Admittedly, a hotel lobby packed with people attending last week's National Association of Black Journalists conference in Atlanta is an odd place for two African American writers to discover a surprising, shared secret:
They aren't really black.
So what if one has waist-length dreadlocks, and the other a Michael Jordan-like shaved head? Their honey-brown skin and hundreds of columns analyzing, questioning and celebrating the black experience? Meaningless.
Chatting at NABJ, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson and I admitted the unadmittable: We aren't "really" black -- or, as Jackson later explained, "really black in the eyes of some people."
Or sometimes, in our own eyes. My possible inauthenticity as a black person dawned in elementary school, when I suspected that most of my classmates hadn't read "Little Women" 10 times or plopped before the TV, notebook paper in hand, to record lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein's annual "Cinderella" telecast.
Jackson -- a 2001 Pulitzer finalist whose searing columns have won four NABJ commentary awards -- figured things out early, too. "I can't play basketball," he begins. "I've been told I don't talk right and can't swear right. . . . I couldn't even say 'Right on' right, no matter how many 'Free Angela Davis' buttons I wore. Friends tried to give me dance lessons in college. . . .
"They said, 'Derrick, I'm sorry -- I don't think you're going to make it.' "
We laugh about it, but questions about racial identity feel serious, especially to the young. Questions of identity, period, are tricky. Who hasn't at some time felt, "I don't really belong" -- in their family, gender, social status, age group or even century? In this brutal, baffling world?
No wonder, Jackson says, "every one of those 'you're not black' moments sticks in your memory."
Legions of African Americans should know. That would include my friends who were virgins until marriage -- because all black women are supposedly natural-born sexpots. And my uber-punctual buddy Barb, who never grasped "C.P. Time" -- meaning colored people's, or never-on-time, time. And my non-dancing mom, for whom steps to the electric slide are as complicated as those in "Swan Lake."
There's the black acquaintance who is so lumberjack-shirt scruffy that the "Queer Eye" quintet actually considered rehabbing him and then said, "No, thanks." And my friend Lisa Ann, whose beaus have included a Turkish carpet repairman, a German rocker, a Jewish-Italian nanny -- and a former NABJ president.
The more people you consider whose character, skills and choices defy unspoken black rules, the more you wonder: Who is "really" black? Can those rejecting of blackfolk whose style, speech, hobbies, politics or mates challenge African American norms really know black history -- or support diversity?
In truth, "can't-be-blackism" is limiting and life-denying, as youngsters who hear that their academic excellence isn't black can attest. Early in his career, Jackson was speaking to a mostly black college audience when someone asked him what his hobbies were. "I said I liked bird-watching and hiking," he says. "And they looked at me like I'd dropped in from Mars."
After laughing with his audience, Jackson asked whether anyone had visited a national park. A few hands shot up. "How many have hiked on national forestland?" No hands.
"We talk about our ancestors dying for the right to vote, putting their lives on the line at lunch counters," he told the audience. In fact, "They fought for the right to enjoy all of this country" -- not just jazz or hip-hop concerts, Jacob Lawrence exhibitions, Martin Luther King Jr. events or even validating meetings such as NABJ's.
Jackson credits his wife, Michelle Holmes, with showing him "what kind of box I was living in." Early in their relationship, Holmes, a Harvard medical researcher, suggested that they spend a day looking at the fall foliage. To which Jackson responded: "Foliage? What's that?"
Figuring it out, Jackson asked, "How long can you look at a red leaf?" But later, atop Mount Tecumseh after a sweaty hike, Jackson stood under a dripping pine. Shaking it, "I gave myself a wonderful cool shower," he recalls. "I was hooked."
Jackson and Holmes have hiked each of New Hampshire's 48 mountains higher than 4,000 feet, and for his recent 50th birthday, Jackson backpacked the Sierras. This man who sees Harriet Tubman as "the quintessential American hiker" describes what he once missed:
"In the wilderness, there are no mirrors -- you can't see yourself, only what's around you," he begins. "You're not focused on superficial things, but on God's majesty . . . whether it's a mountain vista or scuba diving and seeing this incredible, intricate underwater metropolis."
Jackson recently asked an editor at a black women's publication whether the mag would run a piece on peaceful walking destinations for stressed-out sisters. "There's not a market for that among black women," the editor replied. Once, a black friend whom he asked to come camping recoiled, saying, "I don't touch dirt."
Says Jackson: "It's as if black people, forced for three centuries to work in the dirt for nothing . . . are now dedicated to a complete disconnection from it."
Or from potentially fulfilling parts of themselves. "Black" isn't a box we must contort ourselves to squeeze into. It's a sense of ourselves and the world that we get to define. Like water, it expands, shrinks or otherwise shapes itself to whatever human vehicle embraces it.
For Jackson, enjoying nature "empowers me to come back and to write the tough column on hard-core medical or political racism," he says. "It makes me stronger."
Embracing our complexity -- as black people, as human beings -- often has that effect.
"We want our kids to have . . . more than just a good job," Jackson explains. "You can't live fully if you don't feel you have full ownership of this planet. I'm humbled and empowered to appreciate a flower here, a bird over there.
"To recall what a true privilege it is to be here."