As if any trait can be attributed to a single race, and not allowed for another.
I blew it. I was at the tail-end of my weekend trip to NYC with my daughter Leni and her friend Grete. We were there to celebrate Leni’s 13th birthday. Never mind I had no business even going to the city since I am flat broke, and here is the shopping spreadsheet Grete studiously drafted, so you can see I was in big trouble before we even hit their starting point: Fifth Avenue.
Yes I had fun being a fly on the wall while the girls ooohed and ahhhed their way through window shopping at Chanel, FAO Schwartz, and TopShop. More fun for me of course was gorging myself on NYC eats–this time with the focus on sugar. Violet macarons from Laduree, Jacques Torres chocolates, and the Bea Arthur specialty cone (vanilla soft-serve, dulce de leche, and ‘nilla wafer crumbs) at Big Gay Ice Cream. These girls know how to live. I just followed their lead.
We had just finished our last sweet run Sunday morning, a glazed apple cinnamon doughnut and delectable chai tea from The Doughnut Plant, and headed three blocks west to the High-Line, the westside NYC park created atop old train rail tracks. From there we were to catch the train back home to Providence from Grand Central.
As soon as we reached the top of the stairs to begin our walk through the narrow park, lo and behold, who do I see walking in our direction–
that’s right, Baratunde Thurston!
Who is Baratunde Thurston, you ask?
Baratunde is a comedian, the former digital director for The Onion, and the author of the book, How To Be Black. (Read my review of the book here.) How To Be Black is a memoir/satire book that weaves together both poignant truths about race as he experiences it, and humorous takes on what it means to be black in America today, with chapters like How To Be the Black Friend, How To Celebrate Black History Month and How To Be The Black Employee. Get the book! As Baratunde says on his website, “If you don’t buy this book, you’re a racist!”
So, as Baratunde gets closer, just ten feet from me, I had that, is it him, is it not him questioning moment, and then decided it was him, and pictured myself in that teeny space of time saying hi, asking him if he was indeed Baratunde, and striking up a conversation with him. But then he was past me, and I turned and looked at his back as he continued to breeze along at a fast pace, out of ear of me telling the girls who just passed us by.
I blew it. I chickened out. I thought too hard. About what I would say. About how flustered I get when I first meet people, especially people I admire. About how hard it is to get the words out of my mouth when it has to do with my own interests. About how I can write these sentiments, but I suck at saying them aloud–to other people. About how that makes me a bad person for not being able to do that.
So, is that a white girl trait? Are white girls/women more self-defeating than black girls/women in the way they feel about themselves? I am reminded of the arts workshop on the definition of beauty I ran with black middle-school girls in Tulsa several years ago, and the seemingly solid sense of self most of the girls displayed. That countered the overwhelming sense of insecurities about weight and appearance that so many white girls I knew growing up seemed to have.
Yet the very answer to this seems to be in reading Baratunde’s book. You can’t say that all black people are funny because Baratunde happens to be a good comedian. You can’t assume black people don’t swim, surf, eat tofu or go camping–all things (except for perhaps the surfing) Baratunde learned and experienced growing up with his mother. I can’t say all black girls have fierce confidence because I remember reading one of the girl’s journals from the beauty workshop, a girl who didn’t want to share her writing aloud, but who expressed some of the same insecurities my white girlfriends worried about.
What would I have gained if I did reach out to Baratunde? It could have been a cool connection. I could have told him about my blog, about my humorous obsession with race and race relations, about how I read his book, and reviewed his book on my blog. The more serious I get about my own writing, the more I desire to connect to other writers. The fact that Baratunde just wrote a book about race, something I am passionate about, made the desire to connect that much stronger. I could have pointed out my muse, Leni, to him, and told him how what she calls my obsession with black people has sparked many conversations about race.
I have to admit that when I first wrote the review of Baratunde’s book on my blog, that I posted a link on his Facebook page to the review, in hopes that he would read it, and perhaps mention it on his blog, and that Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake would get a lot of attention. When I lived in New York I had so many friends who were musicians and artists and designers and there would often be talk about just getting their cd in the hands of the right person, or their art work seen by the right gallery dealer, etc. It seemed like so much weight was put on that kind of networking. I am not that altruistic that I didn’t fantasize about getting attention through writing a review of How To Be Black. But I also, and perhaps this is just one of the perks of getting older, realize there is no magic bullet.
In that space of time that I hoped to have the courage to reach out to Baratunde, I didn’t believe I would become a star if I did. I just wished for once I wouldn’t have feared being a fumbling idiot, and that I would have connected and shared with him, because we were two people who cared about some of the same things. And, funny thing is, if I had done that, I would have thought I was the greatest, kick-ass confident woman yesterday, and perhaps that is an extreme, too. Perhaps, I shouldn’t be down on myself for not reaching out, and shouldn’t think I’m the heroine supreme when I do. That way I can keep my cool like a white girl should.
And, maybe, it wasn’t even him. But, I know in the bottom of my How To Be Black reading soul, that it was.