When I was in high school, I really wanted to be in a rock band. Don’t get me wrong, because I loved hip-hop, R&B, and funk (especially Rick James), but there was always a soft spot in my heart for hard rock, metal, and punk. In 1984, I happened to see a video for a band called Xavion—an all-Black band out of Memphis that fused hard rock, funk, and new wave (that’s them on the left, and their video below). I rushed out, bought the album, and played the hell out of it. These guys were doing exactly what I wanted to do, and lead singer Dexter Haygood had the best hair in the world. Shortly after seeing Xavion for the first time, I bought my first (and only) electric guitar and amp, determined to teach myself to play.
A few days after my purchase, I told a group of guys at my high school that I had bought a guitar, and wanted to form a rock band. Though I wish it wasn’t crucial to this story—it must be mentioned that all the guys were white. And one of them said, “Niggers can’t play guitar.”
This was one of the most brutal things anyone ever said to me up to that point in my life. Making matters worse, the guy who said could have kicked my ass with no problem, so taking a swing at him was pointless. But that’s the worst part. The worst part is how the other guys laughed, and didn’t come to my defense. Someone could have cited Eddie Hazel, Chuck Berry, or Robert Johnson. And even if they couldn’t have named those guys, they could have named Jimi Hendrix. But they said nothing. And I, humiliated and dejected, didn’t think to say anything. I was at a loss for words—something very rare for me. I slinked away, and shortly after that I stopped teaching myself how to play guitar, and gave up on my musical aspirations.
I’ve been thinking about this story quite a bit lately, in part because I’ve been writing quite a bit about racial identification and its devastating effects on people, and in part because of a band called Unlocking the Truth. These young men are doing what I wanted to do, and nothing is stopping them.
Racism is a deadly disease. It can crush the spirit, destroy dreams, and take lives. Because of one racist thing someone said to me when I was 15 or 16-years-old, I foolishly gave up on something I really wanted to do. No one stood by me or defended me, and in my youthful cowardice, I gave up without a fight. I have never backed down from a fight since that time. To be sure, there have been things that I have quit, and things I’ve given up on, but none of them were because someone said, “Niggers can’t _________ (fill in the blank).” Someone says that to me now, and I prove them wrong. And more important, I try to defend others—not just against racism, but against the other types of oppression that dehumanize us, crushing our spirit and killing our dreams. This is something we all must do—regardless of our race, gender, sexual identity, religion, ethnicity, or culture. There can be no liberation from oppression for your specific group, if it entails the continued oppression of anyone else. In other words, we’re all in this together.