleep with family members because they want—no, need—for everyone to see exactly how awesome they must be to have so many black friends.
So … what happened at that party? Well, David and I stopped hanging out after that night. Yet despite the “black friend” epiphany, we (my teammate and I) stayed there until the end of the night. At this point, I can imagine you reading this and thinking, After all that happened, why would you even stay?
Easy. It was late and we had nowhere else to go.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.