We Are All Sleeping With Our Sneakers On
What am I supposed to do with all this white boy-ness?
Stuff it in a Glad garbage bag and be done with it?
Who cares anyway? As far as I can tell, I am still that kid
in Tough Skins on the corner of Columbus and 94th.
It’s 1974 and all we care about is the filthy candy store, Gus ‘N Bernie’s,
buying Now and Laters in our purple Converse.
We all had ‘em. Pedro was the first. Then, Slade. Rosenblum, the middle one, got his next,
but they were red, and New York was a seesaw of murder, filth, and forensics.
We were kids with deep holes and patched ourselves up with fingertips
and Topps baseball cards. Through the grime you could still make out a flower—
a lily or iris or bougainvillea.
They had names. Javier, Schwab, Marisol, Angelina, Rebecca, Sarah, Leah.
How was I supposed to be that white back then when I am this white now?
A whiteness that didn’t even know it was white.
I did not wake up and say to myself what the world was saying to me, White boy.
I woke up, some days, being the only Jew at the pizza place.
Because everything I do is privilege. Pick up the privilege phone. The privilege stapler.
The privilege Walkman with the John Coltrane privilege.
Because it doesn’t matter if you grew up in low-income housing as a white boy,
you were, and still are, always, a white boy.
Then, yesterday, I read a book, A Little Devil in America, about Black Performance in America. It’s dedicated to Josephine Baker. It’s by Hanif Abdurraqib.
There’s an essay about line dancing and Soul Train.
When I was a kid in my purple white boy Converse, I loved Soul Train.
When I read the book, I thought about Angela because she’s a Black American and loved Soul Train, too.
I wanted to buy her the book but then I thought that was a racist thing to assume,
that I could, should, would, buy her a book about Black Performance in America.
So, I said to her, Angela, I read this book and I wanted to buy you this book,
A Little Devil in America, but I thought, that would be a racist thing to do.
She said, I understand. It’s been that kind of year, but we talk.
That’s what she said, We talk, and maybe that’s all that you need to do, sit down,
break bread, let it all hang out. But I’m not sure. I think that’s too easy
and tomorrow I will be whiter than I was when I was a kid
in front of Gus ‘N Bernie’s joking around with Derek and Slade
eating Now and Laters because we didn’t know anything else
and the thing with kids, until they reach a certain age, is that all they are, is present.
The thing about Don Cornelius was that he was always the coolest motherfucker in the room even when Rufus and Chaka Khan were on in ’74 singing Tell Me Something Good.
I knew it was good when I was saw it on my little black and white Panasonic
only because they sparkled, and Don Cornelius was the coolest motherfucker in the room.
I knew that, too, but most days, during some mid-day hour,
I close my eyes and say the Sh’ma.
She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.
Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
But it’s always the wrong time of day,
and it’s the only prayer I know, and maybe my grandmother would be proud
even though she was a racist and I hated her for her racism,
even though she was from Transylvania
and there’s that photo of the whole village, the entire shtetl,
wiped out by the Nazis and what do I do with that, white man?
I’m saying, once, in college, I walked across the quad on a spring day
with guitars falling out the sky and cherry blossoms falling off of guitar strings
and guitar strings making little ladders into our hearts
when a big white boy with football pads on his balls
threw a football at my head and called me kikebitch
like I knew him from the old neighborhood.
I did not know him from any neighborhood, real or imagined, and who was the white boy then?
I’m still listening to John Coltrane on my privilege Walkman trying to figure it out,
trying to have a conversation with Angela about all these little devils in America.
Who are they and how do we get them into our socks and under our arms
so we can lift off a bit from thinking we know anyone else before we can talk to them?
Is this the something good of Chaka Kahn
or why that riff rips me apart after all these years?
It’s because when I was 9 sleeping in my purple Converse
hearing her sounds, I knew that Javier and Slade and Rosenblum
were doing the same thing,
we were all sleeping with our sneakers on, dirtying up the sheets
because it felt good and was fun,
and I say, Grandma, I love you
but you need to leave the room, now,
with all the other racist, shtetl grandmas,
because it’s not goddamn funny
and I close my eyes and say the prayer and it sounds like home, but it’s not,
it’s some epic, disjointed body of work that is always there to remind me
that no matter how hard I try, white man that I am,
I will never be the coolest motherfucker in the room.
Robert Glasper Has All These Feelings On His Piano
—After Robert Glasper
When Robert Glasper says Fuck your feelings he’s not talking.
Oh, my bad, he’s talking
but not with his mouth.
He’s got his Yamaha keyboard on reverb amped up to 16
even though the Marshall Stack only goes up to 10
and I’m wondering if my feelings are supposed to be hurt
as a dude named Bob.
As a guy with short feet.
As a white boy.
That’s what they used to call us on Amsterdam Avenue past 98th.
I always brushed it off
no matter how many congas Ben P.’s dad had in his living room.
Rumor had it his father played drums with Paquito D’Rivera.
We didn’t even know who D’Rivera was
or if he had any feelings that could change the world.
Robert Glasper has all these feelings on his piano
and I know he’s looking to change the world.
Everything in his heart
is spilled over the piano keys
like some kid whizzed by on an old beat up 3-speed Schwinn
and dumped a bottle of Mountain Dew all sticky and sweet.
I can’t remember the last time I was sticky and sweet.
Are my feelings supposed to get hurt when he tells me, “Hey white boy, fuck your feelings,”
or am I taking too much credit?
He’s not even talking to me.
He’s talking to the neighborhood, to the county, to the system of circuits, plugs, prods, pistols, patrolmen, and panic
that seeps and seams through these streets.
We all have too many feelings.
Just put away your guns and let’s get on with it.
Pianos are better anyway.