All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
– Some Real Ass Shakespeare
I first realized the role I was going to play in the world, in the fourth grade.
I was nine years old.
Up until that point, I knew I was slightly different than the rest of the classroom. The obvious, I was the only black kid. Most of the other kids were white. There were a few that were neither. But, I was the only black kid, and it was awesome. The outlier.
The black sheep. The unique one. I was a remarkable exception to the normalcy of the whiteness on my school’s campus, and it was my moment to embrace it.
In time, the fascination faded, and the remarkability didn’t last forever. The fourth grade would be the first time I learned a hard truth about the role I was going to play in the world, and it changed my perspective forever.
Every year, each grade put together a musical production to perform for our parents. The first one I remember was in kindergarten. All the kindergarten students performed The Mickey Mouse Club, but my kindergarten class didn’t get to participate because I was in a kindergarten-first grade combination class. Whack. Quailwood Elementary, what happened to no kid left behind? I really wanted to be in the Mickey Mouse Club play, dammit. Twenty-five years later and I’m still not over it. I could’ve been the next Justin, Ryan, Britney or maybe Dale. I think Dale was the only black kid in my generation’s Mickey Mouse Club or at least the only one that I remember. Hold up, wait a minute, Disney? Where were all the kids of color in the New Mickey Mouse Club? You get a pass for this post, but please believe we will come back to this at a later date. Truth be told, after kindergarten, I can’t even remember what the plays were for the first, second and third grade because I was so hung up on the colorless M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E Club.
Mickey Mouse Club aside, I will never forget the fourth-grade play. There wasn’t any Donald or Goofy, but the situation that played out during the audition was definitely worthy of a cartoon melody as the soundtrack. The privileged powers that be decided the fourth graders would perform the musical rendition of How the West Was Really Won. It was not even close to the Mickey Mouse Club, so there wasn’t a doubt in my mind it was going this was also going to be whack AF. I set my disappointment aside and channeled my inner Blazing Saddles’ Sherrif Bart to get ready for my western, theatrical debut.
What the hell is that? How The West Was Really Won is a 1962 American epic set between 1839-1889 about four generations of the world’s most boring family as they move from western New York to the Pacific Ocean. (Doesn’t this sound like the perfect play for women and people of color? I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t. Not even a little bit.)
Maybe it was the lack of puberty, the lack of maturity or it could’ve been my inability as a child to fully understand that I was constantly being exposed to microaggressive racism from problematically untrained adults who attempted to set me back socially and academically within my community, but back in the day, I was a very shy kid. This idea of being on a stage was new to me, and this was going to be the first time I ever auditioned for a real part in a play. I was tired of being just another shy body in the crowd. I figured age nine was the time I was going to take my first step toward jumping out of my comfort zone. I waited until the odds of landing a role were in my favor. How The West Was Really Won had about three or four narrators. Each narrator had the most lines in the play. There was no way that I wouldn’t get at least one of the narrator roles. I mean, I was the only black kid in the entire grade. I was the unique one. Unique is good for art. (Who knew I would have to wait two decades later for some Black Panther shit to go down and set the trend for black excellence in film and television?)
The Mathematical Breakdown of My Elementary Childhood
3 classes (25 students) = 75 kids + 1 black kid = DIVERSITY FTW
I was ready for the audition. I walked in, set all my nerves aside, read the lines, they smiled and complimented me. It was going great. I realize now it was probably participation ribbon talk (a reoccurring theme in my millennial life), but there were so many parts in the play besides the four narrators so my chances of landing any part were very high and I thought the confidence was justified.
The big day finally arrived, and role announcements were in. All the names were posted on a little, insignificant piece of paper beside the door. Yes, I checked the door every single day for two weeks straight waiting for that pointless piece of paper to appear. The entire page was filled with different names of kids I couldn’t care less about. I was only checking for my name and my name only. I looked at the lead parts. No name, but there was no sweat because there was still the secondary roles. Still no name, but that was okay too. There were the ensembles. My name wasn’t there either. It wasn’t looking good. My last chance was the few small parts. At the end of the day, a role is a role. There’s no role that I wouldn’t want to do at this point. I just wanted to be in the damn play. BAM! I saw my name! Finally! I got a part in the musical! I was about to be the next Ryan Gosling. I dragged my finger across the paper to see the name of my role, and I was the…[drum roll] “THE BLACK COWBOY.”
Before you tell me that it would’ve been offensive or “white-washing” if they gave this part to anyone else because I was black and the cowboy was black, there are a few facts you need to consider before you slap yourself silly:
- Nowhere in the dialogue or the entirety of the musical does it state the character is black other than his name which was literally BLACK COWBOY. (No slave name or anything.)
- The BLACK COWBOY only had one line. (This was my biggest upset.)
- I was the only black kid in the entire grade and one of five in the entire school.
- I was only nine years old. (This was a big deal to me.)
- It was 1997, not 1967. (We’re a post-racial society, right?)
- What do schools with no black kids do with this role?
- Is the role actually a character in the play or did they make it up just for me?
- What would they do if there were no black kids? (But seriously.)
It was on that day, I realized that no matter how bad I wanted to be a narrator or a lead character, it was decided I was going to play the “BLACK” character even if it wasn’t relevant to the story. It’s a lot for a nine-year-old to contemplate this reality. You mean to tell me that if I wanted to be Superman, I would be the “black” Superman? You mean if I want to be a police officer, I would be the “black” police officer? In between thinking about the next episode of Dragonball Z or Daria, I wondered if this situation was only going to happen at my predominantly white schools or was this something I would have to deal with my whole life?
Is always being the “black” cowboy or the “black” kid in the classroom a good thing or a bad thing?”
The next year. I’m a big kid now. I’m ten years old. The fifth graders are performing Tall Tales. F*** yes. Tall Tales are all the stories about the larger than life characters like Calamity Jane, Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Everybody knows the tall tale of John Henry. He was this huge black steel-driver who raced a steam-powered hammer and won. I mean he died because his heart gave out, but he still beat the steam-powered hammer. This year the logic of the Columbia Elementary School teachers was going to work in my favor. Last year, I was the only black kid and the teachers obviously only made me the “BLACK COWBOY” because I was the only black kid so if I audition for John Henry, I will get the part because he’s a “BLACK STEEL-DRIVER” and I’m the still the only black kid. SCORE! This time, the black character wasn’t just a one-line throwaway character. John Henry was a lead role. DOUBLE SCORE! I knew this time around, there wasn’t anything I could do the screw this up. I was going to nail the audition. All I had to do was walk into the audition and be black AF with overalls, and that was basically my entire childhood in Bakersfield. Mission accomplished.
I walked into the room, read my lines for the audition, and from the jump, the scenario played out exactly the same as before. They smiled, told me a did I great job, and a few weeks later the roles were posted beside the door and guess what!? THIS-TIME-I-STILL-DIDN’T-GET-THE-PART.
I was confused. Last time there was a black character in the play, I was given that role because Columbia Elementary obviously didn’t want to piss off the neckbeards in the How The West Was Really Won Extended Universe Reddit thread, arguing about historical accuracy, right? I was only the black cowboy because I was black and the character was black. I was okay with that stupid logic. I mean, it’s the same logic that we use with most media, right? With Tall Tales, I was sure that I was going to get the John Henry role because he wasn’t just black, he was SUPER black. He was damn near purple. So, what went wrong?
The role of John Henry was given a tall, lanky and awkward white kid named John. (I can’t make this shit up.) A few things could’ve happened in this scenario to alter the outcome I anticipated.
- The teachers figured both the student the character were tall people named John.
- The teachers realized the error of their ways in typecasting and picked the least obvious and least black choice. (Not a chance.)
- They didn’t want my black ass in a lead role, so I was straight up Scarlet Johansson’d.
- Lanky and awkward John had a better audition than me. (Doubt it. He could barely speak full sentences.)
- People are stupid and will find any excuse to justify their systematically biased decisions. (Most likely.)
Either way, I look at the scenario, it still boils down to the fact that I was always going to be the “black guy” so the next step was to figure out a way to make this situation work in my favor. From that moment forward, I had the opportunity to continue to go out for roles that weren’t necessarily designed for me or I could accept my designated place within the oppressive institutions I frequented. The world was going to see me as the “black guy” no matter how many times I practiced my lines, rehearsed my eloquence, and ironed my dress shirt. There were moments I blamed the media for the consistent portrayal of black men on the news as criminals, problematic rappers or dead bodies. There was no point in waiting for a little, pointless piece of paper hanging beside the door. At age nine, I realized there was going to always going to be one adjective before my name.
BLACK MAN: Ok, history. I’ll play this role, but I get to write my own f**king lines.