Sunday, May 21, 2006

Treat yo mama right

Last Friday after work I made the five and a half hour drive from North Carolina to Atlanta for a surprise visit to my mom for the Mother's Day weekend. My pops and my siblings managed to keep my trip secret, though my father did come dangerously close to revealing my plans. (Daddy on the phone with my mom in the room: "So Quint, what time are you getting in on Friday?...Uhhh, I mean what time are you getting in next Friday?) But for the most part, all went according to plan.

My folks live in the suburbs southeast of Atlanta in a neighborhood where modest homes are surrounded by large wooded lots. There are no street lights. It's quiet. Without the moonlight, the night is black and still. I arrived to an empty house a little after 10:00 Friday night. When I drove up the long driveway and saw that none of the family cars were there, I knew that I had a least a few minutes to hatch a little scheme.

I backed out of the driveway and drove around the corner, my headlights catching the glimmering eyes of some darting animal. I parked my car just beyond the mini-forest that separates my parents' house from the adjacent street. No one would spot the black car with its dark tinted windows in the dead of the night. Whether or not someone would spot me was a different story. There are no sidewalks in the neighborhood and pedestrians are rare, especially after sunset. So I ran the quarter-mile back to my house hoping no one would see me, a black man with a duffle bag cutting through the darkness.

When I got home I caught my breath and waited for the action. I sat in the room closest to the driveway so that I could hear or see anyone coming home. After a few minutes, the headlights of my mom's truck pierced the blinds. I crawled into a crouching position behind a door. All the lights in the house were off.

I heard the key turn and the door creak open. Both of my parents walked in, my father first. They were talking about the movie they'd just seen, Mission Impossible III, I think. They dropped their keys and kicked off their shoes.

My father walked into the living room and past my hiding spot. He saw me and we both smiled. "We're gonna get you good this time, Mama," I thought. "Real good." I choked a laugh and then heard her approaching.

I saw her just before she saw me. I jumped out and hollered like I didn't have no damn sense. My mom screamed for about three seconds, took a quick breath, and then screamed again, the second one short and sharp. Her eyes were wide and her lips quivered. I doubled over in laughter.

"Happy Mother's Day, Mama!"

"Quint! Where'd you come from? Don't do that!"

"Ahhhh, got ya good that time, Mama." I laughed for the next twenty minutes.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Another Day in the Life

A newspaper's editorial boardroom is a place where the noblest ideas are crafted and honed. It's the sanctuary of the fourth estate where the burden of objectivity is cast aside in pursuit of the unadulterated truth -- where writers, reporters and editors can freely discuss what to tell their readers to think about the most controversial issues. Come to the boardroom with me. Things are not always what they seem.

I sit at a table with five others. I'm the only black person in the room (and the whole company). I'm surrounded by white, self-described progressives who lean to the left on all the major issues: healthcare, taxation, education and, of course, race relations. Our conversation is heated, opinionated, combative even. The debate is also punctuated with several awkward moments, all of them at my expense.

Peter, a fiftysomething who sits to my left, looks and gestures in my direction each time he mentions a black person or some issue that black folks might care about. "African Americans are really going to make a difference on this issue," he says before looking at me with a smirk. I ignore his glance, thinking nothing of it.

"Black males are dropping out of school at alarming rates." Peter and I lock eyes. His glance is a reminder that I'm black, I figure, just like those black people we're talking about. I nod in appreciation. I had forgotten.

"What do you guys think about the candidacy of Vernon Robinson, the so-called black Jesse Helms," Peter asks. He and I again lock eyes. His are so beautiful, so blue -- full of wonder and amazement. "I don't know why I look at you every time I talk about black people," he says with a nervous chuckle.

"Neither do I," I reply. I hold his gaze until he averts his.

Kelly, an arts reporter, tries to cut the tension. "Quint reminds you of Jesse Helms, right?" My editor clears his throat.

We ease back into the conversation, but Peter's looks continue, one after another. My other colleagues, who, it seems, have had more experience with their darker counterparts, shift embarrassingly in their creaky wooden chairs. After Peter's next glance, Barbara, a dogged, take-no-prisoners investigative reporter, sternly says, "Can you please stop tokenizing Quint?" We all glare at Peter and he murmurs something unintelligible.

"No, Barbara, that's okay," I say. "This is really fun. You all should try. I will stare at each of you every time we mention white people. Don't let the fact that you're all white and in the majority stop you from feeling uncomfortable."

When it came time to offer my retaliatory glances, I looked at each of my coworkers in turn, starting with Peter and working my way around the table. No one noticed.

"The NAACP has been reinvigorated in this region," someone said some time later. Peter whipped his head in my direction but caught his eyes before they met mine. Progress happens slowly, I suppose, on issues big and small.