07/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How I didn't end up being a criminal

There's a current of disrespect for blacks that needs to be fixed. People who are mistreated either get even or get violent. In America, of course, we have a third option, we forgive. It seems some Americans just don't get this about blacks, that's a lesson they need to learn.

And the Left has some heavy-lifting to do here: This week's New Yorker magazine cover is a good example of all these dynamics at play. Titled "The Politics of Fear," the image on the cover of this week's magazine shows Mrs. Obama's legs crossed. Obama gives us a sidelong glance. Body language experts will tell you these are physical reveals for deceit, as if to say, they're hiding something. She has an afro hairdo, ammo, army fatigues, a gun; she is ready for war. Senator Obama is wearing a kind of traditional garb, and he's doing the fist bump with his wife. The couple has the swagger of black nationalists [generally defined as "a social and political movement (of the 60s) advocating the separation of blacks and whites and self-government for black people."] With the American flag burning and the portrait of Osama bin Laden over the fireplace, the entire work makes then a link between "black nationalism" and a new kind of pan-terrorism. If those terms sound too fancy, you at least can tell these people aren't American patriots.

The cartoon does not unlock the reasons why these attributions are wrong. Instead, it makes them more confusing: The Obamas do do the fist bump, but Mrs. Obama doesn't have an Afro. What was Obama's stance on guns? -- because Mrs. Obama has one. Mr. Obama has worn "traditional" clothing, but does that mean he's a Muslim? There is no article inside the magazine to take apart the unconscious and conscious fears the American public has around these ideas. So the net effect is that the cartoon works to solidify them. We are left to wonder -- why does this imagery have traction, like why are so many Americans still confused about whether Obama's a Muslim or a Christian? Thus is the quality of conversation on race and religion in this country: mixed messages, nothing decoded.

One of the cartoon's most difficult assertions connects black nationalism to bin Laden, which is another way of asking if Obama is destined to plot a kind of pan-terrorist world violence. Is he in cahoots with bin Laden? It also seems to provoke us to infer that blacks want to literally kill whites.

Since the magazine brought it up, let's talk about murder, since elementally, that's what this talk points towards.

Violence is something we all have in common. It's a very human indulgence.

Actually I've felt murderous before.

I was surprised how it grew like an organic thing in me -- I remember I was on the subway and I was like, I can't believe that fucking c--t. I'm going to - [ insert Rambo destruction sequence ].

What's even stranger about my experience is that the offense was minor. The person who had offended me was just using words. Not even an image. Not even a cartoon. Not even something like, "nappy headed ho" or "I'm going to cut his nuts off," or "you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern." She said something like, you're not really black. You're black, sort-of.

And this rage came up in my stomach like a pit fire and I re-felt all over all the times I'd not gotten a fair deal.

She was making a joke about something that caused me great pain.

Strangely, she had pointed out a kind of truth, but she had put the wrong spin on it. My life was not easier because I was allowed inside the circle of educated folks who thought less of "real" blacks, it was, rather, something I endured for the benefits, for the chance at a better life.

The benefits that I am talking about are ones like this one: my parents decided to move to a town where the schools were good. I was the only black kid in my class. One day, when I was 6, there was a boy who decided that he'd start a game called "chase the nigger." I was minding my own business, watching my feet during recess, not realizing that this game involved me, and that I, was the nigger my classmates had in mind to chase. So as 20 to 30 kids headed my way across the playground, led by this mop-headed kid, shouting, chase the nigger! == it was almost funny == I did what anyone would do, I ran. Up till that point I didn't know how fast I could run. I ran and I ran. And I ran until I didn't hear any voices anymore. The kids were gone. I heard them at first behind me, you know, panting, we're going to get you. But then they fell away. And I was alone in a field. I could see my neighbor's tree farm across the way, I smelled the grass, 200 more yards and I could have gone home. It was quiet and it was as if the outside, the wind, the trees, the ladybug crawling across my face, it seemed like they were all a witnesses to this strange joke on me. It struck me then that I had to choose -- go home or go back. I turned and went back to school. I don't know if I remember this completely right because I don't think I hit the kid, let's call him Brian, I don't think I hit him. But somehow, I found my way back to him and I believe I said: "You honky." I said it in front of all the kids. I remember the look on his face, he had these small bubbles of sweat over his lip and he was still out of breath. He was surprised and then he was afraid, I know this because he stepped back as I leaned toward him. Thinking about it now as an adult, I don't think he really thought of me as a person, like him. I don't think he thought about how someone would react to being treated to a game of chase-the-nigger. I think, in a way, he was just trying out his racism, maybe he'd heard his parents say something and his mind latched onto an idea about black people. Anyway, he never bothered me again. I wondered where my teacher had been all this time. I remember she was crying one day because her baby had fallen out of its crib and I felt, wow, what a delicate life you have.

Of course, there were kids suffering all around me, one girl's father beat her, another's parents were going through a mean divorce, two girls would later come out as gay, another's mother had died. They all ended up being my friends, they were all white. I think now that maybe they thought if I was okay, so could they be. Or at least, they saw that I was a bit of pisser and so were they, so we had that in common.

So when, as an adult, this person said to me, "you're not really black," I wanted her to feel the same pain I felt. And as she felt that pain, I wanted to say, how does that feel? Can we make a joke here?

In that fantasy of violence, I felt ashamed of myself. As a child, I'd shown more moral clarity. Come up to a little adversity and this is what I thought to do?

So I said, please release me from this. And then something happened. The burden lifted. Maybe I helped it along, like I chose to get off at a different stop on the subway.

This was a transcendent moment for me because I was no longer just reacting to reality; I was changing my perception of it. This situation had made a box, but I poked a hole in it. Somehow this experience made me feel compassion for that person.

Blacks on a core level, in this country, have been doing this for hundreds of years.

Some folks should grow more aware of this unique American alchemy. It's a kind of free-pass for assholes -- which we can all be sometimes -- maybe we might just not forget it's a gift we give each other.