September 17, 2013

"The Hood"

By CJ Harrington

Claude "CJ" Harrington is a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis. He wrote "The Hood" in response to Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays, by Eula Biss, as part of an annual essay contest sponsored by the university's First Year Reading Program.

I have been asked a lot, “how is it being black?”  To be honest, I never know how to answer this question. It isn’t like I have lived the “normal” black life that is often portrayed on television. I was born and raised in the suburbs. My parents have been married for over 25 years. I have never gone to a public school a day in my life. 

Yet, I know that I am black. Once a day, someone asks if they can feel my hair.  As if on script, the person’s eyes will brighten as their jaw drops declaring how “greasy” my afro is. My friends introduce me to their parents as their “black” friend. The first few questions I am asked in a new encounter is:

  1. Do I play basketball?
  2. Can I dance?
  3. Can I sing?

It is merely a lucky guess that I can do all three. My history teacher, when explaining how when slaves were brought to America via the Middle Passage, white men were astonished at the size of the slaves’ penises causing them to worry about the safety of their daughters, looks at me (the only black kid in the room) and says, “isn’t that right?”

Blacks are killed every day. In my hometown of Indianapolis, there has been a black male killed every day since July 4th to the day where I am typing this sentence (July 15). In each of these shootings, it has been black-on-black murder relating to gang wars.

On February 26, 2012 a black boy died. However, this wasn’t your typical “blackicide.” This young man was walking home in the rain. On his way home, he got into an altercation with a much older Hispanic man and was shot in the chest and died.

In sixth grade, I was called an “Oreo” for the first time. I have been called it or its equivalent by whites and blacks, which suggests that my Caucasian DNA was improperly transcribed, just about every week. A white seventh grader who found out that I listened to alternative music more than rap and that my parents were not divorced like his said that he was “blacker” than I was and I was essentially white.

In sixth grade, I was called an “Oreo” for the first time. I have been called it or its equivalent by whites and blacks, which suggests that my Caucasian DNA was improperly transcribed, just about every week.

The man who shot that 17 year old black boy would later claim that he was attacked. There were scars on the back of his head, which he attributed to having his head thrashed against the sidewalk. Fearing for his life, he pulled his gun out of his side holster (while still being attacked) and killed his assailant. He would later say in an interview that the whole tragic situation was “God’s plan.”

That night, I went home thinking about what my peer had said. I had seen the way my other family members lived and we had it easier than most of them. I had made straight A’s my entire academic career unlike the black children in the grades above and below me. I did listen to alternative music, which is something none of my black peers did. Even in Sunday School at my all-black church, I was deemed the most like Carlton Banks, from the show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (in retrospect, it probably didn’t help that I wore sweater vests every Sunday). I made the judgment that I was letting down my black race. I was conforming too much to the white culture, in which I had been immersed ever since pre-school, and I had to change.

The next week my class was going on a field trip to a nearby park. The night before the trip, I modeled “my new look” for my mom. “Take that hood off your head right now!” she demanded. “You look like a hoodlum.” Unbeknownst to her, that was what I was going for. I was trying to copy the style that my white classmates would wear when we didn’t have to wear uniforms: a hoodie, a chain around the neck, and sagging cargo shorts. After explaining to my mom that this is what the cool kids were doing, she simply said, “You can’t do everything the white kids do. You can’t put a hoodie over your head because it magnifies the stereotype that you’re a thug. Someone may shoot you because of that. Don’t you ever put a hood on your head.” I was pissed at my mom for being so unreasonable and so farfetched. Who could be killed over something as trivial as a hood? 

After explaining to my mom that this is what the cool kids were doing, she simply said, “You can’t do everything the white kids do. You can’t put a hoodie over your head because it magnifies the stereotype that you’re a thug. Someone may shoot you because of that. Don’t you ever put a hood on your head.”

George Zimmerman was the name of the man who shot Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman lived in a neighborhood that had seen many recent burglaries, thus he signed up to be a member of the neighborhood crime watch. On February 26, he saw someone “suspicious” wearing a hoodie and called the police.

The day of the field trip, I wore a baggie Magic Johnson jersey and cargo shorts which I sagged below my butt as soon as I left the house with an NBA chain around my neck. At the park, we played tag and hide and seek and somehow I lost that chain. My teacher asked me where it went and I said that I couldn’t find it. She said, “I wasn’t going to tell you this earlier, but I wish you hadn’t brought that chain and are dressing the way you dress. You’re turning into something you’re not.  You’re not like your classmates. You’re smarter, nicer, more mature, and have a brighter future. Don’t get caught up in their chains and hoodies. They’ll come off eventually.”

Zimmerman asked the cops if he should pursue this suspect, saying that these “punks always get away with stuff.”  The law enforcement said that he should not, but he pursued Martin anyways. Unfortunately, the only story that can be told is Zimmerman’s since he survived the altercation. Zimmerman met this black, hood-wearing boy and was assaulted.  Zimmerman shot Martin fearing for his life.

My senior year of high school I had started dating this girl who went to a nearby high school. One day she texted me apologizing. Her parents asked to see a picture of me once she returned from our last date to the movie theater.  Upon their request, they forbade her from ever seeing me again, threatening to kick her out of the house if she disobeyed. After asking for the reason, they flatly said because I was black and that she was white. She begged for them to change their mind citing how I was President of Student Council, had made straight A’s in high school, was looking to attend Ivy League Schools, I was the most manner-able young man she had met, and I would by anyone’s definition be considered an Oreo. Her parents said that it didn’t matter. Because I was black, I was “coded” to be “abusive” to her and that I was inherently a thug. She never let me meet her parents. We saw each other twice after that, but each time she couldn’t enjoy my company due to being paranoid of her parents’ ambush of us.

Unfortunately, the only story that can be told is Zimmerman’s since he survived the altercation. Zimmerman met this black, hood-wearing boy and was assaulted.  Zimmerman shot Martin fearing for his life.

After she broke things off, I finally realized the answer to the question I had been asked for so long.  White people can act black all they want. They can dress the way Lil Wayne does. They can download rap albums, hang 2pac posters in their bedroom, and even put their foot in the door of the “thug life” by posting pictures of their “bulb” on Instagram.  However, on first impression, almost always regarded as good citizens. Maybe this is because most people are.

But if you are black, you are guilty of being a thug, a criminal, and a threat upon first impression.  Even when your wardrobe consists predominantly of colored shorts and Sperry’s; and you go to more country concerts than rap concerts; and say “yes sir”, “no ma’am”, and “I shall” so much that members of your own race ostracize you for not being “black enough”, you are still met as if you are wearing a hood.  And the funny thing is, you have no control as to when that damn hood can come off.

Author Eula Biss describes Harrington's essay in the podcast Notes from No Man's Land.