Recently, I’ve been thinking about the public self, and the nerdery cornerstone of social awkwardness.
I know I’ve had my share of not fitting in places, but I think being a performer (theater, choir, etc.) helped insulate me from some of that awkwardness.
It’s a practiced extraversion that helped me create a social lubrication to make me pleasant enough to know a lot of different people. It’s easier to grease the wheels by being “on.”
What I am finding out these days is something I had forgotten. To act pleasantly bold often invites said boldness upon you. I have been lucky and blessed to support bold, creative people, and to keep them close to me. And in doing so, such boldness comes back to me. The attention finds me.
I only hope that, when the attention comes, I play along ably if I like it, and stand up and object to it when I don’t.
Sometimes attention finds me while I’m cosplaying as a medieval Thor at a renaissance faire. And other times, it’s when a burlesque performer rides me like a seesaw in front of my wife and friends.
Being in the spotlight is OK, but I am apprehensive of being on display. This is less from the nerd side of my personality equation, and more from the black side.
Black people have a long history, under white-supremacist racism, of being put on display in a way that depicts us as inhuman. Whether it be as freak or fascinator, marvel or monstrosity, being on display strips us of humanity. We can be less than human, treated as objects. Or we can be made more than human, made to carry expectations and representations no one person should bear.
As a frequent black face in white spaces, I am well acquainted with both forms of that attention.
When I was 13 in a new high school – an all-boys, suburban Catholic prep school with maybe a dozen black boys in it – I sang karaoke in front of my classmates at an overnight orientation. Word spread quickly about me, and during breaks at school sometimes I would take sing songs from the radio for fun. The other boys started giving me money for this, typically the change from their pockets.
A few days into this, my homeroom teacher pulled me into an empty classroom. He didn’t like what he saw. I was having my own fun, but he saw kids degrading me. In his own coded way, he expressed his displeasure at seeing suburban white kids throw coins at the black city kid to perform a trick.
Soon, he said, those kids would be throwing the coins at me, instead of toward me. He was right. I never sang at school again unless on the theater stage or in church.
Constance Wu, who plays the mom Jessica Huang on ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat, won’t do Jessica’s Taiwanese-accented voice in interviews. “It’s not a party trick,” Wu says.
A couple of years ago, I was at a friend’s house party on a Saturday afternoon in June. I’m in one of those circles of people standing on a back deck, beers in hand, talking with a bunch of folks. All white folks. So it is.
And one guy, nerdy guy, I’ve been talking with a lot, joking along and such. And then the racialized comments start happening. Jokey nudges at racial types, you know the deal.
Now, I’m pretty outspoken about my race as just being a part of me. But I get to talk about my race because it’s mine. If a white person discusses my race, given the social and power dynamics, it can get bigoty real fast, especially if it’s coming from a place of trying to show they’re “down” or “cool” with me.
After a few of these racialized comments, I said, matter-of-factly, before everyone, “Before we go any further, I want you to know that your comments about me being the only black person here just further point out how I’m the only black person here, and it’s not cool. I like you, don’t feel bad, just don’t do it.” And then I went right back to the conversation.
He apologized later. I’m used to apologies. So it goes.
Sometimes I wonder if my being different, being not white in a very white space, is what draws this attention. As my mother said to me last year, “What, they like having a cool black guy around?” Am I fully human in this situation, this relationship, this social setting?
I’m not here to be a token. I’m not that singular, or exceptional, or special. As I’ve said before in this column, I’m no Special Negro.
So it was nice that in two recent moments of my nerdly pursuits, I had that attention thrown upon me, but in a fun way that was because I’m black. No surprise, it was from other black people amid a bunch of white people.
In essence, it was a version of “the nod” – a practice born of recognition, solidarity and self-defense by black faces in predominately white spaces.
My wife and I went with a friend to a Robin Hood-themed festival in our renfair circuit a few weeks ago, attending a five-course feast and joined by festival entertainers giving us adults-only ribald songs and jokes.
We’re in full costume, too. I’m dressed as a renfair version of Thor, with my Mjolnir hammer and all, drinking a combo of mead and cider. I’m feeling bearded and rowdy. Perfect renfair attitude.
A band comes in, and they have a black man in the group. He sees me, points my way and says, “Hey! Another black guy!”
I point back and yell, “My brother! We here!”
Later that day, the festival’s director of entertainment, who is white, strolls up to us and starts chatting to me about auditioning for the festival after hearing me at the feast’s sing-alongs. He jokes about finding a black man at the renfair, based on the joke at the feast earlier.
He also says in seriousness that he’s insistent on a more diverse and inclusive cast for his productions. Having gone to his renfair shows for the past two years, and seeing people of color in his casts, I know it to be true. I wouldn’t be a token here, even if I were the only black face.
Here, I wouldn’t be on display. I’d be seen.
When a friend tells me, “It’s good to see you,” I always replay with, “It’s good to be seen.” When you do something awesome, folks say, “I see you,” to show high regard and to countenance your special presence.
To be seen is wonderful.
Sometimes, being seen turns into getting elaborately manhandled by a gorgeous, almost-naked woman in front of my wife and friends.
It was a pretty normal Sunday evening at a monthly burlesque show produced by a couple of awesome performers, Vanil LaFrappe and Vivienne LaFlamme. The wife and I got dolled up, a stunning stylish friend rode along with us.
We had fine food, good drinks, lots of laughs with good performers. I even was conscripted into a sexy dance contest, which puts my all-time record at 3-1. (Don’t ask about the other times.)
But none of that prepared me for when the Incredible, Edible Akynos took the stage as the feature performer. She arrived, fierce in her brown skin with a giant golden Afro, curvy and festooned in tiny slip of a one-strap golden dress she keeps shifting to reveal a leg out of a slit, to pull back up over one gold-pastied breast.
“Don’t give it all away yet!” I yell over the music.
I’m shouting and hollering and woof-woofing as usual. At burlesque, I love to cheer, and I like to be fun about it. When a performer removes a glove? “Whoa, there’s a hand!” When the other glove falls? “Oh my, there’s another hand!”
Akynos throws a glove at me and points for me to sit up front as she puts on a show of splits, bends and acrobatic sexy.
She points at me again and gestures to stand beside her, and I comply. “Lie down!” she commands, pointing at the floor. So I do, suit and tie and all, my arms outstretched.
Akynos straddles me facing forward and bounces several times, dropping her bottom onto my pelvis so hard I swear I can hear a boom. She turns around for reverse cowgirl, and BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.
She backs up her rear onto my face, her hands stretching down my legs. She backs up more, draping her breasts over my face and violently shaking them onto it, knocking my glasses askew. And I’ll tell you, those pasties slap hard.
She sits on my lap, leans back for a kiss and says, “You’re awesome.”
The whole time, I’m laughing my ass off. Playing along, I stumble away, shaken and in shambles.
What. The. Hell. Just. Happened?!?!?!
After the show, somehow I gathered the strength to face my lovely attacker.
Akynos and I talked about how when she got up to perform, we shared a look and point that was “the nod” par excellence.
“I saw you and thought, ‘Oh, so we in here!’” I said, the both of us laughing.
As she headed out for the night, she turned back at me.
“Good night, black man,” she said.
Good night, indeed.
As I said, it’s good to be seen.