“I wanna be the minority. I don’t need your authority. Down with the moral majority, cause I wanna be the minority.”Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day
A Beer-Napkin Primer on Country Mardi Gras + A Complicated Story on Blackface – New Bayou Books
Sophomore year of high school, which would’ve been 1990, I started buying a Martin Luther King Jr. button from the lady at the Chevron station every January. She literally took the oversized button off her lapel that first year and handed it over. I think it cost me five bucks. I was 16, in that waking-up period of the teenage years where you start to have opinions of your own and, even more important, you start looking around for stuff to rebel against.
In South Louisiana, I bucked the system by watching C-SPAN for hours in my room, half intrigued by the smart way people talked and half trying to prove I was better than my family and friends, who didn’t talk at all like the politicos on TV. I did other stuff too, like walk around with smart looking books I was either reading or pretending to. The trifecta of my rebellion was deciding I wasn’t a racist. Never mind that a year earlier I got laughs around the dinner table repeating a well-worn joke about why James Earl Ray was actually put in jail.
At a time when those blue David Duke bumper stickers were everywhere (at least on my side of town) and the radio station everyone listened to out of Lafayette played that particular David Allen Coe song at least once a day (you know the one I’m talking about), deciding not to make sweeping judgements about black people was a pretty big deal.
Actually wearing a lapel pin to commemorate the memory of the man who calls on us to judge others by the content of their character was–honestly–probably more risky than I realized. White on black violence constantly simmered, and more than a couple fights broke out. I was lucky to stay out of the fray.
My history teacher braced me once as I walked into his class one day with the button on. It wasn’t that big a deal–just a middle aged man with a hundred pounds on me pinning me against the wall and questioning my allegiance to the race. You know, normal stuff for that time.
I could outline another half dozen such incidents that happened more than 30 years ago at this point, but I’ll save it. Times have changed. And anyway, cynical readers from the school of white guilt already have enough evidence of my unconscious bias and my desperate need to prove that, no, I’m one of the good white people.
The point of this essay isn’t to paint myself as some kind of early advocate. In fact, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to think of “the black community” as a collective at all, but even if it was, I’m pretty sure they are capable of speaking for themselves.
And I guess that idea–of the self–brings me to my point on this special American holiday. Even as a pimply teenager with barely a clue of how the world worked, I think my allergy to racism had less to do with politics or injustice or anything else. I think what I was reacting to was the way you miss out on all the interesting stuff when you paint people with the broad brush of group association. The thing is, that’s fucking boring man!
Just imagine if some stranger thought he knew who you were because he knows the decade you were born in, the color of your skin, or the kind of person you like to fuck. Make those kinds of assumptions and you miss out on all the juicy stuff.
But hey, I’m a writer, not an activist. I deal with characters. With individuals. I dig in and explore what makes them tick. There’s only one way to learn about an individual.
Did you know that MLK smoked? He actually had a cigarette in his hand that day he stepped out of his room at the Lorraine Motel. I think one of his people removed the unlit smoke from his hand after he was already gone. I’m not exactly sure what the rationale was. I guess they were worried about public perception . . . you know, the difference between the persona and the individual.
I would have liked to sit down and have a smoke with the man. I bet he had some good stories.