It was 1988, my sophomore year at college. I was in a friend’s dorm room with about a hundred other people playing cards and enjoying a Friday night. It was loud. Music was playing on a stereo. People were laughing, hollering, throwing things, sitting on top of one another. You know, a typical college dorm party. In the background of this chaos, a black and white tv was playing “Friday Night Videos” (click the link if you have no idea how cool that show was). The volume was off, or at least inaudible amongst the cacophony of noise in the room. The screen was more salt-and-pepper static, because the tv’s antenna was a wire coat hanger sticking out the back. Thus, the picture was blurry, jumbled, coming in and out of visibility. And then, there she was. The first thing I remember seeing was this black face with nappy, finger-twisted hair. “What the hell is THAT?” I wondered. I mean, of course I knew that it was a black woman. But it was 1988. MTV and FNV were as segregated as any church or dance club in America. About the only black musicians on at the time were Prince and Michael Jackson. The only women were sex-bots that were mere Barbie’s without brains. This beautiful black woman on the fuzzy screen across the room was as alien as a literal alien.
The video was fading in and out from the interference. People in the room – totally oblivious to what was on the tv – kept blocking my view. And the video itself, a collection of images coming in and out of shadows, made for difficult viewing. After a few seconds of disbelief at what I was watching, followed by a few seconds of frustration from poor visibilibity, I lept up from my chair and found my way over to the tv to fix the antenna and turn up the volume.
I was speechless…..
To me, it was like everything in the world froze. I heard nothing but this song, barely audible through the tv static and the room noise. People may have beeen bumping into me, or even talking to me. I don’t remember. I just remember listening intently to the soft acoustic guitar and sparse instrumental accompaniment, waiting impatiently for the end of the video when it would reveal the name of the singer and the song. I remember praying that the interference would hold off long enough to show those vital pieces of information. And then finally, blessedly, there it was:
As I remember, I went to the record store the next day and bought the tape. Whether I got it the next day or the next week is less important than the power her music had over me and the impact she had on my identity and my consciousness.
I have difficulty explaining how different life was -from a racial standpoint- back in 1988. Certainly, it was better than 1968. But the 2008 Post-Obama America makes 1988 feel in some ways like 1968.
I was raised in a very afro-centric house. Both my dad and my mom taught my sisters and I Black History beyond just slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. We knew black historical figures, inventors, political leaders, scholars, authors, and intellectuals that most white people -and even most black people- didn’t know. We were raised to have pride in our history and in ourselves. And still, being Black was very scary to me. Because of my light skin, most folks didn’t know that I was Black. They knew that I was something, but didn’t know what. That became a favorite game of mine. A person would ask, “What are you, anyway?” And I would respond, “What do you think?” And the person, or group of people would go through the list of possibilities. Jewish? Mexican? Italian? Central American? Greek? Cuban? Persian? I even got Black Irish once. Rarely did a person guess African American, because (in my opinion) they didn’t want to offend me. Again, this was 1988. People treated me differently after they found out that I was Black. Or more to the point, they themselves behaved differently around me. Suddenly the black jokes would stop. Suddenly the questions would start. “Why do black people talk loud?” “Why do black people sit together in the cafeteria” “Why do black people ________?” I sometimes enjoyed the status of being “the black friend” and educating nice yet naive, sometimes ignorant, sometimes racist people. A lot of the times, I preferred to be invisible, to be “white”. That is called “passing”, when a light-skinned Black passes for being white. I did that often, especially with women. Growing up in a small, racist country town, everyone knew that I was black. And so dating girls was an issue. More than one relationship was ended when the parents found out that their daughter had gone out with, or wanted to go out with the black boy. So even at college, if felt like -and it was- a big deal to tell a woman that I was black. It seems strange, even funny, to think about that now. But believe me, it was uncomfortable and life altering then.
Things began to change for me around the time of seeing this video. I had begun to take any “black” class offered by my university (there weren’t many). I got involved in the Black Student Union and other student groups protesting the university’s investments in Apartheid South Africa. My favorite band became Public Enemy. I began finding my voice, my confidence, my courage to just be my damn self. I wasn’t afraid anymore. Or at least I was a whole lot less afraid. For what felt like the first time in my life, I was feeling good.
So back to Tracy Chapman.
She was black. She was a woman. And she was a lesbian. In 1988, that was like the Holy Trinity of Are-Ya-Kiddin’-Me? And for me, a coffee-with-four-cream young black man terrified to even look people in the eyes, it was huge. She played a big role in my search for identity, because she herself and all of her song’s characters seemed to already have theirs. The people in the songs were all certainly dealing with troubles, tough choices, and/or demons, but they were doing it all on their own terms. Like their author, these characters were holding their heads up, saying “This is who I am, and that’s all I have to say.”
I learned from her wisdom. I was supported by her strength. I was nourished by her deep compassion, and emboldened by her self-confidence.
After seeing that video, there was no going back to who I was. And I am forever grateful for it.