I remember when my mother informed me I was black. She put me in bed tucked my little feet in and and said "Honey, you are black. I will tell you this now: You will have to work doubly harder in this world for everyone to consider you mediocre". She kissed me on the forehead and gave me a sweet dreams "shout out".
Thus began the nightmares of mediocrity.
I remember when I was informed I was black in an improvisational class. We were doing some wacky make em up scene regarding a marching band. I laid upon myself being a baton twirling. One of the actors onstage in an angry huff said to me in the scene "What do you expect from a spear chucker?"
You know when someone gets punched in the private parts on television and the people who are watching it let out a unanimous "OH!!"? Well, that was this class. En masse. Me shooting a look to the teacher of that class and his head dropping low into his neck. After the scene was done this young man sheepishly said "This is what we called the baton twirlers at my High School" I just laughed and said "What High School did you go to so I can remember to never send my kids there". Not as much as the connotations of what my kids would be hearing, but to never have my kids grow up and be caught saying terms that are nowhere in context of what they are talking about.
Really. Who calls baton twirlers Spear Chuckers? If you do? Really. Stop it. The moment a baton twirler vaults a baton with a sharp edge towards your face? I will let it slide.
I remember when I was reminded that I was black when I started the improvisational theater company Oui Be Negroes. We have been considered the first African American Improv/Sketch Comedy Ensemble. I was reminded that I was black (as though I needed to be with an ensemble called Oui Be Negroes) by a woman who called us for tickets. Not really looking at the listing in the Chicago weekly paper, she stumbled quite a bit on the name of our company. Quite a bit:
Me: OBN Productions, How may I help you?
Her: Yes. I saw your ad for your show at Improv Olympics (now iO Chicago) and like to reserve two tickets for...huh..erm Oy Be Niggers?
Me: (Screaming laughing) YOU REALLY READ IT LIKE THAT?? REALLY? (Howls of laughter)
Her: (Sheepishly, backpedaling and blatantly lying) I thought that's what it says here.
Me: Riiiight. Yes. You can have two FREE tickets! I want to *meet you*
She never came to the show with her free comps. I always wondered why.
I have been reminded that I'm black in Boston where a woman made a bee line to the only all black table in the restaurant (ours) to ask us about the O.J. Simpson Trial. I was reminded that I'm black when I walked into a Stuckey's in Knoxville Tennessee to find an almost surreal display of black face Aunt Jemima/Uncle Remus/Black Face Kid on Toilet with Watermelon porcelain dishware only to turn to the bright red and embarrassed counter person who they probably never expected a black person to stop into this Stuckey's.
I bought an Aunt Jemima sugar bowl on my Platinum Visa Card. Just to watch this woman twist in pain.
Sometimes being reminded I’m black comes in the worst ways. Like the time I headed to Florida to my husband’s parents house and his mother (War Bride from WW2 Berlin) blurted out to my husband sobbing and quite randomly after 15 years of marriage: Why don’t you just paint your legs and arms black if you want to be black! I just sort of stood there, along with my and her husband's shocked, mouth gaping stares. I got the car keys and quietly announced that I was going for a drive to a coffee shop.
"This issue is about me, but I should not be involved at all. It’s something between the three of you. I hope you guys work this out”. With that sobering statement, I went to find the one and only open coffee shop in Lakeland Florida.
On Christmas Day. I drank coffee, listened to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas...and cried. Not because I was African American. Just because there is someone out there who wanted to remind her own son and the man I love with all of my heart, in the worst racist of ways that he was “Not Black”
...and I was privy to that horrible moment.
Every once in a while I’m reminded that I’m black nowadays. When I find hair products with so many devices on it to not steal it. When I get asked if I need help a little too often to be considered “Friendly Help” When people find it fine to touch my Afro (when I have my braids out) like it is cool to touch the belly of a pregnant woman.
I'm reminded when people make a bee line to me to ask me "Black Questions" like: What do you think of Oprah's Half Sister (my new pat answer: Nice she has family) or "Michael Steele...what's up with him..right? Right?" (my pat answer: I await his line of Republican Hip Hop Clothing) It's those times where I wish I get a Jeffrey Rush question because I find he was great in The Kings Speech and seriously still looks like Peter Sellars...or a Rahm Emmanuel Question because I'm from Chicago.
I’m also reminded every year for 45 years on the shortest, coldest month of the year. That leaps.
I don’t need to be reminded that I’m black or its history. I know its history and in theory every African American is walking history. There might be though, a reason we still need to have Black History Month.
Maybe, just maybe its for the people who I mentioned above. Sans of course my mother who gave me the gift of those nightmares that forces me to try not to be mediocre.
Causes Shaun Landry Supports
The Alzheimer's Foundation, NAACP, Breast Cancer Foundation, Gilda's Club.