When I was in first grade, I first learned my place in the world. Kindergarten had been great. I still remember the first day, with my mother taking me to Alta Loma elementary school, and asking the nice lady if she would “watch” me for a little while. It was all singing and playing and eating graham crackers and drinking juice from paper cups and taking naps.
But in first grade things changed. We were a diverse group: black and white and Asian and probably some Latino kids as well. Everyone had been together in kindergarten. But when we hit first grade, they separated us into different reading groups. Now note: we had never read in class. THE TEACHER USED HER OWN JUDGEMENT. There were two basic groups, and I got the impression pretty fast that one was “fast” and one was “slow.” My older sister had taught me to read (my very first book was “The Five Chinese Brothers” and I still love it) at a third grade level before I was in Kindergarten, so I KNEW I was bad. They put me in “group one”. I noticed that the white and Asian kids s were in Group II, and then my friend Howard Kokubun went there too. I kinda chuckled. Howard was in the slow group? Man, they had mis-judged HIM. I knew that: he was sharp, probably sharper than me. I chuckled, but didn’t really pay attention to it until they actually had us read.
I noticed that some of the other kids in my group seemed to stumble over their reading. Hmmm. Then it was my turn, and I nailed it. The teacher looked flushed, and embarrassed, and plucked me out of that group and put me with the white kids.
And…I understood. In that moment, in first grade, I got it. They had looked at my skin and ASSUMED I was dumb. Sure, I had earned my way out, because of the love of my sister and the care of a mother who sold World Book Encyclopedia so that we could have a new set of Childcraft every year.
But without that…
And it hit me: the white kids were assumed to be smart. It was theirs to lose. The black kids had to PROVE they were smart. It was uphill. I felt the anger swell inside me, the hurt. The voice that said “screw them. I won’t even try…”
And knew that that would be the worst, most poisonous thing I could do. I remember feeling hurt, and angry. And confused. Like I’d been punched in the stomach by someone I trusted.
Didn’t they see me? Didn’t they love me? I loved THEM. Was something so wrong with me that they ASSUMED I was broken, was less than?
Yes, the teacher was white. But I never held it against her. Even then, six years old, I somehow knew that people were doing the best they could.
At that moment, I learned about race. And began to see its influence in many places, although my mother did all she could to protect me. And I realized that I could live my life in anger and fear, or I could find some way to run toward the things I loved. If the society around me could not see me…I had to see myself.
No, not in those words. That would have been pretty cool for a little kid. But looking back, I realize that was just what I did. God bless my mother, who sacrificed EVERYTHING to give me a foundation of love in my life. I LOVED MYSELF. And therefore, no one could tear me down. The entire world could stand against me, but if Mommy loved me, and Joyce loved me, and God loved me, and I loved myself…then in the final analysis nothing another human being said mattered a damn.
I determine who I am.
I was a happy kid, mostly. I loved poetry, and adventure novels, and writing, and being goofy. Hanging out with my Mom and sister Joyce, and fantasizing about a wonderful life…one day.
But I had a secret shame: I was bullied. It wasn’t like I got broken bones and torn skin. Mom would have seen those things. I was mocked for my strange way of thinking, for being unathletic and soft, for being clumsy with girls and a poor dancer, for being someone others could step on as they climbed the social ladder. Boys and girls BOTH — make no mistake. In no uncertain terms was I informed, daily, that I wasn’t “one of the guys” and that I was totally unattractive to the girls.
I just kept going forward, too involved with daily survival to worry about the future. Consciously. But the dissatisfaction, the fear, the anxiety about what might come for me as I grew older gnawed at me savagely. On some level, I knew that this very uncertainty would make things even worse, so like many other kids, I walled it up.
And there…it might have remained. It really might. I know so many people who have walled off their emotions to the point that they cannot feel their own hearts and bodies, and simply live “the life of the mind”…until one day something falls apart, blows apart, and they wonder what happened.
I have no doubt why I liked monster movies. Or love them to this day. There is definitely a part of me that wanted an avenging werewolf of an inner demon to emerge and wreck vengeance on the people who hurt and isolated me.
I could take no comfort in a larger sense of the culture cheering me on. When I watched the kinds of movies or read the kinds of books that spoke of virile manhood, the heroes NEVER looked like me, and when there WAS a character who looked like me…he was servile, stupid, cowardly. Died protecting his white friends. Never got the girl. Was generally an eye-rolling Mantan Moreland or Steppin Fetchitt.
It wasn’t me. Somehow, I knew that, and never let the insult stop me from supping at the fountain. As a fatherless boy raised by women I NEEDED those memes. I’ve put it this way: I sacrificed my melanin on the altar of my testosterone. I peeled my skin off to let the lessons in. It cost me. Dearly.
Who was I in respect to men? I didn’t know. Women? I didn’t know. Black people? I didn’t know. White people? I didn’t know. Other children? Bare understanding. Adults? I knew NOTHING about how I was going to leverage myself into the adult world. How was I going to make a living one day? Find love? Raise a family?
No slightest idea. Robbed of any sense of myself as a male, I decided to try just being a human being. I figured that if I went deeply enough into my humanity, I would emerge being whatever it was I really was. And since I had dangly bits, I figured that would be a part of the package.
So I burrowed into my heart, and used science fiction, and horror, and adventure fantasies to bridge the gap between where I was and what I’d need to be to survive. If I could just get deep enough…maybe no one would find me until I was ready to emerge from my cocoon and fly. If I ever emerged.
I did, in time. Because although I grasped the attitude the culture had about me, I never lost my sense that people were basically good, basically decent. If I wanted to be forgiven for my own weaknesses and transgressions, I had to be prepared to see the heart behind apparently heartless actions
Meditation, martial arts, love, therapy…all of it tied together to help me survive.
But SF and Horror were always a part of it. They allowed me to externalize my fears and doubts, and personify them in a single lurching golem, a wave of flesh-munching zombies, a seductive vampire, a rampaging giant dinosaur. It helped. I could identify with the heroes and cheer in their survival.
And if I noticed that people who looked like me died more often, and often first, and even more irritatingly died to protect their white friends…?
Sometimes I identified with the monster. When those white kids were being chased in the woods, I have to confess that sometimes I wore the mask. I wielded the chainsaw. If I could not be a child of heaven, I would reign in hell.
Now THAT was a road you don’t to travel very far. And I didn’t. But I’d be lying if I denied it was true.
Remember what I said about sacrifice? I shut my heart to the exclusion and insult, and soldiered on.
Then one day in 1972 a movie called “Blacula” opened. It was cheesy, and campy, but…William Marshall’s performance was one of great dignity and leashed pain. Carrying the burden of his awful appetites and almost incalculable loss, his wounded eyes revealed a soul I’d never seen on film. And if the sets and camera work were cheap…you could FEEL the excitement baking off that movie. The people making it were EXCITED. It was made with love, and pride, a simple meal rendered from simple ingredients, and served to a starving audience with style.
I adored it, cheese and all. And saw ever other black genre film that followed: “Abby” and “Ganja and Hess” and many years later “Tales From the Hood” and the wonderful “Get Out.” And I realize that my son, my daughter, are growing up in a world where they will have more of these essential emotional vitamins, a sense that they belong here, that they can fight back against the demons that devil them.
A better world. Not perfect, but better.
I am SO proud of the standing-room-only classes in black horror my darling wife Tananarive teaches at UCLA, and the media attention that has resulted from it. Television, print, radio…the subject of Horror Noire is hot, and the future bright, if “bright” is an appropriate word to use about such a subject.
And when I see that Jordan Peele’s new movie “Us” will open in a month, and feel the excitement arising from it…wow. What a rush. If I had a time-bottle I could put a message in, would I ever send a golden ticket back to that frightened boy I was, just learning about the real nature of the culture he lived in. Not just telling him that things would change, but that he would be a PART of that change. That the world would not only be better, but that the very pain he experienced would motivate him to create, and teach, and help roll that stone up the hill. Not alone, certainly. Not even the strongest shoulder.
But that pain was not for nothing. The FEAR was not for nothing.
Properly handled…it never is.