I’m standing in front of an oak door about to go into battle. That’s what it was every time I saw Mister Rhodes. All out psychological warfare. And, sure enough, he always won. But on this day, I am bringing reinforcements. The most badass lawyer ever to come out of Spelman University.
Latonya Wilkins, Esquire. She made a name for herself fighting for the citizens of Flint Michigan in a highly publicized class-action lawsuit. Ever since then, she has worked with organizations like Black Lives Matter to find instances of police corruption and snuff it out.
Still, having her over my shoulder intimidates me and I ring the doorbell instantly. It's perched beside an intricate doorway that could easily double for the entrance to a palace. However, being alone with this woman is the last thing I want.
I expect the wait at the door to be short-lived, however, fate deals me an unenviable hand as a minute passes and no one has answered. I begin to seriously wonder if there is a length of country road between the dining room and the front door because they are taking forever to answer.
Finally, Latonya breaks the silence.
“You would have made a good lawyer, you know?” she says, hands folded in front of her innocently.
But I know better. There is nothing innocent with Latonya Wilkins.
“I doubt it,” I quickly say, giving the doorbell another ring.
“Oh, you would have done terribly at the forming-a-rational-argument part, but the nerves-of-steel part you’d be first in the class.”
“You don’t say,” I respond, fidgeting as if it will make the time go by faster. “I’ll put it on my resume. Nerves of steel.”
“Yes, nerves of steel,” she concludes, “because you sure do have some nerve calling me after a ten-year hiatus just to let me know you’re engaged to some white girl and want to invite me over for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Sis,” I say the precise word just to assuage her, “can we not do this? With mom dead, we’re all we got now… And I just wanted you to be a part of this.”
“Well, I’m glad you called for my stamp of approval.”
Mercifully, the door finally starts to creak open.
“But you could have given me more time to get my hair done, I look like a --”
The door is wide open and it’s suddenly showtime. She flashes the pearly whites and the battle begins.
Someone once asked a black comic “Why don’t you skydive? It’s like an adventure!” His retort was “Being a black man in America is an adventure. I’ve got all the adventure I can take.” And it’s true. Blackness is its own adventure. Like being constantly assaulted by a barrage of artillery. It’s not the loud man screaming the n-word in your face. Or even the “microaggressions” people have started to refer to derisively. It's the subtle day-to-day dismissal of your reality. The gaslighting. The insistence that it's all in your head and if you "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" everything will be fine.
It's throwing one million studies into a man's face and society giving him carte blanch to say "Fake news" and be done with it and still be considered an intellectual titan.
Studies show that experiencing racism can lead to increased hypertension and what some call decreased "efficacy" -- a belief of helplessness. People like Mister Rhodes see such beliefs are unfounded. I sometimes believe it too. The "white man’s" narrative that I have a victim mentality and all the racism is in my head. That our torture is merely a self-imposed punishment.
Today, I find out if they are right.
As we sit at the dinner table the only topic is of course trivial things. Who will win the football game today? What type of work does everyone do? Usual trivialities that go in one ear and out the other.
As I glance into the eyes of my bride-to-be, Heather, I think of Tinder. I think of the OkCupid study that found that black women receive the least messages. And the deluge of black women I swiped left on. I wondered what my stats were. How I contributed to this systemic pattern. What would God tell me as I stood before the pearly gates of wokeness?
Too needy, too opinionated, too loud, I told myself -- ascertaining magically how they were based solely on their frozen demeanor. My sister's chiding eyes glance over at me and my fiance as if confirming that "demeanor" may have been a substitute for skin color.
I look at Heather's face once more, remembering the shock I felt upon thinking she would want to come down from her pedestal for little old me. But what pedestal was there? We both came from wealthy families. We both were articulate and went to the best schools. What pedestal was there other than whiteness?
But I look deeper and see the flesh-and-blood human again. The one who shares my dark humor and taste in 90s movies. The girl who, on a whim, goes with me to some dive bar even when it seems a crossword away from breaking out into a bar fight. I see the “Bonnie” to my “Clyde” as we break the law of ordinary in the mean streets of life. We meet eyes one last time before she does as planned.
"What do you think of these lawsuits Trump is doing?"
And the trap has been set.
Conservatives, I always say, live in a different world. A world where climate change is either unreal, exaggerated, or a Chinese plot. A world where there are only two genders. A world where, most importantly, systemic racism is a ploy cooked up by white liberals to enslave black people -- figuratively of course. Nevermind that the antitheses to all of these precepts are respectively confirmed by NASA, The American Psychological Association, and pretty much every sociologist. This is a minor detail and part of conspiracy theory.
So, when my fiance speaks about the Trump lawsuits alleging rampant voter fraud that is enough to turn over the election, of course, my Mister Rhodes screams, "The Democrats are trying to steal the election! It's a damned shame!
And this is the part where dinner is usually ruined, but I look to my side and see my sister, stewing as he continues on weaving wild tales of Venuelaan operatives hacking into our voting machines. Of mysterious boxes being carried into the back of polling sites. Of George Soros, the pervasive boogieman in right-wing circles. Finally, I see my sister's bug out like she's a cartoon character and she explodes.
“There is no rampant fraud!”
Of course, Mr. Rhodes laughs confidently, because confidence is their best tool. “There are hundreds of affidavits!”
“Oh christ. Anyone can sign an affidavit!" Latonya rattles. "There’s an affidavit attesting to the existence of bigfoot. You don’t believe in bigfoot, do you?”
“All I know is that millions of voters feel that you are stealing their votes.”
“Millions of voters can feel any kind of way they want, but unless they have PROOF, they can go jump in a lake.”
I can see my father-in-law’s face turn blazing red.
“In fact, I have more evidence that YOU’RE trying to steal my vote than anyone else. Dozens of protesters conveniently showing up in predominantly black Detroit to tell them to stop counting votes, Republican lawyers in the diverse city of Houston trying to get 100,000 drive-in votes thrown out. The President of this United States has tried and failed thirty times to get millions of votes thrown out and each time he came up laughably short. So don’t sit here and preach to me about trying to steal votes when you have NO EVIDENCE.”
The barrage of data seems too much for him to take in. He sits there smoldering as I and my wife-to-be sit off to the side trying to hold back giggles. Watching a virtuoso performance.
When all is done, all he can do is say, “The evidence will come. Wait and see.”
But she will not let him off the hook, she ends it with, “There is no wait and see about it. The saying is a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I’ve got three dozen birds and you don’t even have a bush!”
And for the first time, I get the thing I’ve come for: my father-in-law’s mouth just hanging there in complete, dumbfounded silence. He just lowers his head grumpily and starts to eat. But not before he mutters something.
“What was that, dear?” Mabel, my mother-in-law-to-be says.
I instantly wish she wouldn’t have because he goes on to say, “No wonder you hardly talk about your sister. She’s a ghetto as you made her out to be.”
“What did you say?” Latonya
“He didn’t tell you all the jokes he made you behind your back?”
And just like that, after she won the battle of wits, he decides to play dirty. Seeing the redness in her eyes, I realize it worked.
She tosses her utensils down and relieves herself from the table. I instantly follow her as she heads out the door. Both of us outside again, I try to calm her down, but she already is ready to bite my head off.
"So that's why you brought me. You wanted to put on a show for the white folks. What role were you expecting me to play, huh? Was it Hattie Mae, the mammy from Gone With the Wind? Or the angry black woman we've seen in millions of films?"
"I just wanted you to be you."
"You don't even know me! It's been ten years! Ten years without a call. Turns out it's because you're embarrassed by me. It's typical. Melania Trump can pose naked and get called the most beautiful first lady ever. Michelle Obama goes to the most prestigious schools and becomes a lawyer and still gets called trashy for wearing sleeveless dresses. And here I am making magazine covers and my own brother still thinks I'm a stereotype."
"I used to think that but then I started learning things. Opening my eyes and then I learned how awesome you really are. That you fought the fights that I was too scared to fight. I need you in there sis. Come fight with me."
"You're gonna have to fight this battle on your own."
She leaves and I never see her again.
Did you know that a tactic known as “resume whitening” doubles black people’s callbacks on jobs. It’s when a black person changes his name from something like Leroy to Elroy and suddenly they think he’s the grown version of the beanie-wearing kid from the Jetsons and not the cro magnon man they imagined Leroy to be.
At the end of the day, I look in the mirror and wonder how much I whiten up more than a resume. Do I whiten up my tone? My gestures? My politics? Have I whitened up my family? With my only blood now a stranger to me, I guess I have.
I now understand conservatives. Why they insist on believing in fairy tales. I agree with them every time I laugh at a racist joke at my expense. Every time I don’t challenge their easy scoffing of white privilege.
Truth is hard. Especially when you’re in a one-man canoe paddling upstream. Lying is easy. Melt yourself into The mirror at night last but an instant. The glares of their unapproving white faces are forever.