The Accidental Black Man

“Why are you trying to act white?” His eyes accused me as much as his tone.

I remember the black kid who asked me this sat on a guardrail, dressed in the tie, dress shirt, and casual pants of our Catholic grade school ensconced in the blighted Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. I don’t remember much else — his name or the color of his pants. His words, eyes and tone I will never forget.

It was about that time I started to keep my “white” self in the closet: I memorized portions of Shakespeare and laughed at “Twelfth Night” by the time I was 10. I was terrible at both basketball and football, or rather, I lacked the self-confidence to be good. I rocked out to Hootie and the Blowfish and Nirvana, went to Stone Temple Pilot concerts when other black kids in my neighborhood were listening to Tupac and Biggie. I barely knew who they were. Ironically the most impactful book I read at this time was “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison.

I attempted to reinvent myself at the all-boys Catholic school I attended for two years. On dress down day I wore my “Zero” shirt in homage to Smashing Pumpkins. A white classmate passing me in the hallway stopped to point and snicker, seemingly dumbfounded by my choice of dress. It became apparent I was to be accepted nowhere.

I was not black enough to be Black, too black to be White. I just was. The rejection by my own people and the refusal of others to accept me as their own actually made me what I am today. It turns out nowhere truly is utopia.

When the Zimmerman verdict came down I was impacted more deeply than I anticipated. I had never allowed the general rejection I faced by my own race to turn me into what we might call an ‘Uncle Tom’, but the visceral reaction I had surprised me. I wrote about it here, specifically to the American church. I shared it with some friends in my writers group, a few of them Black, and the response was interesting. One of the ladies, Kwanzaa, said to me: “You have to share this; it says so well what me and many others have been thinking and feeling.”

I did share it. I found it odd, but awesome, that I, a person rejected as not Black enough for most of my life, suddenly was speaking for Black people. More than that, as I heard more prejudicial and tone-deaf commentary I felt a soulish obligation to speak up for Black people. I had to speak because I knew deep down that my experience and voice was truly Black — I had everything I needed to speak for them. I had accidentally become Black, blacker in fact than that kid, my white classmate, or the host of others who rejected me, ever thought possible.

The Bible is full of rejects speaking up for and leading their people: Moses, David, Peter, Jesus. I am coming to think we’re called to love, strive with and fight for the very people who often reject us. Sounds very Jesusian to me. I have no clue where this thought will take me, but I look forward to the ride.

Who have you felt rejected by? Forgive them.

How can you serve and speak up for them?

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