Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I apologize

Video: Oscar Brown Jr., I Apologize

If you free the music the music will free you.

Maggie Brown, quoting her father, Oscar Brown Jr., over a week ago at a Steppenwolf Traffic production in his honor.

Saw Maggie Brown and her sister Africa the Monday before last, in a tribute show for their daddy, Oscar Brown Jr., but the week got to moving so fast that I didn’t have a chance to sit down and write about it.

In a nutshell: great show. Peopled by extraordinary artists -- musicians and poets -- some of whom had a hand in the Afro-Centro movement (Kwame Steve Cobb was there, playing percussion and reading -- sweet merciful lord -- reading I Apologize. See the video clip above for Mr. Brown reading it his own dear self.).

Others --- Keith M. Kelley and Jeff Baraka -- who are writing new stories, giving new wings to the ancestors’ work. The sisters even brought out the kids -- nieces and nephews and sons and daughters culled from all the siblings, eight in total -- and the littlest of them all brought the house down with his dance moves.

Left me with that solid feeling that comes only rarely when you’re a white girl living in America: the knowledge that there’s a whole chapter of American history that we simply don’t talk about enough. And the awareness that there are daily slights committed against our fellow Americans whose skins are dark. Slights that I only feel if I’m with a friend who’s black and the air turns chill as we’re shopping or dining or just walking down the goddamn street. It’s not omnipresent, but it rears up like a fog, and me unfamiliar with it it always takes me a brief WTF? moment before I realize: Oh Sh*t. Here we go again.

And then I get to leave it behind. Because my skin’s white.

Ignorance is my inheritance as a white girl, because no one forces this knowledge on you when you’re the same color as the men in charge. I first felt it for real the day the verdict (or lack thereof) came down against the policemen who battered Rodney King, Jr. I was working as a freelance researcher and graphic artist for an office in downtown L.A. and drove in late, without a radio, so I didn’t hear the news.

After I parked the car I stopped in the Post Office that I was used to frequenting, and there was a chill in the air. All the women who worked there were African-American, and what was usually a warm and receptive place full of laughter and jokes was stone cold and mostly silent. From there I walked to the office, where two men -- the security guard who I greeted everyday and another fellow who worked in the building -- were speaking in hushed tones at the front desk.

I held the elevator and the gentleman got in, with a small nod of thanks, his body turned from me. I asked him what was going on, and he told me about the verdict. Quietly, dispassionately. My response was immediate and violent: One loud “WHAT?!”

In that moment I made a friend, and he turned to me and we talked about the injustice. A warmth grew between us. Neither of us knew that the city would burn that night, but both of us could feel that something had to break loose. Something had to set this right.

It wouldn't of course -- set things right, I mean. But if you were there when it happened it all made sense somehow. Terrible, sad, sense.

It was after he stepped out and I did too that I realized what I had felt in those few feet -- from the P.O. to the front desk -- I carried my white with me. Unshakable. Branded. With judgment on my head.

p.s. Here's another story about those days in L.A. »


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this... Makes me want to share. I bought a winter cap recently that happens to have the Mexican flag on it. I simply liked the cap though I do for several reasons feel a kindred spirit with the Mexican people. I never saw it as a social experiment. It's just a hat to keep my head warm. But reactions it has caused... From a group of men shoveling snow smiling at me and yelling "paisa, paisita!" to dirty looks on the L where I had to turn around and glance behind me because surely they aren't staring at "me" the white girl. But I wasn't white to them. Only I don't have to wear that hat if I don't want to.

patrick said...

Why don't you write for a living?!?


suttonhoo said...

lol -- thanks, patrick. :) did that once. prefer this.

and thanks for the great story, burnett. whoa.

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