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Jul/Aug 2007 Fiction

The Black Folks Guide to Survival

by Kris Broughton

Photography by Kawika Chetron


Malcolm X actually did once say "the chickens have come home to roost." Nice, evocative image from an ex-farm boy turned pimp turned convict turned religious leader turned civil rights activist. But most of the younger black folks I know have never seen a live chicken. The ubiquitous Nextel chirp holds more meaning for them than the clucking of a brood of hens, waddling back to the chicken coop as nightfall approaches. These days, it's our own chickens that have begun shuffling back into the fold--our demands for racial equality, for equal access to opportunity, for fair playing fields, have created a modern America that has learned to accommodate us by saying one thing and doing another.

I've used the imaginary title The Black Folks Guide To Survival for so long when I am trying to emphasis a point that I can picture this book in the African American section of Barnes and Noble, with a black cover (what else?), its white-lettered title emblazoned across the top, an unfocused picture of two modern day black professionals, their bodies framed from the waist up, their shoulders shrugged as if they are lost, centered below the subtitle, "In the New Millennium." I'm supposed to be a writer, I said to myself, so why not write this one?

Survival in White America for Dummies was a strong second choice, but the legal wrangling, although a sure fire publicity generator, was more than I could stomach. So I've got a title, I've selected a free form way to communicate the storyline to the reader, I've dug through my personal collection of modern day black folk do's and don'ts...

Let's get this show on the road.

 

Prologue

...so you think they'll buy this? Hasn't somebody already done it?" Rocky is a motor mouth--he had once asked seven rapid fire questions in a row before the guy mugging him had enough and broke his jaw three years ago. He's been at General Motors long enough to know that he isn't going to go far with them. "I mean, I've got this MBA, I went to an Ivy League college, I wear the right clothes... shit, I even go to hockey games--what is it that I'm doing wrong?"

Rocky was my college roommate fifteen years ago. Since then we've gone down separate career paths. He's worked at three of the country's largest manufacturers since grad school, but he seems to be stuck at the director level--not even assistant vice-president. He's been married and divorced, a brief union with an ebony socialite who didn't think he was getting to the top fast enough. I am still single, with a little nest egg from a failed internet startup that is about to run out and a book deal whose advance is close to disappearing if I don't get a manuscript in the mail by the end of the month.

It was Rocky who suggested I write about racism. "It never goes out of style. Black will always be the new black."

"What about the Mexicans? Isn't brown the new black?"

"Hell no. They've got to work their way up to being full fledged minorities. Subjugation isn't what it used to be, you know." What the hell did Rocky know about subjugation? I liked his racism idea though--very meaty. All I had to do was draw from my experiences...

Which brings me to where I am now--three days have passed, and I am still stuck on the first page.

"Man," Rocky says, "just throw some shit down. How hard is it to follow up that 'chickens come home to roost' quote? Just write something like... like... like, uh..."

"NOW do you see what I mean? I need a tone. A voice really, even though it's a non-fiction book." I look at Rocky standing in front of me, a child of the suburbs, whose harshest racial incident was back when he was four, when he realized that the Santa Claus his mother had in his living room was the only black Santa in the neighborhood. He is oblivious to the racial Cold War America has been in for the last twenty-five years. Cats like him, they need a wakeup call--yeaah, that's what I'll do. I'll wake his ass up.

 

Introduction

White folks, and white men in particular, have always found ways to alter, bend, or just totally ignore the rules they've made up when something doesn't suit them.

Finally, a sentence that says what I want it to say. It's bold and direct, with a presumptive stance that assumes the reader will possess a point of view sympathetic to one of the oldest themes in the book--power corrupts absolutely. This will be the page one header of The Black Folks Survival Guide.

"How does that sound, Roc?" I say, reading the sentence out loud to him.

"Damn, man. Don't you think that's kind of in your face?"

"To whom?"

"It just sounds like you're pandering to the 'us versus them' thing."

"Didn't you tell me that you're the only black guy in your B-school graduating class who isn't a VP yet?"

"Well..."

"My ass. Nobody ever fires you. You know why? 'Cause you're too willing to work too hard for too little for them to let you go. So they give you the 'not in the budget' okie doke when you ask for a raise. The 'what can I do, I gotta take care of the CEO's nephew first' spiel when you try to slide into a new position. They'll give you any line in the book to keep your ass from rising up."

"But I..."

"No, you need to hear this. I mean really hear this. Your parents thought they were hooking you up by keeping you out in the 'burbs. By not mentioning any thing negative or derogatory about white folks. By striving to create an oasis of fairness and racial harmony.

That shit might work in the minors, but you're in the big leagues, Roc. These white folks you work with are playing for keeps. For stock options. For fat ass bonuses so they can take the family to Europe, or put a pool in the backyard. And your dumb ass is still coming in to the office on Sundays." I look at him. "I'm writing this book for all the clueless young negroes like you."

"Clueless? Who you calling clueless, motherfucker?"

"Who? Overeducated people like you, who think the NAACP doesn't do shit. Blind, black bastards who refuse to believe the FBI and the CIA have secret agendas. Motherfuckers who," I say, my voice hot, my motor running, my mind crackling with possibilities, "take their voting rights for granted. Stupid assholes who believe we can stop asking so many questions of our government, the same government that still thinks it fucked up when it raised you up from three-fifths of a man to a whole. Easily led astray son-of-a-bitches, like you, who accept blindly the need to accumulate the trinkets and trappings of the nouveau riche. And especially black folks like you, Rocky, who turn their noses up at those of us who haven't made it."

I haven't done an imaginary roommate before. This character Rocky, whose name I've borrowed from one of my college drinking buddies, is an amalgamation of some of the more privileged black students I went to college with. The real Rocky used to be a straight up nigga from "up the way," who had to learn the exact opposite set of skills from my make believe persona--how to operate in the sterile corporate environment without looking like a bull in a china shop.

Digressions, as you can see, are a weakness with me--I forgot I was in the middle of telling you how this book came to be written. Another chunk of prose comes to me while I am ranting at Rocky--the paragraph is kind of dense, but I think it does a pretty good job of setting up what is to come:

A subject like racism is hard to parse into discrete sections, ready to be analyzed under a microscope like a slice of skin, or subjected to a centrifugal force that separates the whole into its components, with a goal of recording repeatable phenomena in order to consider whether it is real or not from the standpoint of the scientific method.

"Who do you think you are," Rocky says, "Henry Louis Gates? That mumbo jumbo sounds like a college professor reading from his dissertation."

"What I'm saying is that racism is subjective. And I threw the microscope reference in there to imply that it's the little tiny things--the nuances--that matter these days."

"Well, why didn't you just say that?"

"What's wrong with what I've got?"

"I'm a smart motherfucker, but I don't like to read that type of shit if I don't have to."

"You know what you need to do? Go stand in a bookstore next weekend for a couple of hours and tell me what you see. The people who buy books for pleasure can read, Rocky."

"When this shit ends up at Books-A-Million for a dollar-ninety-nine you can say I told you so."

"Dude, it's starting to flow--listen to this:

We live in a world where we want measurable, quantifiable, scalable action plans that will tell us, if we devote a certain amount of hours and a particular amount of money, that these problems will go away.

Now this shit is starting to come together.

"Not bad," Roc says, his eyes wandering. "Now the beginning makes more sense."

I don't think he notices that I've cheated a little with that one--I deliberately threw in some of the buzzwords he uses all day in his meetings. "Aw shit! Check THIS out:

Our Otherness is irredeemable, indestructible, unbreakable, indelible. It is not symbolic or imagined. It is real, in a physical sense, its mass and volume at once immeasurable but distinct.

Roc stares at me. "Man, you need to go ahead and do your thing. It's starting to get deep over here. I gotta crunch some numbers tonight anyway."

I don't hear him leave, my mind focusing on these few paragraphs I've strung together. I come up with the lead-ins to the first few chapters practically overnight.

 

***

 

Ex-Crackers

"Gated communities now, forever, and always."

If you're like me, you probably live in the suburbs. What you need to realize is all white folks are not alike. Here in Atlanta, for example, a substantial number of the people you will live next to are ex-Crackers. Some of them are descendants of genuine Ku Klux Klan members. But these people have made something out of themselves, have risen out of the muck and slime of abject intolerance--how else could they live next door to you?

 

Neighbors

"Can't we all just get along?"

Most of your neighbors are Babbitts, boosting ideals because, well, because they just feel that they ought to be Boosters, good Solid Citizens, ever on alert for the hint of crabgrass in their neighbor's yard or the garage door down the street that has been left open, for these are perversities and imperfections that will bring down the all important Property Values, values upon which mortgages lean heavily, mortgages that shore up credit card debt that has been consolidated into equity lines of credit, enormous sums whose principal balances are humored by monthly payments designed to leave small dents in these carcasses of debt masquerading as houses, whose structures have already, just a few years after being so proudly erected, begun to decay and rot and leak.

If you've lived in the suburbs long enough, you are probably a Black Babbit, a peculiar distillation of Babbittry, which is prone to be more prejudiced than your ex-Cracker neighbors. You look down your nose at all Asians, Mexicans, and Indians who invade the inner sanctum of the sacred cul-de-sac. You save your most potent vitriol for other blacks who move into your neighborhood who don't have as many degrees as you do, whose skin is darker or lighter than yours.

Talk to your neighbors. Believe me, they are talking about you if they are not talking to you.

 

Colorblindness

"I don't see color. I only see people."

We've all heard this one before. For someone to say that they don't see color is to say that we don't exist. They have remolded the reality of our existence into a likeness of their own choosing.

DO NOT BLOW THIS STATEMENT OFF. You need to be extremely concerned about this obsession with defining your existence according to the standards of outsiders. To listen to others dictate why you should or shouldn't feel the way you do is not much different than a slave master keeping his charges in line. This colorblindness thing is a cop out. We look different. It is an empirical fact, although the degree of difference may vary between individual black people. So why are we supposed to pretend that these things don't exist?

 

Diversity

"America is one big, racial melting pot."

You know where you came from. You know who you are. Hanging out with black people exclusively isn't going to make you any blacker. Hanging out with white people all the time isn't going to make you any whiter. What you need to do is re-evaluate who YOU are and decide what is really a part of your ethnicity, and what is really just some baggage from the past.

These days, whether it's a group where you have a history with each other or the people on the other side of the fence, WHATEVER COLOR THEIR FENCE IS, you want to ultimately get along with them. So learn a little about NASCAR. Memorize a few country western tunes. Sit through a performance of Rigoletto at least once. Study the rules of hockey. Because if you don't have any way to connect with anyone outside your own group, you are fucked.

 

Dating White Men / White Women

Can white be alright?

There will be times when you find that you are not attracted to anyone who looks like you--it may be because you don't live around many of us or work around many of us, or you have just gotten tired of all the drama that can go along with dealing with some of us.

If you grew up in the suburbs, white people were your childhood friends. Your high school classmates. Your college roommates. You may have gotten out of sync with their internal rhythms in the last few years, but it's just like riding a bike--you never really forget how to do it.

DO NOT de-Negro-ize yourself if you are in one of these relationships.

DO think about shit before you do it--taking your white significant other to a Nation of Islam rally, for instance, is a sign that you are in the process of de-Negro-izing yourself, a period during which your brain only functions in a limited capacity.

 

The "N" Word

When ex-Crackers have had enough of your ass.

What are you supposed to do when you hear someone white call you a nigger? If you're a rich black, they are beneath you. You expect used-to-be Crackers to be uncouth and unsophisticated anyway. If you're one of the mass of middle and lower class blacks, something will snap, and they'll get an earful. But you are not going to risk going to jail just to prove a point to some ex-Cracker asshole. But if you happen to be one of that ten percent of us who is always pissed off, whatever strata you inhabit, it might be time for them to start getting their mouth measured for dentures. You can already feel the handcuffs around your wrists, but you will still try to break something--an arm, a leg, a couple of ribs--so these ex-Crackers understand that you are not to be played with. By the time the police arrive, you will have already counted how many meals you're gonna have to eat behind bars. You will have already made a couple of calls to arrange bail.

NOTE TO EX-CRACKERS WHO MAY BE READING THIS ON THE SLY: This person may be found in Armani or Adidas--do not be fooled by the restraint of a fifteen hundred dollar suit.

 

***

 

"So what's going on with your book deal?" Rocky looks pensive.

"Aw, these fuckers are scared. My agent almost jumped through the phone. 'This isn't the book I thought you were writing,' she said. I told her, 'You know, I was kind of surprised myself. But I like it'."

"And?"

"She started hemming and hawing about my unnecessary, caustic, disrespectful commentary about white folks."

"I thought you said she was okay with the idea?"

"She was, when she thought it was a funny book aimed at us."

"So what are you going to do?"

"Fuck her. I already did it. Sent that shit straight to the publisher. Son of a bitch editor Myron Reinstein called here laughing his ass off. I figured most of the vitriol in the book was about ex-Crackers, and there's nothing a New York Jew likes better than to make fun of southern bumpkinism. You gotta read between the lines in these deals."

"I might need to take a class in reading between the lines."

"What's wrong, Rocky?"

"I, ah, I tried some of the things you said at work. You know, about being more aggressive and stuff. Now people are looking at me funny. No one wants to eat lunch with me anymore. They think I've gone militant because I've started questioning the things they tell me."

"Did I say it was going to be easy? The only two reasons Buckwheat was in The Little Rascals was because he didn't challenge Spanky and the gang could laugh at him all they wanted. Is that what you want--to be a modern day Buckwheat?"

"The, ah, the thing is, if I do this, it basically means that the life I've lived up until now has been... has been a sham."

"No it doesn't. Didn't I tell you them damn TV shows have fucked your brain over? Life is NEVER as simple as people want to make it out to be. The thing is, you couldn't know until you know. So what you didn't know before is irrelevant. Now if you keep doing what you were doing AFTER you know the real deal--then you're talking sham existence. But you wouldn't be the only one."

"So what do I do now?"

"Well, now that you've got some extra time alone, use it to plan how to get from where you are to where you want to be. Walk around the office when everyone has cleared out. You'd be surprised at what just fifteen minutes of surveillance a day will yield to an ambitious brotherman like yourself."

The character Rocky faces the same age old dilemma most of us have--how to deal with the unknown and unknowable. Now you understand why Muhammed Ali is seen as a hero--writing "white folks" and "ex-Crackers" today carries nowhere near the personal costs for me that it did for him, or Dick Gregory, or Malcolm X, or Stokley Carmichael. And yet there are office buildings sprinkled with up and coming young black execs who can see their six figure salaries disappearing if they make too many waves, if they don't laugh at those inappropriate jokes, if they don't take into account how the white men they work for might view them at review time, at raise time, at option grant time.

Out of the frying pan and into the god dammed Neiman Marcus fireplace. Oh well. Back to the Guide...

 

Religion

"And they sware unto the Lord with a loud voice, and with shouting, and with trumpets and with coronets."

You don't have to drive all the way across town to go to the kind of church your grandmother attended. It's okay if the members of the church near your home wear shorts and tank tops to worship service. Its okay if you don't get the willies during the sermon because the white guy behind the podium sounds like a late night talk show host.

Guess what? The pastors, reverends, and preachers behind the podiums all over town are reading from the same book. Howling a sermon as if one of your feet is caught in a bear trap does not consecrate The Word any more thoroughly than if it is delivered in a measured monotone.

 

Condi and Colin

Are Amos and Andy back on the air? Are they "simonizing" their watches in D.C.?

There are ex-Crackers out there, especially the ones you work with, who wonder why we all can't be like Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell: smart but not uppity, aggressive but not angry, ambitious but not power hungry.

As unpopular as some of the decisions are that Rice and Powell have made in our community, they are still two black folks in blue suits using complex language on television to articulate their thoughts.

DO NOT FALL FOR THE OKIE DOKE! Condi and Colin don't want to get to the top spot in their organization. You do. If your goal is to be "The Man" in your organization, you are going to have to take the gloves off and duke it out sometimes.

 

Being The Boss

When your minions won't comply.

You've been a desk jockey since you entered the workforce. You started out in middle management and never looked back. Your clothing is tailored. Your memos are exquisite creations, succinct and direct and cogent as hell. But there are those below you, and those at your level, who do not feel that you are supposed to be there.

Nip that shit in the bud. If you have any ex-Crackers in your employ, immediately resort to MBWA (Management By Walking Around) combined with MBBA (Management By Being an Ass). Tell their ill-mannered, overindulged asses to quit eyeballing you so damn much and do some work for a change instead of complaining about how unmotivated they are. Snort at them through your broad or narrow brown or yellow or beige nostrils--there is something visceral about that sound, something that conjures the image of a charging bull in the minds of your staffers that is more effective than ten terse emails.

 

Last Resort

"Break glass in case of emergency."

There are going to be times in your life when shit just doesn't add up. When even the advice in this book can't help you through. If that happens, you need to resort to one of our age-old skills that used to serve us well in the past.

 

Denial

If we as black people didn't have the power of denial to depend on, our progenitors would have lost their minds generations ago. We who have been or are being discriminated against often arm ourselves with hair-trigger reactions for protection, but the price for such vigilance is an overly testy personality and blood pressure that is off the charts. The Black Folks Guide to Survival recommends taking a "chill pill" once in awhile, instead of blowing a gasket at each and every instance of racism. Rome was not built in a day, prejudice will not be eradicated overnight, and some people do not have the capacity to change.

 

Epilogue

Rocky isn't as nice a guy as he used to be. But he is a senior vice president now, and he will be the first one to inform you that my book made all the difference. He told me that ever since the company put him on the cover of their annual report, he's been having this recurring nightmare. In this dream a reporter finds out that he was adopted. The reporter discovers his real name is Martin Luther Strom Thurmond King and prints a story revealing that Rocky is the secret love child of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Strom Thurmond's illegitimate daughter.

My know-it-all posse of agents, editors and marketing experts all held their noses as they launched the book. "It's too offensive." "It's not universal enough." "No self-respecting black person will buy this." They were right--very few black people bought it. On the other hand, white folks loved it. Well, not all of them. Ex-Crackers were incensed. Many of the copies purchased right after the book was released were never read. They fueled bonfires held by the more radical ex-Crackers to denounce their portrayal. There were enough fires around the nation in the first thirty days, though, to push The Black Folks Survival Guide onto the New York Times Best Seller list.

Now my know-it-all posse wants another book. Fast. They'd like to get it out in time for the holiday season. But I've already told them that the one I'm working on, C. P. Time and Other Lies and Untruths, is... well... is going to be late.

 

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