Authenticity–otherwise known as “keepin‘ it real” for those of us whom are Black and into such an idea–is itself a dangerous and disingenuous concept. There’s a big difference between “being yourself,” as the more common saying goes, and “keepin‘ it real,” as Dave Chappelle demonstrated in one of his hilarious skits from his now defunct show a couple of years ago. “Being yourself” requires all of us to trust in ourselves, our abilities, our quirks and ticks, our very nature of living and being. It requires all of us to relax, to be okay with ourselves when others in our lives are less than accepting of the qualities that make us who we are. “Keepin‘ it real” is more like a gettin‘- somethin‘-off-yo’-chest attitude, one that allows us to speak our minds when we’re angry or upset or lustful. It can empower us to take life on in the spirit that others approach us.
But keepin‘ it real doesn’t allow me to relax, to truly be myself. If keepin‘ it real is only about having an I’m-not-taking-no-crap-from-nobody attitude, then it’s not a standard I’d call authentic. Sure, I tend to keep my BS quotient monitor on so that I can sniff out crap in my life. But I don’t think that this is a Black thing, a way to show how Black I truly am. There are roughly 40 million of us in the US, which in my mind leaves us with at least 40 million ways to be Black. Each one of us can listen to hip hop and enjoy country music or hard rock. I can love Zane or Michael Eric Dyson and read Eric Schlosser or Kurt Vonnegut. Most importantly, I can can keep it real by being real with myself, by being who I want to be.
Of course, this isn’t such a problem for me these days unless I decide to hang out at a club (this is rare with a wife and a four-year-old, by the way) or when I talk with someone–Black, White, Latino or otherwise–who thinks that Blacks should sound “Black” all the time. But it was much more of a problem during my Boy At The Window days. It’s hard enough as a tween or teen to figure yourself out without the added pressure of how to be Black by the time you grow up. My refusal to act anymore “Black” than I obviously was made for few Black male friends. For whatever reason, Black women seem more accepting of each other’s quirks than young Black men.
It was a sin for me to listen to music by White groups like Tears for Fears or Wham! (which is playing right now on my iTunes). I sounded “White” because I could say words like “specific” or “pontificate” instead of “pacific” or “preaching” without sounding like I was former NBA star Moses Malone. I wanted to be White because I was part of a gifted-track program while in middle school and high school. I had to hear all of that and much more in the years before college, and to a much lesser extent, during my college years.
It didn’t matter that I was an active member of a Black group on campus at Pitt or that one of my minors was in Black Studies for some. I couldn’t “speak truth to power” as well as others because I sounded too much like the oppressors who were running Pitt. Of course, that all sounded like BS to me. College isn’t something any of us are forced to attend, and while campus leaders were frequently unresponsive to our demands, we sounded so irrational at times that I thought we couldn’t communicate our calls for inclusion and diversity without sounding like we needed rabies shots.
It was in the midst of those PE (Public Enemy) and Michael Bolton (yeah, I went there) times that I realized that I couldn’t live my life well unless I made my own independent and conscious decisions about how to be myself, even if it did mean risking the occasional ridicule among the folks who just wanted to keep it real. I decided that folks weren’t worth putting up with if they didn’t like how I sounded when I opened my mouth or if they thought the way I looked at the world was too White for them.
As for my music, well, that communicated more about who I was and am than almost anything in my life short of my belief in God. I’ve always liked a bit of everything, from The Bee-Gees and Anita Baker to Sugar Hill Gang and Geto Boys, from Billy Joel and Phil Collins to Maxwell and Luther Vandross, and from U2 and The Police to Earth, Wind & Fire and Terrence Trent D’Arby. If anyone went there in more than a mild joking way, that’s likely one of those times where I decided to keep it real.
Obviously this is a theme in Boy At The Window. It’s impossible to understand my transition from Mount Vernon to Pittsburgh, from high school to college and independent living without understanding how I saw myself as a young Black man. This struggle with authenticity was one that absorbed much of my first year and a half at the University of Pittsburgh. I can only say that my conscious decision to see much of this conception of Blackness as BS was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My life would be far less interesting, vanilla even, if I’d decided otherwise.