On Seeing My Grandpa Strike a Pose at the Beach
Snapshots of my Black history
What the textbooks never taught me about Black history, growing up, is that it sat beside me on a plastic-wrapped couch most Sundays, watching reruns of Baywatch over microwaved TV dinners. The lectures never acknowledged that the people who were spat on — taunted, threatened, denied basic human rights on the basis of skin color — looked just like the people I called “grandma” and “grandpa.” Grandma and Grandpa, who were also homeowners and foster parents; a seamstress and an artist; so many things to so many people that no one living knows the half of it.
I don’t recall a single February in which I was told what Black people were up to when they weren’t being enslaved, discriminated against, disenfranchised, experimented on. (Wait, I remember. It was jazz.) What I learned, instead, was The White Gaze Presents: Black History, a Tale of Linear Progress. To hear my teachers tell it, Black people in the U.S. were treated Very Bad for a precise period of time, starting with slavery and “ending” with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But all of that was long ago, they assured us; they even offered evidence: the AM radio crackle of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the monochromatic images of marches and lynchings. Those “ancient” relics were proof of a racist and bygone era, so far in the past that no one I loved could have possibly been affected. The evidence seemed to suggest that the old, colorless world of history books was nothing like this one — which had AOL, and MTV, and interracial marriages like the one instigated by my birth.
Logically, I knew my grandparents were somewhere in the backdrop of those history lessons. At the same time, they were conspicuously absent from Black History Month: their stories, their images, their idiosyncrasies. And so I couldn’t place them on this twisted timeline, couldn’t imagine them being subject to the raw, impersonal hatred I learned about in school. I couldn’t imagine some haircut sneering That Word at my grandma, who I rarely saw out of her designated recliner and who always had a blue Danish cookie tin full of caramel squares and waxy…