I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant. TV, movies, the radio; those were the places to start. Pop culture was colour-coded, after all, an arcade of images from which you could cop a walk, a talk, a step, a style. I couldn’t croon like Marvin Gaye, but I could learn to dance all the Soul Train steps. I couldn’t pack a gun like Shaft or Superfly, but I could sure enough curse like Richard Pryor.
And I could play basketball, with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent. My father’s Christmas gift of a basketball [he had visited briefly when Obama was 10] had come at a time when the University of Hawaii basketball team had slipped into the national rankings on the strength of an all-black starting five that the school had shipped in from the mainland. That same spring Gramps had taken me to one of their games, and I had watched the players in warm-ups, still boys themselves but to me poised and confident warriors, glancing over the heads of fawning fans to wink at the girls on the sidelines, casually flipping layups or tossing high-arcing jumpers until the whistle blew and the centres jumped and the players joined in furious battle.
I decided to become part of that world and began going to a playground near my grandparents’ apartment after school. By the time I reached high school [from age 14] I was playing on Punahou’s teams and could take my game to the university courts, where a handful of black men, mostly gym rats and has-beens, would teach me an attitude that didn’t just have to do with the sport. That respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was. That you didn’t let anyone sneak up behind you to see emotions – such as hurt or fear – you didn’t want them to see. My wife will roll her eyes about now. She grew up with a basketball star for a brother and when she wants to wind either of us up she will insist that she’d rather see her son play the cello. She’s right, of course; I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood.
At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.
“That’s just how white folks will do you,” one of them might say when we were alone. Everybody would chuckle, and my mind would run down a ledger of slights: the first boy, in seventh grade, who called me a coon; his tears of surprise (“Why’dya do that?”) when I gave him a bloody nose. The tennis pro who told me that I shouldn’t touch the schedule of matches pinned to the bulletin board because my colour might rub off; his thin-lipped, red-faced smile – “Can’t you take a joke?” – when I threatened to report him.
That’s just how white folks will do you. It wasn’t merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn’t know that they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn. White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a nonnative speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot [his grandmother] would come in to say that she was going to sleep, and those same words – white folks – would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.
Later, when I was alone, I would try to untangle these difficult thoughts. It was obvious that certain whites could be exempted from the general category of our distrust: Ray was always telling me how cool my grandparents were. The term white was simply a shorthand for him, I decided, a tag for what my mother would call a bigot. And although I recognised the risks in his terminology – Ray assured me that we would never talk about whites as whites in front of whites without knowing exactly what we were doing. Without knowing that there might be a price to pay. But was that right? Was there still a price to pay? That was the complicated part, the thing that Ray and I never could seem to agree on.
There were times when I would listen to him tell some blonde girl he’d just met about life on LA’s mean streets, or hear him explain the scars of racism to some eager young teacher, and I could swear that just beneath the sober expression Ray was winking at me, letting me in on the score. Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure. Sometimes, after one of his performances, I would question his judgment, if not his sincerity. We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in Hawaii. We said what we pleased, ate where we pleased; we sat at the front of the bus. None of our white friends, guys like Jeff or Scott from the basketball team, treated us any differently than they treated each other. They loved us and we loved them back. Shit, seemed like half of ’em wanted to be black themselves – or at least Doctor J.
Well, that’s true, Ray would admit. Maybe we could afford to give the bad-assed-nigger pose a rest. Save it for when we really needed it. And Ray would shake his head. A pose, huh? Speak for your self.
One day in spring Ray and I met up after class and began walking to the stone bench that circled a big banyan tree on Punahou’s campus. It was called the Senior Bench, but it served mainly as a gathering place for the high school’s popular crowd, the jocks and cheerleaders and party-going set, with their jesters, attendants, and ladies-in-waiting jostling for position on the circular steps.
One of the seniors, a stout defensive tackle named Kurt, was there, and he shouted loudly as soon as he saw us. “Hey, Ray! Mah main man! What’s happenin’!” Ray went up and slapped Kurt’s outstretched palm. But when Kurt repeated the gesture to me, I waved him off. “What’s his problem?” I heard Kurt say to Ray as I walked away. A few minutes later, Ray caught up with me and asked me what was wrong. “Man, those folks are just making fun of us,” I said.
“What’re you talking about?”
“All that ‘Yo baby, give me five’ bullshit.”
“So who’s Mister Sensitive all of a sudden? Kurt don’t mean nothing.”
“If that’s what you think, then hey . . .”
Ray’s face suddenly glistened with anger. “Look,” he said, “I’m just getting along, all right? Just like I see you getting along, talking your game with the teachers when you need them to do you a favour. All that stuff about ‘Yes, Miss Snooty Bitch, I just find this novel so engaging, if I can just have one more day for that paper, I’ll kiss your white ass’. It’s their world, all right? They own it, and we in it. So just get the f*** outta my face.”
By the next day, the heat of our argument had dissipated, and Ray suggested that I invite our friends Jeff and Scott to a party that Ray was throwing out at his house that weekend. I hesitated for a moment – we had never brought white friends to a black party – but Ray insisted, and I couldn’t find a good reason to object. Neither could Jeff or Scott; they both agreed to come so long as I was willing to drive. So that Saturday night, after one of our games, the three of us piled into Gramps’s old Ford Granada and rattled out to Schofield Barracks, maybe 30 miles out of town.
When we arrived the party was well on its way, and we steered ourselves toward the refreshments. The presence of Jeff and Scott seemed to make no waves; Ray introduced them around the room, they made some small talk, took a couple of the girls out on the dance floor. But I could see that the scene had taken my white friends by surprise. They kept smiling a lot. They huddled together in a corner. After maybe an hour, they asked me if I’d be willing to take them home.
“What’s the matter?” Ray shouted over the music when I went to let him know we were leaving. “Things just starting to heat up.”
“They’re not into it, I guess.” Our eyes met, and for a long stretch we just stood there, the noise and laughter pulsing around us.
In the car, Jeff put an arm on my shoulder, looking at once contrite and relieved. “You know, man,” he said, “that really taught me something. I mean, I can see how it must be tough for you and Ray sometimes, at school parties . . . being the only black guys and all.”
I snorted. “Yeah. Right.” A part of me wanted to punch him right there.
We started down the road toward town, and in the silence, my mind began to rework Ray’s words that day with Kurt, all the discussions we had had before that, the events of that night. And by the time I had dropped my friends off, I had begun to see a new map of the world, one that was frightening in its simplicity, suffocating in its implications. We were always playing on the white man’s court, Ray had told me, by the white man’s rules. Whatever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you, because it preceded and would outlast his individual motives and inclinations, any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning.
In fact, you couldn’t even be sure that everything you had assumed to be an expression of your black, unfettered self – the humour, the song, the behind-the-back pass – had been freely chosen by you. At best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap.
Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.