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By Alex Ashlock
Earlier this fall, we met Touré, the journalist and MSNBC cultural commentator, at the Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
African Americans Jim and Gloria Smith founded the club in the 1960s, because they wanted a place to play, but also because they saw value in teaching tennis to inner city kids. Touré, now 40, was one of those kids.
“This place is really special and you see it on the walls, ” he told us. “There’s Arthur Ashe, there’s Gordon Parks, there’s Ted Kennedy, which tells you how important and interesting this was for the community.”
Toure’s experiences at Sportsmen’s inform his new book, “Who’s Afraid Of Post-Blackness: What It Means To Be Black Today.” For him, to be black “means to be rooted in but not constrained by blackness. It means that everybody gets the chance to decide how to embody and perform blackness for themselves and it’s not for someone else to come along and say, ‘Well this is my narrow vision of what it means to be black and you’re outside of that.'”
The book received some glowing reviews, but Harvard’s Randall Kennedy wrote: “If post-black opens the door to everything, does that mean that anyone can rightly be deemed ‘Black’? Just suppose that Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, as a joke, declared themselves to be black. If there really are no restraints on blackness, no boundaries distinguishing ‘Blacks’ from ‘non-Blacks,’ then it follows that there would be no basis on which to deny their claim. That, in my view, would be unsatisfactory.”
We asked Touré about that criticism, and he said “Look, I’m talking about liberation. I’m talking about everybody being able to embody blackness the way they want to. And not some sort of dogmatic box conception of this is what it means to be black and if you go outside that you’re not black.”
It was interesting to observe Touré as he came back to this place where he says he received the “black nutrients” he needed. Right away, he started commentating on the young players he was watching on the same courts he used to play on, and he told us this story:
“They made me play my little sister on this court with a bunch of people watching. And I think I was 11 and she was 10. She has nothing to lose. She’s my little sister, she’s playing her heart out. I have everything to lose, even if it’s close that’s bad. So she doesn’t even have to win to win. I’m afraid to lose a point and she’s like, ‘This is great, I’m just gonna hit out as hard as I can, I don’t care what happens!’ And I beat her, but I remember my mom being like… ‘[That’s] not fair.'”
Touré also told us that, “A lot of the people who came out of [the Sportsmen’s club] in my generation did big things. One of the guys works at Merrill Lynch, one of the women worked with the Oprah show as a producer, one of the guys went into the Navy, one of the guys is a teacher with the USTA, my sister is a doctor. So a lot of people did things. It’s not like I’m the only person who did something.”
Forty Million Ways to Be Black
Once, I went skydiving. For about four minutes in 2007 I was above—and plummeting rapidly toward—a small town in the middle of the Florida panhandle. Jumped out of the plane solo at 14,000 feet. I did it for a TV show called “I’ll Try Anything Once” in which every week I accepted fear-inducing challenges. On the way to the skydiving center the production team stopped for lunch at a restaurant where three middle-aged Black men who worked there recognized me from TV and came over to our table to say hi. We got to talking and they asked what I was doing there. I told them I was on my way to go skydiving. Their faces went cold. They were stunned. One of them said, in a conspiratorial tone and at a volume meant to slide under the sonic radar of the white people sitting right beside me, “Brother, Black people don’t do that.” The other two nodded in agreement. They quickly glanced at the rest of my team and then back at me as if that clinched their point: The only people doing this risk-your-life, crazy foolishness are some loony white boys and you. As they saw it I was breaking the rules of Blackness. I was afraid but not about breaking the invisible rule book.
The plane was old and small with only a seat for the pilot, barely enough room for five adults to sit on the floor, and not enough height to stand. There was one clear, thin, plastic, rickety door that didn’t look strong enough to keep people from falling through it. The walls of the little plane were so thin that the sound of the engine permeated them completely. In order to be heard you had to yell. The plane did not move with the efficiency and grace you want from a plane, it reminded me of an old dying car that sputters and wheezes and makes you pray it’ll start and keep running until you get there. As it climbed into the sky it seemed to be saying, “I think I can, I think I can.” If I hadn’t been scheduled to jump out for the sake of television, I would’ve listened to the voice inside me yelling “Bail!”
At 14,000 feet the thin plastic door—which recalled a grandmother’s couch protector—was pushed up and through the open maw you could feel the oppressively fast, hard, uninviting wind slashing by, daring you to play deadly games. You could barely see the Earth below, large buildings now smaller than ants, acre-sized fields tinier than a baby’s palm. My eyes were saucer wide, my palms were soaked, my heart was banging in my chest as if looking for a way out, saying, “You can go, but I’m staying here in the plane.” The breathless terror enveloping me as a jump virgin was not assuaged by my macho divemaster, Rick, a former cop and Marine with a military-style buzzcut who owns the drop zone, jumps twenty times a day, and finds the fear of newbies funny. Rick thought gallows humor was appropriate at that moment. With the door open he said, “Just remember, no matter what happens . . . I’m going to be all right.” He laughed. I did not. He was going to jump out after me but he wasn’t going to be on my back. I was going solo. Or as he put it, I was going to have the chance to save my own life.
As I scooted on my butt toward the open door—the wind vacuuming angrily like one of those horror movie vortices that’ll suck you into another world—my mind said, “No! No! No!” I was directly violating my constitution as a human, which places a very high value on survival, minimization of physical risk, and not dying. Sliding toward the open door of a plane hovering at 14,000 feet was overriding the instinct in my reptilian brain. Still, I got in the doorway and grabbed hold of the sides of the plane. I could feel the wind smacking me in the face. I could barely see the ground. I could not imagine letting go. Then Rick began to count down from three. I told myself, “You will let go when he says go. You will not hesitate.” I needed to tell myself those things because my body was semi-paralyzed. Rick said two. My frontal lobe tried to veto the whole thing. Can’t we just wimp out and let the plane take us back to the ground? Then Rick said go. And I just let go. And I was falling.
Freefall does not feel like falling. It feels like floating but without the peace we associate with floating. Things are moving at supersonic speed and the virgin skydiver’s mind can’t keep up, can’t process all that’s going on, so it’s a chaotic blur with the wind so loud you can’t hear yourself think and can’t hear yourself screaming. I think I was screaming for about ten seconds before I even realized it. And I kept trying to grab on to something, anything, but there was nothing, just air.
They tell you to keep your head bent upward and to not look down at the Earth because the view is awesome, and more important the weight of your head will send you into a spin or at least into the wrong dive position. But I looked down. Couldn’t help it. And that sent me spinning heels over head and then hurtling down back first for a tumultuous forty-five seconds of twisting and turning and upside-down plunging, falling toward Earth with everything happening too fast to realize how screwed up everything was and how terrified I should’ve been. I pulled the cord but because I was in the wrong dive position—still falling on my back—part of the parachute coiled around my arm and did not unfurl. I looked up and saw this thread wrapped twice around my right forearm as I kept falling to the ground. If I did nothing I would’ve died eight or nine seconds later. But reader, I promise you, I was calm. I did not panic one bit. The voice in my mind was cool. With the same inner tone I might use to say to myself, “Hmm, we’re out of pretzels,” I said to myself, “Hmm, the chute’s wrapped around my arm.”
The day before my dive, during my eight-hour training class, Rick told me what to do if this happened: just shake your arm and the cord should come loose. So at about 5,000 feet from the ground—which skydivers know is next to nothing—I shook my arm as if shooing off a fly. The cord came loose and the chute went free and unfurled above me, breaking my fall.
Suddenly, the sturm und drang of freefall gave way to peace. I was floating gently, like a snowflake. All was quiet. I could look up and see the sun playing peekaboo amidst the clouds and below I saw tiny cars and buildings and fields. I felt like a speck of dust blowing in the cosmos at the whim of a much, much larger force conducting a massive, magnificent opera. And in that moment, the perspective I gained from being thousands of feet in the air made me fully grasp how small a part of this world I am. It made me as absolutely certain of the presence of God as I have ever been. That bird’s eye view of Earth and the soul-stirring meditative quiet I was wrapped up in made me feel like a tiny dot in His awesomely sculpted world, a minute particle floating through a gigantic universe that will outlast me by a long ways.
This is His world, not mine, I’m just a visitor and should be thankful for the few days I have. It was the most deeply spiritual experience of my life. I went skydiving and ended up in church. If I’d turned down the opportunity to skydive because “Black people don’t do that” I would’ve robbed myself of an experience I needed to get closer to God. And who would deny me that? If I never go skydiving again I’ll always carry with me the more tangible and concrete belief in Him that I got from that day. That’s a profound gift. If I’d let being Black hold me back from skydiving I would’ve cheated myself out an opportunity to grow as a human.
To be born Black is an extraordinary gift bestowing access to an unbelievably rich legacy of joy. It’ll lift you to ecstasy and give you pain that can make you stronger than you imagined possible. To experience the full possibilities of Blackness, you must break free of the strictures sometimes placed on Blackness from outside the African-American culture and also from within it. These attempts to conscript the potential complexity of Black humanity often fly in the face of the awesome breadth of Black history. If I’d believed that Blacks don’t skydive I would perhaps have disrespected the courageous Black paratroopers of World War II—the 555th was an all-Black unit that valiantly jumped over twelve hundred times. Some Blacks may see the range of Black identity as something obvious but I know there are many who are unforgiving and intolerant of Black heterogeneity and still believe in concepts like “authentic” or “legitimate” Blackness. There is no such thing.
Excerpted from Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now by Touré. Copyright 2011 by Touré. Published by Free Press.