"You are what you have to defend, because it doesn't matter that I'm 19 percent European, 81 percent African. In America, I have to deal with the problems that black people in America deal with. I have the struggles and challenges that black people in America have."
I'm not sure which was worse, this:
But hey, at least they tried.
Me: "Oh, and at some point, you need to learn the Black National Anthem. But today you can just mouth the word 'watermelon'."
My Husband: "What?"
Me: "My chorus teacher taught us that if we ever forgot the words to a song, to just mouth the word 'watermelon' to make it look like we were still singing."
Hubs: "I'm not doing that. I'm just not going to sing. I don't know the song because I'm not part of 'the nation'."
Me: "Well, you are by marriage. See, why do people have such a hard time stepping outside of their comfort zones? Do you think the Mayor of New York gets on camera and butchers Spanish because he thinks he's Latino or feels some sense of solidarity with Puerto Ricans?! No. He's learned that if you can speak someone else's language or find a sense of connection or common ground, that you have access to that person's life in a way that you might not otherwise have."
Funny how the things I find most useful as an adult have nothing to do with academics or the classroom (like learning the Electric Slide in elementary school and mastering the detection of weed as a Resident Advisor). At the time, I took it for granted, but in hindsight I appreciate learning the Black National Anthem (Lift E'vry Voice and Sing) during my childhood and early adulthood. In college, each of our Black Student Movement meetings opened with the singing of Lift E'vry Voice. Comes in handy during Black History Month and the Martin Luther King Holiday.
Now, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the few people who can get me out of bed before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. And this particular morning my husband and I were heading over the (semi-frozen) Charles River into Cambridge for the 26th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast hosted by the Cambridge Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rather than hold the breakfast during the actual holiday earlier in the month, the Cambridge NAACP chose to hold its breakfast towards the end of January as a way to usher in Black History Month. Although the cab ride was all of five minutes and less than a mile away, the two cities are worlds apart.
As we settled at our table, my husband and I noted that the singing of the Black National Anthem wasn't listed in the program. But I knew that didn't mean a whole lot. And sure enough, after a short processional and the seating of the honored guests, we all rose and the pianist played the musical intro for Lift E'vry Voice. While I'm sure many of the attendees used the time to reflect on the deep meaning of James Weldon Johnson's poetry and the continued struggle for freedom, justice, and equality, I was getting a good laugh. The head table guests were mostly local, elected politicians who happened to be white, and didn't know the words to the song. Some shifted uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact with the crowd by any means necessary, and I'd bet money that at least one was praying "Oh God please let them only sing the first verse and not all three!"
Earlier, when I insisted that my husband learn the Black National Anthem, I found it difficult to articulate a thought better suited for first-hand experience. As we prepared to leave a friend's home after a dinner party, we met a another guest--a young woman--who happened to be Nigerian. My husband loves the reaction he gets from other Nigerians when he tells them about his "Nigerian roots" (i.e. ME and my family), so we chatted for a bit, answering her questions about how long we'd been married, what our wedding and reception was like, etc. After about ten minutes I could tell she was in utter shock and disbelief that this white dude in Boston was telling her about his engagement ceremony, the few words of Yoruba (like three) he speaks and understands, how he prostrates to his in-laws, and eats pounded yam WITH HIS HANDS. And by the end of the night, my husband had earned yet another nickname: "The White Nigerian." The point I was trying to make earlier that morning wasn't that if my husband learned the Black National Anthem that he'd suddenly reach racial nirvana and become this enlightened individual with "street cred." Rather, I was thinking about the power of challenging assumptions. For whatever reason, when we connect with others in the ways they least expect, little by little, the walls begin to come down.