Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Damn. Which way to MLK Boulevard?

In the course of my reporting, I often refer to a book called The North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Places. As its name implies, the book contains geographic information about the state, including details about counties, towns, cities, rivers, creeks, lakes and mountains. My worn copy, which dates back to 1982, sits on a small bookshelf to the right of my cubicle, within easy reach in fact-finding emergencies.

Once I was working on a news story about the Department of Justice's recent efforts to investigate unsolved deaths from the Civil Rights era. I'd obtained documents that suggested there were unsolved, racially motivated killings in three North Carolina towns: New Bern, Shelby and Gaston. I needed to match those towns with their respective counties in order to contact the local branches of the NAACP, which organize at the county level. Of course, I grabbed the Gazetteer. While thumbing through the book's 'N' section, I discovered some of the state's old geographic treasures.

There's Nigger Bay, which lies between Swan Island and Currituck Banks in northeast Currituck County. Nigger Head, a mountain on the Clay-Macon County line, climbs to 4,900 ft. Niggerhead Creek rises in east Union County and flows into northwest Richardson Creek. Nigger Mountain, also known by its proper name, Mount Jefferson, is in Ashe County. Niggerskull Creek rises in central Jackson County and flows southwest into Tuckasegee River.

And there is Nigger Skull Mountain (not to be confused with Niggerskull Mountiain) in west Haywood County on the head of East Fork. Niggerskull Mountain (for Nigger Skull Mountain, see above) is in central Jackson County between Niggerskull Creek and Gladie Creek. Nigger Spring, in south Haywood County, feeds into the Little East Fork Pigeon River.

I turned to the 'W' section of the book, looking for a little justice. I found Whitehead Creek, White Hill, White Lake, White Marsh, White Pond, White Rock, Whites Creek, Whites Crossroads, Whites Island, Whites Store, Whites Swamp, Whites Township and, of course, Whiteville. No White Trash, though. And I couldn't find any mountains or lakes named after cracker-ass-crackers or honkeys.

I picked up the phone and called my local county branch of the NAACP. "Hey man, this is Quint...yeah, me again! You aren't gonna believe this one..."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The revolution may be televised (but some of y'all will still miss it)

On Thursday I wore black to work in honor of the demonstrators who descended on Jena, La. to protest the treatment of the Jena Six, a group of black teenagers arrested for nearly stomping the life out of a white kid. The schoolyard brawl happened after some white students hung nooses from a campus oak--a not-so-veiled threat to ward off blacks spending too much time at the "White Tree." A small-town prosecutor charged the black kids with attempted murder, not assault, and set off a multi-media civil rights campaign that culminated in Thursday's rally and people all over the country wearing black, including me and several of my liberal white coworkers. I would like to assume that most readers know about all this and my detailed explanation is unnecessary, but a recent exchange with a good friend convinced me otherwise.

His name is Wayne, but we all call him Weasel. He graduated from an elite private school and went on to Harvard, where many people loved him but also laughed at him behind his back (and sometimes to his face). That's because Weasel is sweet and caring and quite eager to please: He would give you the shirt off his back and, if you told him, his pants, undershirt, socks and underwear, too. Six years out of college, Weasel and I live in different cities--he coaches wealthy Manhattan kids to take the SAT and I report for a newspaper down South--but we stay in touch with phone calls and texts, usually filled with my own mocking but loving sense of humor. On Thursday, we exchanged the following texts regarding the Jena Six.

Quint: you wear black today, monkey?

Weasel: no why?

Quint: jena 6

Weasel: what,??

Quint: Negroes don't read anymore! Google it.

Weasel: Fool I work all the time. When do you think I can read?

Quint: a newspaper headline? In the morning before you go to work.

Weasel: I read a book on my way to work.

Quint: did you google it?

Weasel: fool I'm at work

Weasel: I'm driving

Quint: set your home page to nyt. you'll be a more informed citizen. Or is HARVARD still your homepage

Weasel: you bout to get on my last damn nerve you preachy motherfucker. you are a JOURNALIST! do you know anything about the college board changing their stance

Weasel: on whether or not the SAT is coachable?

Quint: easy there fella. Harvard must still be your home page. ha! current affairs is important for everybody. not just journalists. that's the truth. but I'll shut up.

Weasel: I think educational happenings are for everyone too

Quint: man the blind are leading the blind

Weasel: i hate u

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Treat yo mama right

Last Friday after work I made the five and a half hour drive from North Carolina to Atlanta for a surprise visit to my mom for the Mother's Day weekend. My pops and my siblings managed to keep my trip secret, though my father did come dangerously close to revealing my plans. (Daddy on the phone with my mom in the room: "So Quint, what time are you getting in on Friday?...Uhhh, I mean what time are you getting in next Friday?) But for the most part, all went according to plan.

My folks live in the suburbs southeast of Atlanta in a neighborhood where modest homes are surrounded by large wooded lots. There are no street lights. It's quiet. Without the moonlight, the night is black and still. I arrived to an empty house a little after 10:00 Friday night. When I drove up the long driveway and saw that none of the family cars were there, I knew that I had a least a few minutes to hatch a little scheme.

I backed out of the driveway and drove around the corner, my headlights catching the glimmering eyes of some darting animal. I parked my car just beyond the mini-forest that separates my parents' house from the adjacent street. No one would spot the black car with its dark tinted windows in the dead of the night. Whether or not someone would spot me was a different story. There are no sidewalks in the neighborhood and pedestrians are rare, especially after sunset. So I ran the quarter-mile back to my house hoping no one would see me, a black man with a duffle bag cutting through the darkness.

When I got home I caught my breath and waited for the action. I sat in the room closest to the driveway so that I could hear or see anyone coming home. After a few minutes, the headlights of my mom's truck pierced the blinds. I crawled into a crouching position behind a door. All the lights in the house were off.

I heard the key turn and the door creak open. Both of my parents walked in, my father first. They were talking about the movie they'd just seen, Mission Impossible III, I think. They dropped their keys and kicked off their shoes.

My father walked into the living room and past my hiding spot. He saw me and we both smiled. "We're gonna get you good this time, Mama," I thought. "Real good." I choked a laugh and then heard her approaching.

I saw her just before she saw me. I jumped out and hollered like I didn't have no damn sense. My mom screamed for about three seconds, took a quick breath, and then screamed again, the second one short and sharp. Her eyes were wide and her lips quivered. I doubled over in laughter.

"Happy Mother's Day, Mama!"

"Quint! Where'd you come from? Don't do that!"

"Ahhhh, got ya good that time, Mama." I laughed for the next twenty minutes.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Another Day in the Life

A newspaper's editorial boardroom is a place where the noblest ideas are crafted and honed. It's the sanctuary of the fourth estate where the burden of objectivity is cast aside in pursuit of the unadulterated truth -- where writers, reporters and editors can freely discuss what to tell their readers to think about the most controversial issues. Come to the boardroom with me. Things are not always what they seem.

I sit at a table with five others. I'm the only black person in the room (and the whole company). I'm surrounded by white, self-described progressives who lean to the left on all the major issues: healthcare, taxation, education and, of course, race relations. Our conversation is heated, opinionated, combative even. The debate is also punctuated with several awkward moments, all of them at my expense.

Peter, a fiftysomething who sits to my left, looks and gestures in my direction each time he mentions a black person or some issue that black folks might care about. "African Americans are really going to make a difference on this issue," he says before looking at me with a smirk. I ignore his glance, thinking nothing of it.

"Black males are dropping out of school at alarming rates." Peter and I lock eyes. His glance is a reminder that I'm black, I figure, just like those black people we're talking about. I nod in appreciation. I had forgotten.

"What do you guys think about the candidacy of Vernon Robinson, the so-called black Jesse Helms," Peter asks. He and I again lock eyes. His are so beautiful, so blue -- full of wonder and amazement. "I don't know why I look at you every time I talk about black people," he says with a nervous chuckle.

"Neither do I," I reply. I hold his gaze until he averts his.

Kelly, an arts reporter, tries to cut the tension. "Quint reminds you of Jesse Helms, right?" My editor clears his throat.

We ease back into the conversation, but Peter's looks continue, one after another. My other colleagues, who, it seems, have had more experience with their darker counterparts, shift embarrassingly in their creaky wooden chairs. After Peter's next glance, Barbara, a dogged, take-no-prisoners investigative reporter, sternly says, "Can you please stop tokenizing Quint?" We all glare at Peter and he murmurs something unintelligible.

"No, Barbara, that's okay," I say. "This is really fun. You all should try. I will stare at each of you every time we mention white people. Don't let the fact that you're all white and in the majority stop you from feeling uncomfortable."

When it came time to offer my retaliatory glances, I looked at each of my coworkers in turn, starting with Peter and working my way around the table. No one noticed.

"The NAACP has been reinvigorated in this region," someone said some time later. Peter whipped his head in my direction but caught his eyes before they met mine. Progress happens slowly, I suppose, on issues big and small.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Cold Hard Facts

Spring in North Carolina brings the blooming dogwoods, the frenzied flight of birds and bees, and of course, the rising mercury. The warmer temperatures also signal the end of my season-long science experiment in which I was both subject and scientist. Through most of the winter, I tested my own ability to bear the cold conditions in my apartment without turning on the heat. My findings, despite their basis on a sole participant, have implications for all black people everywhere. In order to withstand the review of my colleagues in the scientific community, I present my observations and findings below in the standard (if elementary) scientific method format. Let me school ya.

Preliminary Research
: 1) Black people do not like cold weather. We don't like the winter. We don't like snow or any other form of cold weather precipitation. We don't like skiing or any other cold weather outdoor activities. We don't like seeing our breath when we breathe. We don't like shivering. We do not like frostbite. We think white people are crazy for liking all those things. 2) Black people do not like paying utility bills. This includes the gas bill, the light bill, the water bill, the phone bill and the cable bill. We make every effort to keep each bill as low as possible. Water must not drip. Lights must be turned off the instant they are no longer in use. We do not accept collect calls. We prefer to watch HBO, Cinemax and Pay Per View via an illegal converter box. 3) When efforts to avoid to the cold (Preliminary Research, Part 1) conflict with efforts to keep the bills low (Preliminary Research, part 2), black people face an agonizing conflict of conscience.

Question: How much is an African American male willing to freeze to save a little money on the bills each month?

Hypothesis: I believe a black man will endure sub-freezing temperatures before paying an exorbitant amount of money for mere creature comforts.


Month One: The first month of winter served as the control for the experiment. I needed one warm pay period to establish the financial costs of warmth. Also, I was working with the assumption that black people don't tend to plan in advance for financial hardship. It usually catches us off guard (in this case, in the form of a ridiculously high gas bill). I set the thermostat to 72 degrees.

Month Two: The first bill arrived and I cried for two days and nights. Then I began the experiment in earnest, turning the heat completely off. After a couple of consecutive nights of sub-freezing temperatures, the conditions in the apartment were literally bone-chilling. Somehow it was colder inside than outside. My second toes, which are longer than my big toes and protrude farther from the warmth of my body, turned purple. My balls drew up into my torso. I became worried that I would freeze to death and no one would find me until the spring, so I turned the thermostat up to 58 degrees.

Months Three and Four: The second bill arrived. It was 75 percent less than the first! But since I'd already realized that I couldn't enjoy my savings from the grave, I left the thermostat at 58. The apartment was still far too cold for a black man's comfort, but with two pairs of sweatpants, four long-sleeve T-shirts, a hoodie, three pairs of socks (one thermal), and five blankets, I was able to keep my innards warm. Like that I persevered through the rest of the season with only a slight increase in the bill.

Analysis and Conclusion: The facts did not support my hypothesis. As the results show, black people cannot endure sub-freezing temperatures even when it means saving an extra hundred dollars a month. We are not white, after all. We can, however, endure moderately cold temperatures. And one fact is clear: we will push to the very limits of our survival when money is on the line.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Say "Trick or Treat" Three Times Fast

I actually considered dressing up for Halloween this year, which is pretty unusual for me. I had a brilliant idea for a costume, which drew me out of my usual Allhallows Eve apathy. For one frightful night, I was going to be the Honorable Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the Supreme Court. (I could not think of anything scarier.) I wanted to don a judge's robe, a salt'n'pepper baby Afro wig and some big glasses in that classic 1970s, tortoise-shell brown. I would've walked around carrying a coke can with curly, black hairs taped to the top. If anyone spoke to me or inquired about my identity, I would've replied in a slow, southern monotone voice about the rewards of growing up in the rural south. "Country livin'll surely grow you into a fine, fine man!"

But, alas, I ended up sitting at home and watching Monday Night Football. By half time, I'd completely forgotten that that night was any different from any other Monday night, which is why I was surprised when someone knocked on my door at 9:30 p.m.

Let me set the scene before I continue. I live in a duplex apartment in the hood. When I didn't get my dream apartment, I settled on the first place I found because I didn't have time to find anything else. When I moved in a few weeks ago, the apartment had post-apocalyptic roaches that walked on stilts, a leaking bathroom sink and a stove from 1947 that did not get hot. And the place seemed much dirtier than when I'd visited a week before. All has since been fixed, but my little Durham, North Carolina duplex apartment still doesn't feel like home. That knock on the door (along with most other noises I hear in this place) startled me a bit.

My first thought was that my neighbor, a grad student, wanted me to turn my music down, but I quickly realized that the volume was already low. So I walked to the door and peered through the peephole to see who was there. I saw a black man, probably in his forties -- a round fella with a ragged beard and short hair. His red T-shirt was too small for his belly.

"Who is it," I asked.

"Chicken," he answered. Or at least that's how it sounded.

"I didn't order any chicken," I thought to myself. "I didn't even know they delivered chicken."

"What you want, man," I asked , confident that the chicken wasn't mine.

"Chicken," he said again.

I took a second look through the peephole. I was certain that this man wanted me to open my door so that he could burst in and beat me with a gnarly stick. I listened more closely.

"Trick or treat!"

"Riiight. It's Halloween!" I looked through the peephole again. I did not see a child or a costume, just a big Negro from the hood looking warped through the glass. He didn't have a bag of candy or any chicken. "Sorry man, I don't have any treats."

I really didn't have any candy, but I wouldn't have opened the door if I did. Maybe some fried chicken would have been worth the risk, but until I get used to my new neighborhood, I'm playing it safe. Ain't nobody trickin' me. And I ain't treatin'.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Home Sweet Home

Ready with several classified ads, Mapquest directions and a rental car, I visited a handful of apartments in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was relocating from Houston to the Triangle, trying to find a nice home with a rent that I hoped wouldn't burn a hole in my pocket. I found the perfect place. There was just one obstacle: a little old white lady from Chapel Hill.

I'd found it advertised on Craigslist: "The most charming apartment in Chapel Hill." It was a garage apartment behind the home of an 87-year-old widow, who, I was later told, is a vestige of Chapel Hill's aristocracy. The ad showed hardwood floors throughout, old but superbly maintained appliances, molding around the windows and doors, and built-in bookcases. The apartment was, in a word, charming. I'd been corresponding with the friendly tenant, who had taken on the task of showing the apartment to assist her landlady. The tenant and I made an appointment for Wednesday afternoon.

After a quick look, I fell in love with the place. Before I left for the airport to catch my flight, I asked her the question that had long been on my mind: "How do you think your landlady will feel about a young, black man living in her garage apartment?"

Without pause, she replied, "Well, since I'm neither black nor male, that's hard to answer. But she really is a kind old lady. She's been renting this place for years. I'm sure she's had all kinds of tenants."

On my second trip to the Triangle, I visited several more apartments, but the most charming apartment in Chapel Hill was still my favorite. I made an appointment to meet the landlady in person. I drove to the house and parked in the driveway a few yards from the garage. I wore khaki pants and a nice shirt, ironed and tucked in. I'd shaved and removed both of my earrings.

To the left of the driveway was a paved path that cut through the manicured lawn and led to the house. I walked to the door at the path's end and rang the bell. After a few minutes, I heard a murmur behind me. I looked over my shoulder, and there she was--the landlady, hunched over her cane, frail, white haired and looking every bit of 87.

I followed her into the side door through a solarium and a kitchen and into the living room. The walls were covered with sepia photos of her late husband in his army uniform. There were shelves and shelves of photos. I acutely felt like I was in a white sanctuary, not because all the faces on the wall were white, but because it eerily felt like I was the first black person to ever lay eyes on them. It's a feeling that I questioned--a feeling that was the first, but maybe not the proper response. But it was visceral. The landlady and I sat in two low-lying chairs and talked.

"I fell in love with the apartment," I told her. "I would love to move in."


"Your tenant showed me the place and I thought it was great. I'm willing to write you a check right now." But there was still something unsaid between us. She asked me how long I would want to live there, where I was from, whether or not I'd be living alone. But it was small talk--inconsequential. It was clear that I wouldn't be living there.

"Just to be fair," she said, "I would like to allow others to see the apartment." I sensed the futility of any further efforts and led our conversation to a close.

On my way out of the living room, she called out: "Can you close that door please?" I complied. I'm not sure what I closed the door on, but it left me feeling a bit blue. The charm had certainly worn off.