Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Dream of Authenticity

Thanks to Jaime Zepeda for his poignant "The Oakland Diss."  Growing up in Oakland is an exercise in fielding criticisms and soothing people's fears.  I've heard similar things from people who grew up in the Caribbean, Louisiana, and West Africa.  

Sylvia A. Harvey (an “Oakland Native and NY Transplant”) asked a great question in the comments on my story "Oakland, Gentrification, and the Hunt for Cool":

You mentioned the recent riots in London, but even that eruption…will it get us what we’re looking for or will we be further demonized?

I’m not sure what Ms. Harvey meant when she said “us” in that comment.  I’ve been pondering over it for a minute.  She could mean “us brown and black folks,” or “us folks from the hood.”  And, if she meant either of those phrases, was she including me in them?  If so, why?

I’ve asked myself questions like these, wondering which people are "my people," since the age of seven, when I moved into an apartment in North Oakland, just a few steps away from, among other things, a drug rehabilitation center for teenagers, a public high school (my alma mater), a nursing home, an upper-crust elementary school (my alma mater and that of celebrity kids like Michael Pollan’s boy), and, now, a very popular restaurant that sells only macaroni and cheese.  There was also, it’s rumored, an abortion clinic that was torched by a wayward young survivalist like the one who shot at the police last year near the MacArthur Maze.

So there was a lot of…slippage, if you like, in this particular spot.  It was not necessarily "racially integrated" or "diverse" in any systemic way, but it was definitely a hodgepodge, and that was positive.  I remember people playing Zapp and Roger at full blast outside my house when I was growing up, sparking my love of the synthesizer drum.  If I took the 51 bus home from school (when I was going to middle school in Berkeley), I’d be mostly with Cal students and white people.  And if I took the 40 or 40L bus down Telegraph, going parallel to the 51, I was completely surrounded by black people.

It was the most bizarre thing.  I actually liked the 40 better, because the people were less noisy and there was less traffic.  People said thank you to the bus driver. 

For most of my childhood I had fostered, mindlessly, a resentment toward black people, believing, with all the common sense of a child raised in the “post-crime” Clinton Beanie Baby Years, that black people were the cause, origin and final destination of all crime, all the time.  I feared, resented, and wish I was Blackness.  Like probably most young boys, I idolized rappers and wished that I could be as feared as they appeared to be.  It seemed like the darker-skinned rappers, like DMX, the Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac Shakur, were the most feared, the baddest men of them all.  

My little mind corroborated this “insight” with the incident I saw one night on the grand front steps of the Scottish Rite Center, as I sang as a choir boy in the yearly Christmas Revels, headlined by the buffoon Geoff Hoyle.  I remember my face was hot with makeup, designed to reflect the scorching-hot stage spotlights, and I heard a woman screaming outside, across the street from Lake Merritt.  I stepped into the doorway and saw two men, of dark complexion, running away past me.  She was screaming like they’d taken her dignity itself. 

I don't understand why she was chasing them, still.  Maybe it's the same reason I was chasing them?  Chasing some kind of dream of authenticity.

The dream of authenticity appears, to 'white folks,' as the antidote to the dream of safety which is, Baldwin wrote, 'Death within life.'  White people seek out 'authentic experiences' (Cf. Grizzly Man and Into the Wild) as a means of counteracting the will-destroying, soul-crushing doldrums that are side-effects of the kind of surgery effected by the 'suburban lifestyle,' which is marked by the use of automobiles for every life task and a constant sense of where-are-my-keys paranoia over things like "crime," "privacy," and "preparedness."  Of course one should be prepared, but there is no boundary between life and death: souls pass into the air every moment with every spin of the earth, and that's part of life.  Ultimately one does not prepare oneself to save lives, but to make one's own life happy, prosperous, and, most of all, enjoyable, by living in the midst of bounty with gratitude.