One day I’m just walkin’ the streets o’ Harlem, livin’, like I always done. Next thing, I’m walkin’ that tunnel o’ light like they say. I still don’t know how I died – if a car hit me or a block o’ cement fell on my head. But when I get to that light, I see this musta-been African at this little desk and he’s writin’ in some book I can’t read. He looks up at me, got these big round eyes narrowed to slits between sleepy-lookin’ eyelids, adjusts his spectacles and he says I gotta go before General Concensus. I ask him, who’s this General and what’s he got to do with me and what’s rank matter in the Beyond and a whole lot o’ other questions. But the African don’t say nothin’. Just waves me on. So I walk away – or maybe float, I dunno – and I start headin’ toward this cliff, which I don’t know how I know that’s where I’m supposed to go. But I do and go to the edge of this cliff overlookin’… Zion, I guess. I dunno, but it was this real Eden-like place just stretchin’ everywhere with the sun in a blue sky, no clouds, shinin’ down on everythin’. Then all the sudden I’m face-to-face with this… I don’t what it was. It was a person and they was black but… but that’s it. They go, “I am General Concensus.” But I don’t see the lips move ‘cause I can’t tell what they look like. Everythin’ kept movin’ and changin’. The nose was wide and flat, then, the next second, thin and turned up. Eyes went from brown to green to brown to blue. The build was a skinny girl’s then a fat man’s and everythin’ in between. Even the skin. It was always black, but sometime lighter and sometime darker. And the voice was never just one voice, but a whole bunch o’ voices bouncin’ through a metal hallway and whichever caught your ear first was luck. And each voice called me one name or another: “Everyman. Drunk. Intellectual. Philanderer. Rebel. Faggot. Pioneer. Uncle Tom.” It kept up ‘til this ghostly silence hit me like a batterin’ ram, like all the air got sucked out all at once. Then the General goes, “NOT BLACK ENOUGH!” Lifts his arms, turns into a giant bat, and flies right at my face. Next thing, I’m here, just as old and run down as you see, but stuck in a time I’d left behind long ago, waitin’ for the General Concensus to agree on me.
Handsome sat looking at Tex. He had been spoken down to before; by teachers, coaches, employers, colleagues, doctors, lawyers, the police. But no one had succeeded in making Handsome feel as wholly ignorant as this old black cowboy. “There are so many things wrong with that story, I don’t know where to start!” he barked as he sprung to his feet. “And I’m not going to bother trying.”
“Every word was bible truth,” Tex calmly asserted.
“Boy, don’t you…”
“And don’t call me, ‘Boy,’ old man!”
“Did y’even get the moral o’ the story?”
“What moral? There is no moral. It’s a story about nothing.”
“It’s about your life, boy!”
“Oh yeah? I thought it was about what happens when I die.”
Handsome watched the old man’s face assume the reverberant calm at the center of a terrible hurricane. Tex’s eyes narrowed and the warmth seeped out of them instantaneously as he shook his head with the slow foreboding swing of a pendulum. “Think you’re so smart,” he intoned. “You’re pitiable, boy, lookin’ down at the ignorant field nigga.”
Handsome pointed a finger at Tex. “I didn’t say that.”
“Ya don’t got to!” Tex cried and slapped away Handsome’s hand. He clambered off his stool and stood on his thin rickety legs eyeball-to-eyeball with Handsome. The young man was back on his heels, ready for whatever the coot was about to try. “Ya think I just swallowed that monster outright? Ya wanna know what I said?”
I said, “Ya expect me to believe y’all are dead and conversin’ with me?”
“No,” said Mudbone, “but we tellin’ ya anyhow.”
I gotta admit, now they had me real curious. “Y’all don’t want money. I call horse hockey on your story. So what ya tellin’ me for?”
Simple stepped forward and said, “ ‘Cause you, son, are our ticket outta here.”
“You the future. The future judges the Negro of old. Every battle the Negro waged is one less you gotta fight. Every step he took toward Zion, that’s one less step you and your future gotta take.
“But like all men, a black man’s got his agenda and it might not jibe with his brother’s. Ya know how folks are, self-interest and all. I challenge your ideas, I gotta go. Your generating see Pops and his teethy grinnin’, they see him coonin’ for the white man. No place for that in the future. And it don’t matter how easier he made it for you. Don’t matter if me and Mudbone tamped down the path for black folks to show the white man we real people ‘cause I’m queer and Mudbone’s a womanizin’, blasphemin’, whore-born junkie.”
Mudbone said, “But I ain’t queer.”
Simple continued, “History’s a story, son, and every story needs a storyteller. Else it’s just motes o’ dust carried by the wind forever. White folks got lots o’ storytellers so they got lot o’ history. How much we got? Our history’s all spoken, passed word-o’-mouth and all. And we lost it when our ancestors got stolen from home. The storytellers we got now wanna ignore some stories. Why ya think only white folks talk about Africans sellin’ their own to the slavers?”
“Racism?” I guessed.
“True. But why don’t black folks talk about it? Maybe it don’t agree with what our storytellers think our stories should be. But it’s part o’ our story. We are all a part o’ our story. And we need someone to tell our side of it.”
“‘And one day,’” Tex finished, “‘you may need someone to tell yours.’”
Handsome walked down the half-forgotten side street, away from the quaint old coffee shop, out to Center Avenue. He stood at the corner breathing deeply, trying to compose himself. The weird old codger had not just riled him. He had prompted Handsome to tap into a deep reservoir of hatred he was less than proud of. But Handsome was angrier with himself than at Tex. He was infuriated that he had even for a nanosecond entertained the notion that he was oblivious to the sacrifices made by African-Americans past for his benefit. He was educated and knew that those African-Americans had done much more with far less than he ever would. Handsome’s blood again began to churn with tectonic aggravation, when he heard the vague exclamation of a young male voice to his left.
He turned and saw three black teenaged boys huddled on the front stoop of a convenience store. They were ensconced in name-brand clothes two sizes too large. The diamonds piercing their ear lobes wrestled for the attention of strangers. Two of the boys wore baseball hats cocked at Dutch angles. The third boy sported a loose Afro replete with six differently colored picks. Handsome couldn’t understand what they were saying. It was a pidgin hodgepodge of English and slang he had never heard before. They spoke over one another, increasingly fast, increasingly loud, and increasingly garbled. Handsome shook his head, a grimace slapped across his face.
Handsome silently mouthed to himself, niggers.
And suddenly, realizing what he had just thought, Handsome froze. His immediate impulse was to turn and run back to the coffee shop, to speak to Tex, to tell the old cowboy that he understood now. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to turn around to find the coffee shop to have disappeared.