I wasn’t “Black” or a “social problem” until leaving Oakland. Upon arrival in a nearly all-white, rural northern California university setting in 1976, I became a changeling, a shape-shifter, a chameleon — a man set on blending in and not offending whites.
Like a magician, I could diffuse racism — from professors, cops and townsfolk — by simply changing “colors” via my diction and perfectly performed and coded white behavior. I was the ostrich sticking its head in the sand in order to escape notice.
I was hyper-vigilant in performing the happy Black man, intent on showing whites that a 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound African American could be “exceptional” and “likeable.”
This was hard work — wearing the mask, changing colors and painting on that disarming smile. This takes a toll on blood pressure. This takes a toll on identity. “Am I doing it right?” I’d constantly question. No. I was doing it all wrong. I was still distrusted and dissed.
I grabbed my PhD in 1996 and fled the United States for the mental sanctuary of New Zealand. I lived there as an “American” for 14 years.
My stress levels lowered. I relaxed. Exhaled. My smile became genuine. My freedom as a human being took hold. I started loving life and loving the act of living freely in my own skin.
I was the “Black professor” who taught about American sports and Black and hip-hop culture. I even marketed my own barbeque sauce; there was a premium put on “being Black” and “being authentic.” I was a chameleon no more. I was Black and brash and New Zealand loved it. It took leaving the United States to find my internal home.
I left New Zealand for good in 2009, returning to attend Obama’s inauguration in D.C. in January 2009. I wanted to be here for the growth in race relations over the next eight years. I wanted to be a part of the “change” in the United States. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? We are still Black.
Happily, so am I. My Black pride means being comfortable in my own monotone skin. I had to go abroad to realize that it’s ok to just be me, the Black kid from Oakland: Black, proud and half crazy. Imagine that.
Vernon Andrews teaches history of sport and physical education in the Kinesiology Department at San Jose State University. His recent Kindle eBook is The Control of Black Expression in American Sport and Society.