Saturday, June 20, 2015

"The Nod": I see other black people and I feel so…relieved?

I never thought about it until this very moment, but Black-ish is the modern reboot of The Cosby Show that My Wife and Kids never quite pulled off.

Here's where the classic '80s sitcom and the current one intersect: Black-ish, like Cosby, is a vehicle for a former stand-up comedian (Anthony Anderson) who stars as a tough-love dad married to a beautiful high-powered professional wife (Tracee Ellis Ross, exhibiting stunning comic timing at which Girlfriends barely hinted) with four cute kids.

And here's where Black-ish veers off to the left: First, there's the contemporary biracial angle, which I don't believe has been previously explored on a TV sitcom. That makes the Johnsons on Black-ish as much of a modern family as the one on Modern Family, a sitcom I find as unfunny and un-relatable as I find Black-ish spot-on.

Second (and perhaps most significantly), while Cosby celebrated "buppie" African-American culture (Who can forget adorable Rudy Huxtable lip-syncing to the blues?), Black-ish, in a lot of ways, challenges it. (Note: While I prefer to use the term "black" over "African-American" when referring to people, I do believe "African-American" is an accurate description for a specific cultural awareness.)

Considering what a confronting and divisive issue race can be, I'm surprised Black-ish is such a mainstream hit, though I probably shouldn't be. White people can watch it without feeling too guilty or getting defensive. Rather than aiming its race commentary strictly at them, Black-ish often hangs the bull's-eye on black people themselves.

One of the most memorable episodes during the first season was based around "The Nod." That's the head bob of acknowledgement that blacks often give to other blacks when passing each other on the street. Frankly, before "The Nod" was given a name in Black-ish's third episode, I'd never devoted much thought to it. But when I saw that adorable black baby giving "The Nod" on Black-ish, I instantly recognized it.

Today I recognized it in real life, and my reaction alarmed me. It's a tough week to be black (by birth, not whim), with the Rachel Dolezal hot mess (please, make her go away) and the massacre in an historic black church in South Carolina. I've been incredibly affected by events of the past week, but I didn't realize how much so until I reached the top of the hill at the end of my run this afternoon.

There was an SUV full of black people at the intersection, and as soon as they saw me, the began waving energetically, giving me multiple thumbs up and fist-bumps from the other side of the rolled-up windows. I responded in kind, overcome by unexpected exhilaration, like Moses having reached the mountaintop to find, not God, but my sort-of saviours waiting for me. I was a mangled mass of emotions, the most surprising of which was relief.

I actually felt RELIEVED to be in the vicinity of other black people. That's something I can't say I'd ever felt before. I lingered a moment, waving and fist bumping, secretly hoping they'd jump out and we'd rush toward each other in slow motion, uniting in one of those touchdown sports embraces. I was sweating and panting just enough to make it feel like an authentic thrill-of-victory moment.

What was I thinking?

The occasional isolated incident aside (one, unfortunately cop-related), I can't say I've ever felt like I was under attack as a black man in Sydney. Yet here I was standing at an intersection, feeling relief at the sight of an SUV filled with black people. What was up with that? Perhaps it was the isolation I generally feel in cliquey Sydney exacerbated by current world events, which somehow made me feel even more isolated and vulnerable than usual.

Maybe I was mistaking relief over being finished with my grueling run for something else.

As I pondered this while crossing the street, I saw a very attractive black man walking toward me. I looked at him expectantly...hopefully. Would he give me "The Nod"?

I held my breath as he passed without seeming to even notice me. It wasn't until I felt a surge of disappointment rising inside of me that I completely understood the relief I'd felt a few moments earlier. It had been completely unrelated to my crossing the finish line of my afternoon jog. It was all about seeing other black people in a city where I so seldom do. It was all about commiseration and camaraderie in these difficult isolated times. For a brief moment, I wasn't alone with everybody.

Now I totally get "The Nod." I'm probably too shy and insecure to adopt it as my personal thing (What if they don't nod back?), but I'm pretty sure I'll never take it for granted again.

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