Michael Robinson uncovers an alternate history
PODCAST BY DEONNA KELLI SAYED
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
Storybooth: Skin is a four part series about negotiating color in the Contemporary South by Steve Mitchell and Deonna Kelli Sayed.
Both Mitchell and Sayed are white.
Michael Robinson was 8 or 9 years old when a friend from the neighborhood confronted him: “Why do you act that way? Why are you trying to be white?”
“I’m thinking, What? I was spinning,” Michael remembers, “and I go talk to my uncle. He’d lived in New York so he had this mystique, you know, he was worldly, and I told him what the kid had said. He told me, Next time someone tells you that, you ask them, what does being black mean? He said, it can mean anything you want it to mean.”
The cultural connotations of race are deeply embedded in American culture. While being black can mean anything you want it to mean, it’s never that simple.
In the 1960’s, film of an experiment by Dr. Kenneth Clark was shown as part of the proceedings in Brown vs. Board of Education, a landmark Civil Rights case. In the film, black children, ages 3-7, were presented with four dolls, identical except for color, then asked to identify their race and which one they preferred. Most of the children chose the white doll.
In 2007, filmmaker Kiri Davis repeated the experiment with the same results. In addition, she asked which doll was ‘good’ and which was ‘bad’. Most of the children chose the white doll as the ‘good’ one.
In the 1960’s, this experiment was seen as proof of the negative effects of racism, but the interpretation has changed over the years. One current perspective is that white constructs of beauty and validity, thus ‘goodness’, are so pervasive that they are accepted as objective.
Other-ness is always placed in opposition to Whiteness. The dichotomy in the American awareness between the Good Negro and the Bad Negro, the Good Muslim and the Bad, is subtle and slippery, affecting the way each member of our society views themselves. All operate in relation to whiteness.
Each of us subconsciously navigates these determinations every day. They develop and reinforce expectations. Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have worn his hoodie up, but it’s okay for white college freshmen.
The thing is, Michael didn’t want to be the Good Negro. He wanted to step outside of that dichotomy. He wanted to be white. And what being white meant to him was that his race wouldn’t be an issue. At all.
“The way I sound to you right now—no one in my family sounds like this—so I had to practice it. I had to make it happen.”
Michael was a gifted student and, due to this designation, he was segmented off in middle school with other gifted students, all of them white. For a long time, he didn’t think about it.
“I just wanted to be Michael. Here I was, hanging out with all these white kids. I thought to be accepted I had to like certain things, I had to be with certain people.”
Michael is 29 and grew up in Fuquay Varina. He’s 6’2″, a big guy, with a deep, booming laugh. His voice goes quieter when he’s thoughtful, when he’s remembering an experience, or trying to put thoughts to words. His eyes dance when he’s excited and he’s the kind of person who’s excited a lot.
“I can be obsessive,” he tells me, with a low chuckle.
He graduated from UNCG in 2005. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies.
He taught high school English for seven years and began to realize he was more interested in teaching about questions and issues relating directly to his student’s lives. He wanted to find ways to make what he was teaching relevant and those questions—his questions—took him out of the Public School system.
He’s now a Success Coach at High Point University, where he helps students transition from high school to college, guides them through course work and career questions, and helps them find their place in the world.
“I always wanted to be the good kid,” he recalls. “I wanted to be people’s favorite, but at the same time, I wanted what I wanted. And, I wanted to be the best at whatever I did.”
Most of what he wanted, what he saw in the culture around him, was the white world. The history of black people in that world dilates wildly between the Good Negro on one side and the Bad Negro on the other with very little between and has since the beginning of mass media.
From the appearance of George Siegman as Silas Lynch, the mulatto who lusts after a white woman in DW Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation through Stepin Fetchit as the Yass sah, massah! wide-eyed comic relief in countless films of the 30’s and 40’s, there haven’t been many constructive role models in popular culture.
People like Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington filled the Good Negro roles but, usually, any other black character was a drug addict or a gangbanger. Bill Cosby seemed good, due to the way he talked and the fact that he wore sweaters. And then, there was Michael Jackson, becoming lighter and lighter.
But none of that mattered as much when Michael Robinson was growing up watching Wishbone, a PBS series about a talking dog who lived with a TV-middle class boy and his mother and was always getting into literary adventures.
“I wanted these pieces of the kind of life I saw on TV. A pizzeria to hang out in, a grandfather to take me fishing. I wanted to be like all my peers at school and they were white. There’s a way in which I didn’t even know I was changing, adapting.
It was easier just to do away with parts of myself. I could say, well, I like that stuff too and I’d fit in with my friends. I just didn’t want things assumed about me because I was black.
Like, I’m tall right? I didn’t play basketball in high school because I didn’t want people to say, Look at you, you must play ball. I didn’t want to be that kind of black kid.”
He was a good student. He read the classics. He learned to talk, even think, in a particular way. It was a way that, to him, seemed to step outside of race.
“My best friend in high school, he said to me one day after band practice, he said, You know, Mike, you’re not a nigger. At first I thought, Whoa! What did you just say to me?
But a part of me felt validated.”
Michael was raised in a stable, middle class family. His father worked at Guilford Mills, his mother stayed home. They lived in a rural area where the houses of his grandmother and uncle were close by. Until he went to elementary school, he mostly played with his cousins and other black kids nearby.
On the surface, Michael wanted to be white so he could fit in at school, but there was more going on. He had a curiosity and ambition, as well as an early insight that, as he was, he might not have the opportunities he desperately wanted.
“I knew race was something important but it didn’t really connect with me.” His family never talked about it at home yet, now and then, Michael would notice a simmering anger in his mother concerning race which flared occasionally.
“I’d actually pray at night to wake up in the morning and be white. I just wanted to know what it would be like to go to school and be a white kid. Just for one day. ‘Cause there were things I knew I couldn’t do. I couldn’t like a white girl. I couldn’t go to a sleepover at a friend’s house, not once his parents found out I was black.”
His face changes as he speaks. There’s no anger, just an old longing which he remembers perhaps too well.
“But, you know, after that talk with my uncle, I became like a social scientist. I was always watching, you know, how in the lunchroom all the black kids sat together, recognizing how I’m often the only black kid in the classroom. I started modeling my behavior on the white kids around. After a while, I could sit at any table in the lunchroom.
All of this, though, was the beginning of a pathology that’s carried through the rest of my life about being accepted by black people. It alienated me from others, sometimes my own family. I had this self-stigma.”
Eventually, Michael came to the painful understanding that he would never be seen as white. He would always simply be the Good Negro.
“I came to realize that no matter how I spoke or who I was, my blackness always preceded me.”
What he means is this: To a stranger, he is always black before he is Michael.
“We go to school with the assumption that we are being taught the real story, right? We believe we’re being told what really happened.
Before college, I actually believed Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King were the only black people who wrote anything. So, when a professor suggested I take some African American Literature classes, I thought, What is there to learn?
Once in the class, though, my world just exploded. Suddenly there was all this history I never knew about, this beautiful writing, these amazing rhetoricians. There were all these things that happened, things people did, this whole alternate history that had been hidden.”
A grin spreads over Michael’s face while his eyes remain serious.
“It’s crazy, right? It’s like The Matrix.
My Public School teachers taught me a narrative about how the world was and I trusted that narrative. I felt hoodwinked, you know? When I found everything that had been left out.
I felt like knowledge had been withheld from me—about people like me—I was offended, really. Upset.
But it helped me to understand better where the pressures came from that drove me to want to be white.”
He devoured black literature and black history, discovering the writings of James Baldwin and Jean Toomer, the speeches of Malcolm X.
“All these people, there’s an unapologetic-ness to their writing that was thrilling.
James Baldwin is a patron saint to me, he changed my whole way of thinking. The way he unpacks the whole race thing piece by piece, race as a systematic social construction. And the idea that racism has damaged white people even more than black folks, because they must carry this constant lie within them.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was liberating. You see the full spectrum of an individual’s development around ideas of inclusion and acceptance and love. Love for self. How he gained that through the Nation of Islam. I mean, no one had ever talked about Malcolm around me as anything other than the Great Satan.
And Their Eyes Were Watching God was the first time I ever heard characters in literature who talked like my aunts and uncles. It really spoke to me. That’s Fuquay—I know those people. It helped me go back home and actually respect them in a way I hadn’t before, because the people I was taught to respect didn’t speak that way.
It helped to reintroduce my self to myself.”
Michael read relentlessly and began to talk about what he read. This eased him back into a black world he had been isolated from. It began to change his ideas about education, what it was for, who and what he wanted to teach.
“I had to discover so much on my own. No one handed me Malcolm X. I had to go out and find it. I’d been shown a gateway, and given the tools I needed to search on my own. So, all of this really started to transform the way I saw teaching at a very
basic level, both for me and my students.”
Michael would ask his high school students, Would you come to class if you didn’t have to? Most would say no. They had a difficult time seeing how the things they were being taught related to their actual lives. It was that engagement with the life around them that he wanted to foster.
His immersion in his own history and culture had given him a new kind of confidence.
“For the first time in my adult life, I was really proud to be black. I could take it upon myself to rebuild my identity from what I was learning from my history.
There’s an immense pride I have in wanting to share that history.
To know that, even in spite of having the spirit of an entire people broken for the economic gain of another, that even in spite of that, we created art, music, produced great thinkers. Slaves were freed and became councillors to Presidents in their lifetime. I mean, Old Dude was a slave and then twenty years later, he’s advising the President.
Being black to me is creating beauty, even in the face of destruction.”
That destruction is never too far away. The recent shifts in the cultural landscape, the rise in White Nationalism, Immigration bans, “Get Tough on Crime” programs (even though the crime rate has steadily decreased over the last eight years) are all indications that things might get very difficult for a lot of people. For all of us.
“Up until a couple of years ago, I was much more comfortable walking into a room full of white people. I got nervous walking into a room full of black people. I believed I couldn’t connect with them, that we didn’t have anything in common. Of course, that’s just wrong.
On a day to day level, I don’t think about being black unless a circumstance arises to remind me.
When I was a kid, I’d go in white stores in Fuquay with my mom and I could see she’d get nervous. As I grew older I’d say, Oh, Mom, no one feels that way anymore. That’s so 1950’s. But she’d say, I know these people. I grew up with these people.
See, I always thought I could talk to people. I was comfortable around white people, I knew how to talk to cops. That’s what I thought. Now, I see that doesn’t matter.”
The last two years have changed Michael’s perspective. The high-profile police shootings in Ferguson and Charlotte. The Sandra Bland case. Incidents closer to home: the Greensboro Police Department’s treatment of the Scales Brothers and Dejuan Yourse.
“Up until about two years ago, I was really—maybe not in denial—but I wasn’t an activist. The last couple of years I’ve really grown to be scared, paranoid, in ways I wasn’t before.
I was living in Durham, in a pretty well-to-do neighborhood, and I’d walk my dog every day with my hood up. It was my neighborhood, right?
One day, I felt like I couldn’t do that anymore. I felt like I threatened people in a way I’d never considered myself to be threatening. ‘Cause I thought I’d figured out how to be around white people.
All that didn’t matter anymore. I was a big, black guy in a hoodie. My blackness stood in front of everything I think I am. With the neighbors, with the police.”
“I think we all decide at some point whether we’re just going to go headlong into the narrative that’s supplied to us, or we’re going to maybe about-face and see if we can do our life in a way that feels right to us.
I’m teaching. My wife and I are having a baby. I have my world, I don’t have to fit into anyone else’s.
I’m going to rush in and do something, I’m that kind of guy. So I thought I’d try this series. It all came out of this opinion piece I wrote a number of months ago and the way people responded to it.
I thought, I’ve learned some things and I have a few tools I can give people that might be helpful.
I mean, I always tell my students: I can’t teach you anything. It’s not like I’m holding some box of secrets here that I’m going to dole out to the good ones. No, I can give you tools, show you where a few doors are, the rest is up to you. That’s what Shifting Lenses is, a way to get into the conversation, predominantly about race, but not just.”
Shifting Lenses is “a community discussion series designed to help citizens develop the skills necessary to engage in meaningful dialogue around tough issues.” A typical session involves presentation, small group work, and general discussion. Meetings have been held at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. The next is scheduled for Saturday, March 18 at 7pm.
“Education is the most important part of our social contract. Without it, everything else begins to fall away. Education, and finding ways to talk with each other.”
Michael laughs: “There’s a point where people say, Why do we have to keep talking about the past?”
He spreads his arms wide to include the room, the building, the city: “But we carry the past with us. All those things are still right here.
They’re not going away.”
Michael settles back into his chair, thoughtful for a moment, his expression both serious and hopeful.
“We’ll always talk about race in America because it’s a part of who we are as Americans. It’s in our DNA. It’s this chronic disease America has—it flares up now and then, gets better, gets worse—but it’s always going to be a part of the body. That’s just the way it is.”
Steve Mitchell is co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. Deonna Kelli Sayed, dksayed.com, is a writer, podcast producer, and storyteller. Their joint website is www.outhinthesouth.com