Doing time in my black skin

2011-04-16 10:13

A fisherman’s hat, Converse sneakers and a dark complexion are a bad mix for black men in the city.

This combination recently taught me a historic truth: my skin is my jail cell and I’m doing time.

Urban black men know this ­feeling all too well.

To walk into a room and have others feel unsafe and then witness them looking for their valuables. It doesn’t leave us the same.

Recently, I waltzed into the ­parking lot of a mall in Tshwane, looking street smart and under a groove. I had Coltrane on my mind, whistling the tune, ­Lonnie’s Lament.

Then I saw her: the fine, middle-aged corporate- type in killer stilettos.

But, oh damn, I didn’t even get to say hello! As soon as she saw me, the white woman grabbed her purse tightly, paced to her car in haste and locked the doors.

I looked up and there was no one else around but me.

A friend told me that, in that moment, I had become the image of her wildest fears.

There’s a feeling that comes with that sort of realisation – a severe and paralysing type of anger – that leaves you knowing that you are messed up and you can’t do anything about it no matter how intensely affected you are.

But this image of the black male as an essential criminal is larger than parking-lot encounters with fearful white women. The ­stereotype has been operating ­viciously for years.

The “bad-boy” image of the African male has been celebrated as a fetish spectacle in mass entertainment, hijacked for convenience in crime legislation across the world and appropriated for eroticism as the bad-ass “Mandingo man”.

It goes way back: the garden boy and the master’s wife, and even Dingaan’s historic ambush of Piet Retief and his lot feeds into it.

Still, as this image works to keep black men out of spaces, it has ­also kept a good many paid and fed.

Think about the whole economy of symbols that gives hip-hop and kwaito their street-savvy sheen.

I can’t imagine Mandoza would have sold any of his music if he was a tie-and-jacket wearing preacher-type on the corner.

The fact that rumour has it that he made up going to prison so he could appear hardcore just proves the point.

What would Tupac Shakur have been without his Thug Life ­campaign? Even Denzel had to play a bad-ass, corrupt cop in Training Day to finally win an ­Oscar.

So forget what you’ve heard, I’m still the “swart gevaar”! I’m the black peril no matter the shine of my speech in any dashiki dialogue.

»  percy.mabandu@citypress.co.za 

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