“Is he from up north?” My grandmother’s neighbor asked.
Grandma chuckled. “No, he’s from Fort Myers.”
Ilene turned to me. “You must be a college boy, then?”
I smiled. “Yes, ma’am. I’m enrolled in school.”
“I could tell, ” the neighbor said softly.
“–may go into international finance,” I added.
“Oh, my Lord!” she said.
Ilene was the mother of Miguel, a friend since childhood. He lived with his dad in Sabal Palm, the project development where I grew up. As a boy, I noticed adults were more patient with me than with my friends.
Teachers expressed their concern when I missed homework assignments or skipped school. Pastor Doug, the youth children’s pastor at Cornerstone Ministries, often would stop by my house when I missed church on Sundays or Wednesdays. Their efforts drove my efforts to perform and do well.
Miguel never got the same attention. Or my Cousin Sylvester, we used to pick mangoes together as kids.
“…Chazmen McCarter, 10, and Sylvester Gibbs, 10, …sell the mangoes at a stand on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., run by Kids’ deLight, a youth group of Cornerstone Ministries. Five kids belonging to the youth ministry were selling 5 to 10 mangoes for a dollar. The money will be used to set up a fund to help people who cannot afford to purchase their own air conditioners or pay their summer electric bills.” Mark Humes reported in the News Press.
Pastor Doug cut out and framed the photo from the newspaper. Each Sunday, Sylvester and I would admire the photo as it hung in the church hallway.
In school, my black classmates taunted me for my high-pitched voice. The way I dressed and even the music I listened to was uncool black teens. They let me know I didn’t fit in. I didn’t use street slang. They played football. I danced ballet. I listened to Good Charlotte. They rapped along to Lil Wayne. They rocked Jordans and sagged their pants. I sported button downs and khaki linen shorts. My black friends said I was a “white-acting” black. I was the “house nigga.”
And my white friends:
“You speak so well for a black guy!”
“Are you adopted?”
“You are really attractive for a black guy.”
My seventh-grade girlfriend: “You’re black, but you’re not like scary black.”
My white classmates assured me I was almost white. A few seemed to think themselves more black than me because they listened to rap music or said nigga.
When Ms. Moorehead picked me to sing in Soundwave, the high school showchoir, she remarked that my voice was not my best trait: “I like the way you naturally sway to the rhythm of the music,” she said.
When the senior class at Fort Myers High school needed someone to portray Kanye West in the annual Greenie Growl, they had one person in mind: I was the token black guy.
I was the token black guy.
Some friends with whom I used to play “Smear the Queer” with now sell dope on the same block where we used to score touchdowns. They’re proud of me. I’m the black boy who made it out of the hood. My boss back in Fort Myers hired me as the charming black boy who’s almost white. I always smiled, and said, “Yes, ma’am.” “No, ma’am.” She liked that.
She was a Southern lady who also joked about how I was so cute she could lynch me. I was Chazmen the Oreo: brown, almost black, but white on the inside. At age nineteen, I admitted to myself I was gay. That didn’t change my life, all that much. I was now Chazmen the friendly-black-gay-guy Oreo.
Here in DC, life has changed for me. What do I see in the mirror as I brush my hair? A black man who knows how to “white act”? A gay man? A Christian? An American? My mother’s elder son? An escapee from Fort Myers? A writer? A rising star?
My best friend, Christian, works with inner-city kids. “I am,” the tattoo reads upon his wrists. That’s his mantra, and his answer when students ask about his sexuality or identity: I am.
“Be the change!” said Obama. “Change you can believe in.” 2008 was a good year. A black man as president would ring in the Age of Aquarius, a post-racial society.
It doesn’t take Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Alton Sterling or Eric Garner or the recent election to see how well that turned out.
Two big screen TVs. On one, Jill Stein and her fundraiser for the Wisconsin recount. On the other, the Gators score a touchdown. No volume. Perched at Nellies’s, I order a Hefeweizen and plunk down a $10 bill. “Want change?” asked the bartender”
“Yes,” I said.