Chapter 1: Escape It was a long journey from where I started to that Brazilian beach. I got there by engineering an escape from the confines of my own skin -- an escape from self, from family, from group, and above all from race.
I am a foreign correspondent by trade, and I was in Rio because the news had taken me there. But I also have a lot of other identities:
I am an African-American who once was black, once was a Negro, once was a colored boy.
I am a child of the segregated Deep South who came of age just as the civil rights movement changed everything.
I am a chronic integrator, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, who since high school has always been either a black student at white schools or a black employee at white institutions.
I am a black man, the father of two black sons, in an era when black maleness in America is considered a deadly disease and those who suffer it are shunned like carriers of the bubonic plague.
I am a card-carrying member of the black middle class, which by definition means the stress of trying to live the good life on an adequate salary but with little or no underlying family wealth.
Because of all these things, I am a de facto mediator, a middleman. When I went to South America, I was at a point in my life when the feeling of being squeezed between worlds was particularly intense. I am also a writer, so I thought of my situation in terms of a writer's metaphor: I was like the tip of the pencil, the point where graphite meets paper, where black meets white. The part that is constantly ground into dust.
But this personal history explains only part of my reaction to Brazil. For the rest, I have to look back much further. Back a hundred years.
In the living room of the white clapboard house where I grew up, on the corner of Boulevard and Oak in Orangeburg, South Carolina, hang two old photographs, formal portraits taken around the turn of the century. One is of the gentleman who was the original owner and patriarch of the house, a man with flashing dark eyes, his skin very black, just this side of coal; the other is of a woman with dark hair and eyes but very light skin, almost like cream. They are Major John Hammond Fordham, my great-grandfather, and Louisa Gertrude Fordham, my great-grandmother, and their contrasting hues drew a set of borders for me in my early life, borders of race, identity, and color.
My grandmother, Sadie Fordham Smith, who lived to be ninety-eight and sassed the whole world until her dying day, used to tell stories about her father. She recalled how Major Fordham, "too slow and lazy and aristocratic to say good morning too loud," would stroll at a regal pace each day from his law office to the house for dinner, which was on the table at two in the afternoon. This was during the first few years to the new century, the major's ample middle years. On some days the sunlight would glint off his dark skin, highlighting his sharp cheekbones. On days when it rained he would approach through the gloom as slowly as ever, refusing to hurry one bit.
His wife, Louisa, would look down the street and see him coming on those rainy days. "Hammond!" she would yell, but he was oblivious. When he finally reached the house she would tell him he'd looked like a fool strolling through the rain.
"Not as much of a fool as I'd look running through it," my great-grandfather would reply. Then, removing his tailored jacket, now sopping and shapeless, he would make her exasperation complete with just the right touch of gall. "And now, Madam," he would say to his wife, "you may lay out fresh clothes for me."
In the house he ordered built for his family, the major installed a tiny window above the spot where he planned to install the piano -- it was believed at the time, my grandmother explained, that pianos needed to breathe. I think of that window when I think of the parallels between his life and mine. Each of us was born into a time when a window of opportunity was opened, one that was excruciatingly narrow but still passable to those with enough luck, determination, and drive. He made it through; I have always been buoyed and burdened by the obligation to try.
Major Fordham was born a freeman in Charleston in 1856. He witnessed the end of slavery and the upheaval of the Civil War as a young child, and came of age during Reconstruction, a time when blacks in the South had unprecedented opportunities. I witnessed the end of Jim Crow segregation and the upheaval of the civil rights movement as a small child, and came of age at a time when society's doors, so long closed to people of color, were suddenly thrown open. Both of us were reasonably successful. And although our lives were separated by a hundred years, both of us had to deal with race as a central issue, for ourselves and the society around us. Much had changed in that time, but much had not.
Major Fordham's title came from his rank in the Carolina Light Infantry, where he once headed a "colored" brigade. He was a lawyer, a landowner, a politician, a public speaker of some renown, a man of culture and learning and great ambition. But when he walked down the street, most people saw none of that. They saw in him their own assumptions about what a coal-dark Negro in the deep South should be.
He was subservient. He was no better than chattel. He was inarticulate. He was stupid. He was buffoonish. He was a schemer. He was limited. He was a sexual predator, potentially, and had to be watched at all times lest he despoil a white woman, which he surely yearned to do. He was simple. He was always happy. He was a laborer who made his living with his hands and his back, and when those wore out he'd have nothing left. He was lazy. He was shiftless. He was a host for something savage, something that could never be fully trained, something that would keep him from ever having the discipline to offer anything of real value to America. He was physically powerful. He was intellectually inferior. He was a mortal threat.
He was, in fact, none of those things. His family knew that, his friends knew it, anyone who ever took more than five minutes to get to know him would have found it out. But of course most people didn't take that time -- they didn't then, and they don't now.
Today, when people see me -- I should say when they see us, meaning men who fit into that improbably wide spectrum we define as "black," roughly from the color of coal to the color of cream -- they still assume, still pigeonhole, just as they did with the major. My teenage son Aaron, for example, can't just be seen as a teenager. When he puts on his clunky Timberland boots and his baggy jeans and his oversized sweatshirt and his knit cap, people see him as "thug" or "gangsta" -- potentially, given his size, as "assailant." When he wears his prep-school uniform of khaki pants and button-down shirt, on the other hand, some people see him as "paragon," others as "token," still others as "sellout."
My young son Lowell can't go to school and just be a kid. He is a black kid, in a suburban American school system where black students are not assumed at first glance to be achievers. Teachers automatically see him as an "at-risk" child. They expect less of him than they should. Invariably they are surprised to learn he has a mother and a father at home, both of them professionals, both of them interested in his growth and development.
As for me, when I go into a fancy clothing store, if I'm dressed well, the salesmen assume I'm interested in the flashiest and most expensive items they have, since everybody knows that's what black men want to buy. If I'm dressed down, on the other hand, they give plainclothes security guards the "shoplifter" nod. When I encounter people professionally, I encounter a range of assumptions, depending on the situation: "slow learner," in which people speak very loudly and simply, as if I were hearing-impaired; "Super Negro," in which people lay out an obstacle course and expect me to run it for their amusement; and, of course, like Aaron, "token," "paragon," and "sellout."
There are other categories into which we're sorted: "gigolo," "jock," "Rasta," "Mandingo," "Superfly," "Slick Willie," dozens more. It's only natural, I suppose, to build up frameworks around people you encounter for the first time, to try to put them in some kind of context. But it's not natural to make those frameworks and that context exclusively racial in nature. In many people's eyes, I can never be just "the tall guy." I have to be "the tall black guy," and that adds another whole dimension.
People assume, from the addition of that one adjective, that they know a lot about me. They think they know a lot about my personal history, about my family life, about my taste in music, about my attitudes toward women, about my politics. Some people think they know a lot about my intelligence and even my virility. These prejudgments are tempered by specifics: If "the tall black guy" were delivering a lecture on U.S. foreign policy, say, then the intelligence assumption would be modified. But the assumptions are almost never completely eradicated. People dump them on me -- on all of us -- like so much extra baggage, an awful lot of weight to have to lug through life. I've always resented it. More than that: It has always made me angry, not the kind of anger that boils over but the kind that simmers and stews, the kind that ultimately poisons.
A newspaper story of the day called my great-grandfather one of the state's "most prominent colored men. By his own efforts and perseverance he has overcome all obstacles and has come to the front, respected, esteemed and admired by his legion of friends...a progressive man and an honorable, upright citizen."
Substitute "black" for "colored" and that could be a quote from my own obituary, if I'm lucky.
Over the years, I'd grown weary of dealing with what white people thought they knew about me. More than weary: I was sick to death of it. But that wasn't the proximate reason for my escape to the tango parlors of Buenos Aires and the sands of Rio. The thing that had finally worn me down and impelled me to drag my family all the way to the bottom of the world was also having to deal with what black people thought they knew about me.
An illustration: When I first went to the Washington Post, I covered city government. One afternoon I was sitting at my desk in the press room of the District Building, Washington's city hall, when the mayor dropped by to banter with the press.
"Anybody home?" called Marion Barry.
This was the pre-cocaine-bust Marion Barry, when he still had a message and a mission -- and still managed to get through the day reasonably sober. He was full of energy and anger and even genuine idealism, and I admired him in many ways. But he was an official and I was a reporter, and so we were natural enemies.
"What you doin' here, Mr. Mayor?" snapped Mike Davis, one of my competitors. Mike was a sharp-eyed veteran who had cut his teeth covering civil rights in the 1960s.
"You got nothing better to do with your time?" Mike asked the mayor. "Is this what the citizens of the District of Columbia are paying you for? Or are you just here for some pointers?"
"Pointers on what? What you got to teach me, Mike Davis?"
"Nothing, Mr. Mayor, 'cause you wouldn't listen. That's why you got no money in your pocket. Let me see, Mr. Mayor, what you got?"
Barry grinned, pulled a money clip out of his pocket and started counting out twenties. Mike pulled out his clip and started counting out his twenties. They both cheated -- double-counting bills, inflating denominations -- so the contest was inconclusive. It ended with the mayor and his aides and all the assembled reporters sharing a moment of laughter.
The mayor wheeled. "And what about you, Gene Robinson?"
My turn. But I had no clip full of twenties. And anyhow, for me there was no street-corner bonhomie. With me, the mayor was all leverage, all pressure, all business.
"When's your newspaper going to stop with all those bullshit stories?" he demanded. "Always negative. Always putting everything down, putting everybody down. Tearing down what little black leadership we have in this city. When are you going to wake up and start doing something positive for the people of Washington?"
"I do, Mr. Mayor," I said. "I write the truth."
He snorted. "The truth? What the hell does the Washington Post know about the truth? Whose truth? Not mine. Not the black people of this city's. Why don't you print our truth for a change, Gene Robinson?"
The mayor left, the entourage left, everyone went back to work, and I felt like slamming the wall. I felt like my rival Mike had won, the mayor had won, and I had clearly lost.
At that time I'd only been in Washington a few months. But here, in this bastion of the black middle class, here in Chocolate City, for the first time in my life it seemed that somehow I wasn't black enough. Perhaps more accurately, that I didn't quite know how to be black.
This was absurd and insulting on its face -- I had grown up in the South and lived through the bitter end of segregation. But it was also true that I had spent my early years in a fairly unusual all-black environment, sheltered from anything resembling the accepted notion of the Urban Black Experience. I hadn't grown up in a ghetto. My mother wasn't a single parent, and life wasn't particularly tough. The streets weren't mean.
I hadn't gone to a historically black college, like Howard or Morehouse; instead, I'd gone off to the University of Michigan, where most of my good friends had been white. Afterward, I hadn't gone to New York or Washington or Detroit or Philadelphia, cities with long-established black communities and power structures that were bidding for control; I'd found my first job in San Francisco, viewed at the time as a weird place full of Asians and Hispanics as well as blacks, where the racial fault lines were harder to map than the many dangerous offshoots of the San Andreas. I'd married a black woman, but one who had been raised Catholic, attended an exclusive private high school, and developed her own distinctive way of navigating through the white world. I'm a confident person by nature, but suddenly I found myself actually wondering if I hadn't missed something somewhere along the way.
And there was more. It seemed that being black was supposed to mean sharing a certain set of attitudes, thinking in a certain way. Being almost paranoid. White people were trying to take back the little power we had. White people wanted to deny us everything. White people were determined to tear our leaders down. White people this, white people that, white people, white people...
My Post colleague Richard Cohen once reminded me that the word "paranoid" has no meaning for blacks and Jews, given what we've been through. But paranoia is also an abdication. To always imagine oneself a victim is to step aside, leaving center stage -- and the capacity to act -- to the protagonist, who happens to be the victimizer. He wins, you lose. It seemed to me that this was precisely what black people in Washington were doing, and that the logic that led to this abdication began with the traditional black-white zero sum view of race in America. It was a trap, a hole, and we were digging it ourselves.
I remember going to a community forum at a junior high school in the isolated part of Washington east of the marshy Anacostia River, far from the marble and the monuments and the Mall. It was the poorest and most crime-ridden part of the city, but the school was in a middle-class pocket, and that evening it was filled with civic-minded men and women determined not to let their neighborhood slip another inch down the slope. The occasion was the grilling of a panel of school board candidates. One of them, an ineffective incumbent, was taking more heat than she'd expected. She was dodging, weaving, sweating -- but then she spotted me in the audience and launched into what by then was a familiar gambit.
Good things are happening in the schools, she said, but the press doesn't want you to know. They won't tell you the good things our elected officials and our schoolchildren are doing. Why is that? Why do you think that might be? We should ask the Washington Post. In fact, there was a young man from the Washington Post right over there, in the back row. Why not ask him?
People applauded, as I knew they would, and then turned in their chairs and craned their necks, searching out the interloper. I sat there attempting to look neutrally pleasant, or at least not evil, having been caught red-handed with notebook and pen.
That time, fortunately, I wasn't compelled to stand up and address the audience, as had sometimes happened. The discussion quickly got back to more pertinent questions, such as why test scores continued to fall and how it could be that books were in such short supply.
But afterward, it took me a half hour to get out of the hall. People were lined up to harangue me, to beseech me, to jab their fingers at my chest or gently take my arm and demand that I write the truth "for a change!"
When I got home, I needed a stiff drink.
Being black or white was not just physical, it was political. It was less a matter of race than racial identification. And, most important, it involved choosing sides.
Well, I was tired of choosing. I was tired of feeling under such constant scrutiny, sorted and categorized by whites, judged and sentenced by blacks. The whole idea of racial identification being the defining factor in one's life seemed wrong to me, oppressive and wrong, and there had to be a better way. I was fed up with the assumptions that white people made, fed up with the assumptions that black people made, fed up with suspicion and paranoia and seeing the world as us on the one side and them on the other. I was fed up enough with America to just pack up the family and leave.
So that's what I did. And that's how I ended up on that beach in Rio, where now I was learning that the limits established by those portraits on my living room wall back in Orangeburg were not absolute, that all of the labeling and the conflict and the angst that I had assumed came inevitably with the issue of race in America were, in fact, optional.
I keep coming back to Rio and the beach because it was there that I first really understood that there were other ways to look at race than the way I was accustomed to seeing it, and that some of these ways might involve definitions of race radically different from my own.
American society sees race but not color; Brazilian society sees color but not race. It didn't take me long to figure out that this was an important distinction. What took much longer was to discover that the distinction wasn't quite as simple as it first seemed.
The emphasis on the more mutable issue of color (rather than the rigidity of race) was at the heart of what I loved so much about Brazil -- the absence of racial conflict, the ease of coexistence. This was a big part of what made it feel so natural to me, so comfortable, to walk down the street or sit on the beach or mingle with a crowd in any part of the country. I could relax. There was no silent struggle going on.
But I could see that there was discrimination going on, beginning with discrimination in the sense of the word that means making fine distinctions. There were literally dozens of terms for skin color in Brazil -- black, white, mulatto, and pardo, of course, but also more fanciful and evocative terms. In surveys, Brazilians have described themselves or others as "burned," "burned by the sun," "around midnight," "after midnight," "chocolate," "coffee with milk," and "navy blue." One particularly subtle and elusive hue was called "miscegenation." Brazilians I talked to would sometimes use these distinctions as simple descriptive tools, the way I might say a person was tall or short, thin or heavyset. It was jarring for me to hear people's skin color discussed in this way, but over time the impact lessened until it began to seem a normal topic of conversation.
There was another clear difference, one that made the two societies in a sense mirror images. American orthodoxy is that a single drop of African blood inevitably darkens its host. In Brazil, the problem is approached from the other end of the scale: A single drop of European blood is seen to inevitably whiten.
There is at least one clear, indisputable effect of the one-drop-darkens view of the world versus the every-little-bit-lightens view: The American scheme tends to maximize the number of black people, or people of color, or nonwhites -- whatever term you prefer -- within a given population, while the Brazilian view tends to minimize the count.
In the United States, if your father is black and your mother is white, then you're black -- there is no way that our society is ready to consider the son of a black man anything but black. In Brazil, it's not that simple. If your father is white and your mother is black, then your own category will depend on a lot of things, most important your skin color. If you're very, very dark or very, very light, then it's an easy call. If you fall into a middling café au lait range of skin tones, then you're probably going to be thought of as more white than black.
Another effect, perhaps less clear-cut, involves the general level of racial tension. In Brazil, I learned, a person with discernible African heritage is not necessarily immutably black. If you're light-skinned, and if your hair can be called wavy instead of kinky, and if you're upwardly mobile, you can call yourself mulatto if you choose and perhaps even white. In the United States, black people can educate themselves and make money and enter the upper reaches of society, and still they and their children and their children's children will always be black. Except for a handful of people who "passed" as white, there has never been any conceivable way out, never been a means of escape. Black people thus had to make a stand. They had to demand their due from society as black people, now and forever. This led inevitably to ugly confrontation on a grand scale, and to more or less constant friction in the workplace and neighborhood.
It was a friction that I didn't notice until I'd been to a place where I could note its absence. Once or twice a year while we were overseas, we'd come back to the Washington area to visit; Avis's family lived in the Maryland suburbs, where she'd grown up. I'd invariably drop by the Post's newsroom to say hello to my bosses and catch up with friends. And I'd leave, a couple of hours later, shaking my head and muttering under my breath and wishing I could catch the next plane.
I was always struck, on those visits, by the degree to which racial tension and overt conflict was an element of daily life. I'd ask friends how things were around the office, and the answer always seemed to have a racial subtext. Either "senior" reporters (which meant white reporters) were unhappy about being passed over, or black reporters were displeased with the rate of their progress, or whatever. Whether there was true conflict or not, whether there was even a real point of dispute or not, everything seemed to demand consideration in black and white.
My heart always sank. This was just what I had run away from. This was what had been strangling me.
I remember one time in particular when I asked a black colleague what had been happening since my last visit. He responded with a tour d'horizon of office politics in which every issue -- who was going to cover city hall, how the city editor was treating her reporters, why the metro editor was displeased with his deputies -- had something to do with race. I think if I had asked about the weather I would have gotten a recounting of the different ways in which blacks and whites were affected by the unusually warm summer.
I finally just tuned him out. "Is everybody here just stuck?" I asked Avis in frustration later. "Is everybody so stuck on race that they can't talk about anything else? Haven't we gotten anywhere?"
I'd asked my friend a question that called for either an individual response ("I'm fine") or a universal response ("Things are fine"), and instead I'd gotten a response based on group -- specifically, based on racial group. More specific, I'd gotten this response from a man who had light-brown skin and wavy hair. A man who in the newsrooms of Rio de Janeiro would have had a hard time convincing people that he was black at all.
I was a bit confused by what I'd seen in Brazil, a bit unmoored, but mostly I felt unencumbered -- even liberated, to press an overused word into service. It was as if I had lived all my life next to a great wall, an insurmountable wall, resigned to the fact that no one could ever hope to get over it, and then one day I'd gone up in an airplane and discovered that others, not far away, dealt with the same wall by simply walking around it.
When we speak of race in America, we speak in the terminology of color -- we say black and white and yellow and red and brown -- but we don't really mean color at all, not the way they mean color in Brazil. What we really mean is racial identification, in the sense of group identification. We mean people who share a history, who share a culture, who share a status in the society, who even by and large share a political point of view -- people who are assumed to share these things, I mean, even if reality doesn't bear these generalizations out. We associate the word "black" with speech patterns, taste in clothing, sense of humor, attributes that would seem to have little to do with skin color. We see race as something absolute and immutable, and we recognize no in-between; we've traditionally considered being "a little bit black" as impossible as being "a little bit pregnant."
Only in the past few years have Americans in any significant numbers begun to see this whole construct as wrong. From the affirmative action wars to the clamor for a new mixed-race category in the census, there have been calls -- some disingenuous, to be sure, but others sincere and heartfelt -- to jettison all the ballast we attach to race and see people as the individuals they are, nothing more and nothing less. To me, it amounted to an attempt to reshape the world into something new, something better.
In Brazil, I found that new world already built, furnished, and fully operational. Here was a place where people didn't just talk about an idealized rainbow society, they lived it. All around me, all the time, were people of every hue, every color of eye and texture of hair, every variant of cheekbone and hipbone, every width of nose and shape of chin, every curvature of breast and butt, mixed up in all possible combinations. Here was a place where someone like me, accustomed to a frame of reference where black was black and white was white, didn't even know where to begin drawing racial lines, let alone enforcing them. Here was a place where a kind of benign racial anarchy seemed to rule, a lubricious, frictionless chaos into which one could simply disappear.
I loved it, I reveled in it, I wallowed in it. It was just what I'd envisioned in my dreams, just the kind of freedom I'd always wanted. It wasn't until much later that I learned an old truth. In these matters of racial identity, as in so much else, the adage holds: We should be careful what we wish for, lest our wishes be granted.
Copyright © 1999 by Eugene Robinson