The young man articulated the frustration, fragility, despair and aspiration of so many young-black-men. He spoke for the many who strive to better their life by attempting to gain the ability to negotiate with a system that has socialized, marginalized, and institutionalized them with a misrepresented identity
Rush hour on commuter rail epitomizes survival of the fittest. Oblivious to color, age, pregnancy, special-needs, etc, it only knows the urgency of commuting, getting to its destination.
On this particular day, while on the East Bay train (California), I was met with a poignant story that found its way to pierce through me, pleading to be heard. The train makes a stop; it lets off a dozen and boards a dozen more. The seat next to me is vacant and oddly no one seems eager to take it. As I muse on the oddity, a man, a young-black-American, probably in his mid-twenties, boards the train. Usually, people force their way to a seat, no questions asked. A paucity of instance, the young-man respectfully asks if he can take the seat. Immensely bemused and at the same time taken aback by this recherché question, I stare with one of my hallmark expressions. Only to realize that I was the one lost in manners. I quickly compose myself back to his question and retort, “Of course, it shouldn’t be a question.”
In his young gentleman mode he makes his way to the seat and sits with his baseball cap low to his forehead. I catch him a few times stealing glances at my reading material. I smile inwardly which was probably reflective on my face; I believe warm energy can be felt. Immediately after his last glance, mild but confidently, the young-man inquires, “What are you reading?” I respond, “About African feminism.” He bobs his head as if to say it all makes sense. As if he has been trying to figure me out to finally arrive at the end of his question. Such it was that the answer to his question became the entry point to a deeper (in my conception) conversation. I learn he was born and raised in the South (South Carolina), lived in Harlem (New York) for a few years until the socioeconomic situation drove him out, and now in the west coast. It all starts to make sense, his manner, similar to what they call “southern hospitality”.
It got me thinking about hybrid living and how with its many vicissitudes can offer a disparate composition; experiences that combine to form a new perception. Which then gets me wondering what it would mean for a young-man’s identity to have a north-south hybrid living. I have, quietly, been fascinated with the exchanges and supposed differences between blacks in the north and south. As a black-African-woman living in America, regardless of the determinations I have been made privy to, I have sought to gain a deeper understanding of how the cultural nuances differ and may also stand as a common thread, and whether historical influences extend to the present-day young-black-men identity.
I become more inquisitive and open to understand this young-man, a hybrid of north–south. For this narrative, in order to give the young-man anonymity but at the same time an identity, let us call him “J”. J’s semblance (his language, accent and outfit) is a hybrid of the north and south, and having left both is now searching for his place on the west coast, in an environment that seemingly has less of the supposed north-south identity tension (perhaps not so overtly). It is discernible, and it may be due to his slightly tempestuous feel, that J is wrestling with identity and visibility, traversing every twist and turn. He speaks, holding the hot temper spitting at the edge of his lips, vehemently and at length. Unmitigated I hold his words close, only asking questions when necessary. His words move me and sit heavy on my heart. His sound I hear as a hint of longing to be heard, with hope burning in it. A certain hunger to be known, seen, and made visible. It is often said that to be unheard is like the calm and silent water that drowns a man.
Emphasizing the need to express and free self from the strictures of external definitions and labels, the young-black-man identity (the “othering” factor), he explicitly points out: “You know, we are not all thugs, we may dress a certain way and look a certain way but, we are not thugs.” Wrapped in his own screams he looks the other way not convinced that I was convinced or so I think, and then returns with a brooding look and these words, “All this jewelry I wear doesn’t represent thug life. How does what adorns me make me look like a criminal, who came up with that?” He stresses and repudiates the misfit construction, “You know I imitate the Egyptians, they used to wear jewelry as their everyday custom. Plus, since I’m in the hip-hop industry, it represents a culture, my music culture, and my heritage. ”
Interestingly, sociologist Hebdige (1979) explains that expressive forms such as style are semiotically permeated with a plethora of cultural information. Mostly, in the black-young-culture, as Lipsitz (1994) states, it is rebellion through commodity consumption that can be traced to hip-hop culture, and as Tricia Rose (1994, pp. 25, 33) argues, hip-hop provides young-black-people with an alternative path to identity and social status that creatively combines fashion, music and language to confront a dominant cultural frame that limits these youth to a life of concentrated poverty, crime and loss. Moreover, Baxter and Marina (2008) explain that style expressed through bodily adornment is a sign of material success that demonstrates strength and celebrates the self in ways that are essential for recognition in the subculture.
As J expresses a symbol of cultural pride and demands the recognition of its worth, I find it worthy, in a non-verbal way, to show him that I recognize and acknowledge his fight. Unwaveringly I attend to his words. Just the same I feel he wants to form an alliance or maybe even extend kinship by making me aware of his knowledge of African history. “You didn’t think I knew about my African heritage, did you? You didn’t know I knew anything about the Egyptians wearing jewelry, did you?” I retort with a smile, “I didn’t take time to wonder whether you did or not but, it moves me to know that you do.” In-between this heart-to-heart, from time-to-time he stares at me with a low-gaze queering if I am paying respectful attention to his words. I can tell he has been in the wars, over and over.
As he takes me through parts of his journey, he speaks like a bird that’s injured but still able to fly. Through it all, while the fervor and twist in his tone was like a gimlet piercing its way inside me, J, to me, represents the everyday struggle of a young-black-man attempting to be visible and pleading to be humanized, in America. A profound request (to society) to humanly deconstruct misperception, and at the same time an attempt to be redeemed from a myopic cultural impression that has put him on his back foot.
In expressing subjectivity and identity, J articulates the frustration, fragility, despair, and aspiration of so many young-black-men. He speaks for the many who strive to better their life by attempting to gain the ability to negotiate with a system that has socialized, marginalized, and institutionalized them with a misrepresented identity. Fighting the deepest kind of theft, a culture that loots manhood and ‘others’ them. In this case the ‘other’ can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. In all the survival forms, there is a real sense of urgency within the subculture to show that they are ‘not nothing’, and dressing in style and showing off possessions then becomes a major way to prove that they are something (Hebdige, 1979).
While I mull over the words powered from J’s heart we come to his stop, he abruptly looks up to realize our informal meeting has come to an end. J is not done with his words. He decides to ride with me to the end of my journey. Soon enough we arrive at my stop, and as I start to bid him goodbye he insists to see me out. As we walk out I take account of this journey in order to treasure J’s words and this providence. The pleasure is seemingly mutual as he insists on the depth in being heard and made visible.
J walks me out of the station and to the street. It seems he doesn’t mind paying an additional fare to get back on his journey. Once he gets me on my street-way he extends his brotherly love and struts, in his best New Yorker strut, down the stairs and into the station. I guess this is what they call Southern hospitality, hospitality familiar to my Ethiopian cultural sensibility.