Under the Overpass: Ethnic External Validation

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentary.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, we’ve been sitting in a cypher philosophizing about soul. The soul in Phillips Bar-B-Que sauce caressing a stingy rib. The way Tupac spit, “Come with me/Hail Mary/run quick see.” Fat Luther Vandross. The conviction of Peter J. Harris’ line, “Put down your gun, pick up your baby.” The acute angle of my mama’s hand-on-hip arm when checking the salty neighbor, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool you.” Pre-rehab Jodeci. Horace Silver’s right hand. LeBron James going home. Lower case bell hooks. Barbara Christian on my case. The opening bars of Contrane’s “Blue Train.” Al Green.

African-descended people don’t own the patent on soul. I know some white folk who got plenty. Some African-American folk who came up short. But there is enough socio-cultural evidence to suggest that African-American people are the spirit of soul. Or to get SAT with it: African-American is to soul as navy bean is to bean pie.

Well, if we’ve got so much soul, if we’ve got so much full, rich humanity, why does it seem like so many of us are looking for white folk to affirm our humanity? To affirm our nomenclature and coiffure. Why do we look to European-Americans to tell us which music is classical and classic? Which hand shake is appropriate among African-American folk, even when no white folk are around?

When I was an incoming freshmen in my super-competitive undergraduate institution, African-American faculty, staff and administrators convened an academic version of Scared Straight. They opened the meeting by having the 50 of us students form a large circle. One of the administrators stepped into the circle and fiercely informed us that the attrition rate at the university was 88 percent for African-American students, meaning of 100 African American students admitted, only 12 percent graduated. Then he said, “Look to your left, look to your right and look inside your soul. Of you three, two of you will not make it to graduation, one of you will not make it past your first year.”

I was scared straight to the library.

The experience was so moving for me (because that first year I saw African-American students dropping like an iPhone 4 without an OtterBox), that I walked the freshman dorms at the start of my sophomore year, talking to African-American students about study strategies and the various academic services available to them. I knocked on an open door of an African-American freshman (most freshman dorm rooms are open the first week of class because the new students are trying to meet people) and introduced myself, and explained what I was doing. When he invited me in to chat, I reached out to give him a brotherly “soul handshake.” He repositioned my sliding, angled, hand into a 90 degreed, up and down, Mr. Bob Dobalina special and literally took a giant step back, like I was handing him the wrong end of a dukey-stick, and the following conversation unfolded:

“I only shake hands the correct way.”
“Who determines the correct way to shake hands?”
“There’s just a right way and a wrong way to shake hands.”
“What makes a soul shake wrong?”
“It’s not professional.”
“Are we in a professional setting or did I just casually come in here to put you up on game about how to thrive on campus?”
“It’s a casual setting but you never know who might be around, so I like to just shake hands the correct way.”
“There goes that word again.”

As we continued to speak, the African-American freshman eventually copped to the fact that white folk define what is correct behavior and he was rolling with them. I was not surprised to hear this perspective. I had encountered it before in the lives of others —- and in my own life —- but it still hurt to hear the passion with which he embraced this ideology.

What hurt more was that he was implementing this “white-is-right” ideology even though we were alone in his dorm room. He was self-policing in case a white person happened to walk by his open door and catch him in an illicit soul shake. Non-right-angled hands and fingers sliding sideways across a palm and curving into finger popping release—snap! Like Sir Nose wouldn’t dance, Dobalina Brown wouldn’t snap. Even though it was clear that I came into his room in the brotherly spirit of love, support and assistance. To curve, slide and snap his fingers would have gotten him in trouble—with the white folk—in his mind.

The African-American freshman was seeking white affirmation for his behavior in their absence. It was hard to witness this phenomena in action. Worse, to be party to it. The African-American freshman’s desire to have his humanity affirmed by white folk turned my loving African-American brotherly gesture into something that was wrong. Something that he had to take a giant step back from. I was the Boogie Man with snapping fingers. His inner Dobalina said I was wrong, so by George, it must be so.

“I only shake hands the correct way.”

In junior high school, I got bused to a white magnet school across town. I was like, “Damn, yall living like this?” I started to become aware of patterns in the world around. I became aware of power. Before this time, I was conscious of the fact that African-American people seemed to be treated differently than non-African Americans, but I didn’t start connecting the ink spots until junior high. I began to watch the news (and not just the 5 minutes of sports on the news). It didn’t take long to make the following assessment: white people run everything.

White people have power.

It was as if someone had pulled the dripping California Curl from my eyes. Curl activator-free vision allowed me to see the path that I must take if I, too, wanted power: I had to learn the ways of white folks.

Along with watching the news, I began to read the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Los Angeles Times. I was especially drawn to opinion pieces and editorials. I reasoned that if white folks run everything, the way they’re handling their business must work. White must be right because it sure was working pretty well for them. All the presidents had been white. Almost all of the CEOs of the top corporations were white. The police chiefs. The fire chiefs. The N.B.A owners. The N.F.L. owners. I was like, “Damn, these mugs got everything.” I wanted to break me off some. I was trying to imagine a future path for myself and I wanted that path to be lit by power switches along the way. So I studied. Learned about what seemed to be important to white folk. Imitated their use of language. Their conjugation of the verb “to be.” Tried to figure out the role of the noisy guitar in their music. The right angle of their handshake. I did all of this because I was certain that in order for me to get some power in this world, I was gonna have to deal with white folks.

What saved me from the plight of the African-American Freshman was my first year of college. Sociology 3 with Dr. Harry Edwards. Reading about slavery in my English comp class. Reading history on my own for no class —- just cause a player wanted to know. Getting heavily involved in the South African Divestment movement. Buying a gang of vinyl at Rasputin’s Records. Inhaling the music that I used to hate growing up because my mama played it so much: Al Green, Millie Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Guitar Watson, James Brown, Bobby Blue Bland. And along the way falling oh so very deeply in love with African-American people. Our history. Our style. Our struggle. Our full rich humanity.

The African-American Freshman of this story clearly had not fallen in love with African-American people. Or himself. Bob was spittin too much Dobalina-game in his ear. He is not alone. Among the reasons, why so many African-Americans go outside the self looking for white folks to affirm their humanity, is that they haven’t developed enough love of African-American humanity. Their own history. Their own cultural production. Their own style. When they say, “I do me,” it’s a subjectivity Booty Call; they haven’t taken the time to build the nest, to self-pleasure on the beauty of being African-American and Human. Now, excuse me while I kiss the sky and my African-American soul, here, under the overpass.


  1. JO Bankole Said,

    September 26, 2014 @ 6:52 am

    Nothing says Black American culture better than the hand slap ritual. http://youtu.be/nopWOC4SRm4

  2. Myshell Tabu Said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    Thank you for reading. 🙂