How I Learned to “See” Black Men
(This is adapted from letter I wrote from the California Institute for Men at Chino when I was incarcerated in 2004)
My Dad once told me he was 21 before he first shook the hand of a black man. That certainly wasn’t the case with me. And though it was a bit of a shock to move from lily-white suburban Maryland to Bronx-adjacent Mount Vernon, I’m so glad we did, because I didn’t end up being one of those sheltered kids who knew more black people on TV than in real life. My high school was 70% black, and many of the friendships I made in the Drama Society stayed with me into adulthood. That said, most of the black men I became close to were gay — not the kind you saw in handcuffs on the 11:00 news. Like everybody else in this country, I learned to be scared of “that” kind of black man. I certainly never expected prison to be the place I lost my fear of them.
In Delano there was Rocco, an older guy who loaned me his National Geographic magazines on the sly. He told me he’d taken the fall on drug charges for the mother of his kids. I don’t know if that was true, but his kindness toward me led me to believe it. (Passing reading material between races was frowned upon — not by the guards, but because of the rule that you should never owe anybody of another race a favor.) Then there were the bunkmates on the other side of me — one much older than the other. For some bizarre reason, the younger guy rode the older one mercilessly, deriding him with a level of hostility that seemed completely disconnected from anything he’d done. I felt really sorry for the older guy, and tried to shore him up when I could. Toby (that was his name) explained about the younger one: “Someone probably used to talk to him that way.” It was a remarkably compassionate stance — perhaps he was burning off some personal karma himself.
Then there was the time there when I made the unthinkable faux-pas of crossing through the black section of the cafeteria, attracting a withering look from a guy who later pulled me aside in private. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” I was clueless as to what I’d done. His explanation of what never to do again might have saved my life.
In Birch Hall, there was the giraffe-like drag queen who talked tough but you could tell hadn’t caught a break in her entire life. There was also “Red,” who was wheelchair-bound and seemed to crave my attention. He would do really stupid things, like tickle my feet while I was sleeping and then speed away. That might sound cute, but you don’t mess with someone’s sleep in prison. That was the closest I came to hitting someone, wheelchair or not.
In Redwood, the bunks go white-black-Latin, but since there are slightly more black inmates, it doesn’t always work out that way. For most of my time here I’ve had blacks on either side of me. There’s D-Roll and Adam to my left, and Phil and Sharif to my right. D-Roll is an old school hustler, something out of a Richard Pryor sketch — always trying to make a trade, always owing someone, strutting instead of walking. Adam couldn’t be more opposite. He’s as tall and skinny as a beanpole, light-skinned, and has two obsessions: the Kennedys and his stash of ketchup. No kidding. Did I say he was also a die-hard Republican? He’s definitely the weirdest inmate I’ve met, maybe one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met.
Sharif is one of those auto-didacts who’s probably read one too many books by someone with a name like Baraka Chaka Lata III. He goes on and on about revolutionary constructs, the superiority of African ways and the emasculation of the American black male by the American black female. Sometimes I think he’s going to shank me in the middle of the night screaming “white devil!” at the top of his lungs. Ironically enough, given his politics, he literally spends most of his days playing Monopoly with Phil, who is mostly genial and soft-spoken but constantly accuses Sharif of cheating. They’re like an old married couple who love and hate each other with equal fervor.
Across the way there is Tefunk and Andre. Tefunk isn’t too pretty, but has the most incredible body I’ve ever seen — he must do 1000 push-ups a day. He also has a nagging cough, but it would be seen as overstepping if I suggested he go to the doctor. Andre is terribly handsome. He has flashy white teeth and is clearly a ladies’ man. (Some might use the term “pimp.”) He insists he was always “nice” to his “girls,” and even though I know that’s probably bullshit, I can’t help but be charmed by him. He’s a really wonderful storyteller, very adept at doing imitations. When I told him I once wrote for a black comedienne back in New York, he challenged me to write something for him. (He didn’t really think I could.) I can’t resist a dare, and came up with the following — which Andre told perfectly.
A white woman — very white — goes into the psychiatrist, her husband in tow. “Oh doctor, I simply do not know how to handle Monty. He’s bi, he’s polar, he’s bi-polar. He’s down one day and up the next; hostile, depressed, manic — you name it, he’s got it. I’m literally at the end of my rope, you’ve got to help me.” So they have a session, the doctor writes a prescription and they leave.
Then LaShonda comes in, dragging her boyfriend behind her. The doctor asks what’s wrong.
Andre pauses here, knowing that timing is everything. Everyone leans in as he delivers the punchline.
Huge laughs. Andre is particularly impressed that I wrote a joke that only a black person could get away with telling. He asks me to write more, but lightning doesn’t strike again.
My ease with the black inmates (compared to that of other whites here) doesn’t mean there isn’t a cultural divide between us that I often can’t bridge. It’s incredibly frustrating to know so much about AIDS, only to hear it taken as gospel that it’s one big conspiracy to kill black people — ironic, considering it’s spoken of in the same breath as a white disease. On the other hand, meeting me has been the first time most of these guys have ever been exposed to a gay man who doesn’t think of himself as a sinner. When they try to tell me what the Bible says, they are flummoxed by my complete indifference to what I consider a work of fiction. D-Roll spoke to me about it at the urinal.
“So Olmsted, you really don’t believe in Hell?”
“I thought that’s where we were,” I answered.
He laughed out loud.
“You’re all right, Mark.”
I don’t want to idealize these guys — we are in prison after all, we all did things to get us here. At the same time, I never thought some of the very same guys I would have crossed the street to avoid would become men I would cross the street to talk to.
The swagger and the attitude so many of them hide behind is just for show. It’s an armor they largely drop when they feel “seen” as complicated human beings with individual histories, personalities and dreams. For each one of them who conforms to a stereotype, there are twenty who don’t.
That realization has not only been a big lesson for me, but a real gift.