The Current Landscape
The past forty-six months have been a maze littered with strained relationships, broken friendships, and a scattering of unfollowed and blocked social media contacts, loosely dubbed friends—all sacrificed on the altar of politics. What remains for the rest of the journey is a basket full of like-minded individuals and a couple of dissenters who have enough sense to keep their mouths shut and post only about cooking, their kids, or their pets. I plan to get the jump on any November 3 jitters by pondering a few questions: What do I do with a basket full of profiles and no bread crumb trail to find my way home? Is there a way for me and my friends and acquaintances to return to that former state of grace where we treated a difference of opinion with deference? Did this thinned-out herd merely outwit, outplay, and outlast the others according to Darwin’s paradigm? Or is it time to cancel my segregation of goats and sheep?
Have I gone too far? Have they gone too far?
For me, the elephant in the room — and the donkey — could be the biggest determinants as to how I’ll proceed. After all, these rivals have been wedged into just about every aspect of discourse to the point that their upcoming cage match is wholly the unholy subject of discourse. This makes social intercourse a sad state of affairs in that, for many, the lines between the political versus the social, the spiritual, the leisure, the professional, the scientific, the honorific, the carnal, the professional, the recreational, the vacational, the educational, the sexual, the interpersonal, the medical, and even the familial have all been obliterated. Our very lives reek of politics.
Without a crystal ball, any attempt on my part to venture a guess at Tuesday’s outcome is a feeble attempt at foretelling the future. Maybe the first step in plotting my way forward is not to divine the motives of my peers in the virtual and physical realms, but my own, if I am to understand how I arrived where I am.
The Nature of Social Intercourse
I like people. A lot. But in small doses. I’m a functioning introvert. By that I mean, if required to perform some leadership role in front of a large group of people, be it on a stage or from behind a lectern, I am all in, but always find the undertaking exhausting and always need time to recharge afterwards.
Anyone who knows me well can attest that I shy away from large numbers of people. It’s not a claustrophobia thing. It’s a sensory overload thing. I stand forty-eight inches tall, and people tend to remember meeting a forty-eight-inch tall Black man. The downside is that people tend to remember meeting a forty-eight-inch tall Black man. I can chat with a complete stranger for like three minutes, tops—you know, exchange a few words about the most mundane thing (we do that in the South)—and they will remember the entire conversation. Sometimes verbatim.
Hey, you’re Clay Rivers, aren’t you? From Orlando, right? How’s it going? We passed each other on the sidewalk eight years ago. You said hi to me.
Add to that, I, more often than not, have no recollection of the person speaking to me. It’s a little embarrassing to say the least. These tête-à-têtes have happened so many times, I’ve long since stopped trying to place names with faces or even playing an obligatory role in the charade. Now I skirt crowds altogether to avoid having the scene play out multiple times.
I fare better in small, intimate settings with a couple of people. This allows me the opportunity to get to know the other person better, more in depth. Learning how people came to be who they are has always fascinated me; probably as much as, if not more than, my physicality intrigues others. And once we both get past “the novelty effect” and realize just how much we have in common, acquaintanceships are born. The more we learn about and accept one another, the deeper those relationships grow.
You may value your friends, but I’ve always thought I have the best friends. They represent a broad cross-section of humanity from all walks of life and a variety of races, ages, nationalities, religions, and professions. (Although I don’t know any lumberjacks. That’s a-whole-nother story for a-whole-nother day.) I cherish those relationships for the simple reason that my understanding of the world and the people who live in it is made exponentially broader, deeper, and richer because of those relationships. And I try to hold onto them for as long as possible.
Astoria, New York. November, 2009. I was introduced to Facebook one morning by two roommates of mine who were several years younger than me. Initially, I scoffed at creating a Facebook account. Throughout the day I thought about who I’d like to get in touch with from back in the day. I remembered an old college friend I hadn’t spoken with since we were at Florida State. And don’t you know, later than night, minutes after creating my account, Chris was the first person to friend-request me.
Like millions of other people, I was hooked. It was great being one of those folks over thirty who ruined Facebook for college students by reconnecting with people I actually remembered, but hadn’t thought about for years. Friend-ing one friend leading to the friend-ing of another friend leading to the friend-ing of another and another made Facebook the ultimate scavenger hunt. Suddenly, planet Earth became a whole lot smaller.
Back in the day, I worked in Entertainment at the Magic Kingdom. Reconnecting via Facebook prompted talk of getting together. A few of our former coworkers took the lead and planned a weekend reunion at a sleepy little golf resort in Howie-in-the-Hills, Florida. Friends came in from all around the state. A few people flew in from California, Hawaii; another from Japan.
My friends and I filled the weekend with hugs and laughter till we cried over decades-old escapades. Apologies for past transgressions were extended and forgiveness was given in return, and we fashioned a renewed foundation of camaraderie for extended connection. Aside from the fact that we were all little less robust and nubile than we remembered, one thing became apparent: Facebook had limitations. It was only a means of communication, a medium, and couldn’t be an accurate replacement for actual face-to-face interaction. Yes, it was a powerful tool, but one capable of delivering only part of the intended message, just like the telephones of the “ages past” — the ones without the cameras or video capabilities. Conversation viva voce (with the living voice) carried a lot more information than a written letter, but just as a written letter is a poor substitute for a phone call, interaction via social media is a poor substitute for face-to-face communication.
Discovering My Voice
My writing began as a closely guarded means of self-discovery. I’ve been writing most of my life, mainly in journals off and on, and for enjoyment. Writing kept me afloat during my adolescent and high school years. As any ACOA will tell you, life with a parent who is a functioning alcoholic warrants at least one coping mechanism. Journaling was mine. But then, scrawling down my thoughts and musings seemed like nothing more than another outlet for a guy whose strengths lay in the arts.
In college, I put writing aside. I had no need for it outside of the occasional essay for class or the occasional letter to my parents. I didn’t pick up a pen for creative endeavors again for some twenty years, when the unresolved grief over my father’s death surfaced and sent me headlong into a massive depression. Like an old friend, writing was there, and with the aid of a good therapist, I coaxed the shadowy fears out of the basement and into the light of day for proper examination, dismantling, and banishment.
A month after 9/11 I began a twelve-year stint in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and blogged about the bigger-than-life, yuletide goings-on that transpired with a small number of family and friends. No angst, no major drama, because after all, there is no crying in Christmas . . . except for the time I pulled an ill-timed prank that upset one of my dressers and I received a dressing down from my stage manager. Readers seemed to revel in the adventures as much as I did.
A couple of years before leaving Los Angeles, screenwriting seemed like a natural progression for disillusioned actor fed up to the teeth with regularly being cast as Dwarf № 4 or a generic sight gag. After a few more years in Tinseltown, I returned to Orlando and began formal writing classes for the first time in my life. Romantic comedies held my interests and the classes stretched my abilities. Again, nothing deep or especially meaningful sprang from my laptop.
In 2010, a former Disney entertainment coworker died unexpectedly. Roy and I weren’t especially close, but he was one of those bigger-than-life personalities everyone knew and loved. His death so caught me off guard that it quickly unearthed long-ignored musings about my own mortality, purpose, and the meaning of life. I wrote a couple hundred words, set against the backdrop of camaraderie, live stage shows, and parades in the Magic Kingdom. I put my thoughts into an essay and posted it on my blog, only to find it “liked” and shared among friends who asked me to read it at Roy’s memorial service. Begrudgingly, I obliged. I had written my first eulogy.
I stuck with screenplays—received a couple of awards actually—and blogging. The blogging took off and I made new friends in United Kingdom, California, and Hawaii. All of whom I keep in touch with to varying degrees even to this day. They were ones who helped me gain the confidence to continue writing. To what end? Who knows?
Then, shortly after hanging up my elf shoes in the Christmas Spectacular, I published my memoir, followed by a book about a friend’s last year battling cancer, and then a short self-help book. But the biggest leap came in 2015, when I discovered Medium and began writing about race accidentally and The New York Times published one of my essays for its “Race Related” section. The essay, entitled “How I Talk to White People About Racism,” resonated with readers more than anything else I’d written.
I attributed the experience off as a one-off and blithely tried my hand at writing about other topics. And failed spectacularly. But each time I returned to the topic of race, readers responded more favorably than the time before.
That was five years ago.
Since then, writing about equality has become my passion. What with the overt instigation of racial tensions executed with a wink and a nod, the increased incidents of police brutality and blatant social injustice, and the need for people like me, Black people, to say stop killing us seemed all the more dire. I’ve come across some crazy talented writers. Real writers who make words do the impossible. Writers like Ré Harris, Sam McKenzie Jr., John Metta, and Allan Rae, to name a few, are geniuses. Their work makes writing look effortless. They tell me it takes some effort. Uh huh . . . it’s advanced literary magic.
That anyone can claim with a straight face that they don’t see the ways racism is a manifestation of centuries-old anti-Black hatred is an insult to my intelligence, the collective wisdom of every Black person who has set foot on American soil, and the whole of humanity. That so many white people need to have evils of America’s ongoing and well-documented history of enslaving, Jim Crow-ing, segregating, despising, terrorizing, lynching, and pipeline-to-prisoning of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color explained to them is morally bankrupt. And those who sit idly by and don’t speak out against injustice while laying claim to the name of Christ proves they know not the risen Lord or his most fundamental teachings.
I never thought I’d be writing about equality, but I’ve embraced it. When I reflect on all my adventures, travels, foibles, tragedies, and triumphs, it’s clear they have all worked together to lead me to this point. Being a Black man who lives with dwarfism, is Christian, and also gay has informed the way I see the world, my place in it, and how I interact with others.
Racism diminishes people, maybe not in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the people who make determinations that impact every aspect of a Black people’s lives. It’s a complete perversion of the Golden Rule. “Do unto others” gets morphed into “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
Prejudice stifles, it limits, more so than any physical limitation. It robs people of their God-given right to reach their full potential. I’ve heard white people cry, What privilege? I had to work for everything I’ve got. No one ever gave me anything. That may be true, but what they fail to realize is that there is a system pushes them to the front of the line for no other reason than the color of their skin. It’s like, all things being equal, when an actor happens to wear a sweater to an audition that triggers a pleasant memory of an old lover or family member with the casting director. Of course, said actor will be viewed with and afforded a little extra favor. They get the shine. That wiggle room that allows for gaffes, jittery nerves, or lack of preparation. But the converse is also true. If your sweater is disliked by the casting director, it’s rare you’ll land that role no matter how good your acting chops are.
The same applies to racism. Those in power make decisions that impact everything from job opportunities to who’s deemed datable to whose home loan gets approved. Racism influences real estate agents’ decisions of which neighborhoods prospective Black buyers are shown. To whether or not a person is arrested or to length of incarceration. Say what you like, but those decisions are all colored by both race and degree of the decision maker’s favorable or unfavorable bias. Unlike with casting, that bias can be a conscious or subconscious decision.
This is why I write about this “stuff,” as one friend called it, to help unearth and bring awareness to those biases, to facilitate the difficult conversations, but ultimately to lead people to a broader, more inclusive world view. I write about it to honor my parents’ struggle to make a better life for their children. I write about equality for eight-year-old great-nephew who has a facility with science and astronomy that would give Neil Tyson DeGrasse reason to pause. I do it for people who have not had the breaks that I have. I do it because there are far too many people all too willing to deny them the opportunity to try.
The Way Forward
As I stated earlier, relationships are important to me, as they are to most people. They’re the source of many of the things that make like worth living. People were made to be in community with one another, even if they’re small manageable gatherings of . . . oh, I don’t know . . . two to four people. The concept and practice of racial equality are important also important to me, as is having the freedom—more than mere breathing room, but the right to act, speak, or think without excessive restraint—to pursue happiness and the fulfillment of my potential. I want that not only for myself, but for all Black people, with the same measure of kindness and charity afforded to white people.
It’s been surprising how easily this country’s racism, an open secret known to Black, Indigenous, People of Color, which had once been relegated to backrooms and secret society, has been ushered into the open in all its raging, jealous, and shameful glory. And it ain’t been pretty. But what has truly been shocking is how many of my white friends have enthusiastically embraced with chilling indifference the cruelty for its own sake, the suffering of others, and the hubristic obeisance to ignorance.
Don’t get me wrong — I am no shrinking violet or snowflake. I’ve seen enough in my life to grow a titanium spine as well as other self-defenses. Mind you, these aren’t the folks whose names I can’t recall after a three-minute interaction. These are people whom I’ve built reciprocal relationships with, people who’ve invited me into their homes regularly over the years, people with whom I’ve broken bread with, laughed with, cried with, fashioned what were once-in-a lifetime memories with. These are the guys who are quick to use the bandy “brother” as a pronoun, and girls who equally as quick to run to my defense when need be. These are people who’ve cried on my shoulder and shared their deepest hopes and fears.
Well, apparently not all their fears.
For racists to embrace this . . . line of thought . . . is no surprise. Racists have been here since long before my ancestors were kidnapped and brought here. That peers, acquaintances, clergy, trusted professionals, and friends of thirty plus years and less have no problem turning a blind eye to 400 years of state-sanctioned terrorism against people who look like me essentially says, Yeah, that racism sounds like it might be a really bad thing for Black folks, and maybe even you personally, but I don’t see it and I don’t see you as Black. Plus, it’s not a dealbreaker for me. I’m for jobs, police, secure borders, and freedom. Hey, I’m late for this Civil War reenactment.We’re going to have a lynching reenactment. See ya! And that’s a betrayal of the highest order.
Moving forward after Election Day, my friends and I can disagree about a woman’s right to choose, but because it’s her body, it’s ultimately her decision. We can hold different opinions as to whether Christ’s return will occur pre-Tribulation or post-Tribulation because the more important point is to have oil in your lamp. We can get into a heated discussion about the critical success of Game of Thrones’ final season, although they’d be hard pressed to find many who disagree with the sentiment that viewers were robbed of a proper series send-off. We can even disagree about same-sex marriage, because, you know, if they don’t want a same-sex marriage, they don’t have to get one. We can even disagree about politics.
But I draw the line at racism and human decency.
On this there is no middle ground. You see, for me as a Black man to “go along to get along” or “agree to disagree” with those who passively or actively endorse police brutality and bigotry masquerading as patriotism makes me complicit in supporting a thinly veiled white supremacist world view which purports through and through that my life is of no import. To you who have no qualms with embracing white-hot hate and tepid affection, I wish you the life you deserve, whatever that may be.
But to you who already or want to see racism as a deal-breaker, a bridge too far, or an improper means to unjust end, great. You don’t have to fully understand the Black experience, the male experience, the gay, or Christian experience — Lord knows I don’t fully understand some of your experiences, and we don’t need to. But a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be human, an appreciation for the differences in others, and/or a desire to reach that promised land of Equality with all God’s children—I’m here for that. All. Of. That. To give and receive. As are so very many other people.
Let’s continue to change the world. And love one another.