It was a year ago that I tried sweet potato pie for the first time.
Now, I am white and, though I have lived in Atlanta for 20 years, I am not originally from the South. So, this first bite of pie is not really all that surprising. My Black colleagues, however, were stunned when I told them. We were eating together at a potluck in our school building, back before COVID when things like this took place. One even took out her phone to record me as I took the fateful bite, interviewing me for her Instagram account.
Let’s get this out of the way: the pie was only okay. I’m a pumpkin kind of guy, so the sweet potato seemed a little cloying. I respect differing opinions, of course, this even as one of my Black friends describes pumpkin pie as “that dense cheesecake brick.” But I digress.
A few days later in the hall, I was chatting about all the orange pies when a former student walked by. “Ah, Wamsted,” he said, his eyebrows raised and a smile on his face as he heard about my sweet potato foray. “You thinking about getting your Black card, huh?” We all laughed as he clapped me on the back. Later, though, I was troubled.
At risk of offending, I want to explain by invoking the ‘Magical Negro.’ Spike Lee coined this term to describe a certain kind of cinematic Black character—a secondary player providing support to the leading white character(s), often in the form of mystical insight, wisdom or even superhuman powers. Common examples include Bubba from “Forest Gump,” Red from “The Shawshank Redemption,” and Morpheus from “The Matrix.” And further back in our fiction we find Sambo and Uncle Remus. With all deference to Lee, however, in this piece, I am going to avoid a term I don’t want to write repeatedly and use a euphemism. I will call these “magical Black characters.”
The interaction with my student bothered me because it forced an uncomfortable truth to mind, one that became unavoidable in the summer of 2020. Let me mix metaphors here, because sometimes important ideas are seen best in figurative language. For the most part, too many white people want a magical Black character to walk into the scenery of our lives and hand us our Black card, tell us that we are “good white people” and that our anti-racism work is sufficient and finished. We want to be known as allies, and we are searching for a magical Black character to give us that good news. Movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” appeal to us on an atavistic level because we want someone like Red to exonerate us of our individual and corporate sins of racism.
For some of us, that magical Black character is our “Black friend”—perhaps not unlike the one I invoked earlier when discussing the pie. For many it will take the form of a constellation of acquaintances on social media—“Black Lives Matter” selfies run rampant for a reason. For others, we hope to meet that character in some sort of professional training or continuing education. We want a licensed expert to certify us as “culturally competent” after we read a couple of articles about implicit bias and take part in a few carefully monitored conversations. In any case, what many of us white people are looking for is someone to hand us our Black card. We want to get to the other side of race in America; we want someone to graduate us out of prejudice and bias.
It is tempting to seek this easy way out of our legacy of racism and white supremacy. I know because I have fallen prey before. Once I was leaving a meeting, packing up my bags as I overheard a conversation bouncing around the room. It was an intimate space, a dozen or so teachers who all knew each other well, and so I was surprised when the room went just a tiny bit tense. We were talking about television, and someone had described the old show “Seinfeld” as “white people humor.” A laugh rattled around the room, but enough eyes cut to the only white person present that I could sense a certain nervousness.
I leaned in and smiled. Someone confessed, “Wamsted, I never understood that show. But you guys still watch it, right?” “Oh yeah,” I said. “White people watch ‘Seinfeld’ all the time. They love it.” The way I hit the differentiating “they” instead of the inclusive “we” tore the room apart. I couldn’t even keep a straight face amidst the laughter. In that instant, I was a part of something outside my whiteness; it was the first time I saw a shot at my Black card, and it felt good.
Full disclosure. I love “Seinfeld” about as much as I love pumpkin pie. That is to say, a lot. After I left the building, however, headed home to my white family, my race turned from a joke into something far more insidious. I may have caught a glimpse of my Black card, but I was still the privileged guy walking around in white skin, the one who never has to worry about race or racism when I browse around a store or get pulled over by the police. The one who has nothing for fear for his children when they wander through our neighborhood streets.
The truth is that a magical Black character clapping me on the back and declaring me an ally in one moment means little in the next. I still live in this country built upon white supremacy; I still have a constant obligation to work towards dismantling its power structure. Isolated moments of camaraderie or allyship, however real, do not make me an anti-racist.
I settled that day in the “Seinfeld” meeting, basked in the hope of getting my Black card, felt like a part of the club and let that be enough. To be fair, I had earned the moment, working side by side with my colleagues for the better part of a decade. But it is ridiculous for me to expect some magical Black character to step in and declare me “good white people.” Worse than ridiculous, it is insidious; I have anti-racist work to do still, always. A bite of sweet potato pie or a laugh about “white people humor” cannot change that fact.
I settled once, but I’m working hard to keep it from happening again. As Gwendolyn Brooks wrote,
There are no magic or elves or timely godmothers to guide us. We … must wizard a track through our own screaming weed.
There is no Black card, no pass through the screaming weed of whiteness, no magical Black character to guide us out of the fever dream of 2020. Only the everyday work of striving toward anti-racism in 2021.
With occasional stops for pie. However you might choose to take it.