The first time I visited Baltimore, I was covering the uprisings after the death of Freddie Gray. To discover more about the turmoil in the city, I met with local residents who explained their contentious relationship with police. I researched the poverty and housing crisis that enveloped the city. I spoke with local police officers. I heard about gentrification at the Harbor. One Baltimorean, who explained that he had been released from prison a few days earlier, offered to take me to the “real protesters,” and I agreed to go.
When we arrived in the vacant lot, there was a group of screwfaced-looking dudes who could have easily been extras on The Wire. One of the men leaned in close and asked me what I knew about “the real” Baltimore. Surrounded by a scary group of self-described “hooligans” with thick B-More accents filtering through bandanas that covered most of their faces, I told them the only thing I knew about their city:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
As the entire circle fell silent, I knew that I had become one of them and had gained their trust through the timeless gift of poetry. Then, out of the dark quietude, a voice rang clear:
“Get this dumb nigga the fuck outta here. He don’t know shit about shit.”
Corn Pop is back.
This weekend, news outlets across the country contacted me after I tweeted a dramatic retelling of Democratic Presidential Candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden’s story of Corn Pop the razor-wielding gangsta. I won’t recount the entire story (you can read it here) but the abbreviated version is that at 20 years old, Joe Biden took a summer job working at a swimming pool, so he could learn more about black people. One day, he had to face off against a notorious gang leader named Corn Pop after Biden unknowingly insulted CP at the pool. The two almost came to blows but Biden apologized and the two realized that they weren’t so different after all. And that’s how Corn Pop and Joe Biden learned the true meaning of respect was inside their hearts the whole time.
Biden had been caught lying about participating in Civil Rights protests multiple times, so I just knew this story was one of his hyperbolic bullshit falsehoods.
As the story went viral, others pointed out that OG Corn Pop was an actual person who lived. Apparently, there was actually an event that happened at the pool—although no one can confirm Biden’s version about the two squaring off and Corn Pop relinquishing his dreaded straight-razor.
Harriot’s skepticism notwithstanding, Biden is actually not alone in recalling the misadventures of Corn Pop and The Romans. At a dedication ceremony in 2017 for the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center in Wilmington, Delaware, former state NAACP President Richard “Mouse” Smith gave a firsthand account of the dustup.
Smith corroborated the first half of the story, noting that Biden used some “french language” when he told Corn Pop to get off the diving board, and that Mr. Pop did, indeed, threaten to “cut” Biden. He never got around to mentioning the confrontation in the parking lot, but did say that Biden “stood his ground.”
I was wrong.
Joe has retold this story a million times to solidify his street credentials. But now that he has the first black president to vouch for him, he doesn’t pull out the Corn Pop black pass very often. However, the fact that this pandering, old-school yarn exists in the first place is indicative of how white people often think of black people in general.
The first time I read Biden’s Thug Life Fairy Tale, I had questions before I even reached the end, where the good-hearted lifeguard and the dangerous negro troll who lived under the diving board lived happily ever after.
First of all, Biden did what?
During the course of my life, I have known many gentlemen who displayed goon-ish qualities and very few of them possessed the patience or the caution to patiently wait outside for a potential victim to clock out and do some light chain-wrapping. And straight razors are popular in jailhouse tales because that was the only way to shave. No street-certified miscreant is walking around Delaware carrying a straight razor. This horrific real nigga ogre is something that only exists in white people’s minds.
But Biden’s whitesplained reason for working at a segregated swimming pool to learn about black people might be the most disconcerting part of this story. The fact that the editors and publishers of his 2007 autobiography found it reasonable to retell the story of the Senator who went on a summer safari to study the negro in its natural habitat explains more about white people than the heartwarming fable reveals about anything. Biden wanted to understand structural racism and learn more about black people so he got a job at a local pool.
And that’s not a 2019, woker-than-thou “what.” That line of reasoning wouldn’t even make any sense in 1962. Yet, white folks readily believe this illogical premise as if it makes any fucking sense whatsoever!
At least once a week, I will receive an email or tweet from people who find my use of the phrase “white people” to be distasteful. Hilariously, a few Twitter users even objected to how white people were characterized as I disagreed with Biden’s negro parable characterizing his time working at Wilmington’s aquatic nigga zoo!
Honestly, I like that Biden has become the colored man’s aquanaut fairy godfather. If Vacation Negro School taught Joe Biden the lessons he needed to know about black people, imagine how much black people have learned over the years. The black people who work in offices surrounded by Rebeccas and Chads must have doctorates in wypipology. The children who navigate years at predominately-white schools and colleges should be awarded certificates in Caucasity. The number of confrontations and microaggressions we could recount would make Corn Pop look like Mother Teresa. If there is one thing we Corn Poppers know, it’s white people.
To be clear, I don’t think Biden is racist; nor do I believe he had any ill intent by telling the Ballad of Corn Pop the Thug. Whether or not Corn Pop existed or the incident happened the way Biden claims it did is irrelevant because, to many white people, Corn Pop is real. In fact, every black person in America is someone’s Corn Pop. He represents the quintessential “black friend” who is repeatedly cited as a footnote white people’s assurance that they understand of the “black experience.” He is “I would have voted for Obama twice.” He is the black guy they dated in college and the underprivileged youth they mentored at the after-school program.
I am Corn Pop, too.
And trust me, Corn Pop is real.
Ultimately, what Biden’s story suggests is the essence of low-wattage racism. It does not burn bright enough to warrant him being called out. It’s just a faint virtue-signal founded on the idea that the presence of whiteness is a gift in and of itself and any random handful of negroes—even the small sample size of swimmers at a Delaware city pool, is representative of how they see us all.
We see you, too.
That night, in 2015, on an untended, patch of Baltimore pavement with grass peeking through the cracks, that cipher of men told me about hundreds of kids being detained the day after the Freddie Gray incident. The police even stopped the school buses and trains and held the children on public transportation for hours. The kids had no idea what was going on and couldn’t get home. A few of the students threw rocks at the cops, which is what reports say sparked the so-called “Baltimore riots.” But instead of explaining that story, city officials and others immediately branded the disgruntled youth as a bunch of opportunistic “thugs” who were “eager to loot and riot.”
After I left that spot, I felt I had a better idea of what was going on in Baltimore. But, aside from my account, it would be years before the story of what happened at the Mondawmin bus stop was fully told.
For the rest of that night, the guys in the lot would intermittently roast me for being the “poem nigga.” As it grew late, I realized I couldn’t call an Uber because the National Guard had put a curfew in effect so I walked the mile or so back to my Airbnb with the gentleman who had introduced me to everyone.
“What the fuck was that poem shit about?” he asked during our trek.
I explained that it was a poem from 1925 by Countee Cullen and admitted that it was the only thing that came to my mind at that moment. He asked to hear the poem again, so, as we walked past the machine-gun carrying soldiers through the still smoldering city, I recited the poem one more time.
I still don’t know shit about Baltimore.
And Joe Biden doesn’t know shit about black people.
Or maybe I am wrong. Perhaps near-death gang rumbles in city pool parking lots could rid this country of racism and a little poetry could quell all the violence in Baltimore. I’ve never visited the city again but, unlike the former vice president, I haven’t reduced the place to memories of a flaming CVS or a few niggas I met in a vacant lot four years ago.
Joe Biden has probably met tens of thousands of black people in his 76 years on earth. But he is still explaining his relationship with the black community by dragging around the corpse of a 57-year-old memory to illustrate the valuable lesson he learned about structural inequality one summer a half-century ago.
Of all the things that happened there, that’s all he can remember.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)