The multi-generational saga of slavery and racism in America is something that will touch us all. There is a beginning but never an end. Wounds are never fully closed. Scars are remembered and passed on. A rhetorical memory of stories, poetry and song are crystallized within our heritage, constantly reminding even those of us who never experienced such atrocities of firsthand trauma. Sandwiched between are visual cues frozen in iconography, people that make up the collective black experience…No, let me correct myself…The collective American Experience.
While working in New York City at a university, MLK Day was a paid holiday but we remained open. As employees it was our choice to work opting for “comp time” or take the holiday. I was the only African American employee on our staff. I was also the only employee on our staff that chose to take Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. This annoyed me. Did I only care because I was black? Did the others not care because they were Caucasian? To be fair, several of my colleagues were not American. But what about the ones who were American?
I felt that the MLK holiday had a lack of legitimization when the university remained open and employees felt compelled to work in order to serve the students. My perception was that the day was a free day for blacks. Anyone else could do as they pleased. The haphazard ceremonies and spattering of closings did nothing to create a the vision of reality that Mrs. King wanted for her slain husband’s holiday.
This was not the first time I was confronted with MLK Day angst. Earlier during my college days, I guilt-riddened my white friend into attending a Martin Luther King celebration on campus. The information that it was being hosted by the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity made her more reluctant to attend. The “Alphas” were known for their step shows and raucous conversation at the student union.
Frankly, they scared many of the white students.
Most of the Alphas were straight A, model college citizens but the step shows were foreign to this small Texas agricultural community. My friend grew ambivalent as we approached the commemorative MLK posters and audience of African American students salted with a few whites for a dash of diversity. She did not speak but I knew she was angry at me for making her go. Why wouldn’t she be? It was just 30 minutes ago that I accused her of being unsympathetic towards my heritage because she would not attend.
“How can you be my friend and not care?” I asked.
“How could you care Afrocity?” she asked. ” You never do anything black ever! Why today just because some stupid holiday says you have to care about him?”
“Do it for me,” I plead. “Have I ever asked you to do anything for my blackness? I am black you know.”
“No Afrocity!!!! Shocker. That went right over my head like a 747…Gee I did not know.”
I shook my head and propped my butt on her dorm bed. “You don’t care about blacks but I bet you would go to a Cinco De Mayo cookout for that Mexican that gave you pubic lice. “
If looks could kill my friend would have had me in the county morgue in one second. I sat there kicking my legs against her K-mart mauve comforter as I gazed at the Wayne’s World movie poster on the cinder block wall. Bitch, she didn’t know that Bohemian Rhapsody was an old song by Queen until I told her. She thought it was made special for the movie. Hmph. I recalled our previous disputes over whether or not to walk to McDonald’s at 2am after we drank too much; or if she would ask a boy if he liked me. This was the first time we argued about race. I wondered if we would come back from this.
She grabbed her backpack. “Fine you brat, but it had better not last more than one hour…I can’t believe you are asking me to do this on my night off from work when I have so much shit to do.”
“Yay!!! I hugged her.” Afrocity the manipulative bitch wins again. I ran to the mirror so I could check my make-up.
She rolled her eyes at me and looked down at her purple sweatpants “I’m sure as hell not changing either.”
“I don’t care,” I said putting on my new J. Crew pea camel pea coat.
She did not have to say anything. We both knew the reason but to be a bitch she felt the need to make it clear to my own ears “You are going to prove that you are black because they call you a sellout so you think that by putting on this charade-“
“That is not true,” I interrupted. She looked at me hard. “Okay, maybe one quarter true, ” I admitted sheepishly. “But I need you there because they say my white friends don’t care about my being black.”
“I don’t care!” she yelled.
I hushed her as we entered the auditorium.
An organ was playing “We Shall Overcome”.
“This is so gay,” she whispered in a sarcastic tone.
“SHHHH. I will buy you some Everclear on Friday when I get paid.”
“You owe me more than cheap ass Everclear, you better get me some Absolute and I don’t mean those mini bottles neither.”
We took our programs from the Alpha ushers who were dressed in black and white. I snickered because they looked like 1960’s civil rights workers. As the auditorium lights dimmed, my friend’s demeanor calmed. She was in it for the long haul–all two and a half hours of it.
After the tribute, the lights came on. She was distant towards me, walking out of the auditorium before I could get my coat and gloves together. I caught up to her outside. She was walking briskly and I could barely keep up. The temperature had dropped to 40 degrees which was an icebox for Texas. Me being Afrocity, I had to ask some dumb question about what we had just witnessed.
“Did you like it?” I asked.
Before she could answer, a guy named Chris approached us from the student center. Chris was a dick. He asked where we had been and my friend said “The MLK thing” .
Chris started laughing loudly and mock singing “We Shall Overcome”. My friend laughed. Too much laughter.
Perhaps I had succeeded in my own terms by getting her to attend the MLK tribute with me but now I felt all the dumber for it. How could she make fun of it after seeing what we just saw? My voice told me to go back to the dorms alone. I knew if I pressed, she would stay behind with the dickhead racist just to annoy me. She knew I hated him.
“I am cold,” I said.
“So go back to the dorm,” she replied curtly.
“Ok, I will do that.” I walked away listening to them laughing behind me. They are laughing at me and I just know she was whining to him about how awful it was that she had to attend the black folks night.
There was a double estrangement at that moment. All of the cautionary tales of having only white friends swelled in my head. My tactless strategy failed. She and I would never come back from this day.
Autographed Letter Signed,