Mr. Black Man

Conspicuous for race, and for views thereof

I wore my Mister Black Man costume to church the other day. I’ve got this beautiful embroidered dashiki that a friend gave me some years ago. I think she thought I wasn’t black enough. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Some years ago when I took my recent wife and brand-new son to Chicago, I didn’t take them around everywhere I went. I grew up in Chicago, and there were people there I’d known forever whom I wanted to say hello to who were not gonna be happy that I’d married a white woman and was sporting a blue-eyed baby boy. One woman I’d partied with in high school and who had been a friend when I needed one asked me why I had married a white woman. Couldn’t I have found a black woman?

She thought I owed her an answer. I thought so, too, and I said that race wasn’t important to me in any way, which was comfortably simple-minded and true. I recognize that perceptions and expectations around race affect human relationships, including mine. I just don’t give race any more attention than I have to, and that’s usually no attention at all.

Years ago, a job interviewer once asked me if I was most comfortable with a particular cultural group. I said if I had to rank them, I’d have to say I was most comfortable around black people, since that’s who I knew best. Wrong answer. I was expected to be equally at ease with all groups, which seemed like a silly requirement and still does. That’s where tolerance comes in.

I went to school with white people in high school and college and worked with them on most jobs, but other than the occasional drink after work, I socialized mainly with black people and dated only black women. Then I moved to Minnesota, and I haven’t had a black woman in 20 years.

I was in Minnesota two years before I met another black person. I would see one on the street now and then, and sometimes I’d run across black people at summertime events, but the things I did and in which I was interested didn’t cause me to see many black people; they still don’t.

In Chico, there are way fewer black people even than in lily-white Minnesota, for Pete’s sake, so I felt conspicuous in my dashiki at church. I should also say that I had on my black leather kepi with the stripes in liberation colors—red, black and green; I was not only Mister Black Man, I was the Black Man, the Negro. I’ve been the Voice of the Negro at libraries, bookstore signings, and on nonprofit boards. Locally, I’m the Negro in the “Snooze & Review,” way in the back.