Back in Chicago where I grew up, I was never completely dressed until I had climbed into my walk. The transformation usually took place in my bathroom, especially on occasions like Easter, Christmas, banquets, dances, high school homecomings. When I got decked out and it looked good, and I usually deemed it so, I would strut out of the bathroom, feeling I was going to burst inside with something. Was it joy, cool, pride, ego? There was something about this metamorphosis from ghetto boy to boy wonder. The cool shot through my veins and my muscles surrendered. The bounce, drag and tilt took over, like the Holy Ghost. Hallelujah! I'd sidle into the living room. Check me out.
"Ooooh, Johnnnn, lemme see you. Boy, you lookin' sharp," Mom would say, as the family dug my duds. "Don't he look good, y'all?"
Dig it. Watch me walk.
The "pimp." The bounce-and-drag cool swerve, performed in sync. The man. The creased pants. Spit-shined shoes. Splendor, flowing down the runway.
"Superfly." That's when it all started. The biggest movie of the century, I had no doubt. My mom wouldn't let me see it, but it didn't matter. Ricky and Michael and Huckey and it seemed like every other boy in the neighborhood did go, and they came back with the walk. Brothers started seriously conking and sporting gangster brims and wide lapels with at least two buttons of their shirts open, the collars cuffed over the outside of the jackets of their leisure suits. But it was the walk that talked.
Of everyone I knew, my Uncle Ollie was the coolest. His pimp walk was a crossover, ear-to-shoulder, graceful, swanlike stroll. Throughout his procession while we kids all gawked, he wore a half-smile, his white teeth showing beneath his dark lips, coffee-brown skin and black mustache and beard. But my-boy-Morgan, who lived next door to my grandmother, had the baddest walk at my high school. Morgan was a tall--about 6-foot-1--slender, dark-smooth-skinned brother, who even in the dark, even if you couldn't see his face, you could identify by the way he crisscrossed the path in front of him.
Ladies liked a good walk. Or at least that's the way we thought. You didn't just go up to a girl and ask her for her seven digits. You had to pimp a little, let her see a little something before you laid down your mack. (That is, serenade her with virile verbosity.)
And you couldn't just walk past a group of roughnecks you didn't know without dropping a little bounce and drag for them, just to let them know, "You don't want none of this, homeboys." It's like that scene in "The Godfather" when Don Corleone is laid up in the hospital and young Michael grabs the baker on the hospital steps and they shove their hands in their pockets like they have guns in order to scare away the hit men. Pimp walking is like that when done correctly. Not cool. Cold.
Not every black man or woman liked the pimp walk. My grandfather, a burly man with a mustache whom I see more and more in the mirror the older I get, would inquire of us teenagers, as would some other elder men, "What's wrong with your leg, boy?" We knew then that it was time to straighten up and fly right. But only until we were out of sight.
Whether the pimp walk was some celebration of male blackness I don't know. But I do know that walking so rhythmically, I never felt so good, or so black.
I also know that, somewhere along the way, I lost it.
Not long ago, I was driving in downtown Washington when I happened to spot a brother walking, pimping. Well dressed. Walking with exaggerated attitude. It was a thing of beauty. Blackness. But somewhere deep inside I felt sad. I felt like shouting, "Hey, man, I used to walk like that! I can do that!"
Truth was, I no longer did. I couldn't remember the last time I did.
I was troubled, although I still can't say why, exactly. It's not as if my brown hue will suddenly wash off or that I will be forced to turn in my unofficial race card. It is just that in my attempt to assimilate into an America, corporate and institutional, that remains largely for whites only, I fear for how much of me I have lost, suffocated, camouflaged or diluted in the process.
Oh, I attend a mostly black church. I have a black wife. Black kids. And as a journalist, I write mostly about black people. My mama is black. My car is black. I buy black. I vote black. I think black. Still, I can't help but wonder if I wasn't once blacker. How much bass in my voice have I shed? How many appeasing smiles have I spread? How many times have I left things unsaid for fear of rocking the boat, of being labeled a surly black man, not just by whites, but by other blacks who have mastered the game and long parted with their former walk and talk and would compel me to do the same? Maybe I no longer need compelling.
There is a flip side. When I went away to school, to the University of Illinois in Champaign, a small, mostly white college town, I learned I didn't have to act so tough anymore. And it would later become clear that the real toughness of a man wasn't shown in the way he walked or talked or could handle his business with his fists or his "piece" in the street. Neither is his blackness.
Now, on visits back to Chicago, I see some of those brothers still walking hard, still pimping and dipping, strung out on crack and sipping forties. Does that make them blacker than me?
I know the answer, but I can't help feel a little diminished.
I was walking through the newsroom the other day and one of my colleagues uttered an old saying from the 'hood. I hadn't heard it in a while and it struck me.
"Hey, John, stay black," she said.
"That ain't hard for me," I answered from deep in my chest.
She laughed. I laughed. Then I walked away.
With a little bounce, a little drag, and less than that same old splendor.