In this excerpt from my novel Dominion, the main character Clarence Abernathy, a black journalist, shares about his experiences as a black man with his friend and coworker Jake Woods (the main character of the previous novel Deadline). What Clarence shares echoes what every black man, from poor guys to rich ones, told me when I interviewed many black Americans while researching Dominion. (See also this article I shared from Shai Linne, a firsthand account that encourages understanding and empathy.)
Jake and Clarence headed to their favorite nearby hangout, the Main Street Deli, two blocks down and across the street. They staked out a table and hung their coats over the chairs. Jake was about to get in line at the counter when he caught the expression on Clarence’s face and decided to sit down.
“How are you doing?”
Clarence paused for a moment, looking uncertain whether he should say something. Finally it came out. “Do you ever get tired, Jake? Just tired of life?”
“Sometimes. But...what exactly do you mean?”
“It’s like I told you before. Sometimes I just get tired of being black.”
“But it’s fine to be black. That’s the way God made you.”
“Yeah, I know. And it’s easy to say that...when you’re white. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ashamed to be black. It’s just that it’s so draining.”
“What do you mean? Tell me—I really want to understand.”
Clarence sighed, weighing how much he should say. Finally, he jumped in. “Growing up, I thought about my skin color every time I saw a white person. Every time I watched Sky King and The Lone Ranger, looked at all the billboards, paged through Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Life. Everybody was white. Everybody. The politicians, the astronauts, everybody but the janitor, the street sweeper, and some of the athletes. If I was away from home and forgot about my skin color for a few minutes, when it was time to find a restroom I remembered.”
“But it’s different now. Isn’t it?”
“What? Mississippi?” Clarence laughed half-heartedly, running his index finger beneath his right ear. “No more colored restrooms, if that’s what you mean. Racism wears different clothes now. It’s less overt, more subtle, more disguised. But laws change more quickly than hearts do. Thing is, you know how I’ve said I want people to be colorblind? Well, it’s not realistic. They’re not. I’m not. Things constantly remind me of my color. I can’t get away from it. It haunts me, dogs me, forces me to spend so much time and energy.” He sighed. “Anyway, no use talkin’ about it. Doesn’t change anything. Let’s order. There’s already a line.”
They walked up to the line, six people ahead of them. After a minute of silence, Jake said, “Okay, Clarence. I’m not dropping the subject this time. What reminds you of your skin color right now?”
Clarence moaned, pretending he didn’t want to talk about it. He looked around the room. “How many people in this place?”
“I don’t know, three dozen? Maybe forty?”
“How many blacks?”
“Counting you? Three.”
“There’s the first reason. When you’re in the majority, you don’t have to think of your skin color. When you’re in the minority, you do.”
“Okay, but I see what, two or three Latinos? And that guy looks American Indian. And there’s maybe four Asians—Japanese or Korean or Chinese. Are they thinking about their race?”
“Probably. I don’t know. Now the Hispanics, maybe their great-grandfather’s land was stolen by the U.S. Or maybe they just came to America in the last twenty years, and hey, it’s a lot better than Mexico, even if you can’t buy a decent tortilla here. But you don’t have a lot of Latinos who were forced to live in this country at gunpoint. They could cross the border if they wanted to. The Asians, they came to succeed in business. They can get a loan from the bank; they’re considered good credit risks. And above all, they’re here because they want to be.”
“I want to be here, Jake. But is that why I’m here? No. I’m here because some of your ancestors decided to put chains on some of my ancestors, kidnap them, throw them on a slave ship, and bring them over here for cheap labor.”
Jake looked startled, wondering if this was the payback for wanting to listen.
Clarence held up his hands. “I’m not as bitter as I sound. And I don’t hold it against you personally, bro. You didn’t put chains on my ancestors, march them to those ships, starve and humiliate and rape them, steal their families and their culture from them, beat them down until they’d submit to white dominion. You didn’t put my ancestors on that ship. And you didn’t preach from a Christian pulpit that black men had no souls. I know that. But it still hurts; it hurts more than I can ever tell you.
“So I’m just saying, the Asians here may be a little self-conscious, but it’s different. The Hispanics are feeling out of place, but it’s different too. The American Indian, well, he may feel the most like I do right now. This whole land used to be his, although as bad as it is to have your land stolen, I think it’s even worse to have your body stolen. But one thing’s for sure. Of the thirty white people in this room, none of them are thinking about being white. They don’t have to.”
“Okay,” Jake said. “That makes sense. And you’re saying always having to think about race wears you out.”
“Well, sure, but that’s not all. You get the looks. People treat you different. Like a couple months ago when we went to the car dealers and those two salesmen came up to you and I got boxed out of the conversation like I didn’t exist. As if black men don’t buy cars, they just steal them.”
“I didn’t realize what was happening until you pointed it out. I’m sorry for that.”
“I know. And I didn’t blame you. I wouldn’t expect you to notice. I mean, it isn’t happening to you. I probably wouldn’t notice either if it was happening to someone else.”
Jake looked at the five people standing in front of them. “Man, this line’s taking forever.”
“The girl who’s taking orders. Recognize her?” Clarence asked.
“She’s been here almost every day since Marcia quit two weeks ago. Don’t really know her yet.”
“How would you describe her? Friendly?”
“Super friendly. Why?”
“Okay, Mr. Veteran Journalist, let’s do a little research here. Watch how she relates to the two guys in front of us.”
“Okay.” Jake watched and listened.
“Will that be all, sir?” she asked. “Thank you. Hope you enjoy it.” The customer said something to her, and she laughed delightfully. The man in front of Clarence and Jake stepped forward.
“Yes, sir? Managing to keep dry today? What can I do for you?” Same enthusiasm. She rang up the order, took his money, and said, “Thank you, sir. Have a great day.”
“Watch closely,” Clarence whispered to Jake as he stepped forward.
The girl looked down as if she were reading something off the register. “Can I help you?” she asked Clarence. Jake noticed the warmth and enthusiasm were gone. So was the “sir.”
Clarence ordered. They didn’t engage in small talk. She handed him his change, saying nothing. Clarence stepped away, and she looked at Jake.
“Afternoon! How can I help you, sir? Can I talk you into our special? Turkey on rye with cream cheese.”
Jake looked stunned.
“Are you all right, sir?”
“No. I don’t think I am. My friend who was in front of me. Why did you talk to him like that?”
“You were...different with him.”
“Different? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.” She looked around as if fearing a supervisor would overhear this.
“Drop it, Jake,” Clarence said.
“No, I won’t.” He looked at her. “My friend here—”
“I said drop it.”
Jake set his jaw and ordered the special, even though he hated cream cheese. They got to the table and put down their plastic number.
“Clarence, why did you tell me to drop it?”
“I was just making a point, not trying to solve the world’s problems. She probably doesn’t even know she’s doing it. Just the way she was raised, I guess.”
“But she did treat you different.”
“Of course she did. This is the third time I’ve been here since she started working. It was just like this the other two times.”
“Well, I don’t appreciate how she acted. It isn’t right.”
“Yeah, and most of the world is right, is that what you’re saying? Hey, you’re not going to change this woman,” Clarence said. “No telling what she’s been through. Maybe some blacks beat her up once. Who knows?”
“Well, that doesn’t justify how she treated you.”
“But if I hadn’t told you to pay attention, you wouldn’t have even noticed it. That’s why when you ask whites—my fellow conservatives, anyway—if there’s still racism, they’ll say maybe a little, but not much, and they’ll go on and on about reverse racism. I don’t really blame them. They can only see what happens to them. They can’t see what I see, because they don’t live inside black skin.”
“It bothers me, Clarence. I want to do something about it.” Clarence thought he saw a tear in the corner of Jake’s eye. It surprised him.
“You did the best you could. You saw it. You didn’t tell me I was just oversensitive, that I imagined the whole thing.”
“It was so obvious,” Jake said.
“Only if your eyes are open to it. Same thing happened when we were in here last week. You didn’t notice then. It’s no different than what I get a dozen times a day.”
“Really. Well, maybe not a dozen anymore. But a couple anyway. Remember a few weeks ago when Geneva and I were out to dinner with you and Janet?”
“At Red Robin’s?”
“Right. When the waiter brought the check, do you remember me being a little irritable? Later Geneva told me it showed.”
“Yeah, I do remember. You seemed upset. Janet and I couldn’t figure it out.”
“How many times have we been out to dinner together, the four of us?” “I don’t know,” Jake said. “Over a dozen.”
“Pop quiz. Every single place we’ve been, every single time when the servers come up with the check, what have they done with it?”
“Put it on the table.”
“Well, yes, but who do they put it in front of?”
Jake looked bewildered, then the light turned on. “Me?”
“Every time. No exceptions. Do you know how that makes me feel?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Like the white man has to pick up the tab for the black man. Like black men don’t make money, or if they do they spend it on drugs or fancy cars. I know the dance, Jake.”
“You always want to pick up the tab,” Jake said. “I have to arm wrestle you so I can pay my share.”
“Usually I don’t let it bother me like that. But I’ve just been fed up lately. Geneva says I’m under stress. Anyway, that’s what happened that night. Then we went over to the mall, to Meier & Frank, remember? Well, we hadn’t been there five minutes before the security guard was on me like white on rice. Finally, Geneva and I went and sat on a bench. It just takes the fun out of shopping.”
“I knew something was wrong,” Jake said. “But I had no idea what. Why didn’t you just tell me?”
Clarence shrugged. “Sounds like whining, doesn’t it? Like I’m another over-sensitive black man. Besides, it’s a little embarrassing.”
“Still, I wish you’d told me. It makes sense now, but I was in the dark. Clarence... I didn’t realize stuff like this still happens.”
Clarence shrugged. “Did you hear what happened when I dropped by Hugh’s house a few weeks ago?”
“What?” Jake didn’t know Hugh well, only that he was the ex-all-American sports editor.
“We go into his house and his phone rings. I’m standing right there when he answers, and I can tell he’s uncomfortable. He says, ‘No, everything’s okay. Thanks for calling. No, I understand.’ So I’m standing there trying to get Hugh to tell me who it was.”
“So who was it?”
“The neighbor lady. One of those neighborhood watch communities, you know. She was calling to tell Hugh there was a black man on his porch. When Hugh told me, I busted out laughing.”
“But it really wasn’t funny, was it?”
“No.” He looked deadly serious now. “Sometimes you laugh because you’re tired of getting mad. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me, I’m so used to it. But when I’m at a low ebb, it gets to me. The thing is, at my last two churches in Gresham, I was the only black man. People think they know me, but they don’t. They don’t describe me as the smart guy or the friendly guy or the guy that loves his family. I’m ‘that big black guy.’ I don’t blame them for that. But my skin color doesn’t say anything about what’s inside, good or bad.”
“To be honest,” Jake said, “a few times I’ve thought maybe you were reading in racism when it wasn’t there. But I’m starting to see it differently.”
“I’m sure sometimes I do read it in. But when you know it’s real with some people, it’s hard not to assume it’s there with others. Like when I was working part-time as a chauffeur when I was in college. All the guys would tell what they made in tips every day. And I always made the least, even though I swear I worked harder than any of them. There’s no way I can prove white people wouldn’t give me decent tips because I was black. But I’ll always believe that. Maybe it’s my own fault. I put my expectations too high. Now my dad, he learned not to expect too much, so he’s usually not so disappointed.”
After several seconds of silence, Jake reached across the table and put his hand on Clarence’s shoulder. “Thanks for telling me this, friend.”
“Hey…thanks for listening.”