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Letter to a young black man

Walter Backstrom | Letter to a young black man

Bellevue Reporter Columnist
Mar 20 2009, 1:26 PM

Walter Backstrom

Walter Backstrom

It seems sometimes I grew up in a different country than you.

I grew up in a time and place where black people couldn’t vote. It seems times have changed. Sometimes it seems nothing has changed.

When I tell you stories of racism, you look at me in disbelief, trying to understand how could it be.

I remember in elementary school, being black was OK and there was no cost. In junior high school, I began to feel there was a cost, but I didn’t know the price.

My hair was what they called “nappy.” So I bought a product for my hair that was supposed to straighten it — so that I would look more like white people. I used to put a lotion on my face to make it lighter — so that I would look more like white people.

The cost of being black began to appear, and I realized something might be wrong. But in my mind, the jury was still out.

You ask me, how could that be? You tell me you have friends of all colors. You say this whole race thing is crazy.

I am your age now, a teenager, full of ego, not knowing much, seldom right but never in doubt. In high school, the price became painfully clear, and it was enormous. The school I attended was majority white. I guess you can call that experience a slap in the face. I was not prepared for what was to be.

I am walking in a department store, and I am being followed, just like you are. Do you remember having teachers who silently believed you weren’t smart enough? So did I. The difference? My teacher told me I wasn’t good enough. I played sports and was good at it, just like you.

Do you remember being pulled over by the police, telling you that the car you were riding in fit the description of a car involved in a robbery? So do I.

I was a good kid. I listened to my parents sometimes. I was popular with the girls, and I went to church on Sunday, just like you.

I began to wonder, so I asked my parents, what was the deal with all this race stuff? They told me about growing up in the South, and the separate bathrooms: One for whites and one for coloreds. I remember listening, with my eyes wide open and my heart beginning to close. As they told me these stories, my heart pounded. My hands clenched into fists that shook with righteous indignation.

I was mad that I couldn’t protect my parents, who were decent God-fearing people. My face turned away, and I gazed out the window, thinking with righteous indignation, which helped cover up the shock and sadness.

The cost of being black was altered forever. The world was no longer filled with wonder. It brimmed with shame because of my blackness, and there was nothing I could do.

I wanted to do something, but what? I had to present to the world a different face, a different persona that you couldn’t hurt or touch. Underneath that new look was a scared and frightened little boy, wanting the world to be different and be fair to me, my parents and all other black people.

At that moment, the changed occurred, and the cost seemed unbearable.

Where I grew up, the majority of people were black, and they knew the rules. Where I went to school, the majority of people were white — and I knew the rules. Rule number one: Always smile, just like today.

Young man, I am sorry that your father is not around. I can only imagine the pain. I was fortunate to have a dad who taught me how to be a man. I wonder, who did you learn from? Your mother? The streets? The gang? The counselor at the Boys and Girls Club?

In this society, they see you walking around with your pants sagging, with no father to tell you to pull them up. Where is your father, who is supposed to call your teacher about your grades? Where is your father, who tells you to quit listening to that rap music and saying the n-word?

You know, it’s a lonely world out here without dad to protect you and guide you. I want you to know that I pray for you — even the ones who scare me.

You think drugs, fast money and loose women are the answer? It just helps mask the pain. However, in that quiet moment, where you meet you, there is that emptiness. That hole in your soul that can’t be filled by anything earthly. The hole can and must be filled by grace. I know I haven’t told you that I believe in you, but I do. I haven’t told you that I love you, but I do.

I don’t want to bore you anymore because my heart is heavy and my eyes are filled with tears. I can only tell you, as my father told me: Son, do the right thing, even if no one else does.

Do the right thing, you ask me? How will I know?

I say, be still and listen to your heart. I love you dad.

Walter Backstrom can be contacted at wkbackstrom@aim.com

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I Too Have A Dream – Short Story – By Raymondobe


I too have a dream!

I usta hang out all day with my cousin, fantasizing about the day we were gonna be supa rich and famous. My cousin had a studio in the basement of his yard over on the West side of town; Powis Square. I rented a tiny room on the North side, though at the time West London felt like a home to me.

Mainly coz I was always flexing around that way. ‘Grove, Notting Hill, Shepherds Bush, Warwick Ave.

My cousin’s studio had pretty dope acoustics. The place was basic with a concrete floor, four walls, a couch and little else. We were tight on funds, so we’d glued some egg cartons to the wall, cut out a piece of lino and thrown it down to give the place more glamour. Weren’t exactly EMI studios, but then again by comparison, just a few months earlier, me and my spars had had to make do with sampling and mixing in each others crummy gaffs.

We were always talking about how when we got some serious loot together we’d throw down some laminated flooring. Mostly we’d say it coz it was part of the dream, and in our desperation to make it real, it gave us something definite to shoot for. If we needed to chill, we’d crashed out on this dilapidated four-seated brown leather sofa; we’d stolen off somebody’s skip. We’d kickback for a while drinking, Kwik Save tea out chipped ceramic mugs and eating Oreo cookies. Wasn’t exactly the weed smoking, Hennessey and Alazy environment you’d see depicted in all those, keepin-it-real, rap music videos. But I guess it was aight though.

Other times we’d be kickin-it over in Shepherds Bush, Acton or some other place, crowded round somebody’s portable set in, getting mad excited, watching cable or video re-runs of Yo MTV. Or listening to street-smart black kids from Long Beach and Brooklyn, talking about how they spent their days, shooting dice, drinking forties and smoking a pound of chronic. Then we’d look at each other, then look at the shabby eighth of weed next to the King size Rizla papers on the wooden speaker box and we’d be like: Shit, only in our dreams homeboy.

That’s when we usually took turns describing our versions of, The day I hit it big and won the National lottery. There’d always be one cat sitting there red eyed, baggy pants hanging off his bony malnourished arse, going on about blingin’ his wardrobe and pimping his ride; like a diamond encrusted Paris Hilton limited edition watch and an Escalade were the only things that mattered in his Get Rich or Die Trying hustlers playground. My cousin had other ideas. For him, it wasn’t just about the money. Though he definitely wasn’t one of those, I live in the ghetto die in the ghetto type of cats.

As for myself I was never that wild about that whole bling bling thing. I liked my low-key threads. I guess all considering, I didn’t have a lotta choice. Baggy discounted Levis, twofa a fiver T-shirts and a pair of cheap-arse trainers were pretty much my staple wardrobe. Had to admit those bling bling stones did look cool though. But then again, I didn’t wanna be part of that kinda exploitation. I knew that black brothers in South Africa were literally dying by the droves for that shit, while their fat rich bosses were living off the interest of their blood, sweat and labour. Instead going out looking like Pharaohs, my peeps were going out broken-up, beaten down and blooded, in cheap wooden boxes.

After a while we started performing gigs all over the country…A lot of universities. Two to six hour journeys squashed in the back of a second-hand transit van, peering out the dirty windows, mesmerised, watching the green countryside slide by.

Mostly we spent our time down in the basement studio. My cousin hunched in front of his old Macintosh computer, mixing the same track thirty, forty or fifty different ways to get it just right.

Yeah but maybe if we drop a little snare drum in it would play better, he’d mutter to whoever was still sitting on the couch, dry-mouthed, rolling spliffs, at 4am in the morning.

Calling my cousin’s basement a studio was pretty generous though. Basically we had a sampling machine, a computer, a dat and a mike.

What more to you need? my cousin would say if any of the crew started bitching.

He was always cheery, always optimistic. Unlike the rest of us, who would usually get wildly depressed when things didn’t work out the way our 24-7 dedication, focus and crazy hard work, implied that they should. It was triple hard because none of us was making any real loot.

Most days my cousin pretty much never left his basement. I worked part-time in a bar over in Notting Hill so I wouldn’t starve to death, living off bottles of Super Malt, tins of Nourishment Drinks and cheap ASDA biscuits. I was nearly always skint, but I was one of the luckier ones, since part of my rent was being paid for by the social. We’d go out clubbing now and then coz you had to stay in the mix, keep meeting people and keep it fresh. We were guess list aficionados. Money was always scarce though. Gas, electricity and phone bills seemed to flow in all at once like a Tsunami. The mobile phone bills were ridiculous. Didn’t matter what networks we were on. And sometimes when it rained it seemed like the monsoon season had come to drown us out for good.

We’d also go through spells when everything seemed to be on pause. When all we seemed to do was arrange meetings with people who according to my cousin, were supposedly gonna take us to the moon and back. They were usually fast-talking Tony Montana/Donald Trump/Alan Sugar-fake-arse-wannabes. And with a few moves here and a few moves there, they’d promise that they were gonna give us the world and everything in it. What we actually got were meetings upon meetings in fancy West End bars and restaurants, where the only thing the money in our wallets could cover was the carbonated Perrier water.

Some times the record label guys would sound so hyped they’d make it sound as if they’d already pencilled us in for the Grammy’s. They’d sip their designer beers, or glasses of expensive white wine, and order over-priced food on giant square-shaped plates, like they were printing their own dining-out money. Then they’d say stuff like:

Soon as I get back I’m gonna speak to Mickey or Charlie. We’ve got some great ideas for this. We really believe this could work. Here’s my card. I promise you whatever happens we’ll definitely do something together soon.

Most of the time their Richard Branson excitement didn’t amount to shit. And a lot of those times it was blatantly obvious that the industry guys were just stringing us along. Maybe they just liked hanging out with broke-arse singers and musicians. I don’t’ know. The worse part was that sometimes we knew that we were being played like fools, but we went along with it anyway. Sometimes we just acted like record label punks. Desperation can make you stupid.

My cousin was right thought. However basic the studio was it did its job. Production sounded wicked, especially when we were blunted on the weed. Sometimes just to deal with the frustration, I’d get so high I’d start pretending we were recording on Abbey Road, with the Stones and the Beatles.

My cousin was really the guy with all the musical talent. I could rap pretty good, but I couldn’t sing for shit. I helped out with the organisation, like arranging dates, making calls and putting out fliers. But mostly I usta just hang around for the girls. They’d walk in to the room and I’d think, goddamn. Most of the girls were that fine they hadta be catalogue models or something.

There was this one singer though, half Zambian half black American with a face and a voice like an angel. I’d just sit there and stare and feel like I’d smoked the ultimate spliff and finally gone straight to heaven. I didn’t realise how someone’s voice could make you fall in love so fast. I’d sit there hangin’ on her every syllable like a dog on heat, with my tongue practically falling out my mouth.

You were great, I’d say, raising my eyebrows, grinning and staring at her like she was gold bullion.

Thanks, she’d say, fanning the air with her a flier, coz it would get so unbelievably hot down there in the basement, you’d feel like you were on some day trip to Africa.

I’d ask her if she wanted anything to drink and then I’d run down to the store on the corner, just to hear her say, thanks babe and smile at me with those dimpled cheeks of hers.

Over time my cousins was offered more record deals than you’d believe…somehow they didn’t play out, pan out…whatever. Some how whenever it came to the proverbial, shit or get off the pot time, the record companies would have second thoughts and bail. One thing we soon learnt was that just because you had a record deal did’nt mean you were gonna be the next Dr Dre, 2pac or Michael Jackson.

Yeah, it was hard work and some times soul destroying. One of the hardest things was tryna convince our parents that we weren’t tryna screw up our lives following some insane dream that would never happen in a million years. Especially since all our parents had no doubt gone through their own form of bullshit in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. We knew they’d made certain sacrifices, so that hopefully their kids wouldn’t have to. Well I guess you can only be true to yourself; even if no one else understands who that is or the dream you’re busting your arse to make a reality. But of course there were some beautiful moments when the hard work and graft did pay off. Good times that made it all seem worth it.

Thinking back, one of the things that kinda sticks out in my mind is a memory I have of myself sitting at home, watching TV with my pops. And my pops looking at me in that serious way he always did when he was worried about my future, and then asking me if I’d finally figured out what I was gonna do with my life. Coz one minute you’re twenty-four years old and the next time you blink, your almost forty. And me rubbing my eyes, looking around the room and telling him that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life…Because right now I was trying to achieve that dream. Only when I started I hadn’t figured on it taking so long and having to take so many hard-knock backs along the way. And my pops giving me this half-smile of a look as if to say, son life isn’t something you need to beat yourself up over.

Then me coming back with,

Yeah but why are there always so many obstacles? Why is it always so hard?

Then my pops looking up at the ceiling as if he were remembering something important, and turning to me and saying something along the lines of:

That’s the thing about life. None of us know what’s going to happen, and maybe that’s the thing that makes us keep trying for our goals.

And me grinning back, cause I guess he had a point, even if it wasn’t what I was wanted to hear right then.

Yeah pops, I’d be thinking as I stared at the grey parts of his beard…I guess you gotta keep believing through thick and thin, and then maybe, just maybe, you get to live the dream your heart and soul believes in.

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