If you’ve never watched the Norman Lear documentary Just Another Version of You, I recommend you put it in your queue and, during your copious spare time while we’re still quarantining, make time for it. If you don’t know who Norman Lear is, you’ve likely been impacted by his work, one way or another, directly or indirectly, perhaps unconsciously.
Lear was arguably one of the greatest television writing, producing, directing minds of all time. He’s been honored at the Kennedy Center. He’s written books. He’s won four Emmy awards and has his own Hollywood star. Not that any of these things is a true measure of excellence. Let’s just say I believe he’s worthy of all the praise that has come his way.
I grew up on many of his shows. The Jeffersons. Good Times. All in the Family. The Facts of Life. Sanford and Son. Maude and its future spinoff, The Golden Girls, were a little bit out of my wheelhouse, but I’m still familiar. The list goes on.
At the same time, as a kid growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was watching The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, Different Strokes, Silver Spoons, Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch, Gilligan’s Island, MASH, CHiPs, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Knight Rider. Caught a little Bewitched with Darren the ad guy. Never really got down with The Partridge Family, Green Acres, or Dennis the Menace, but I did catch an episode every now and again.
The Dukes of Hazzard was very much on my radar. I loved me some Bo and Luke Duke. I think most teenage boys would agree Catherine Bach in the role of Daisy Duke was eye-poppingly good. No posters on my walls but she lived vividly in my dreams. She was something special. So special was she, in fact, that there was a song written about her that gained notable popularity. Perhaps you’ve heard it. If not, there’s another late night rabbit hole for you to chase down. You’re welcome.
I loved me some Cooter and Uncle Jesse. Wasn’t a big fan of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane or Boss Hogg. I think that was by design and the bad guy-good guy dynamic was set up that way. But the show? I loved it. Also, at the time, never did take issue with the General Lee. Something about the way that car was decorated elevated it above just another Confederate flag. And, in fact, at that point in my life, I didn’t even know what a Confederate flag was. Had no idea what it represented. To me, it was little more than a fancy car with a nice paint job. And I loved the way those Duke boys climbed into it and muddy-back road-high-speed-chased their way out of each seemingly impossible situation. I loved the way they were always on the right side of the law. And back then, as a kid, while watching, it wasn’t a matter of black vs white. It was a matter of good and bad. And fun or not fun. Even the bad guy characters (Coltrane and Hogg) were laughable and lovable.
Indeed, it was a much simpler time.
Why all of those shows worked then in a way they wouldn’t work now, I can’t completely explain. I think it’s just that the fullness of cultural experiences has changed. Views have expanded and some segments of the population have grown beyond the limitations of what we were once perceived (and allowed) to be. Perhaps we all have.
Why is any of this relevant? What does any of this have to do with anything? It’s all storytelling. In the end, when communicating, whether in a feature-length documentary or in 120 characters, it’s all about the narrative. Over the years, for Black men, other people of color, and other marginalized groups the world over, we’ve lost control of the narrative and for me, personally, it’s time to take it back. How do we even begin to do that?
A friend once told me, perception is reality. What does this mean? In a world full of misinformation and disinformation, there are storylines that get taken as gospel when, in fact, they are a far cry from what we know to be true. Let’s consider recent events. From one side, the perception may be that Black people are riotous thugs setting fire to their own communities because savagery is in their DNA. From the other side, a perception may be that police officers consistently single out innocent Black men going about their business and kill them without mercy for no other reason than the color of their skin.
From another side, perception may be that George Floyd was a multiple-offending criminal who spent his life in and out of prison. From another side, a perception may be that George Floyd was a decent human being who, for various reasons, got caught up in the wrong things due to inequities in the system. None of these things is wholly accurate but each is laced with some semblance (or perception) of the truth. And the key, to me, to moving forward is being objective about all of it. Leading with integrity, and being honest and responsible with the narrative. George Floyd was not a martyr. George Floyd was not a hero. But George Floyd is a symbol, one recognized globally, now eternally linked with the lifelong pursuit of justice for all people.
When I step out my front door everyday, do I feel like I’m being hunted? I do not.
Have I ever felt unfairly judged? I have.
Have these judgments toward me come from various communities (Black, White, Asian, Latino)? They have.
Do I then dismiss all people who fit within or identify as members of those communities? I do not.
Yes, members of the Black community—a community to which I belong—judge me. I’ve heard the same from friends who, by default, belong to the Asian community, the Latino community, the Black community, and, yes, the White community.
I’ve been judged for being too black.
I’ve been judged for being too white.
People have not often used the term “Oreo” to describe me (to my face, anyway) but the term does exist and, in its simplest form, it means black on the outside and white on the inside. Friends have shared other similar terms used within their respective communities. Banana. Twinkie. Coconut. Basically, what I’ve learned over time is that you simply have to be who you are. As they say, to thine own self be true.
As for the name-calling and the labeling? That may never go away. It comes down to things that people can say to help them feel better about themselves or navigate their own insecurities. Kids grow up throwing stones. As adults, we should know better and steer them (and ourselves) in a more benevolent direction.
Certain narratives handled irresponsibly, left alone, or taken at face value are dangerous. They perpetuate stereotypes and keep us from truly knowing people. They give us a false sense of understanding. They connect us with an archetypal version of an idea of what someone is or should be vs an actual living, breathing human being.
There is no single narrative to be crafted or shared to correct the many false ones out there. Let’s start with what some of those ill-fitting ones might be. Black men are criminals. Black men are more predisposed to violence. Black men are consistently up to no good. Black men are notably absent from the home. There may be a modicum of truth to some of these storylines but, overwhelmingly, they don’t apply to most of the Black men I know. Likewise, there are also plenty of examples of Black men being standup members of society and, in the moment, those get lost, overshadowed, or forgotten.
I suppose it’s not a single narrative that needs addressing. As I examine the events of my life, there are a lot of them—emanating from and maintained within several communities—that need to be addressed head-on.
For those of you who don’t know, there’s this thing called the One Drop Rule. As it goes, if you have one drop of Black blood, you’re Black. Not sure how much that applies in today’s world but I grew up hearing and understanding it. Recently, in my own sphere, I’ve decided the same logic should apply to all the things we do. Much of the burden of guilt gets laid on White people but, truth be told, there is much work to be done within our own community. Black people often put limits on themselves not imposed by others. Our talents are many and we are omnipresent.
For me, it’s this simple. If one of us does it, we do it. That applies to skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, hockey, swimming, scuba diving, and anything else notoriously off-limits. Camping, golf, gymnastics, tennis. We have a presence in all of these places. It may not be a big one but it’s a presence nonetheless, and that’s how it starts. That wasn’t always the case—that we could function in these spaces—and, for that progress, I am thankful. These false narratives about all of the things that we don’t do are not only inaccurate, they’re damaging and working counter to the messages of hope and inspiration that young people of color and all young people need to hear. I encourage us all to do better.
For decades, I’ve been held captive by the limits others have projected onto me, or at least I’ve felt as though I could never be my whole self. And now, it seems the dam has broken and the waters of expanding our minds have come rushing in. For the first time in my life, as sad as that may seem, it is wholly liberating that I am able to claim my own personal version of Blackness unapologetically. Speaking with clarity and enunciation, having friends of all stripes, participating actively in sports or areas where we may typically not see ourselves, listening to Jack Johnson, James Taylor, Radiohead, or Martin Sexton—none of these things makes me more white.
They simply make me more.
I encourage all of us to live our lives and try as many things as we can, minus the shaming of peers and self-loathing that often comes along with it. There will always be critics. There will always be someone who takes issue with how you choose to live your life. But your life is the narrative that others need to know. Your narrative is what helps us move forward.
Your narrative is the truest version of the truth.
Bias is everywhere, even deep within us. And that’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. We can’t eliminate it. All we can do is work hard to fight the presumption that all of our experiences are the same. It’s ingrained in us as humans and, based upon the little bit of information we’re given at the moment of contact, we default to what we think we know.
To me, two of the most important ingredients in narrative storytelling are context and objectivity. And perhaps one of the reasons why Norman Lear’s wildly successful TV shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s might not work in the same way today is because our context has changed drastically. And while drugs, stealing, abusive parents, adultery all made for great ratings then as they do now, they don’t help dispel the myths. The stories of success, promise, positive outcomes, and optimism which we rarely see are, by and large, far less interesting than those of corruption, tumult, and adversity. The mundane makings of real life pale in comparison to the allure of fiction. You get no argument from me there. By comparison to all the on-screen melodrama, my life is boredom personified.
All I can say is, in an effort to take back the narrative, this is my Black experience. There is no universally shared Black experience. I may not speak for all Black people. Beyond myself, I may not speak for any Black people.
At the very beginning of my narrative, I open with this: There is no need to be afraid. There is nothing we can’t peacefully discuss. If we’d simply look for it, we’d discover a wide expanse of common ground. Even though we may not look alike, dress alike, sound alike, think alike, act alike, Norman Lear said it best.
I’m just another version of you.
Photo courtesy of Memo Garza