Oh hell naw!
Working at the supermarket was an adventure. I went there every day after school on nights when I didn’t have rehearsals for a school play. I was in two productions per year, one musical and one drama. Although it took me a while to build up the self-awareness I needed to pull it off, I had grown a natural talent for acting. I loved being on stage. Unfortunately, I allowed a bad experience in college to derail me from my dreams of becoming an actor.
I tried out for a play in college. I was going for the leading man. He was the boyfriend of the main character. I don’t remember the name of the play. It was set in America’s olden times. The family was wealthy because they had two servants who were in the play for comic relief and to offer sage advice to the main character. The director was a large white woman. After the audition, she pulled me aside and showered me with praise. “I definitely want to cast you. You have a natural gift.” She said. I was very happy to hear that news. I really wanted to be in the play and continue the work I had started in high school. She went on to say, “I don’t think you can play the lead. He is the romantic interest of the main character. People here don’t want to see an interracial relationship.” The actress chosen for the lead was white, of course. “I would really like for you to play the part of the servant. You would be perfect in that role.”
In my mind I could hear a voice screaming, “Oh hell naw! I know she didn’t just say what I think she said.” I sat dumbfounded and wondered how the world could be like that. I refused the role and left the theater hard broken and angry. For a short time after that, I was harassed by a guy at school who accused me of thinking, “I was too good for the part”. That made me wonder if he had talked to the director, who was probably not happy she had lost her black servant. Eventually, they convinced another black kid named Marcus to do it. The female servant was done in blackface. When I saw the play, I nearly screamed out in a blind fury. It was appalling and no one seemed to notice but me. I couldn’t believe that Marcus couldn’t feel anything wrong with the picture. I never tried out for another play again. This memory is why I can’t stand it when people call me Marcus.
Because I had grown up in an all-black neighborhood, I didn’t really understand racism. I had heard about it from adults, but I never really experienced it or recognized it when it happened. If I look on my life in hindsight, I can see there were a couple of moments. Like the time I stood up for an old lady on the bus and accidently snagged her stocking with my bag. She looked angry and said, “This never would have happened if you had stood up from the beginning like your people are supposed to do.” It was a comment my elementary school mind could not fathom. I didn’t know what she meant by “like your people are supposed to.” Did she mean young people? In my mind I was doing a good deed. Sure, I snagged her stocking but it wasn’t my fault. My younger brother and sister, who were on the bus with me, went straight home and reported the incident to my mother who was infuriated by it. “Don’t you ever let a white person treat you that way again.” Is the phrase she shouted over and over again as she beat me without mercy. It would take 10 – 15 years for me to me able to make sense of it. I had heard of the lynching, public humiliation, and violence visited upon black people for no reason. It seemed like a million years ago like the fall of the Roman Empire or the time a Pharaoh freed the Israelites.
There were also moments at my elementary school. I went to a catholic school that was set up by the dioceses as a social experiment. They wanted to offer a catholic school education to the poorest citizens of Cleveland. There were always one or two teachers who seemed extra angry all the time, as if they really didn’t want to be there. All of the teachers were white except for one, Mrs. Banks. If there was another, I don’t remember that person. There was one nun who we used to call Mad Dog Madeline. She seemed particularly unhappy to be posted at St. Joseph Franciscan. Every day she would take her malcontent out on the students. I was one of the quite ones and even my desk was flipped over by her a few times. I thought she was just a grumpy lady, but I now wonder if she was just upset at being forced to deal with black kids from the projects. A couple of the teachers seemed to have that aura.
My first taste of racism that I could recognize came to me when I left my all black upbringing to go work at the supermarket. I can’t count the number of times I have walked into the back room and accidently interrupted a horribly racists black joke. There would be an awkward silence then someone would say, “Of course we don’t mean you! We mean those other black people. You are cool.” It never took the sting away. Eventually I had grown numb to it. Black and white staff used to openly mock each other’s race then laugh out loud about it as they worked side by side to make sure the shelves were stocked.
The supermarket was situated squarely in white territory, but customers from all walks of life came to shop there. The regulars had become a community. To them I was a therapist, a companion, and good helper. I would take care of Mrs. Brown by putting an extra apple in the bag or help old man Polkowski by carrying his groceries to his house. One day, I was walking home from work when I saw a gang of white dudes I knew. The leader was a notorious bad bay. His sister and I worked together at the supermarket. For whatever reason he had taken a liking to me. He and his gang stopped to say hello and chat a while. While we were talking, a man screeched his car to a halt, brandished a pistol, and shouted, “Is everything alright!” I immediately recognized him as one of the regular customers at the supermarket. He was a white guy in his 50s. I told him it was ok and that I knew the guys. “Alright now. I was just checking on you. Be careful out here now.” He and his pistol got back in the car and drove away. My friend’s brother and his gangs laughed it off and said their goodbyes as we each headed home in opposite directions.